“Homeland” returns from its bounce-back fourth season playing the long game, once again almost eerily mirroring headlines while slowly unfolding an espionage plot that, even after three episodes, remains hazy in its contours. Adept at zeroing in on the moral choices created by the battle against terrorism, the series is equally notable for its grasp of bureaucratic brinkmanship, with CIA operatives often as ruthless in dealing with each other as they are with the bad guys. For all that, the show will probably never equal its peak first season, but it has settled in to become an extremely steady and reliable player for Showtime.
A significant amount of time has passed between seasons, finding Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in a new job in Berlin, former colleague Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) doing the CIA’s dirty business, and Carrie’s mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) laboring to find his place within the government’s twisted hierarchy. Talk of a refugee crisis provides a sobering backdrop to the proceedings, with the main narrative set in motion by an almost inadvertent hack into a CIA database that — and stop if you’ve heard this one — risks exposing surveillance excesses in the name of security. Only here, the narrative links the Germans to the U.S. (Per Showtime, this season marks the first time a U.S. series has lensed entirely in Germany.)
Although seemingly removed from the fray, Carrie soon finds herself again in the thick of things, in a scenario that not only engages her savvy in navigating the Middle East, but also evokes shadows from her spook-y past. At one point, Carrie also tries to go off her meds, offering Danes a chance to cut loose — raging, crying, fidgety — as virtually only she can.
“Homeland” reloads with some fine new players, including Miranda Otto as a CIA station chief and Sebastian Koch as a German businessman/philanthropist. Nevertheless, the series has never fully replaced the void left by the departure of Damian Lewis, even if the blow was mitigated somewhat by the wrong turns made creatively in the program’s contortions to extend that plot.
As it stands, under the aegis of Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, the show now stands as a more cerebral companion to one of Gordon’s earlier stops, as showrunner on “24,” and more recently FX’s “Tyrant.” At its best, what “Homeland” achieves better than most is tapping into not just the apprehensions raised by terrorism — and the sacrifices undertaken by those who combat it — but also the moral and political tradeoffs associated with that struggle.
Granted, the series has morphed into a slightly different animal than the one that made it a phenomenon that counted President Obama among its early fans. Yet unlike that incarnation — which burned brightly, then flamed out — this one, while less spectacular, is more readily built to last.