Homeland Season 4 Premiere Review

Homeland has returned for a two-hour event that begins with "The Drone Queen." Yet, can Claire Danes' rule overcome Season 3's mistakes?

Tonight’s Homeland double feature was a tale of two shows. The first, which comprised the initial hour, is the series that Homeland needs to be: a rebooted, rebranded, and all around revamped experience for a post-Brody world. And the second hour, rather sheepishly tacked on to that first installment’s rollercoaster, is hopefully the last visage of Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon’s damage control—an attempt to clean up the mess that began piling up somewhere near the tail end of season two.

The result, perhaps fittingly for the manic mood swings of Carrie Mathison herself, is a premiere that both exhilarates with the promise of Homeland’s first and best season, as well as a warning that it could all go to pot. In fact, for our viewing pleasure, let us all hope Carrie continues to make the wrong decisions of staying in the crosshairs, because it is there that this show is finding the new life necessary to soldier on past the remains of Sgt. Nicholas Brody.

The first hour, entitled “Drone Queen,” delivers on what the pilot episode of Homeland only teased: Carrie Mathison in the field. The prospect of seeing Claire Danes allowed to play Carrie as a complete and total professional who is no-nonsense about her objectives and her emotions is startling refreshing—especially by the end of the hour where we see just how cold she can be when surrounded by colleagues.

All we need to know about Carrie Mathison’s posting in Kabul is established early when she earns her title as the “Drone Queen.” After a cold opening 60 seconds that display Carrie is still inherently reckless, such as when she insists on getting out of a truck in a demilitarized zone to walk around (the series in a nutshell?), she actually showcases a darkened new persona that is far more ruthless in its professionalism. In the first season, the entire plot went into motion because Carrie believed a condemned informant was still useful and tried to use what little she knows about human interaction to coerce him into revealing some juicy intel (that insurgents had flipped an American POW!). However, as of season four, she without question terminates terrorists on a kill list that seemingly grows by the hundred every other day.

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The politics of the series are flying higher than the flag even before we learn who was at that house marked for death. Affectionately referred to by the CIA station as a monarch of death, the juxtaposition of her covert operation that executes dozens in a house segues into an office birthday party without missing a beat. The only difference between these two moments is that Carrie has far less hesitation blowing away human lives than she does blowing out those birthday candles.

So, is it odd that Carrie seems to dread the birthday cake duty more?

This fear is possibly the result of its connection to another scary moment involved with facing her own mortality—or worse her daughter. What becomes the crux of the second episode (more on that below) is that Carrie left her cushy Istanbul gig so that she could avoid having to raise her daughter in an Afghan warzone. Also, conveniently, it means we don’t have to hear anymore about Javadi or all the other reminders of just how mediocre season three turned out to be.

Carrie’s awkward Skype session with her sister felt as draining for us as the sibling forced to raise a third child against her will, not to mention a television protagonist who knows just like us that this story is going to be far more interesting if she and Frannie remain on separate continents for the rest of the series.

However, the repressed guilt and bubbling resentment Carrie has over a life she brought in the world does simultaneously provide throughout both episodes some of the best opportunities for Ms. Danes in the series. For once, her self-loathing and regret is being influenced by something other than Brody or her condition, and the result is a festering wound behind Carrie’s eyes that may prove fatal before this show is over.

But “The Drone Queen’s” first and immediate focus is on the aftermath of what was, ironically, not a drone strike. The covert entry into Pakistani airspace that left over 40 people dead also happened to decimate a wedding party, and as a result Homeland enters what may be one of its biggest fantasies to date: that the American media and public actually cares about the collateral damage of drone strikes.

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This is nevertheless a potent return to the uncomfortable moment involving Issa from the first season. In that inaugural series of episodes, the death of a school full of children is treated like an isolated travesty, however season four gets somewhere closer to the painful truth about the collateral damage brought upon the program. Yet, as condemning as Homeland tends to be, the show is conversely offering nuance that might cause some of Showtime’s more liberal viewers to squirm. As introduced through the point of view of Saul Berenson, now an independent contractor commuting between New York and D.C., Homeland casts a spotlight on the awkward potential of what happens after the U.S. “leaves” Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Despite his increase in salary, the bearded man proves that it’s the same Saul, different job. Inside of a minute of his first scene, Mandy Patinkin is calmly lecturing the U.S. military (and viewers) about the possibility of leaving Afghanistan with “the job half done.” In fact, I expect this, far more than the fallout from the bombing, to the overarching shadow that will threaten to consume Carrie in season four.

But pushing politics aside, as this is a TV show, tonight’s first Homeland offered its most white-knuckled thrill since the middle of season two when the revelation that the CIA blew up a wedding causes Carrie to travel from Kabul to Islamabad. Forget about Javadi; Carrie is joining her spiritual twin from Zero Dark Thirty in the community that Osama bin Laden once made his makeshift hometown.

The decision to terminate this target had come down from the CIA station chief in Pakistan, a very welcome and already missed Corey Stoll. Given his continued services to vampire hunting on FX’s The Strain, I suspect most could guess this character would not be around for a full season. However, his swift departure from this episode was as unexpected as his ability to leave that FX wig behind.

Stoll plays the CIA’s Sandy Bachman with just the right amount of self-righteous authority and smarmy duplicity to make him seem like both a cynical CIA hard case….and something much, much worse for the spooky spook.

He also provides the right cavalier amount of disdain for Pakistan and alpha male indifference that would have done his iteration of Ernest Hemingway proud. Perhaps the most intriguing story thread he brings up, beyond his death, is that he is also not that different from Carrie. While our lead heroine never traded secrets with Brody, it is safe to say that much of her operating with that asset was off the books. And similarly, they both absolve themselves from blame at blowing up a wedding since it was the target’s fault for going to that wedding and endangering everyone. It is an uncomfortable hat to see Ms. Mathison wearing, and this is most true for Peter Quinn.

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Quinn spent the entire third season with one foot out the door, yet only Carrie seems surprised to see him wind up at handling security for the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, as opposed to being her own personal button man in Kabul. Obviously simmering with will-they-or-won’t-they tension, Rupert Friend continues to show that he’s flown under the radar to be Homeland’s secret weapon. But while a subset of fans might still be hoping for a Carrie-Quinn coupling with Brody out of the way, it seems that they all forgot about one thing: she is still Carrie.

This unfortunate business is brought to bear in the highlight of the night: Quinn and Carrie’s car ride to the embassy. The first hour of the season breathlessly concludes with an action that is not all around unfamiliar: the CIA station chief’s name is leaked in the Pakistani press by a spiteful government following another “drone” (or otherwise) attack. However, the difference in Homeland’s twisty mirror reflection is that Sandy’s drama-fueling methods of operating by himself in Islamabad means that he is walking around without protection when the leak occurs. Suddenly, the number of minutes until Stoll is free to return to The Strain drop dramatically.

In classic television heroism, Carrie and Quinn’s awkward reunion is cut short when they bravely save Sandy in the nick of time from a gathering mob on the streets. And then the scene keeps going…

Their car is surrounded and swarmed in a sequence that would look just as comfortable on an episode of an AMC zombie show (or the NBC nightly news), and Sandy is ripped from the vehicle to be stomped to death on the streets. Quinn then makes the decision to leave Sandy for dead.

Could they have done more? I don’t know, I’m not a security expert, but getting out of that car looked like a death wish. It nevertheless doesn’t prevent Carrie from dressing Quinn down and all but calling him a coward while she hides any signs of horror at what she has witnessed. It is in moments like these we are reminded once again why Carrie is such an amazing creation by Claire Danes and the writers. We also learn once more why Quinn tried to get the hell out of her way.

“The Drone Queen” is a stunning reinvention of Homeland, even if it does not occur in the Homeland. It is worth wondering if the series had premiered a season or two later if the writers would have felt tied to the Brody storyline for so long and not realized that anthological storytelling—as would become the norm on American Horror Story, True Detective, and Fargo—could allow them to explore different aspects of American intelligence’s shadow war without sticking to the soapier aspects of serialized television writing. But in this hour, they successfully (and finally) got to reboot the status quo into a new kind of series where Carrie is riveting and the stakes feel uncomfortably real with every passing minute.

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…Unfortunately, this still must at least displace several season three strands, if not downright ignore them. In the second hour, “Trylon and Perisphere,” Homeland returns to its namesake, and it is not necessarily for the best. If this is the last we see of D.C. this season, it will be too soon.

Cards on the table, Carrie Mathison should have never become a mother. It was a shortsighted choice for the third season to saddle her with this explicit remanent of the Brody affair. Perhaps this could also be a fair criticism of Carrie’s own mistakes in loving the sometime-terrorist, however it is a drain on the show to see her drawn more into these melodramatic situations.

Nonetheless, this episode did an excellent job of distancing itself from the development, even if it is at the expense of another shade of Carrie’s likability factor. She is not home for a single day before she almost drowns her daughter in a bathtub. I can understand the sister feeling it unfair how Carrie continues to shirk this responsibility, but honestly, it may be the only thing keeping the kid alive! Also, Carrie’s mothering aside, they may want to avoid this responsibility further, because dodging the elephant in the room of James Rebhorn’s sad passing seemed like a confused tap dance in the second hour.

In any event, Carrie is able to avoid motherhood again though through another dubious method: blackmail of the CIA Director. I didn’t like Lockheart when he was Senator McSnooty, and the decision to make him into a treasonous, conniving foil here seems equally broad in its caricature. However, the end result is that despite a massive, massive failing on the part of Carrie’s leadership, she will be heading from one warzone in Afghanistan to another in Pakistan.

It is also in the tealeaves that Saul will be joining her. Seeing Saul live in New York looked as unpleasant for him as that spiffy new suit. Carrie inviting his contracting company to Islamabad means two things: the end of Saul’s marriage, and the return of the Carrie and Saul partnership. However, Carrie will have the power now, which should create a unique new dynamic.

Meanwhile, Peter Quinn insists that he is out. He certainly is going through his own trauma over watching Sandy Bachman die, but the reveal that it was because of a potentially treasonous exchange of information with anti-Western elements in Pakistan should prove too strong to not pull him away at some point down the road.

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But finally, the most interesting aspect of episode two was none of the return of D.C. plotting; it’s the rapid evolution of new character Ayaan (Suraj Sharma), the boy whose mother and sister were killed in the season’s opening wedding bombing.

Presented reasonably and with great pathos, Sharma is allowed to express in a few minutes of both episodes what many advocates have struggled with in convincing people of the human cost of foreign policies. Studying to be a doctor, he sees his family obliterated by a U.S. weapon of death for which the Pakistani government uses as a political prop. Scared to death of all governments and “politics,” he is reluctantly forced into this world when a supposed friend uploads a video of the wedding, placing Ayaan in the center of a media firestorm.

In terms of television plotting, we could be unexpectedly seeing the creation of a new asset for Carrie in Pakistan. However, when one considers the likelihood of Ayaan ever cooperating with the U.S. government, I suspect we might be coming the long way around to witnessing a new version of Brody. The kind that is birthed by violence and social media every day. Whichever way it plays out, it should slowly have an inevitable avalanche effect on the rest of the season. Carrie will obviously be interested about this new online lightning rod as she travels back into the story.

This two-part premiere exemplifies the very best of Homeland and some of the worst. While it is a blessing that this show rarely crosses the line into 24 procedural superheroics, the series still has struggled since its first year at perfectly balancing the human element of Carrie’s (and once Brody’s) life with the intent of being a show about the murky war on terror. That battle seems to get more confused and uncomfortable every year, but the show got more and more embroiled with the harlequin elements that complemented the first season, but strangled the third.

Ultimately, the first hour of tonight’s premiere feels like the promise of Homeland 2.0, whereas the second hour was the series biting the bullet and cleaning up the mess left behind, hopefully all so we can continue on this new chapter for the series. With any luck, there was no cyanide on that bullet, and the show can become what it needs to be: a hard-hitting espionage series with Claire Danes continuing to play one of the strongest female characters on film or television at the moment. Judging by the previews for next week, I’m hopeful.

In closing for this premiere, the question remains what to rate it? Objectively, I’d say the crackerjack first hour was easily worth four out of five stars. However, the second could at most be construed as two-and-a-half stars. So, like Showtime’s wise decision to get both season four necessities done in one night, I’ll split the difference.

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3.5 out of 5