Homeland ended its second season with a literal bang that still resonates through the entirety of tonight’s third-season kickoff. The car bomb that was detonated at Vice President Walden’s memorial in last year’s finale killed 219 Americans, with many top intelligence officials among them. Several months later, the Langley terrorist attack is known as 12/12 — a second 9/11 that has scarred the country and raised congressional scrutiny to a peak. "How can the CIA be expected to protect this country if it can’t protect itself?" a senator asks CIA agent Carrie Mathison in the opening minutes.
There’s no single narrative thread that unites this respectable first episode, "Tin Man Is Down," beyond the bombing that shattered the reputations of both the CIA and alleged bomber Congressman Nicholas Brody — a sniper once inspired to rebel against his country for its indiscriminate drone strikes. The challenge here is rebuilding, both for the CIA and those metaphorically tied to the blast. Saul Berenson fights to lead the agency, though he’s personally distraught over a doubting public and his wife, Mira, whose relationship with him remains murky. Carrie has stopped taking her meds, blaming lithium for dulling her prescience once again. She tells Congress she’ll never forgive herself for being outsmarted. And the family abandoned by Nick Brody — politician, terrorist, and fugitive who’s potentially been framed for the 12/12 bombing — has been cast adrift. His daughter Dana, who was first recognized Brody’s changed nature, tried to kill herself. Journalists hound Jessica Brody and her children. These fraught personal crises represent a necessary slow build — the disquiet after a major storm.
"So we’re being punished, but we deserve it," Saul reflects on the burned-out site that’s still vacant next to CIA headquarters months later. He knows they need a win. Luckily for Homeland viewers, the show has already identified a new terrorist kingpin: "The Magician," who — surprise, surprise — Saul knew personally in the 1980s. Homeland needs more worldly foes now that the FBI killed infamous terrorist Abu Nazir. But the introduction of the Magician raises a tricky question for Homeland: Will any of the show’s shadowy villains be able to match Nazir, the soft-spoken man who converted Brody? The show artfully created an aura of fear and inscrutability around Nazir for two seasons, and hitting the reset button will take a lot of work. As of now, Congress seems much scarier.
But for Carrie, the professional has always been personal — her CIA focus charged with bipolarity that both disrupts her work and sharpens it. As in Homeland’s first two seasons, Claire Danes remains Showtime’s vulnerable, quivering punching bag: Disgraced but screaming the truth, eyeing threats on the horizon that no one else can see. (Several critics have aptly compared her to Cassandra, the mythic doomsayer no one believes.) Homeland is as willing as ever to sadistically pick apart Carrie’s chances for a successful, happy life — and given that her shattered steeliness has earned Claire Danes an Emmy two years in a row, it’s hard to blame them.
But Homeland’s new challenge is to remain fresh and prevent its third season from becoming a retread of old tensions. Few shows have matched the dynamite compulsion of Homeland’s first season, attracting viewers and critical acclaim almost instantly. The rockier second season raised the stakes but also proved uneven and far more willing to stretch plausibility from one moment to the next (though its cliffhanger ending supplied enough momentum needed to propel into the third season). In the wake of that cliffhanger, Homeland — to its great credit — has refused to pick easy winners and losers. The show’s moral universe stays compromised as the CIA’s titular "Tin Man" assassination operation kills an innocent child – the very kind of heartless collateral damage that first caused Brody to strap on a suicide vest in the season one finale. (Brody, for his part, remains the third season’s biggest wild card. We don’t see him once, although based on the heavily dotted map of Brody sightings Carrie keeps in her house, the man is superhumanly well traveled in his flight from international authorities.)
Homeland previously framed Carrie and Brody as star-crossed lovers. Flaws and vulnerabilities bound the pair together in their first cabin tryst, doomed but mutually infatuated. Talk of Brody sparks Carrie’s recklessness before Congress, protesting the innocence of a man the world has judged indisputably guilty of heinous violence. Brody’s specter hovers over every scene as much as the Langley bombing, and it will require some narrative finesse to bring Brody back into the picture. The answer likely lies in Carrie tracking down the true culprits behind the 12/12 disaster — assuming that Homeland keeps things so simple. To clear Brody’s name would open up the potential for his return to Washington, D.C.: To his family, and possibly into a romance with Carrie, which she seemed resigned to before the blast changed everything.
"Tin Man" sets several ticking time bombs that could explode later this season, from Dana’s casual sext to Carrie lying under oath. Both incidents carry the potential for scandal. The CIA has decided its wisest course is to lie to Congress about cooperating with Brody. "The suicide vest, it’s the one thing the committee can never know," an attorney tells Carrie. "It would bury the agency." The episode opens as Carrie swears her oath of honesty, moments before senators trot out Brody’s immunity offer that Carrie brokered and lied about. She, more than the CIA, has the potential to be buried here.
And Saul appears willing to bury her. The loyalty games between these old colleagues remain one of Homeland’s most effective and magnetic elements. Saul goes before the Senate committee and throws her under the bus, discussing her medical condition and transgressions with Brody without specifically naming her as the agent in question. She’s an easy scapegoat. Don’t forget the strain and strangeness that occasionally infects their friendship: "You're the smartest and the dumbest f--king person I've ever known," Saul declared last season when Carrie questioned her CIA future for the sake of Brody. Yet he began the episode insisting he wouldn’t let Carrie take the fall. Did Saul’s new right-hand man really sway his thinking? The Homeland universe runs on paranoia and unknowns, and just like the "Tin Man" operation, collateral damage might simply be the cost of business.