A hard-boiled mix of action, mind-blowing plotting and mystery that never lets go of even the biggest nitpicking viewers’ attention span for a single second.
Plot: When Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis, Band of Brothers) returns home following eight years in captivity, CIA Agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, T3: Rise if the Machines) and her superior Saul (Mandy Patinkin, Chicago Hope) thinks he is connected to a terror plot to be carried out on American soil, so she engages him in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that puts national security at risk. Later on, Carrie gets a promotion and is assigned to one of the CIA’s most volatile stations in the Middle East along with CIA Field Agent Quinn (Rupert Friend, The Young Victoria), where she is in the heart of battle in the war on terror. Years later, after being disillusioned and placing herself in a self-imposed exile in Berlin, Carrie becomes estranged from the CIA, eventually returning stateside where she works for a foundation providing aid to Muslims living in America.
Review: For 8 seasons, this killer suspense show showed that you could do a successful yet stand-alone remake of a foreign show without being copy-and-paste. It also happens that this show is TOO good for its own cable network as Showtime wishes it could have far more compelling entertainment like this years prior when HBO unexpectedly kept changing the edgy premium TV game in the late ‘90s. The show’s key success was hardly the always-game cast being in unrecognizable roles. No, absolutely far from it. The show creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon saddling a creative team conjuring up endless discussion worthy topics with never-ending thills were the key component. The writing duo was already comfortable working with each other on past shows like Spenser: For Hire, Beauty and the Beast, X-Files and 24, the latter two which have similar themes that are definitely mirrored here in this show. The only difference is instead of feeling like a “Greatest Hits” or a rehash of the filmmakers’ previous work, it instead feels more like they’ve matured enough and are ready to flesh out their trademark themes in a more twisted fashion. Also on the scene are expert directors Michael Cuesta (Roadie, Kill the Messenger), Clark Johnson (Homicide, The Wire), Alex Graves (The West Wing, The Practice) and Daniel Attias (Six Feet Under, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as well as editors like Jordan Goldman (Tyrant, The Shield) and Phillip Carr Neel (Boston Legal, Twin Peaks) and cinematographers like Nelson Cragg (Breaking Bad, FlashForward) and David Klein (various Kevin Smith films).
There’s only so much you can do with government conspiracies, terrorism and FBI traitors before the material wears stale, yet the SUSPENSE is the main thing bringing every viewer back each season. Like other long-running shows, it could’ve easily been reduced down to a few seasons less but because it’s involving enough it does actually merit as much live as any other often-talked about show that viewers wish would finally return. And since the three lead actors (Danes, Patinkin, Lewis) all have experience playing people with psychological challenges, they are up to the challenge of portraying their respective roles without making it look effortless. And how could it be when their characters are constantly changing and dealing with mind-bending plot reveals?
To start off, the first two seasons have one big plot arc: is Brody an inside man for the enemy he once fought or not? Much like similar psychologically challenging shows such as Breaking Bad, this show makes great use of its quieter moments but it’s never bland as every shot and scene serves an actual purpose. At first, some of Brody’s family members and Carrie’s CIA co-workers both felt beyond annoying but just when you feel like the usual gratuitous R-rated content plays on and you feel like the material is playing out like you initially predicted, the show starts playing tricks with the viewer and the fun truly begins. Sometimes one almost feels tempted to rewatch an episode to see where the suspenseful build-up first started up. After the Season 2 finale, it then becomes a whole new guessing game as to who is the real traitor in everyone’s midst and who is going to have to do the most second-guessing in order to figure it out! And since all bests are off, it came as no surprise that Season 3 – set three months afterwards- decided to one-up the previous season with its far more shocking finale and orchestrate a whole different kind of manhunt. I really dug Season 3 because it’s literally one interrogation, second guessing or car chase scene after another and lightning fast excitement- all rampant with intelligent yet quotable dialogue. However, this is where I saw the critics and fanbase vary on it but then I started seeing good reviews for every even numbered season from this point on. Season 4 has Carrie having to abandon potential parenthood in exchange for becoming for leading manhunts as the new CIA station base chief in Pakistan while bribing her asshole boss and rescuing her mentor Saul! At this point, this show will never be short of any surprises (especially the last four episodes) or ever get old as slowing down is not an option here, especially when it comes to speeding up to the next plot reveal.
Season 5 follows Carrie being roped into another unusual ISIS conflict where teenagers are being recruited in Syria as she is now a head of security for Berlin-born welfare consultant Otto (Sebastian Koch, A Good Day to Die Hard) while on a visit to Beirut, Lebanon. Meanwhile, CIA Berlin station chief Allison Carr (Miranda Otto, Lord of the Rings) and Saul investigate a mysterious computer hacking and journalist related ring after there’s a severe security leak detected. I dug this season especially as it was so hard to believe that these were the same people we’ve been following the last 4 seasons, plus, we got to see both Carrie and Quinn in far more uncanny off-the-book infiltrations. By this point, each season was standing on its own two feet, being rather comfortable doing its own thing and this didn’t struggle at doing that well at all either- especially in a later flashback-based episode that was rather rewarding for those who have been watching it from the very beginning. The traitors in this that became apparent halfway through were captivating and their true motives were still mysterious yet fascinating to unravel too!
Season 6 picks up the direct events of Season 5’s finale with Quinn in physical rehab, Carrie in charge of new CIA counter-measures against terrorists like the viral propaganda-based Sekou Bah (J. Mallory McCree, Quantico) and Saul reporting directly to New York senator-turned-presidential candidate winner Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel, Person of Interest). I liked how at this stage, Quinn is mirroring Carrie’s earlier experiences being in a overbearing hospital while struggling to regain his sanity much like she did. The terrorist Sekou was different enough and had your instant attention the minute the season opens up with one of his filmed video rants. Having a madam presidential figure actually oversee it was not only more entertaining (especially given how it’s common for genre shows like this) but also fascinating seeing how she was using Carrie’s CIA intel to assist in knowing what she needs to as she’s being inaugurated. The overall gimmick this time was also less complex yet more mature in tone. The metaphors, imagery and settings were also more gripping here in painting this already dense portrait of a show. The only issue I think I had overall was that Saul was underused this season a tad but not to where he was entirely forgotten- only that he kept starting a few investigation and it took awhile to figure out where he was going with it all due to the more involving and overall bigger plot points overshadowing or not incorporating him much. This was also slightly much faster in its transitioning and expected shock value-filled moments.
Season 7 is set in Washington, D.C. where Saul is released from his prison sentence to assist the FBI with dealing with radical talk show host Brett O’Keefe, Hell on Wheels) who’s organized a Waco-like militia to guard him; Carrie is exposing some more scandals thru her spy and journalist contacts; and Keane is now serving her controversial first year as Madam President by enacting various police state-level arrests on over 200 suspicious people following a military-led mutiny at the end of Season 6. There are also far more real-life parallels where said new president is not only a socially-groundbreaking icon but also trying to do what any noble president does at the end of their term: make sure that the next one who’s elected doesn’t have to clean up your leftover mess. This also gets messy due to said president also enacting various borderline-illegal comebacks in their takedown of various conspirators. Once again, we have Carrie being flat out roasted by her sister who thinks its her various mental illness instead of her actual profession. It really does keep trickling down to continuous changes that keeps yielding rewarding moments- just the first few sentences I’ve summed up for you changed by the next episode (and so on!) to where it shows that this show never waits around to get going. Props also to the writers commenting on how far outspoken and controversial people will violate their freedoms while also good-willing people in political office also overstep their authoritative stance on protecting the American people- all without feeling like they’re redundantly stating the obvious. The final three points to close out why this particular season was arguably the most stellar: Beau Bridges stole every single scene as the unpredictable Vice President; the season finale is easily the single best episode out of the entire series; and the CIA crew for this season probably had the most creative extraction plan laid out yet!
Season 8 is the final explosive season where Carrie is questioned as to wether or not she gave up invaluable intel during her 7 month Russian imprisonment and is requested back for a final assignment from Saul that will involve taking down the Taliban in Afghanistan. Hardly overstaying its welcome, this show doesn’t feel like it’s running out of steam despite being the conclusion. The bad guys on this go-around take awhile to become clear but it’s different and very well-configured when the various plot twists land without feeling lazy or like a retread of far more cliche moments (it especially doesn’t feel like one of the one-dimensional villains on a lesser season of the writers’ earlier show 24). It’s also very rare that a show tackling material regarding the still-happening war conflicts in the Middle East can still find something new to do without feeling like another tired statement on how the War on Terror and other neverending issues like this beyond complex. However, unlike the war efforts, Carrie’s story does finally have an ending (although to be fair, her struggle with bi-polar and spy missions also seemed rather never-ending). Overall, this season never slowed down in being its usual ballsy self.
By never babying its viewers, giving them what they want and then effectively remaining captivating in the dramatic and mystery aspect, it never feels like it’s doing only the minimum amount of required work to entertain. And by really putting work into the surprises and never juggling more elements than it can retain, it remains consistent as well. And even though there’s politicians and modern real-life social issues, it’s hardly a political/social commentary- only a spy show set in some real-life places with lots of stakes raised. And much like Spooks (AKA MI-5) and The Unit, it’s rather great at giving all the spy operatives different personas and issues to juggle but, unlike the chaotic world they’re in, they never convolute the actual storyline or make it needlessly messy in execution and that’s absolute plus. And how can anyone not praise that given how every other good or bad show falls victim to being unorganized due to being too comfortable with itself. I don’t know how each season was outlined beforehand but this is one of the few premium channel shows where I don’t see what they could change or improve as the show felt rather comfortable being its own thing. So comfortable that I would honestly say it has merit as changing the spy genre up a bit (or changing the spy game as I’d like to jokingly say!).
On occasion, the only critique I’ve seen by peers is that some didn’t care for some of the season finale filled death scenes. My verdict is that it’s all worth seeing and I honestly didn’t have any less favorite seasons although I was definitely the most intrigued at Seasons 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7. If you can handle seeing various deaths and WTF?-level plot twists on overrated crap like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things then this shouldn’t be a problem here especially since it saves up the deaths for when the show truly needs a real gut-punch worthy moment, especially for visceral sake. Despite being a show that lasted 8 years, I was able to avoid spoilers for the most part and that’s def how any newcomer should proceed because while this show isn’t reliant on the plot twists alone, there’s a dozen of them and the second-guessing is definitely part of the fun. There’s never any dull, poorly done or unfocused subplots and after each episode you realize that so much time has flown by because that’s how well-paced it is at getting the viewers’ attention and being rewarding in every area. If I had been in charge of the show, I probably could’ve easily edited this down to last 4 to 6 seasons instead of 8 but as a whole I honestly don’t mind it given how they’re able to have more seasons focused on some of the previously established characters while others often focus more on the new characters and conspiracies. And once again, it’s a testament to how talented these veteran crew of writers truly are and how they’ve evolved so lovely as a result. Get the physical media (on DVD or Blu-Ray), buy it digitally or watch it thru Showtime or Hulu- either way, don’t miss out on this trophy.