The best TV shows tend to take on the characteristics of their main characters. The Sopranos was irritable, lumpy, and devastating. Breaking Bad was vicious and precise. Mad Men is handsome, brilliant, and occasionally inscrutable. (Actually, this applies to bad shows, too, as last night seemed to prove, once and for all, that The Newsroom is a preening, fatuous blowhard.)
Even so, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a case as clinical as Homeland. Like Carrie Mathison, the show has been reckless, drunk, and wildly insubordinate. Though it appeared to have lost all reason, it kept on coming. This bipolarity made Homeland unmissable even as it made it increasingly unwatchable. The fourth season began in October with a mandate for Homeland to climb out of the smoking crater that Nicholas Brody had left in his wake — not the one in Langley, but the one where the once-promising, Emmy-winning show’s heart had resided before it was express-mailed to Tehran. It was a challenge I respected and did not envy. Reinventing something on the fly is always difficult; resurrecting something potentially better off dead is doubly so.
Which is why I tried to stay positive, even as showrunner Alex Gansa began his work not by digging out but by digging in his heels. In short order, Homeland gave us another creepy/gross spy sex game, another character inexplicably falling in love with Carrie, and another extended jag of Carrie losing her mind. The second episode in particular was a crazy-making exercise in everything Homeland had gotten wrong in Season 3: misanthropy masquerading as depth, the inescapable gloom of Brody’s long shadow, extremity for extremity’s sake. Instead of throwing out a year’s worth of bad bathwater, Gansa attempted to drown a baby in it.
I stand by all of this even as I stand sort of slack-jawed about what happened next. Because, in true Homeland fashion, after hitting rock bottom with Carrie’s electric red-headed acid test, Homeland suddenly got good. Like, really good. The last three weeks have been as entertaining as anything on TV: taut, surprising, and jittery in the best possible way. (Think top of the roller coaster, not bottom of the pill jar.) I would say this development has been shocking, but one of the benefits of covering Homeland for three-plus years is that absolutely nothing about it shocks me anymore. The handsome ISI guy could turn out to be wearing a toupee. Saul could break into song. Haqqani could reveal that he’s actually Dana Brody in drag. No big deal. One of the upsides of having no limits is that you have no bottom. Who’s to say if you’re flying or falling?
I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: The first 20 minutes of “13 Hours in Islamabad” were positively soaring. This was an action movie done in miniature, Die Hard filmed through a microscope. I loved the slow, gulping tension in the embassy as word of Dennis’s perfidy spread. I loved the sight of Quinn finally breaking the leash on his domestication and going full Solid Snake in the bowels of the building. I loved the gonzo-macho futility of Carrie firing automatic rounds into an empty building. There was a beautiful irony in the vision of one woman trying to shoot one man when the entire world around them had already collapsed into destruction and death. Homeland was done talking about the war on terror. Finally, it was showing us a terrible, terrifying war.
Of course, it would be far easier to pick nits than it was for Carrie to pick off that sniper. Lockhart is an established buffoon, but would even he agree to open the vault door to save people who were already lost? Is there any world — ours or Homeland’s — in which the Marines would leave a vital embassy with less protection than the McCallister house at Christmastime? But here’s the thing: None of that bothered me in the slighest. Homeland is at its best when it doesn’t give the audience time to breathe, let alone think. Two faces — Nazanin Boniadi’s defiant fear; Laila Robins’s lip-curling digust — did more to convey the stakes of this episode than a thousand data dumps or sanctimonious speeches from Saul. It’s an unmistakable irony that Homeland, a show that goes to such pains to present the world as more complicated than “bad guys make things go boom,” is at its best when it presents bad guys making things go boom. But here we are.
I don’t mean to be glib about this last point. Making anything of merit on TV is extremely hard. The fact that Gansa and his team are able to produce an international action-thriller that explodes with the severity and surprise of an IED is to be commended. This might not have been the same style of show that prestige-hunters thought they were getting back in the days when Brody was wearing vests and Damian Lewis was wearing tuxes, but it’s still a worthy one. What’s of more pressing concern is that I wasn’t sure this was the show that Gansa and his staff wanted to make. The first half of this season — all the bits about Carrie’s baby, Quinn’s drinking, Aayan’s everything — was incredibly frustrating, like being force-fed an undercooked dinner when dessert was already laid out so beautifully. I honestly don’t think any of that heavy emotional baggage was necessary to get to where we are now. Don’t get me wrong: I can see how it would have been nice had it worked. (Even the most rudimentary bomb needs to be wired, right?) But when you’re already starting fresh from zero, why backtrack?
Seeing the explosion of glass and guts in the embassy only made it more clear how Homeland is a show that, as currently constituted, lacks an emotional plank in its storytelling. Whatever feeling was there to be mined from Saul’s relationship to Carrie, Carrie’s relationship to her coworkers, and Lockhart’s relationship to anything was chucked out the window when the series went full rom-con1 with Brody. This is unfortunate, but not fatal. What these past few episodes represented wasn’t a payoff on what came before but a long-overdue make-good on what didn’t. As long as Carrie remains in thrall to her chemistry and her poor choice in lovers, she’s a failed state of a character. Which is why seeing her last night was a revelation: tough, decisive, competent and, most of all, right. (Of course, Lockhart was right, too, when he said the president is “no longer comfortable” with her representing the national interests of the country. You think? That’s like saying you’re no longer comfortable with matches representing the national interests of gasoline.) Just because Claire Danes is so good at breaking doesn’t mean she has to be permanently broken. The elevation of Quinn in these last few episodes is essential because it acknowledges that part of the appeal of these types of shows comes from watching people who are good at their jobs, even when their missions are anything but.
That’s romantic conspiracy, genre nerds, like Three Days of the Condor or Khloe and Lamar.
The most unfortunate aspect of “13 Hours in Islamabad” was the way it sacrificed the two most promising characters introduced by Homeland since the premiere. Boniadi’s Fara was a fascinating idea played with real depth of feeling by a talented actor. That there was no room for her going forward seemed apparent, and she was, I suppose, a more sympathetic victim than Maury Sterling’s inscrutable, ever-present Max. She’ll be missed. But the real tragedy was the death of Michael O’Keefe’s John Redmond. Louche, arrogant, and devastatingly good at the business of intelligence, Redmond was exactly the sort of character necessary on a show like Homeland. He was an important counterweight to the video-game heroism of Quinn and the cartoon villainy of Lockhart: He was an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job, not the other way around. If Carrie and Quinn insist on playing offense, someone credible needs to make the case for playing it safe — or at least safer. Going forward, the gaping divide between lifelong civil servants like Redmond and fast-burning comets like Carrie seems like a fascinating space for Homeland to inhabit. Not everything can be, as the TV news scroll blared, “The Next Benghazi.” What are the dangers presented by wrestling with more of the same?
But that’s a question for the far future. (With the ship righted, I have every confidence that Homeland will, like most Showtime series, run many more seasons.) For the rest of this year, Homeland appears ready to drop its diplomatic cover and, like Quinn, run wild as the black-ops action flick it’s always wanted to be. This is a good thing. Homeland often spends so much time and effort trying to shock and impress that it loses sight of how fantastic it can be when it simply settles for being fun. I’d much rather enjoy something than admire it. By remembering the simple pleasures of pleasure, Homeland has restored my admiration and — dare I say it? — my trust. The series may still be as flighty and unpredictable as Carrie. But for now, I’ve found a way to relate to Saul: shell-shocked, impressed, and deeply grateful for everything that just happened.