Few programs have experienced the explosive trajectory of "Homeland," an Emmy winner for its first season before vaulting headlong into its second, wildly veering off course and, almost literally, blowing the whole thing up in the season finale. The third flight thus finds the series back on somewhat more sober terrain in addressing the fallout from those events, while suffering from big absences initially. Smart, watchable and extremely well cast, "Homeland's" creative roller-coaster ride ultimately illustrates the gap between a popcorn show like "24" -- not a bad option, but more limited -- and the tougher-to-execute hairpin turns of a "Breaking Bad."

For those who haven't caught up (and spoilers will only apply to them), the explosion at the CIA has left the world assuming former POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis, absent from these initial episodes) is dead, while the CIA agent who hunted and bedded him, Carrie (Claire Danes), must deal with the fallout, including congressional scrutiny regarding how this mess could have happened.

Carrie's mentor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), is also trying to steer an agency decimated and devastated by the blast -- eager for both answers and, perhaps less helpfully, revenge.

Showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, who adapted the original Israeli series and gave it an electric turbo-boost that made even President Obama a fan, have demonstrated this is a world where very bad things might happen, which is helpful in keeping the audience off balance.

It's also a place where alliances and friendships are fungible and moral clarity remains elusive. Although "Homeland" doesn't traffic in moral equivalency necessarily, it does pointedly drive home the notion that the threat of terrorism has a way of leading those charged with thwarting it into questionable thickets, which generally come with unpalatable tradeoffs and distasteful choices.

At the same time, the show hasn't escaped some of the dead ends that arose and became groan-inducing during last year's uneven ride, most notably the ongoing mini-drama surrounding Brody's teenage daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor), whose plotline continues to command far more screentime than it merits.

Danes, by contrast, has made the most of a character whose paranoia is often justified, and Patinkin's beefed-up presence to start season three (with F. Murray Abraham also hanging around) adds welcome edge and gravitas to the antiterrorism crusade.

"Homeland" has forged a strong enough bond with most of its audience -- and built up enough prestige as Showtime's first best-series Emmy recipient -- that it can probably punch its own ticket, but what initially appeared like one of TV's finest hours slipped several rungs as it aggressively (and to its credit, fearlessly) chewed through life-and-death scenarios.

These latest episodes represent a tentative first step toward seeing whether the show can re-ascend to those heights or, conversely, plummet into an abyss of implausibility. Like so much else pertaining to "Homeland," at this point, it could go either way.


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