'Homeland' Takes Baby Steps Toward a Creative Comeback

The last few episodes of 'Homeland' hint that it may be recovering from a terrible third season and a shaky start to the fourth — a turnaround that would be good for television
Jim Fiscus/SHOWTIME

This column contains spoilers for season four of Homeland.

I’m not quite ready to say that Showtime’s Homeland is back — it still has quite a bit of creative damage to repair since most of season two was bad and season three was heinously bad — but season four has turned in a few excellent episodes in a row that warrant watching.

I find that encouraging, though the start to season four was more bungled and reflective of the past. Still, a good comeback story on television is always worth keeping an eye on and Homeland seems to have regained some focus of late.

Much of this has to do with the writers getting Saul (Mandy Patinkin) more actively involved in the plot and — cross your fingers — moved away from the Crazy Carrie plotline just enough to bring action and purpose back to the struggling series. Patinkin is a great actor and has always been the ballast that Homeland so desperately needs after careening off the rails in seasons two and three (which, quite honestly, ended any desire on my part to waste precious time watching it or writing about it).

Season four also started off dubiously, having to deal with the ridiculous, ill-advised and poorly handled Brody Baby storyline. Carrie (Claire Danes) as a more aggressively dangerous strategist was, in contrast, a creative decision that has been bearing fruit not only because it can be seen as an extension of American military excess but also allows the character to be both good at her job and conflicted by her own actions.

The Quinn (Rupert Friend) storyline of burnout and doubt had some shelf life and was intriguing while it was happening, but he’s come around a little too quickly in recent episodes (a trap the writers have a tendency to step in repeatedly — even Carrie seems to have come away from her combo of necessary meds and tainted meds a little too bright eyed, but I’m willing to look the other way if the show keeps things moving rather than lingering on such fruitless exploration).

Similarly, Carrie’s dalliance with Aayan (Suraj Sharma) seemed recklessly unbelievable but had some minor elements (the non-terrorist Pakistani experience) that, while not offsetting the Carrie/Aayan problem, made it more tolerable. Of the first eight episodes (the ninth airs on Sunday), the first four suffered from the recurring Homeland problem of wanting to start possibly interesting storylines but then not sticking with them long enough, or letting them become pointless or a drag on the bigger picture (Quinn’s burnout; Quinn with his female landlord; Dar Adal with Quinn or Saul; Corey Stoll’s one-episode appearance; the burgeoning role of Fara (Nazanin Boniadi), etc.).

But slowly, in the last four — especially the last three — episodes, Homeland has regained some focus and drive. If you take away Quinn's and Carrie’s personal issues they are then free to be effective CIA agents — precisely what makes Homeland intriguing. Put Saul into the main story and all of a sudden sparks start to come off of each episode. A functioning trio of agents/players and an emphasis on terrorism over distracting, often ridiculous personal asides, makes for a far better Homeland — one that at least gives the impression that it’s figuring out how to save itself.

I know that the fugue state appearance of Damian Lewis thrilled many fans, but it was mostly manipulative — dramatic chicanery if you will — and it had the unintended effect (on me at least) of wishing season two and thus the entire trajectory of Homeland had gone in another direction so that it could have kept Lewis in play. But those cards have been dealt and played. Carrie by herself — either being Crazy Carrie or Terrible Mother Carrie — can not sustain Homeland. That’s why getting Quinn back together and Carrie more focused and Saul into the loop has been an uplifting creative experience.

Normally I wouldn’t have even bothered checking back in on any series that goes so far off the rails (see: Anarchy, Sons Of) — in this competitive environment, second chances are hard enough to get, but third and fourth chances are unwarranted. And yet, Homeland was truly great in season one. And fans who were disappointed in season three have been very vocal about the series turning itself around (plus there are examples, like The Shield, where full recoveries have happened).

I don’t think Homeland is anywhere near that yet — it would have to really nail the final four episodes plus set up a believable and intriguing fifth season storyline to achieve that.

But it’s also not out of the question. Rehabilitating itself would be a good thing for Homeland, for Showtime and for television. Let’s see if this comeback can indeed come all the way back.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine

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