Carried Away: Can ‘Homeland’ Outrun Its Past?
Homeland returns for its fourth season this Sunday night with two new episodes, airing on Showtime at 9 p.m. ET. But first, an anecdote:
Last week, I was on the phone with my father. He asked if I’d be reviewing the new season of Homeland and, if so, what I thought. I hemmed and hawed and then said that, considering the catastrophe of the third season, the premiere was a decent enough reboot. There was a pronounced pause on the other end of the phone. “A reboot?” my father asked, with trepidation in his voice. “Yes,” I replied. Then a longer, more anxious pause. “You don’t mean that guy is … alive again, do you?”
I didn’t and he’s not. Nicholas Brody remains dead as dead can be. He’s as dead as a tailor in the Pennsylvania woods, as dead as David Estes, as dead as the theories that Saul is the mole. Let me be clear: Brody has well and truly shuffled off this mortal coil. He’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. His tiny mouth has been shut forever. The ex-congressman has become an ex-person.
But the actual horror in my father’s voice — and that he even felt the need to ask the question in the first place — speaks volumes about the challenges facing Homeland as it attempts to dig itself out of the wreckage Brody left behind. A critical darling turned punching bag, the show played out the string of its central relationship in calamitous fashion a year ago, stretching both Carrie and Brody’s doomed romance and my credulity to the breaking point — and then stretching them even further, all the way into downtown Tehran.1 Still, to its credit, Homeland really did drop the thread after that, making the tough but necessary choice to dispatch Carrie’s ginger gentleman and enter the fourth season fresh. Brody’s shadow still looms large over the first three episodes of Homeland 2.0, but not nearly as large as a pair of essential questions: Can a troubled show effectively atone for the sins of the past? And, more crucially: Can today’s highly invested TV audience forgive without forgetting?2
The answer to the first of those queries is relatively easy: Yes, more or less. The first hour of Sunday’s two-part premiere is a brisk and necessary shuffling of the deck. Gone are the drab business parks and suburban sprawl of the show’s version of D.C.; production has moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, to the considerably more striking vistas of Cape Town, South Africa. As Sunday’s premiere begins, Carrie appears healthy — at least medically speaking. She’s now stationed in Kabul, where she keeps busy by ordering drone strikes, Skyping with her sister, and avoiding the messy reality of the small, red-haired baby she left back in the States.3 (For those who are resistant to change, never fear. Carrie’s still chasing her antipsychotic pills with gallons of off-brand Chardonnay.) Saul is making a rocky adjustment to the private sector, prone to mouthing off about government policy even though he’s no longer in a position to change it. And Peter Quinn is now lurking around the margins of Islamabad, doing his best to protect Sandy Bachman (the terrific Corey Stoll), the shady head of the CIA station there. When a drone strike in Pakistan ordered by Sandy and cosigned by Carrie wipes out a wedding party instead of the expected terrorist, the region — and, in due time, the show — is plunged into chaos.
This is a great and provocative hook for a drama that, at its best, poked its nose into the most troubling and inconvenient aspects of our never-ending war on terror. (And it also marks a smart pivot from the Bush hangover of the early seasons to a more relevant critique of Obama’s recent foreign policy muddles.) It may be hard to remember now, through the scrim of Caracas drug dens and Dana Brody car crashes, but the first season of Homeland was fearless in more than just its storytelling. The show was unique in its depiction of the overlap between espionage and paranoia, the way the American obsession with security theater makes bad actors of us all.
In the premiere, the often indiscriminate carnage of drone strikes is given a very human face in Ayaan Ibrahim (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma), a young medical student and the lone survivor of the incinerated wedding party. Shell-shocked and devastated, Ayaan is almost cartoonishly decent. Unlike his incensed roommate, he doesn’t want revenge on the Americans. He wants only to be left alone. Though limited, this characterization remains radical on American TV in 2014: Ayaan is a young Muslim uninterested in jihad, his hopes and dreams utterly disconnected from the push and pull of global politics and warfare. Or so he believes, anyway. Soon enough, both the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI come calling and Ayaan’s desire to stay on the sidelines is revealed as both impossible and tragic. For all of its missteps, Homeland is to be commended for the way it muddies everyone’s water equally. On this show, terrorism isn’t a bogeyman lurking around the corner. It’s an insidious net able to bind up anyone — the good, the bad, the soldier, and the civilian — unlucky enough to wander into its path.
So it’s a good start. Unfortunately, it’s not a fresh one. And here’s where things begin to fall apart. Homeland has always been a show concerned with the long tail of history, both personal and political. Brody’s present-day actions were inseparable from the myriad traumas he had endured in the past. What made the character’s arc compelling, even as it veered into incoherence, was the way cause and effect played like a cruel feedback loop throughout his blinkered existence: Brody’s need for structure and authority led him to the military, which led him to Abu Nazir, which led him to the CIA, which led him, ultimately, back to the Middle East. So, too, is Homeland unable to rid itself of its own checkered past. Under showrunner Alex Gansa, the series has always operated with the same reckless mix of confidence and insanity as Wile E. Coyote; even when it ran out of road, it never stopped running. Now that it has finally hit the ground and hit it hard, there’s no retconning the long fall that preceded it.
In theory, the connective tissue between the old, Brody-dominated version of Homeland and this new, globo-thriller incarnation is the cast. But here, too, the folly of the third season leaves its mark. The moment Homeland began to lose the plot was the second Gansa and his writers decided that Carrie’s obsession with Brody wasn’t a dangerous crossing of personal and professional wires and was, instead, True Love. From that point on, Carrie’s competence became as compromised as her liver. Soon, the other protagonists were all bleeding out, too — collateral damage from Cupid’s perilous bow. (The most frustrating thing about Tracy Letts’s blowhardy, mustache-twirling Senator Lockhart wasn’t the way he kept throwing roadblocks in front of Saul. It’s that he was fundamentally right. None of these lunatics deserved their jobs!) Other than each other, what motivates these people? Whom do they know? And why should we care? By going all in on Brody as its sun and stars, Homeland reduced its surviving characters to mere satellites. When Season 4 begins with Carrie, Saul, Quinn, and Fara in drastically altered circumstances, it feels less like a needed reorganization and more like they’re all just floating in space.
Actually, it’s worse than that. Carrie Mathison was always the most damaged person on Homeland, but now that damage seems awfully close to fatal. At the start, the brilliance of the character was the way she inverted a decade of prestige drama convention: Here, at last, was a woman allowed to play with the big, bad boys. Like Tony Soprano and Don Draper, Carrie was a swaggering, self-damaging contradiction, as brilliant in her professional life as she was disastrous in her personal one. But as she slipped further and further into a spider hole of longing for her would-be suicide bomber, Carrie became dangerously unbalanced. Not because she was off her meds, but because her leaky heart undid her estimable brain. Sure, Carrie was a lioness for her love, but, if you can see through the fairy dust, she was also wildly incompetent. After everything that happened last year, my reaction to seeing her empowered by the government to authorize drone strikes isn’t to raise my eyebrows in curiosity, it’s to slap my forehead in disbelief. Carrie’s recent actions were treasonous at best, horrific at worst. I don’t need utter plausibility in my spy shows, but I do need a smidge of logic. In any world other than Homeland’s, Carrie Mathison isn’t fit to manage a White Castle, let alone a CIA outpost in South Asia.
I admire the way Gansa and his writers have resisted the urge to sand Carrie’s edges into someone else’s vague idea of “likability.” But even the anti-est of cable’s antiheroes have something about them that is compelling: an unparalleled talent, an undeniable spark or wit. In Season 4 of Homeland, Carrie isn’t merely prickly or strong-willed. Through a combination of behavior and performance, she comes very close to being loathsome: abusing friends and family, abandoning her own child,4 and, in the second hour of Sunday’s premiere, doing something so over-the-top awful that I have to imagine some viewers will cut the cord with the show right then and there.
Carrie’s unpleasantness is a particular problem for a series now constructed expressly around her. And it does no favors to Claire Danes, as Carrie’s truculence plays to the weakest parts of the actress’s skill set. When Carrie is confronted with what appears to be perfectly reasonable dissent, Danes rolls her eyes and snorts like a wronged teenager. When everyone falls in line to do her bidding, they don’t look like inspired troops, they look like saps. Tony Soprano was a charismatic monster, but I loved watching him work. Increasingly, seeing Carrie Mathison do her thing only makes me cringe. As the tormented Quinn, Rupert Friend has some of the juiciest material in the first three episodes. (I could watch him butt heads — almost literally — with F. Murray Abraham’s slithery Dar Adal all day.) Yet far too quickly, even his struggles are bulldozed by the inexplicable allure of Special Agent Mathison. “Carrie, here’s the thing,” Quinn says in Sunday’s episode. “It’s not about you.” Except it is. It always is.
The intense serialization of contemporary TV is generally celebrated as a good thing. The intricacy and depth possible only through long-form storytelling is perhaps the greatest advantage television has over other forms of entertainment, a key reason you read articles like this, and why I’m paid to write them. Yet watching Homeland attempt to take flight in its fourth season, only to be dragged down by the heavy albatross of the past three, makes me wish there were a different way.
There’s a desire to think of a TV series as a train moving along a carefully constructed track. The better comparison is actually a dinner table: Every year, plates are cleared and new food is fired, but the stains, crumbs, and, quite often, the indigestion linger. We hold out hope for improvement even as the dirty dishes pile up around us. Only on television is it possible to be fed up with something and still hunger for more. So I wonder: Would Homeland’s worthy new narrative, about the inevitable blowback of remote-control war, have been better served with the same cast playing all-new characters? American Horror Story and, soon, the second seasons of True Detective and Fargo want to accustom us to the idea of an anthology series that, year after year, uses different toys to play in the same sandbox. I have to imagine that somewhere there’s an alternate universe in which Showtime is debuting a drama titled Homeland: Collateral with Claire Danes as Kelly McPherson and the first three hours are filling me with hope and anticipation, not a slowly curdling sense of disappointment and decay. But here in the real world, it’s not possible to hit reset, to undo the damage done. It pains me to say it, but you can’t go Homeland again.