Netflix UK TV review: Homeland Season 5
Ivan Radford | On 28, Dec 2015Reading time: 5 mins
It’s hard to image a more suitable title for Homeland’s Season 5 opener than “Separation Anxiety”. After Season 4’s about-turn into good-again territory, drawing a line in the sand between now and the Brody-bogged days of Seasons 2 and 3, we were already anxiously awaiting our reunion with Carrie (Claire Danes) and co.
We begin our new tale in Berlin, where Ms Mathison is working as head of security for a German company. Within no time at all, though, she’s crossed paths with Saul (Mandy Patinkin), as her new boss, Düring (Sebastian Koch), presses Carrie to use her CIA contacts to help pave the way for a visit to a refugee camp in Syria.
Yes, Homeland drops the S-word into proceedings early on – and it pulls it off with aplomb. The show has always had a knack for tapping into topical conflicts, from Iraq to Islamabad, and that habit continues to give the series a thrilling edge of unpredictability: its depiction of CIA goings-on is so convincing that you really can believe you are watching the events behind the news headlines.
Nowhere is that truer than in the life of Quinn. Rupert Friend’s agent emerged as the show’s MVP last season, and his moving, conflicted journey is still going. On the one hand, he’s a blunt instrument for Saul and Dar Adal to use. On the other, he’s a reckless loose cannon, liable to rail against authority in a briefing meeting.
“Tell me what the strategy is and I’ll tell you if it’s working,” he demands of his superiors, as they try to evaluate the USA’s activities overseas. After all, can some troops on the ground or some shady special forces really defeat a long tradition of committed terrorist action against America? “What would make a difference?” they ask. “Pound it into a parking lot,” comes the angry reply.
Quinn gets one of the most satisfying arcs of the season – the kind of journey that’s been a long time coming for the character – and Friend nails it, managing to be everything from charming and scary to injured and scared. We even get an unexpected insight into his back-story, courtesy of Dar Adal, and how he became the CIA’s youngest recruit.
But he’s jostling for space with a pitch full of impressively shadowy players. Koch’s supposed philanthropist is enjoyably slippery, not least because he seems to have feelings for Carrie, while Patinkin’s Saul, crucially, has accepted Dar’s Faustian pact for power since Season 4. This is a darker side of the US secret service, with the country happy to do whatever it takes to defend itself.
Carrie’s removal from the bureau similarly signals a big shift for the show’s ideology: we’re now on the outside looking in, and the Americans are no longer necessarily the good guys. Slotting right into that atmosphere is Miranda Otto as Allison, a superbly written and performed agent, who easily fills the void Carrie’s retirement left behind: she’s ambiguous but also ambitious, managing to be unpredictable while still cosying up to the lonely, divorced Saul. When they talk, or when she encouters Carrie, Homeland turns its espionage dial up to 11.
Of course, that divide between Carrie and her old cronies doesn’t stay in place – and so a string of hackings and her boss’ attempts to help other nations lead Ms Mathison back to the CIA fold. How exactly they allow a non-agent to just wander about the place like she’s in charge is a mystery, but it helps that a lot of the action stays in Berlin: key set pieces take place in locations such as Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a metallic and reflective station so suited to the world of deception you wonder why the show hasn’t always been set there.
After years on mostly US soil, that move to foreign ground also helps to ramp up the stakes and scale of events: we’re soon witnessing some of the biggest security breaches in America’s history, a maze full of moral activists, suicides and fake deaths.
That determination to up the stakes doesn’t always pay off: by the time people have been apparently bumped off and saved the following episode several times over, the sense of peril starts to wear off. But the sheer number of hours we’ve spent with these characters gives it all a gripping weight, something that the script team knows to exploit for maximum tension and sentiment. There’s a real sense that these people have grown more complex since the first season as much as the screenwriters: Carrie, confronted with a dying terrorist, says a prayer over them in Arabic; Quinn pens a sweet letter, which we start to hear read out in full cheese mode, only for someone to interrupt (a bravura piece of writing in itself); and Saul subtly reminds us just how well he knows his former protege. (“When to scold, when to forgive, when to laugh at her jokes…” he sighs wisely through his beard, like Gandalf’s surveillance-loving cousin.)
It’s those little touches, rather than the overall terror plot, that make Homeland Season 5 one of its best. One of the most thrilling moments doesn’t involve a bomb or a train, but a simple conversation between Russian agent Ivan Krupin (the delightfully poker-faced Mark Ivanir) and Saul. “One professional to another, you’re playing a bad hand,” one of the says, their facial expressions both fascinating to study.
If the token scene of Carrie yelling “I’m not crazy!” is present and correct, though, it’s telling that both Season 4 and Season 5 have opted for low-key, almost anticlimactic finales, preferring to explore the nuances of their cast instead of artificially jacking up the suspense. The question lingers throughout whether she will return to the CIA, but for all of Saul’s talk of a “new paradigm”, Carrie’s new fella, Jonas, knows that, like Quinn, she’s always going to be pulled back to the darkness. As another question is left tantalisingly unresolved, the cliffhanger we’re faced with is emotional rather driven by narrative – a reminder that even after five seasons, this increasingly mature show still appreciates the anxiety of separation, not just between its characters, but between us and the next season. Hopefully, we won’t be kept apart for too long.
Homeland Season 5 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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Photo: Stephan Rabold / SHOWTIME