I had given up on Homeland halfway through its third season last year. Showtime’s intriguing CIA thriller had faded into being a shadow of what it was been in its first year-and-a-half, missing the magnetic chemistry between its lead stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis and the tense, gripping spy stories that accompanied them. In preparation of this rebooted fourth season – one that comes without its haphazard title sequence or almost any mention of prior plot events – I rented the third season DVD and caught up on any holes that could exist in my coverage. To my surprise, as soon as Carrie and Brody ended up working together again in the last episodes of season three, the rest of the wheels – from plotting to pacing – started turning smoothly again.
However, with one of the key players of the series dead and gone, could a fourth season still work? Could the cast and creators rekindle the dimmed flame of such inconsistent past seasons and tell a story that felt both compelling and urgent, both edge-of-your-seat and ripped-from-the-headlines? Well, if the first two episodes of Showtime’s drama are any indication, Homeland has not quite arrived at its former glory, but is on its way to getting there.
The series opens on Carrie Mathison, who is stationed as the head of the CIA’s Kabul outlet, keeping her eye on nearby terrorist activity. One of her main allies, Islamabad station chief Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll), feeds her information on the eve of Carrie’s birthday, explaining that the #4 most wanted man in the world, Haissam Haqqani, is in a house with a few others near the Afghanistan border. The man who fed Sandy this information is an unknown, remaining anonymous as he exchanges this intel. However, the intel proves to be costly. While the CIA’s bombing minutes later kills Haqqani, it murders 40 others as well. There was a wedding party in the shelter, now turned to rubble, and this only inflames tensions in the Middle East further.
Carrie is oddly unaffected by the severity of the “collateral damage,” trying her best to hold it together even when Sandy is targeted by a crowd of mad, erratic Pakistanis who find out his identity. However, with this devastating attack drawing controversy on all sides, CIA director Lockhart calls Carrie back into the United States. He tells her she needs to testify to the Senate that a screw-up on this scale will not happen again. However, she tells Lockhart she will not be satisfied until the CIA calls her back into duty, putting her in Islamabad so that she can correct course and find out the identity of the man who squandered this alliance with Sandy. She wants to go back and dig up the dirt, even if this means abandoning her infant daughter.
The two episode openers, “The Drone Queen” and “Trylon and Perisphere,” do a notably superb job with one aspect: Carrie’s characterization. While she was a volatile, passionate figure in the first three seasons, Carrie has absorbed Brody’s death since the end of the last season and is now quite calm. In fact, her collective state is kind of eerie. She feels right at home in Kabul, even telling her driver in the season’s opening scene that she wants to get out and walk the rest of the way, which gives her the chance to breathe the air around her, owning the road as her own.
However, despite her steadiness and comfort as a top-level chief, there is something distant about Carrie in these opening two episodes. Directors Lesli Linka Glatter (“The Drone Queen”) and Keith Gordon (“Trylon and Perisphere”) emphasize how Carrie is walled away from humanity, reacting to major problems without much of a personality. In an early scene from “The Drone Queen,” as Carrie and her co-workers watch the bombing from their offices, regular Homeland viewers will register a distance from the counter-terrorist events that occur.
Prior installments of the series rarely situated these attacks solely from the agency floor, but gave visceral views from the field. Carrie has graduated to a place where she can watch the world burn around her without interacting with it, and the hushed silence around Carrie as the shelter blows up hints at a lack of feeling due to her proximity away from the ground. In these two episodes, both Linka Glatter and Gordon show the protagonist in her room or places where she can be alone, almost engulfed by darkness.
Regardless, there is one factor that still puts Carrie on edge: dealing with her infant daughter, Franny. Carrie gave her sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) the job to take care of Franny, who only gets to see her mom over Skype. When Carrie is called back into the United States, she hardly contemplates how going back to Islamabad will affect her relationship with her daughter. When Maggie hears that Carrie is going to be away again, she can hardly believe it. “There’s not even a diagnosis for what’s wrong with you,” she tells Carrie. The only land that the CIA operative feels like a stranger in is her own home.