Developed for American Television by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa
Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff
Original Air Date: October 4th 2015-December 20th 2015
Espionage has always been a key part of Homeland, but season five sees the series really go to town with themes related to spy craft. Surveillance and deception have been at the heart of so much of the series from the outset, going right back to the pilot episode with Carrie’s surveillance of Brody, a character that was hiding his motivations and key aspects of his character, but there is a considerable espionage slant to the fifth year that feels new for the series.
The season goes to town with so many of those ideas, but in a way that feels as if it could have been written by John le Carré . The author was quoted in season three by Dar Adal, and it’s evident that the writers of the series are big fans of his work. The author is, of course, one of the genre’s most famous storytellers, and his works such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People are seen as important works, but they were also very much the antithesis of so much of the pop culture that was defining the genre.
While many spy movies and television series would push themselves into the realm of James Bond with emphasis on gadgetry, large scale action set-pieces and characters consuming copious amounts of alcohol and where sex was frequently a thing, le Carre plunged his characters into the murkier underpinnings of stories where lies and deception could take a toll on one’s soul, and where death was never accompanied by a well-placed pun.
Homeland itself felt like an antithesis to so much of the genre it was playing in at the time. Despite being a creation from key authors involved in 24, the world of Carrie and Saul always felt like an attempt to step away from the tropes and clichés that were utilised by so many of its own writers previously on the more action heavier antics of Jack Bauer, tropes and clichés that in themselves were the inspiration behind so many other television series dealing with the work of agencies involved in counter terrorism. While Homeland does allow itself to fall into more overt action beats, they have frequently done so while holding a mirror up to the real world in a more overt way than the likes of 24 or Sleeper Cell ever did.
The US embassy siege towards the end of season four might have felt the most 24-esque set of episodes from Homeland up to that point, but it was also the series’ writers taking inspiration from the contentious events that took place in Benghazi.
Season five continues in the vein of using real world events to inspire its narrative, with stories clearly inspired by Julian Assange, Wikileaks and Edward Snowdon, not to mention the European Refugee Crisis, while the frequent references to Al Qaeda from the first four seasons have now been replaced by conversations surrounding ISIS. The fifth season’s story arc takes Carrie and Saul away from the US and the Middle East for a tale involving European intrigue; the interior of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, the Senate Subcommittee hearing rooms, the architecture of Washington and the deserts of the Middle East making way for the modern architecture of Berlin.
The European feel of the season gives this a considerably different air right from the off, showing how Homeland gains so much of its strengths at this stage from its enjoyable sense of softly rebooting itself and repositioning its characters and their world.
Director Lesli Linka Glatter’s quote that every season premiere feels like a new pilot is very much a correct one, but it’s the carrying over of character threads from the previous season that gives the opening episodes a real spark. Carrie and Saul are at loggerheads yet again, and given that previously the break down of their friendship was staged as part of a larger plan, the audience cannot help but expect a twist along the same lines here, but the season spends much of its time having them react with bitterness to each other, Saul’s resentment at Carrie’s responsibility at costing him the CIA director’s chair, clearly borne out of her anger at his siding with Dar Adal in the fourth season finale, gives the season a brilliant drive in its earlier episodes.
However, there is a problem that the series has this season, and it all comes down to pacing. The opening and final run of episodes are superb, but the season runs into trouble in the middle stretch where it genuinely starts to feel as if the story is perhaps too big for a twelve episode run.
It also commits the cardinal sin of having characters behave stupidly in order to make the plot work, having Dar Adal and Saul, previously portrayed as sharp characters were nothing can get past them, all of a sudden be blindsided by betrayal within their own ranks. With Saul it’s perhaps understandable given that the series gives him something approaching his own moment with a character that plays for him in the same manner as Brody did for Carrie.
The ‘mole in the agency’ plot is a tried and tested formula for this sort of material; 24 made a habit of using it pretty much every season to the extent that one wondered what the hell type of recruiting practices went on at its CTU offices, while le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, adapted masterfully twice, once as a BBC mini-series and then again as a big budget feature film in 2011 with many career best performances from its cast, played with a similar story to a brutally effective degree. Even the first of the Mission: Impossible films, which have become more famous for its emphasis on stunt work and large-scale action sequences as opposed to being adapted from one of the 1960s most famous television series, began life with an espionage flavoured Euro-thriller where betrayal was a driving part of the story.
One of the best additions to the season is Miranda Otto as Allison Carr, the head of the CIA’s Berlin station who is also working as a mole for Russia. The series gets a lot out of Otto’s performance, and the episodes that deal with her backstory once again outline the series’ brilliant ability to handle character and smaller moments just as much as it does with bigger stories involving terrorist cells and ticking time bomb scenarios.
It’s those elements that maybe gives Homeland the edge over the more action-oriented work Gordon and Gansa previously delivered on 24, where the pace never let up and smaller moments were few and far between (although they were equally done as well when the series allowed itself the time to breathe). The eighth episode of the season, ‘All About Allison’ does that typical modern television trope of flashing back just when the series is hitting a dramatic peak of sorts, but here it works.
We get to see Carrie in a period of her life pre-Brody (although there is a lovely ‘cameo’ of sorts from Damian Lewis, or at least a photograph of him) and there is enjoyment to be had at the chemistry between Danes and Otto, but Carrie’s revelation that Allison is a traitor only comes about because of a photo that has so much emphasis placed upon it at first glance that it must surely become important later on.
The problem with the ‘mole in the agency’ idea is that it only works if the mole in question is so good at what they do that supposedly smart characters all of a sudden cannot see the wood through the trees. For the past few seasons we’ve been told (and shown) that Dar Adal is the smartest and most observant agent within the agency (and the series will finally go to town with F. Murray Abraham’s performance in season six), but the only way the season can up the suspense is by having Dar allow Carr back into the loop after she’s been arrested on treason charges, not to mention be standing right in front of her in pivotal moments so he can’t see her giving signals to her co-conspirators and have his IQ fall sharply just because we need the plot to get from point A to point B or else nothing will happen.
Artificially it still remains very exciting stuff, and it’s the inner dynamics between Saul and Carr and Saul and Carrie where the season flies, but when it falls back on terrorist cells trying to bomb parts of Berlin, those 24 traps show themselves yet again, but where season four did so in such a way that was tremendously exciting and which felt prescient given that it was clearly taking inspiration from Benghazi, season five fails to make it work as engagingly this time around.
Setting itself in the heart of Europe, Homeland was playing in a part of the world that was finding itself at the mercy of ISIS, ploughing vehicles into large groups of people as a means of murder in incidents that were for a time constantly dominating the news cycle. Here, the series goes for a ticking time bomb scenario yet again, this time involving nerve gas which is used on Peter in one of the season’s most disturbing sequences and which is played to a distressingly tough degree by Rupert Friend, but whose involvement in that part of the story comes about through sheer luck as he falls into the orbit of the terrorist group by what can only be described as a massive coincidence.
If the series addressed that in a ‘what are the odds?’ kind of way it might have been fine, but the season is desperately trying to get to various plot points that it just expects the characters and the audience to go along with it and that’s a shame because the series has always shown itself to be a little bit more intelligent and thoughtful with its story trajectories than that.
Look, this probably feels like I’m knocking the season down and truthfully when it works, it works magnificently. Saul’s discovery of Allison’s duplicity sees the series deliver its most espionage heavy episode to date involving the planting of tracking devices and surveillance in a manner that is genuinely nervy and entertaining. The series opts to play a lot of this against Saul’s emotional reaction, both as a hurt lover and then later in an interrogation scene that is incredibly violent that reminds the audience of when he lost his temper with Javadi in season three.
Allison’s arrest is the culmination of ‘The Litvinov Ruse’, a nerve shredding episode that sees the season at its best in terms of increasing the suspense, with a brilliantly mounted chase sequence climaxing the episode where we see just how crafty a character Allison is when under pressure. That it’s the only episode of the season featuring Howard Gordon as a credited writer (or in this case, a ‘story by’ credit) says a lot about how great a combination both he and Gansa are when it comes to this sort of stuff and it’s very much the peak of the season when it comes to the more higher octane thriller elements.
Carr herself is brilliantly portrayed by Otto (who would go on to appear in 24: Legacy after this) and the writers have a field day having her double down on her duplicity after being arrested, but a lot of it nearly comes undone by having Dar Adal’s IQ drop when it comes to dealing with her, which is a shame.
As for Carrie, Claire Danes spends large chunks of the season in a dark wig as she spends a large part of the season’s arc on the run, seemingly finding herself in the crosshairs of Peter who we think has been sent to kill her by Saul, whose methods of delivering target information to Quinn via dead drop just adding to the enjoyable emphasis on spy craft.
One of the more intriguing episodes of the season sees the character purposefully stop taking her meds because she believes that it will make her proceed better with her thought processes (and naturally since this is a Showtime series, we get a moment where she shags her boyfriend silly and proclaims that the sex is better too), but it’s something of a stop gap on the way to dealing with the season’s bigger themes and ideas. If the season has any problem, it’s that it sometimes feels as if it needs more time to deal with its concerns.
The European Migrant Crisis, contentious figures such as Snowdon and Assange, ISIS, not to mention Russia becoming the antagonists of the world’s political stage, are clearly fuelling so much of the what the writers want to explore throughout the season, but you can’t help but be left with the impression that twelve episodes is maybe not enough to let these ideas breathe in the way that they deserve.
There is a possibility that everyone involved realised this because seasons six and seven will be connected in a way that Homeland had last attempted when Brody was still around, effectively becoming a two-parter of sorts as the writers deal with a whole new set of concerns stemming from events in the US political landscape itself.
The overall impression that one is left with by Homeland’s fifth season is that it is flawed, but there is still considerable power in the series. There remains an unflinching thriller here, even if in a structural sense the series ends up biting off more than it can chew for a twelve-episode run.
What cannot be disputed is the emotional power of the season’s final moments, a gorgeously delivered voice over from Rupert Friend ending the season on a moment of quiet devastation that leaves one wondering what is next for Carrie, Peter, and Saul. While Homeland debuted each season in the fall months, usually beginning in October, season six wouldn’t premiere until a little later, opting for a January 2017 premiere date. Always holding a mirror to the world, when Homeland returned to screens, it would do so in a time of intense political upheaval, and one which the series could simply not avoid.