Homeland is the most bizarre show of the century. The Showtime thriller debuted to immediate acclaim in 2011 during a hugely transitional time for the TV industry. The show reflected the conventions of the prestige drama but remixed them just enough — a female anti-hero, whoa — to rise above a manageable field of competition. It benefitted greatly from the anticipation built by the classic weekly release schedule and episodic TV criticism but also generated endless chatter during the first major wave of TV talk on Twitter in a less politically charged climate. And in 2012, Homeland rolled during its first year of Emmy eligibility at the exact time that people, including showrunner Alex Gansa, were wondering how long it could last, as a show and in the cultural zeitgeist.

Not much longer, it turns out. A bumpy second season was followed by an unfortunate third season featuring the end of the tragic love story between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis). Of course, there were newer shows, but more pointedly, there were so many more shows to care about. The awards and critical attention, as well as the tweets, mostly disappeared.

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But then, Homeland pulled off an even more impressive plot twist: it just kept going, and just kept producing good episodes and seasons with a great central performance from Danes. The heightened espionage stories occasionally turned too outlandish, and the less said about Season 7's half-hearted attempt to capture the zeitgeist with a Russia storyline the better, but Homeland has effectively aged better than most shows that experience such an initial whirlwind of attention and criticism.

This is reflected in the first four episodes of Homeland's eighth and final season, which begins on Showtime next week. The familiar seasonal reset sees Carrie recovering from an extended stint being tortured (again) in a Russian gulag, only to be called into action one last time by her mentor and National Security Advisor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) to help finesse negotiations with Afghan and Taliban leaders to end the "forever war" in the region. In an intriguing follow-up to Season 4, the first post-Brody season, both Haqqani (Numan Acar), a Taliban leader, and Tasneem (Nimrat Kaur), a Pakistan operative, have returned as central and competing figures in the negotiations. Meanwhile, with an election year looming, recently installed President Warner (Beau Bridges) faces mounting pressure from his VP from the opposing party (Sam Tramell).

Claire Danes, <em>Homeland</em>Claire Danes, Homeland

There is a familiar pace and confidence in the early episodes, as the show retraces its own storytelling tricks and characters return to places they've been before. It's typical for shows in their final seasons to take some kind of trip down memory lane, but revisiting characters and plotlines from Season 4 suggests an attempt to conclude the second, and post-Brody, era of Homeland. Beyond that reflection, the choice illustrates the cyclical, endless nature of CIA operations around the world.

Homeland has tended to tell these stories through the challenges and triumphs of individuals rather than the larger infrastructure those people represent. The return of Haqqani and Tasneem is no different. Though personal and professional tensions paper over the bigger questions about the logistics of peace talks and intra-group regional tensions, the characters are more substantive than most of the show's short-term players.

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But after all these years, Homeland still succeeds chiefly because of Danes. Unlike her obvious comparison in 24's Jack Bauer, Carrie appears, at all times, to be simultaneously traumatized and unaffected by the latest round of unspeakable torture. It doesn't come and go, even as Carrie navigates a job to which she's not ready to return. She just keeps moving forward, convinced that her next decision, no matter how compromised, will be a good one because there's no tangible alternative. Even in a more subdued season, Carrie is an electric presence.

Both Danes and Patinkin carry the weight of their respective characters to each scene, particularly when they're together. The duo has always made a powerful contrast, with Danes charting Carrie's electric instability through eye twitches and mouth gulps and Patinkin lingering in pondering silence for uncomfortable lengths of time. The characters don't spend much time together early in the season, as Carrie timidly reconnects with Russian operative Yevgeny (Costa Ronin) in the field, but the performers and the show make those moments count.

Mandy Patinkin, <em>Homeland</em>Mandy Patinkin, Homeland

The slow burn of Season 8 is not without its big moments, especially in the last episode made available for review. A final season still has its limitations — Carrie and Saul can't really be put into serious danger too early — so the show is forced to try to surprise with other characters. One cliffhanger is ridiculous in a vacuum until you recall that most of this show's absolute apex episodes involved even more audacious plot pivots with less disposable characters.

If there's one significant downside to the show's extended run, it's probably that lack of newer characters to invest in. Shifting locations and plotlines each season has taken a moderate toll. Quinn (Rupert Friend) was a valuable third wheel and love interest in the immediate post-Brody years, but he's been gone for more than a season. Now-former President Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) was a compelling presence and she's been replaced by the affable and fine Bridges. Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) doesn't make an appearance. The show has invested a lot of time in surveillance expert Max (Maury Sterling), but he starts the season detached from his key allies.

As the beginning of the end, Season 8 of Homeland naturally doesn't hit the highs that made it a flash cultural phenomenon for a couple of years. But these early episodes are comparable to most of the show's run as a strong espionage serial with a relevant political context and intimate character drama. Whereas most big shows start huge and burn out quickly or slowly grow into major phenomenons, there's something oddly impressive about how Homeland managed to pivot from huge hype into extended middlebrow sustainability.

TV Guide Rating: 4/5

Homeland Season 8 premieres Sunday, Feb. 9 at 9/8c on Showtime.