'Homeland' Season 4: TV Review

Homeland Season 4 Burkas - H 2014

Homeland Season 4 Burkas - H 2014

The series is back in leaner, smarter, more action-packed form

The polarizing series starring Claire Danes as a mentally unstable CIA officer is back for a fourth season, sans Damian Lewis' Brody

One imagines that soon after dispatching Damian Lewis’ grim, grody Brody last season, the producers of Homeland looked at each other and said, “Now whatta we do? Carrie’s preggers. Saul’s at the wailing wall he calls his marriage. And according to Twitter, if we bring back Dana for any more sullen temper-tantrum scenes, our offices are going to be degraded and destroyed quicker than an al Qaeda compound."

And so the show sacrificed the magnificent Morena Baccarin (who played Brody’s wife, Jessica) at the altar of expediency and diverted its attention back toward the source of the show’s original inspiration: the haunted gaze of Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison, the ravaged soul of Homeland.

The necessity of paring things down to essentials has given the show a new, sleeker and sharper sense of purpose. The fourth season, which premieres with back-to-back hourlong episodes on Oct. 5, reminds us that it’s Carrie, the CIA intelligence officer, her mind clouded by brilliance, confusion and Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” who’s the cracked heart of this drama — the person who embodies the essence of Homeland’s view of spycraft in the 21st century: a schizo, manic, ultimately untrustworthy enterprise.

It’s not giving anything away to say that, post-Brody and post-pregnancy, Carrie has plunged back into her work with a fervor and dedication that leaves little time to experience the joys of motherhood. Her poor kid is saddled with one of the more dramatically un-maternal mothers in recent pop culture, and jolly good for Homeland for resisting the impulse to smooth Carrie's rough edges by having her suddenly become uncharacteristically nurturing.

Instead, she frowns uncomprehendingly at the mewling tot, and the baby is left, in the season’s early hours at least, in the capable hands of her sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves, who really steps up and fills much of the void left in the Mathison homefront after the startlingly abrupt death this past March of the superb actor James Rebhorn, who played Carrie’s dad). Danes does a fine job of conveying Carrie’s simultaneous guilt and lack of guilt regarding the care and tending of her child.

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I can imagine the producers months ago watching Fox News and plotting out season four as a kind of reverse-Benghazi riff: What would happen if an American embassy wasn’t caught by surprise by terrorists, but instead was presumptively pessimistic about the violence that might occur? What if the United States is shown to be at least partially responsible for the hellfire that rains down upon it, in this case in the streets of Islamabad, Pakistan? The most audacious aspect of this new season of Homeland is that it hinges on a big mistake Carrie and a couple of colleagues make in the very first hour. The next two or three episodes, at minimum, are closely concerned with the literal blowback from that miscalculation.

Among those in the line of fire are Rupert Friend’s Quinn, an agent as inwardly tortured as he is adept at torturing others, as well as a new figure, a Pakistan station chief with lots of secrets, played by the suddenly, happily ubiquitous Corey Stoll.

Homeland also finds new ways to bring Many Patinkin’s Saul and F. Murray Abraham’s Dar Adal back into both Carrie’s life and the corridors of Washington power. And along the way, we are reintroduced to Tracy Letts’ peerlessly weasely CIA director, Andrew Lockhart, and we meet an American intelligence officer in Pakistan so cynical, so seedy, he’d make the ghost of Graham Greene beg John le Carre to slit his wrists. He’s played with malicious moroseness by Michael O’Keefe.

It looks as though one of Homeland’s bigger risks this season is going to pay off: the introduction of a reluctant terrorist-in-the-making, a Pakistani medical student named Ayaan Ibrahim played by Life of Pi lead Suraj Sharma. The trick with a character like this is to balance the sympathy a viewer might feel for the smart young man with an awareness that at some stage, perhaps quite soon, he could become a threat to our protagonists. The goal of Carrie and company, therefore, is to turn him for the U.S.’ purposes, thus adding a new layer of moral complexity to this enterprise.

In the three episodes made available to critics so far, Carrie seems to have her bipolar disorder under control, although by what method and for how long is, as always, an implicit tension Danes is able to convey with great and constant subtlety. My guess is that the producers want to move away from that subject area, however, to make Carrie a fully active participant in the revved-up action of the show.

If you’d told me the producers of Homeland could improve the series in its fourth season by embracing their 24 roots, I’d have laughed you off with the kind of sharp, bitter bark Jack Bauer uses when someone suggests he slow things down a little. But for the current version of Homeland, action scenes rapidly intercut with political ruthlessness looks to be exactly what the show needs to sustain its worthiness.