Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in “Homeland.” (Kent Smith/Showtime)
TV critic

Showtime’s “Homeland” returns Sunday night for a third season, pretty much all-systems-go from a look at the first two episodes, and here’s what’s happened since we left:

An apparently deranged federal contract worker brought a shotgun to his IT job and killed 12 of his colleagues at Washington’s Navy Yard on a Monday morning; he had a security clearance. Meanwhile, an Islamist militant group stormed a Nairobi mall and began randomly murdering Saturday shoppers; at least 67 are dead. Meanwhile-meanwhile, someone broke into a firetruck parked near the Pentagon and stole a set of keys that might provide access to the infrastructure of Washington’s subway tracks and tunnels; we don’t know why.

None of this is part of “Homeland” — sadly, it’s straight from the home page.

And now that the bipolar, perpetually rogue CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is again off her meds and lying to a closed-door congressional committee about the events surrounding the (thankfully fictional) Langley bombing that killed more than 200 people at the end of last season, I no longer find much cause to differentiate between the anxiety and fear I get from my newspaper and the anxiety and fear I get from my television. “Homeland,” and by extension its many fans who live and work in and around the nation’s capital, thrives on this gnawing despair.

Since well before “Homeland’s” success, Washington has preferred to sing itself to no-sleep with terror-filled espionage lullabies in which perimeters are breached, secrets are stolen, power is compromised and bystanders die. I don’t endorse it as a way of life, but I do get it. Fictionalizing our worry is a cottage industry around here, something people do as hobby once they no longer consider themselves in play; Plan B is always to resign your job and write a Washington-based thriller. In that regard, we’re just as messed up as Carrie is, and just as dependent on the myths of foreign policy as well as the facts.

It’s no secret that “Homeland,” high on Emmy fumes, went off its rails last year with a second season that was noticeably more flaccid and less plausible than the first, as Carrie and company chased terror mastermind Abu Nazir smack into the storyboarded corner they’d been headed for all along.

When “Homeland” began, with steely acting and impeccable pacing, some viewers nevertheless filed cautionary memos: Once Carrie began an affair with is-he-or-isn’t-he possible terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), “Homeland” set itself up to activate a convoluted series of reset buttons. Sometimes Brody will be bad. Sometimes Brody will be good. Sometimes Carrie will be okay. Sometimes she’ll be hospitalized.

I’m only being honest when I say that “Homeland” is wearing a bit thin even while it nobly stays the course. Season 3 is both a reboot and a continuation. As the show’s creators told TV critics in July, Brody won’t appear for several episodes, since he’s wanted for his alleged connection to the Langley bombing.

For now, the work of advancing the story’s momentum rests on Mandy Patinkin’s measured performance as Saul Berenson, Carrie’s former (still?) mentor and protector, who heads up the hunt for the bombers with renewed and even frightening dedication. All the air goes out of the show whenever Brody’s teenage daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), sneaks out her bedroom window, which happens too much.

As if to underscore what’s most important here, “Homeland’s” intelligence workers keep passing an enormous crater in front of their headquarters. The rough-cut episodes I received weeks ago had a temporary “insert crater here” production note (which gave me a much-needed giggle). The crater, after all, is a ready symbol for so much: Carrie’s mental illness, Brody’s soul, Saul’s burden, Dana’s attitude, Dana’s mother (Morena Baccarin), who’s had just about enough of your attitude, Dana. The crater also stands for Washington’s abysmal dysfunction; for America’s bottomless war against a stealthy network of enemies. “Homeland” and its writers now spend a lot of their time (and reputations) teetering on the edge of this oblivion.


(one hour) returns Sunday

at 9 p.m. on Showtime.