Homeland is almost always at its best when it remembers to put its spotlight on the human beings that make up its story. While this is a bit of a no-brainer when it comes to telling a good, character-driven yarn, there are plenty of shows that can get by on action and pure plot (24), mood and atmosphere (The Bridge), or even just a tendency to philosophize (True Detective, to interestingly mixed results). Many shows announce their intentions from the outset, and in this way Homeland’s first season served as a primer for what the show would be concerned with: when Homeland remembers to be a character study first and foremost, it sits at the top of its game. What initially seemed like a standard-issue politically-minded terrorism thriller turned out to be something very, very different. During that first season, Homeland revealed itself to be a lot of things: a meditation on privacy, and examination of surveillance and infatuation (and how the two might intersect), and a thorough unpacking of what it truly means to belong somewhere. Did Carrie really belong in the CIA, despite her mental illness? Did Brody really belong back in the United States...or more pressingly, back in his family’s home and life? Homeland’s first season wrestled with these complex questions in what was, at the time, a surprisingly accomplished and confident way.
Important to remember, though, is that this is a show made by the creators of 24. It wasn’t too long before Carrie was busting out action-star moves, much to the incredulity of its audience. Similarly, the show struggled to figure out what exactly it wanted to do with Brody before finally deciding to roll the dice and boldly kill off what was essentially its male lead at the end of the third season.
And what a solid choice that was.
Homeland’s fourth season has been leaner and more focused than just about anything that came before it. It’s a welcome return to the study of the human beings that sit at the heart of the conflicts in which we engage as a country, and because of this Homeland has once again become captivating, intelligent television.
Sure, last week was a bit sensational, but for me this was only a problem in retrospect. As I watched Carrie flail up and down the streets of Pakistan, I was utterly gripped. Was it an easy choice? Maybe. Did it represent any kind of serious misstep for this season? Absolutely not.
Rather, Carrie’s medically-induced misadventure brought many of the season’s plotlines together, linking them in ways that might not have been readily apparent up to now. One of the biggest questions I had concerned how Carrie would find out she’d been drugged, and I was happy to see her put it together on her own, rather than just get the news from someone else. By the end of the episode, Khan’s conscience pushes him to tell her that it was Secret Agent Duck Philips who messed with her meds, and the hunt is on. Waiting to see how Duck is dealt with is enough to bring me back next week, for sure.
Khan’s inability to be easily read is also making him one of the season’s most interesting new characters. At this point, it’s hard to get a bead on exactly how genuine his actions are...but it does seem pretty clear that he’s not down with Tasneem’s behind-the-scenes machinations. This lends him a bit of depth—not a lot, but enough to characterize him as something very much removed from your standard villain. He’s got a conscience, it seems, and once again Homeland smartly concerns itself with the human beings at the center of our international conflicts. Characters like Lockhart and Tasneem remain mostly singular in their goals and motivations, acting as foils to better-rounded characters like Carrie and (possibly) Khan.
This thematic through-line has shown itself to be woven in the fabric of Homeland’s fourth season, as every iteration of the plot so far has directly concerned a real human being at its center, weighing heavily upon the complexities of these characters and their goals and motivations. From Ayan’s family duties to Saul’s conversation at Haqqani’s dinner table to Saul’s other conversation with the village grocer, Homeland is concerned with giving every group in its story a voice, and the narrative is well-served for it. Spending time with these villains who are willing to calmly explain their motivations and not always sound completely off the reservation as they do so adds some much-needed murk to Saul’s position in the world—especially in a world that is decidedly not his own (again, “belonging” as one of Homeland’s major themes: now Saul is the stranger in a strange land).
To that end, Saul’s storyline in this episode is a fucking gut punch. As he sat there on that fountain, I was ready to say goodbye to him, my hand covering my mouth. I honestly don’t think it would have been the more devastating of the two options. Carrie’s decision to go back on her promise to Saul was a powerful one — well-chosen and unexpected, given her willingness to go right ahead and dust him along with the rest of Haqqani’s crew just a couple of episodes previous.
Homeland’s fourth season is a refreshing return to form, as the show has learned that its true strength lies in the complex lives of its characters. This season, in a lot of ways, has forced Carrie’s fractured humanity into the foreground, bleeding and raw, to be used against her by players on the other side.
...and holy shit, has it made for some excellent television.
Oh, and also...
- I really can’t wait for Special Agent Duck Philips to get what’s coming to him.
- Tracy Letts as a series regular has been a ton of fun to watch.
- Carrie’s decision at the end of the episode played out perfectly, in terms of Danes’ performance. It was clear something was going on, but didn’t become obvious what she was up to until the end, at which point I felt like I should have known all along. Brilliant stuff.
- In the scenes between Khan and Carrie, Carrie is almost always shot from behind Khan's shoulder, which obscures her in the frame a bit, always giving her the appearance of peeking out from behind someone else's back. Solid direction.