For many of us who fell in love with “Homeland” and its perfectly calculated ambiguities when it premiered in 2011, the deterioration of the show in seasons two and three was a bitter pill. The more the writers romanticized Carrie’s affair with Brody, and the more the plot twists made no sense, the more betrayed we felt. On Sunday nights, as the show took ever sillier turns, we put on our Dana scowlfaces, too numb with disappointment for our Carrie cryfaces.
It’s no fun when a great show gradually peters out after a few seasons, gliding, for example, from the early years of “The X-Files” to the somewhat ignominious final third. But it’s more acutely annoying when a great show goes bust immediately after only a season or two, as if the writers and producers had lost their minds over the initial success. I never expected to recover much real hope for “Homeland” once we were asked to believe Carrie and Saul had planned to have her put in a mental hospital, so I lowered my expectations and accepted the mediocrity.
But wait: On Sunday at 9, “Homeland” returns for season four with a two-episode premiere, and I do believe the Showtime drama has markedly improved. Indeed, “Homeland” has found a smart and natural way out of the hole it dug for itself. By the time I finished the third episode sent for review, I felt a flush of forgiveness and a willingness to get back on the train. Will the show return to its initial excellence? I doubt it. But the rebooted “Homeland” promises to be an engaging, streamlined CIA thriller with a few big ideas about America and the war on terrorism.
First of all (small spoilers ahead), the broody Brody brood is out of the picture, and that’s a good thing. There just weren’t any new places to go with Jessica, Dana, and, um, the other kid, particularly with Brody himself gone. Months have passed, and Carrie is now the station chief in Kabul, where, in the opening of the premiere, she authorizes the bombing of a Taliban leader based on intel from the usually dependable agent Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll). We’re quickly dropped into this dramatic new scenario, with no big wrap-ups regarding the Brodys. They’re gone and their melodrama is forgotten, as the bombing accidentally (or not) takes out 40 civilians at a wedding and Carrie is in a new mess.
Secondly, Carrie is more Carrie than ever. The writers are no longer making her into a lovesick puppy, and, thankfully, they do not try to turn her into a doting mother. She had Brody’s baby, but the girl, Franny, lives with Carrie’s sister back in the States, and Carrie, back on her meds, likes it that way. When she’s with Franny, she has no twinges of maternal connection. “I know now what these war zone postings are all about,” her increasingly resentful sister says to her. “Making sure there’s no place for your daughter there.” Carrie remains a typhoon of self-righteousness and intelligence, one of the most single-minded and emotionally armored female characters on TV.
After Carrie authorizes the bombing, she watches it with her crew. The target explodes, and she is unfazed, with an expression of mild distaste that most closely resembles a burp. She represents the impersonality of today’s warfare, the detachment that drones in particular can engender. On her birthday cake, her crew calls her “The Drone Queen.” At the same time, you can feel her suppressing an emotional response to the deaths she may have played a role in. In an effective little scene after the bombing, we see her at home putting in a mouth guard, inserting earplugs, and donning an eye mask to go to sleep, suiting up to keep the demons at bay.
On a fast-paced series like “Homeland,” slow scenes such as Carrie preparing for bed are a gift. They give us a sense of the reality of the characters, what emerges when, after a while, their defenses relax and their masks come off.
Thirdly, the writers have significantly beefed up Peter Quinn’s part in the drama. We see more of him than we see of Saul in the first three episodes. I won’t say much about what he is going through, except that he doesn’t fend off the guilt and torment as successfully as Carrie. He’s not as good at “checking names off a kill list for a living,” as he puts it. Finally, actor Rupert Friend has an opportunity to stretch and open up Quinn’s character. He, too, gets a few slow scenes, so he can let Quinn’s hidden uneasiness rise to the surface.
Will “Homeland” continue on the road to recovery as the season unfolds? Is the show really back? I’m thinking yes.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.