Oh, Homeland, you exasperating motherfucker. Season four of Showtime’s prestige spy drama is a much-needed, overdue reinvention of the series that builds an intriguing new world for its heroes to inhabit. At first, the twisty tale looks skillfully engineered, but everything gradually comes unraveled, and egregious story decisions late in the year may have cost the series my allegiance.
CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has fled her personal responsibilies at home for a posting in Afghanistan, where she’s made a name for herself as “the Drone Queen,” taking out terrorists remotely from Kabul. Her controlled, dark new life takes a turn for the worse when bad intelligence on a notorious terrorist leads to a drone strike against a mostly innocent wedding party. The fiasco nearly costs Carrie her career, but with typical resourcefulness she lands on her feet as station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan — the origin of the flawed intel. She’s determined to find out what went wrong, and to that end, drags in trusted old friends to help: Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), now an independent contractor, and Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), an operative now desperate to get out of the business. All of them, though, will soon regret their participation in a fraught, tragic operation.
Ever since the beginning of season two, Homeland has felt like a show overstaying its welcome, an unnatural extension of a self-contained miniseries. To its credit, season four finally changes course and moves on. The unnatural romance-slash-rivalry between Carrie and Brody is jettisoned (well, mostly), along with all the associated world-building furniture, establishing a new paradigm. While it starts slowly, I was ready to embrace this new path, especially once Carrie sets up in Pakistan with Quinn and quietly likeable allies Fara (Nazanin Boniadi) and Max (Maury Sterling) to identify security leaks in Islamabad’s CIA station. The new international setting introduces promising new characters — such as jaded, shifty deputy station chief John Redmond (Michael O’Keefe), a character I found quite convincing. Also there are solid new subplots; best among these involves Pakistan intelligence’s recruitment of the U.S. ambassador’s husband, Dennis Boyd (Mark Moses), to spy for them. There’s even a strong thematic strategy to the season. Carrie begins the season almost inhumanly heartless in her mission-first mindset, even going so far as to coldly seduce a young, impressionable asset in pursuit of her goal. Meanwhile Quinn, tortured by his conscience, is so disgusted that he’s ready to quit the business for good. As events unfold, their trajectories reverse: Carrie slowly regains her humanity, while Quinn is inexorably drawn back to the mission. The arc is thoughtful, and emotionally — if not always logically — convincing. Speaking of Quinn, he kind of takes over the show this season, which moreso than earlier years examines the thorny ethics of the spy business. Quinn’s failed struggle to remove himself from the game board is a much more compelling expression of this idea than the clumsy tactical decisions and erratic reactions of Carrie and Saul.
So it’s effective and involving spy fare, on one level. But underneath are logic problems, and too many reminders that the producers cut their teeth on 24. Too often, the decisions that Carrie, Quinn, and Saul make are scriptwriting decisions, not sound strategic ones. They’re deployed to set up reversals and cliffhangers, or to change the emotional stakes, rather than following logically from the circumstances. Almost every time a character makes Decision A, there’s a better argument for Decision B, undermining the credibility of the heroes. Speaking of which, so very many things go wrong for Carrie and Saul this season that by rights their careers would be thoroughly demolished. For a show trying to sell us on how competent and exceptional its heroes are, this is a poor long-term strategy.
And then, of course, there’s the tenth episode of this season. It’s an extremely suspenseful episode, but one in which 24-like shock tactics and wanton casualties overrun the usually more thoughtful tone of the series. Homeland has always struggled to maintain a relevant and likeable supporting cast: those interesting, relatable side characters you quietly root for as they’re tossed around in the heroes’ wake. “13 Hours in Islamabad” may be one of the series’ most exciting episodes, but it also cavalierly disposes of two promising supporting characters who were, I think, subtly improving the wider world of the series. These unnecessary deaths, which have a negligible impact on the heroes, felt egregious and wasteful. It’s not exactly a shark-jumping moment, but for me it came pretty close to being a “shooting-Tara” moment. (Is that a thing?)
So there it is. Homeland, what am I to do with you? I’ve put a lot of energy into trying to like you. And even now, I’m curious about what comes next. But I think I may be done with Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson, whose credibility may have eroded beyond the point of no return. The fact that most of the show’s decisions seem to revolve around propelling them through new travails and tragedies makes me think it’s time to cut my losses.