The following contains spoilers from the Homeland Season 4 premiere
What happened to Homeland? When the show premiered three years ago, critics and fans welcomed its grounded perspective on the War on Terror. It hit all the beats of an old-school thriller while also reflecting the realities of 21st century America.
Then came the second season and any semblance of “realism” went completely out the window. First Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) becomes a Congressman even though he’s secretly working for al Qaeda. Then Carrie Mathison (the always great Claire Danes) convinces him to betray al Qaeda and work for the CIA, even though everyone in the agency knows he tried to kill the Vice President. As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough, the third season saw Carrie having a mental breakdown (which might’ve been fake?), Brody becoming a heroin addict, a series of uninteresting tales involving Brody’s family and culminated in the assassination of a major Iranian intelligence figure.
In 24: Live Another Day, Jack Bauer beheaded a guy with a samurai sword, and that somehow seemed more realistic than Homeland’s third season. It’s no wonder critics turned so sour on the show.
Last night, Showtime aired the first two episodes of Homeland’s fourth season. Thankfully, Brody is still dead after his hanging last season at the hands of the Iranians, which also means his family is no longer on the show (at least in the three episodes I’ve seen so far). This is good news since the Brody family drama was consistently the biggest drag on the show.
The first episode, “Drone Queen,” returns the show to its grounded first season roots. In the opening minutes Carrie orders an air strike on a high-ranking al Qaeda operative based off intelligence gathered by her colleague Sandy Bachman (guest star Corey Stoll). The attack ends up killing an 80 person wedding party, which prompts protests after a video recorded by one of the survivors (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) is released on the web.
The season premiere delves into the gray moral areas those fighting the War on Terror face everyday. Should you trust your intel even if it means putting civilians at risk? How much collateral damage would you trade to kill a dangerous terrorist? It looks like season four will delve into these philosophical questions in more depth than previous seasons.
It also helps that the final ten minutes of “Drone Queen” are as solid as any of the best sequences from season 1. Carrie and Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) try to save Bachman as a gang of angry Pakistanis chase him through the streets of Islamabad. Quinn is forced to shoot the civilians during the rescue attempt to no avail and they watch their comrade get stomped to death ten feet away.
While “Drone Queen” attempts to get back to Homeland’s roots, the second episode of last night’s two-part premiere (“Trylon and Perisphere”) falls into the same traps as last season. Carrie and Quinn return to Washington D.C. to explain the events leading up to Bachman’s death. Back in the US, Carrie must confront her Brody love child she abandoned with her sister while Quinn gets drunk and threatens to leave the Agency (just like he did all of last season).
Homeland is at its worst when trying to expose the personal turmoil of its characters. Why does a show that strives for realism in its portrayal of CIA operations fall back on clichéd melodrama when everyone leaves the office? Would Carrie really consider drowning her child? Would Quinn really beat up two random guys at a diner for no good reason? As good as Danes and Friend are in their roles, they can’t make any of the material interesting. It’s not as bad as the Dana Brody subplots from Season 3 but that’s not saying a whole lot.
Like “Drone Queen,” next Sunday’s episode provides hope that season 4 may offer some redemption. Without giving away any spoilers, Carrie returns to Pakistan (with some old friends tagging along) to investigate Bachman’s death and figure out what went wrong with the air strike. Suraj’s character also becomes more central to the plot and brings another layer of mystery. Is he a normal guy caught in a terrible predicament or is there something sinister lying underneath the surface? My only complaint is the lack of Saul Berenson. Mandy Patinkin is consistently great in the show, and while the next Sunday’s episode implies he’ll be more involved, I wish it had come sooner.
Homeland is at its best when it sticks to the traditional spy beats. The mystery behind the botched air strike is legitimately interesting and provokes more interest than any plot thread since season one.
While it may never reach its season one heights, Homeland’s fourth season could repair the show’s reputation or, at the very least, help us forget last year.
Joseph Misulonas is an intern for Playboy.com. After downing his Ambien with a glass of wine, he can be found tweeting at @jmisulonas.