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Homeland' returns, and the case study in work-life balance continues

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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Actress Claire Danes, winner of the Best Actress In a Drama Series for 'Homeland' poses in the press room during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Getty Images

Editor's note: This post contains spoilers -- you've been warned.

Damien Lewis (who plays Brody in Homeland) poses in the press room at the Olivier Awards 2013 at the Royal opera House in London on Sunday, April 28, 2013. Credit: Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

It’s nice to imagine the brilliant showrunners behind our favorite series’ have every minute detail planned out in advance – that we are told the tale they’ve spun in their heads or secretly in their writers rooms. But that’s not really the case. As “Homeland” returned for its third season on Showtime last night, another fantastic series, “Breaking Bad” came to a close. James Poniewozik of Time Magazine pointed out just one example of how the amazing show made decisions on the fly and adjusted based on what felt right in the moment.

“Homeland” of course is no exception to this rule of great TV – it has now been widely reported the creators of the series seriously considered letting the suicide vest explode in the season one finale, killing Brody and significantly resetting the storylines. Instead, Showtime liked Brody sticking around (and coming off an Emmy win, who wouldn’t?), so he stayed.

Season two ended with a version of that explosion – but the bomb was in Brody’s car instead of strapped to him, meaning the body count was high (including Estes, who had been running the CIA) but Brody himself wasn’t part of it.

That’s where we rejoined the “Homeland” universe to start the third season last night. Brody has gone quiet (although he’s expected to make his return to the show in episode three) but the rest are dealing with the fallout of the bomb at the CIA, and the hundreds killed in the process. In the real world, this attack on our homeland would represent the biggest in the United States since 9/11, and the result would include panic and serious questions about how our government missed it. That’s happening now, as we pick up with Carrie Mathison, our pseudo-heroine, going toe-to-toe with a rightfully indignant Senator at an internal hearing.

The Los Angeles Times reported the writers started working on season three just as the Benghazi hearings were heating up and there’s a little Sec. Hillary Clinton vs. Sen. Ron Johnson in the give-and-take. (Separately, the LA Times reports the Boston Marathon bombing and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary

School “inspired” some of the story this season, in case you’re curious what we’re in for.)

Sen. Andrew Lockhart is Carrie’s nemesis through the hearings (who later plays a foil to Saul Berenson, now head of the CIA). Lockhart, played by the award-winning playwright Tracy Letts, who wrote “August: Osage County,” is excellent, but was given major screentime and plot significance for a character we just met. “If you're asking did he outsmart me, yes he did,” says Carrie in the hearing, speaking of Abu Nazir. “If you're asking will I ever forgive myself, no I won't."

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: Actress Claire Danes (who plays Carrie), winner of the Best Actress In a Drama Series for 'Homeland' poses in the press room during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Getty Images

That serves as a good indicator about the mindset of Mathison as we enter season three. The series has always been a disturbing case study in the work-life balance, and the dangers that arise when one end of the spectrum influences and trips up the other. No better example of this is Mathison herself, who has struggled mightily with her work at the CIA protecting the country and her intimate relationship with a Congressman, covert operative and maybe-terrorist.

She has gone off her lithium, is back to drawing “Beautiful Mind” style notepads full of gibberish and crisscrossed maps dedicated to tracking Brody. She’s drinking heavily again, and bringing home random guys she meets at the liquor store.

Some of our other characters aren’t doing much better. Dana Brody is in therapy after a failed suicide attempt, although she’s making “great progress.” That said, she isn’t out of therapy more than a few hours before she’s sexting her new love interest.

Saul Berenson is subdued but in control, now joined by Dar Adal who we met at the end of last season as his right-hand man. Dar Adal, played by the fantastic F. Murray Abraham, appeared last season to be a mysterious and powerful ex-operative running a separate operation. Now he’s just a guy working for our favorite bearded CIA agent. Hopefully they return to Adal’s roots later this season.

We meet “The Magician” or Javadi, an Iranian who will play a big antagonist role this season. A mission to kill six terrorists believed to be connected to the CIA bombing is executed perfectly in mostly tell-not-show style (although we check in with Quinn in Caracas, who takes out his target but also a young boy). Sen. Lockhart, at a televised hearing this time, locks horns with Saul, and makes it clear Congress is looking to find who is responsible both inside and outside the government for the failure to see the signs before the Brody bomb. We’re treated this episode mostly to introductions, setting the plot in motion for what’s to come.

One of the greatest parts of season one was watching the monotonous, arduous work of surveillance, whether it was Carrie monitoring Brody or watching her friend Virgil (missing, sadly from this episode) in his van. It’s interesting, but the storyline is not expeditiously developed - it takes patience to receive the payoff.

Sometimes, great series’ require patience – but we used up a great deal of that in season two. As Saul says to Dar Adal this week, “A win would be nice; another f*ck up would be fatal.”

We’re rooting for “Homeland” to return to the season one excellence, but for now, we’ll take a win.

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