By James Poniewozik
October 6, 2014

Spoilers for the season 4 premiere of Homeland below:

It was a good thing that Showtime gave Homeland a two-hour season premiere, if maybe not for the reason the network intended. Scheduling two episodes in a row was probably meant to make the series’ return–or relaunch, really, after the death of Nicholas Brody last season–a programming event.

But we ended up with a cautionary tale. We saw, first, Homeland rebooting itself, focusing on its strengths and moving past its craziness and mistakes. But then we saw the show fall right back into its over-the-top habits, finding brand-new mistakes to make.

Had I seen only the first hour, I’d have ended the night guardedly optimistic about Homeland getting another chance to be what it can be at best, a realpolitik thriller about the dangers of pursuing security in a world of real threats and imperfect intelligence. Carrie’s in South Asia, but not in Islamabad–instead, she’s interrogating prisoners and overseeing airstrikes, in including one that, presumably setting up the season’s storyline, takes out a wedding party. (Attended by Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma as Aayan, whom I hope later episodes develop beyond a one-dimensional “moderate Muslim representative” character.)

But that’s not the only party going on! It’s also Carrie’s birthday, which she celebrates Carrie-style–white wine and pills, plus a cake from her colleagues frosted with “The Drone Queen.” Drone strikes and their moral implications are pretty much required subject matter for a Global War on Terror Drama in 2014–see Homeland‘s spiritual parent, 24, which brought them all the way to jolly old London. (That the wedding-party bombing was not actually hit by a drone is a complication, though it’s not clear if there’s any greater significance to that.)

And Carrie Mathison is an especially interesting character through whom to approach drone warfare, whose appeal is that it makes military strikes low-risk (for the striker) but whose critics argue makes it too easy to treat bombing runs like Ender’s Game and detach from the consequences of war. You wouldn’t necessarily put “Carrie Mathison” and “detached” in the same sentence–not after three seasons’ worth of impulsively going rogue out of attachment to Brody. On the other hand, she’s also shown the ability to be cold and all-business when she needs to.

So: has the post-Brody Carrie become a Drone Queen? Is the bombing creating more enemies than it’s killing? How will Saul engineer his way back into the action? And what was Bachman up to that got him such good intel, then got him killed? (Side note: if only Corey Stoll had kept his giant wig from The Strain! He’d still be alive today!) All reasonable premises on which to rebuild Homeland as a cooler, slower international thriller. One hour–so far, so good.

But that second episode: Good Lord, where to start?

Well, you have to begin with the baby and the bathwater. Carrie returns home, seemingly unshaken (unlike Quinn, about whom more in a minute). Until sis hands her her own baby, whom Carrie handles like a live grenade.

It’s an uncomfortable storyline to begin with, since it plays into a history of stories in which a female character who’s tough and forceful in her job must be unwomanned in her personal life. But it at least makes sense for Carrie’s character that she might have a hard time adjusting to parenthood–whether it’s because of the painful memories of Brody, or simply Carrie’s own difficulty making personal connections.

It’s one thing to feel you’re not cut out for parenthood. It’s another thing entirely to have homicidal ideations about drowning your own baby–and then actually start to do it. But that’s exactly where Homeland goes. Which leaves us, essentially, with two ways to see Carrie: either as so damaged and mentally ill that she probably has no business in the field (or anywhere other than receiving immediate care) or as simply despicable.

I know better after three seasons than to get into the “This would/wouldn’t ever happen” game with Homeland. I’m not a psychiatrist. Obviously postpartum depression is a real thing, as is homicidal ideation. But this just feels, once again, like Homeland dropping an emotional bunker-buster bomb where a pinprick strike would have done.

It would have been powerful enough, and a challenging complication of the character, to have Carrie come home and realize she’s not ready to be a hands-on mother, that she needs to be out somewhere running missions and selecting targets, because it’s the only place she can function. (I’d even accept her driving by the old Brody homestead, even if it reawakened my terror that, somehow, the writers will figure out a way to write the Brody family back into the story–Dana as a nanny, maybe?)

But instead Homeland went there–because it always goes there, wherever there is, because it doesn’t trust that we’ll stay involved if it doesn’t, and that hasn’t changed now that Brody’s gone. And this time it feels like one there too far.

Meanwhile, with the once-cold-hearted assassin Quinn, there’s a stark reversal: if Carrie’s having a hard time feeling anything, Quinn is suddenly feeling everything. Here again, that’s a potentially strong enough story, complicated by his striking up a relationship with his apartment manager. I actually thought, at one point, that it’s unusual on TV to have a male lead hook up with a plus-sized love interest, and that it would be very cool for Homeland to simply do that and not make an issue of it.

But again: this is Homeland! So in fact, her size turns out to be more or less the whole point of the subplot; the first time they step out in public, some idiot makes fun of her weight, allowing Quinn’s PTSD rage to come out of him in one cathartic, martial-arts burst. It’s probably meant to make Quinn more sympathetic, but it makes the show itself less so, as it condescendingly makes her weight her single defining characteristic. (“No one ever fought for me before.” Eyeroll.)

I’m being harsh on the show, but I wouldn’t even be continuing to watch Homeland, much less writing this review, if I didn’t feel it could be–and has been–much better. When the show is on target, it’s both a compelling espionage serial and an astute story about the toll that this ugly job takes on the people who do it. The relationship between Saul and Carrie, over three years, has been one of the most compelling on TV. I want to see more of that. I want to see what kind of blowback the wedding-party strike creates on the ground. I want to see how Carrie deals with murderous enemies abroad and cynical bosses at home.

That’s the stuff of a strong, smart, emotionally charged thriller in itself. But I don’t feel like Homeland, even a rebooted version, believes that’s enough. And if it doesn’t, why should I?

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