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October 7, 2014

After disastrous third season, Showtime’s Homeland soldiers on

Homeland star Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) looks tired.  It’s a sleepy night in Islamabad when the bipolar and un-fire-able CIA analyst rolls into a dim and quiet command center in order to oversee a bombing attack on a key terrorist leader in the region.  It is carried out with little fanfare; the group doesn’t even watch the run on video.  Instead, Carrie goes home, downs an Ambien with a wine chaser, and goes to sleep.

Many of the returning cast members seem like they could use some Ambien, too.  Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) is stuck in the career loop of consulting firms.  Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), once the show’s cool operator, is now shaken with PTSD after one too many killings gone awry.  Carrie herself is still the same irresponsible psycho she always was, but with her edge dulled by emotional toil.  However, it would be unfair to accuse any of them of bad performances; this is merely the place the show-runners have left them in.  One can hardly blame the characters after the emotionally and intellectually exhausting mess that was Homeland season three.  Sharks were jumped, terror babies were bred, and at the end of the day the show runners made the wise decision to string up the show’s longtime co-star-turned-albatross Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis).

The idea was to make a clean break to start the fourth season, and for the most part this has worked, despite a few moments when the memory of Brody hangs over the scene.  But those characters that do remain among the living have been laid bare for the audience.  Berenson and Quinn hold no more secrets.  Nor does Carrie.  Indeed, the show displays little interest in challenging or subverting any of the notions about Carrie that have been built up over three seasons, only in reinforcing them.  She remains a highly intelligent and driven agent who nevertheless lets mental illness and hubris destroy her personal life and eventually her professional one.  When Homeland started out, she had the chance to be the female answer, or at least equivalent, to the 2000s run of television’s so-called “difficult men.”  From Tony Soprano to Walter White and Don Draper, these roles became TV icons for their subversive moralities and the talented performers behind them.  Carrie had these things too, but her creators have consistently misused her since season two, leaving two-time Emmy winner Danes twisting in the wind.

It’s not all bad, however.  The premiere gets a much-needed burst of energy after the aforementioned bombing run triggers a brutal murder, shaking our leads awake if not quite into action.  We also get some emotional resonance from newcomer Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma, the lead from 2012’s Life of Pi), a survivor of the attack who is swept up into the realm of politics and terrorism, which will likely tear him apart.  His is by far the most promising plotline of the young season.

But while the show has jettisoned the baggage of season three, it is still stubbornly insistent on employing the character-heavy psychodrama which created those problems in the first place.  Early on, Homeland was at its best when it focused on the cat-and-mouse game played between the CIA and the terrorists, always questioning who was the cat and who the mouse.  The parameters of the game as well as the true nature of the characters were obscured, creating wonderful tension for most of the first two seasons.  There are still mysteries to be had in season four, but with the characters’ souls revealed, we are left wondering less and merely shaking our heads more.

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