Homeland, Showtime, 9 p.m. (new season) — The action has shifted from the troubles of the Middle East to the troubles in North Korea. This gives the show a different look while retaining the heightened atmosphere of suspense that was so successful in the first three seasons.
In the opening, a solitary figure walks across the vast square in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in the capital of Pyongyang. As the camera draws closer, details can be determined. This is a tall man, a black man. He is wearing a black baseball cap, which obscures his hair, and black sunglasses, which obscure his eyes. A multicolored scarf hangs from his neck. He is wearing a gray sweat shirt in the cold and, closer, closer, he appears to have . . . yes, there they are. He has multiple piercings in his face and ears.
The earrings are large, silver, and a weird metal thing is stuck through his nose and another weird metal thing protrudes from his bottom lip. The facial result is a mixture of the grotesque and the hip and is, of course, quite recognizable. Dennis Rodman (Dennis Rodman), the American Hall of Fame basketball player, is here to see his little buddy, 30-year-old Kim Jong-un (Kim Jong-un), the dictator of this secretive country.
“Everything seems to be working great, Saul,” CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) says into a microphone that is hidden under the cap of her People’s Revolution uniform, which is part of her cover as a schoolgirl from the provinces. “Dennis is following the script.”
Her words are heard at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va., by her supervisor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). Saul somehow has cameras placed in a spy satellite or drone that ship back shaky black and white pictures. They show Carrie on the side of the square and Rodman climbing the steps to the palace. Kim Jong-un, flanked by a dozen guards, can be seen coming down the steps to greet him.
Saul is nervous. He is worried that Carrie could go nutso at any moment, because that is what she often does. He also is worried that Rodman could go nutso at any moment, because that is what Rodman often does. This is all part of the suspense.
“You be careful,” Saul admonishes Carrie. “Keep an eye on Dennis. If he starts wearing a wedding dress or mumbling like he did on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ we’re going to have to get him out of there.”
The plot unfolds in flashbacks and conversation. This is Rodman’s third trip to North Korea. He went the first time on his own last February, invited because the little dictator developed a love for hoops as a schoolboy. (Kim Jong-un comes from an athletic family. State television once reported that his father, Kim Jong-il, rattled off 18 straight holes in one in a round of golf. That would have been a world record if films were available, but alas they were not.) Kim and Rodman became very friendly during that first visit. They finished it with a grand banquet that featured “copious” amounts of food and alcoholic beverages.
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea because of the country’s insistence on pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, part of a generally bellicose foreign policy. That was why Rodman’s visit was a coup. He spent more time with Kim Jong-un than any other American ever has. He came away calling Kim “my friend.” That was when the CIA no doubt became interested.
“We have to recruit Rodman,” Saul told Carrie. “Use any means necessary.”
“Any means?” Carrie asked.
“The man was once the boyfriend of Madonna,” Saul said. “He was married to Carmen Electra! There’s a clue to what might work.”
Rodman is back to plan an exhibition game for next month that will match an undisclosed all-star team of 12 former NBA players against the North Korean national team. Rodman vows this will be a friendly game and that some of the former NBA stars might even switch sides and play with the North Koreans. He does acknowledge that recruiting players to make the trip has been harder than he imagined. Players seem to have developed a fear of the country.
Part of that fear stems from the execution earlier this month of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek. The uncle, previously the No. 2 figure in the government, was accused of womanizing, gambling, and embezzlement, along with failing to clap heartily enough when listening to Kim Jong-un’s speeches. This led to the uncle’s quick and surprising demise.
“I can’t control what they do with their government,” Rodman has said into all cameras. “I can’t control what they say or how they do things here. I’m just trying to come as a sports figure and try to hope I can open the door for a lot of people in the country.”
Is this the truth?
Maybe he is in Pyongyang to slip into files and photograph strategic papers. (“Just using the wash room, Kim.”) Maybe he is there to deliver cash and assistance from the US government to North Korean rebel forces. (“This’ll help you (wink-wink) buy a few basketball hoops.”) Maybe, when he comes back with those NBA stars, they will be trained like a crack Naval Seal unit. (“Kareem, you get the door. Larry, you cover my back.”)
It should be mentioned that in one of his previous credits, Mr. Rodman did star with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a film called “Double Team.” It also should be mentioned that the protagonist in the recently concluded season of “Homeland,” Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), was sent to Tehran in somewhat similar circumstances to assassinate the head of Iran security forces.
How did that work out?
“They’re going into the palace,” Carrie says. “I think they’re talking about LeBron James and D-Wade. Kim likes LeBron very much. D-Wade not so much. Chris Bosh not at all.”
“Stick with ’em,” Saul says.
First episode down.
No one has any idea what will happen next.Leigh Montville’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.