The second season of Homeland, weighed down by a staid and unconvincing romance between its leads, CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) and soldier turned terrorist turned covert agent Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), concluded with a series of improbable events loaded on top of one another: the assassination of the vice president of the United States via wireless manipulation of his pacemaker; the killing of Abu Nazir, Osama bin Laden's fictional counterpart, by a SWAT team in a mill in Maryland; and an attack on the CIA headquarters at Langley which left 300 people dead, including the VP's wife and son and the head of the CIA. The series finally seemed to be fulfilling early doubters' predictions that no plot could sustain such a relentless upping of the ante without spinning out of the orbit of plausibility.
The show's third season, however, seems to offer an unequivocal rebuke to those skeptics: The first two episodes are, perhaps, the most riveting of the series to date, both when it comes to the tautly constructed plot and, more importantly, the constantly developing and consistently unpredictable characters. Accused of orchestrating the Langley attack and now hiding in Canada, Brody is out of the picture for the moment—as is, thankfully, his sodden romance with Carrie. Instead, the action focuses on three distinct, if interconnected, narrative arcs: Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), Carrie's mentor and now the acting head of the CIA, and his attempts to restore the agency's credibility in the bombing's aftermath; Carrie's renewed battle with her bipolar disorder in the wake of the attack, for which she blames herself; and the struggles of Brody's now-suicidal daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), to cope with the disappearance and presumed guilt of her father. Two equally complex, compelling supporting characters, mainly associated with the CIA storyline, have also assumed more prominent roles, diversifying the show's spectrum of personalities: Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), the analyst and assassin introduced last season, who tempers his deadly abilities with a slowly surfacing, extremely personal moral compass; and Fara (Nazanin Boniadi), a quietly persistent transactions expert hired by the CIA to help find the attackers by uncovering the money trail leading up to the bombing.
The personal stakes for almost every character are higher than ever, and tension hums below the surface of each scene, whether it's Saul presiding over a quadruple assassination attempt, Carrie buying handles of vodka at the local supermarket, or Dana going into the bathroom, looking resolutely in the mirror and ominously running the tap. It no longer appears to matter that the attack on Langley, the event that precipitated Saul, Carrie, and Dana's struggles, seemed unbelievable when it occurred on the heels of the deaths of the vice president and Nazir; after all, how many major world players can realistically be taken out in three days' time? Showing us the long-term impact of the attack on the lives of these characters, whose deep-seated motivations and fears have gradually been revealed to us over the last two seasons, allows Homeland to transcend its tendencies toward the hyperbolic and gives us a reason to suspend our disbelief.