It’s hard to say what’s more surprising, that Homeland’s debut was nine years ago, or that it’s still going. The best part of a decade has passed since that thrilling first series, in which Damian Lewis’s possibly turncoat Marine, Sgt Nicholas Brody, played cat and mouse with Claire Danes’ bipolar intelligence officer, Carrie Mathison. It was gripping, water-cooler stuff that twisted and turned with every week. The next couple of seasons were fine, but when Lewis left the cast my interest went with him. I assumed it had fizzled out at some point, but not a bit of it. Homeland has trundled on, like that little Pixar robot that squishes rubbish into cubes, and is embarking on its eighth and final series.
In the interim, the programme has evolved into a more conventional thriller, built around Danes’ mercurial agent and to a lesser extent Mandy Patinkin’s bearish National Security advisor, Saul Berenson. As the episode opens, Mathison is recovering from a long stint in a Russian prison, where she was deprived of sleep and her medication. For someone with her condition, the worst torture is being left alone with herself. As Mathison goes through rehab at an army medical centre, haunted by her time in the gulag, CIA bosses interrogate her to check she didn’t give away any secrets. She freely admits she can’t remember the last 180 days before she was exchanged back to the US, but she is adamant she didn’t give anyone up.
One would have thought she had earned a holiday, but leisure doesn’t suit her, and her rehabilitation has hardly begun when Saul slings her back out into the field. He needs her to go to Kabul to help broker peace with the Taliban, against a backdrop of American withdrawal. She doesn’t get far before she runs into memories of her own past. Meanwhile an NSA agent is sent on an even more dangerous mission, to get a listening post up and running on the border with Pakistan. Wandering around the Taliban front garden turns into a spicy morning.
By this point the writers and actors and directors all know what they’re doing. It’s well built. But all its life comes from Danes. Mathison’s troubled mind has always been a metaphor for government intelligence: brilliant but unreliable, vital but dangerous. Danes’ performance animates not only the scenes but the ones she is not in, too, and every time she’s out of shot you crave her return. With a gap of so many years, I can’t pass judgement on how these arcs are turning to home. On the evidence of this episode, Homeland is a serviceable spy thriller with some superior turns. But if this had been the debut season, we would not have had eight of them.