Kent Smith/Showtime
October 04, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

How do you come back from crazy? Such is the challenge for Homeland, the age-of-terror roller coaster that awed us during an Emmy-winning first season but went astray in its second. Entertaining, for sure. But it was as if the writers could no longer tell an inspired choice from a dumb one. Arresting Brody (Damian Lewis) and killing Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) sooner than expected? Nervy. Killer pacemakers and kids running over random people? Nonsense. Homeland, it seemed, had lost possession of its beautifully bold mind.

Maybe this is me seeing conspiracy in a mess of data, but it really does look like Homeland‘s third season has decided to solve its problems by adapting them to the screen: The opening episodes are devoted to two characters struggling to regain sound psychological footing — and the trust of those who love them — following flights of self-destruction. Carrie (Claire Danes) has gone off her bipolar meds in the aftermath of the ”second 9/11” and self-medicates with drinking, sexing, and filling notebooks with chaotic thoughts. Saul (Mandy Patinkin), Saul’s beard (as itself), and Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) are pitilessly exploiting the ace analyst’s plight as they try to rehab the CIA’s public image — Carrie’s the scapegoat for all agency incompetence. The business of powerful men demonizing a strong, if suffering, heroic woman makes for layered drama. As usual, Danes throws mind, heart, and jittery chin into making Carrie feel real; she might dislodge from time and space if she vibrates with any more nervous energy. Still, you think ”Been there, done that” and grumble grumble grumble about the bogus suspense: We know it won’t be long before Carrie’s flown the cuckoo’s nest and is sanely chasing bad guys again.

Carrie’s predicament is mirrored by the story of Brody’s daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), who’s trying to reconnect with life and identity (plus a new boyfriend) after a suicide attempt that her mother (Morena Baccarin) wants to forget. (The Brodys’ remodeled bathroom might as well be season 3’s Metaphor for Everything.) YA romance is the last thing I want from Homeland, but I admire how Saylor assays the arc with an unforced air and plain-faced honesty. There’s a lovely scene in the second episode where she spells out her emotions for her mom, and everything she says makes total sense yet is full of troubling implications.

Missing from the mix is Brody. And you do miss him, and what he represents: the crypto-puzzle of his motives; the charge his mystery brought to the political and domestic story fronts; the chemistry with Carrie. Yes, Brody was becoming increasingly exhausted and untenable — with any luck, he’ll return reenergized with potential and intrigue. For now, Homeland sans Brody feels too safe, too conventional. As the show carefully regroups and reboots, I hope it finds its old discernment as well as new nerve. B

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