Homeland Got Better By Getting Smaller

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A couple weeks ago, when Carrie Mathison–high on the crazy pills slipped her by the weaselly Dennis Boyd–hallucinated herself in the arms of a resurrected Nicholas Brody, I thought: Oh God, please do not let this be real.

I don’t know if this was the reaction that the producers meant me to have, but it sums up my relationship with Homeland after four years. By midseason, it has recovered and remade itself well enough as a compelling intelligence thriller that I don’t need or want it to return to the whiplash-y narratives of the hero-turned-terrorist-turned-congressman-turned-fugitive-turned-junkie-turned-hero. But I’ve also been burned often enough that don’t yet trust it not to.

The opening of the season didn’t look promising. The early episodes focused on Carrie and Quinn’s trauma, as crystallized by having Carrie on the verge of drowning her own baby in the bathtub. As I wrote then, the problem with the scene wasn’t that depressed new mothers never have this impulse, but that it expressed Homeland‘s worst tendencies: 1) not trusting that a character moment was enough in itself without going over the top to shock the audience and 2) using “Carrie is craaaaazy!” as a catchall excuse to do that, whether her behavior was consistent or not.

This time I should have had more faith, because, so far anyway, Homeland has kept both the baby and the bathwater. Those first episodes weren’t so much a continuation of the Brody-era nuttiness as a goodbye to it. No one is still going to mistake Homeland for a documentary, but its run of Pakistan-focused episodes found it going back to its basics, like an arena-rock band going back to play stripped-down club gigs. Here’s what’s worked:

It’s focused on its best relationship. And that’s always been, Brody or no Brody, and whatever comes along down the road, Carrie and Saul. Homeland at best has been an action show about what kind of people it takes to fight covert war for years and what kind of warriors covert war produces. Carrie and Saul have a bond that goes beyond mentor and apprentice, parent and child–they’re just about the only people to know what it’s like to be each other. (The one person who would have understood Carrie’s order for the drone strike on Saul, for instance, was probably Saul.) Putting them on the two sides of Saul’s hostage-taking, showing both their love and hardheaded practicality, has given the show an earned emotional power.

Carrie’s still flawed, but she’s competent again. Too often before, Homeland has satisfied its need for story twists by making Carrie erratic and irresponsible, going rogue over and over with near-disastrous results, until it became hard to believe she would be entrusted with searching for someone’s car keys, much less terrorists. Season 4 Carrie can be ruthless and callous, she can go too far and rationalize it, but we never lose the sense that she knows what she’s doing. When she threatens Dennis in interrogation–“I am authorized to kill US citizens on the battlefield, motherfucker”–she’s terrifying and believable, simultaneously in and out of control. If she makes bad choices, it seems driven less by the need to keep the story exciting then by the fact that, as she says in what may be this season’s motto, there are only bad choices.

It picked interesting enemies. In particular, the decision to focus on the real-world frenemy relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s ISI has been productively subtle. We’ve seen so many ruthless terrorist supergeniuses that they’ve lost their effectiveness; much more interesting are the confounding betrayals of a bureaucratic organization that’s an ally, until it isn’t.

The season is about ideas. That doesn’t just mean that it’s timely, though the focus on drone strikes and their consequences certainly is. But rooting the show in the complicated politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and what 14 years of war has accomplished or not, is much more rich and productive than throwing a toolbox worth of wrenches into the Brody story. Homeland has always been a show about tough choices and realpolitik; what’s changed this year is that it’s started believing that in itself is enough for engaging drama.

I write all this knowing that I have no idea who, or what, or what kind of show, is going to emerge from the smoldering wreckage of Carrie and Saul’s motorcade two weeks from now. My track record with Homeland is that as soon as I decide it’s one thing, it turns into something else. I declared season 2 great just after Carrie’s brutal interrogation of Brody–and then it took the exit to crazytown. I was optimistic about the beginning of season 3, which hopscotched down a trail of absurd twists and manipulations (though it gave Brody a nice sendoff). I didn’t like season 4’s opening, and that was the show’s cue to get better and better.

So I guess you can mark this on your calendar as the first sign that Homeland was about to start to suck again, and I will fully accept the blame.

But for all our sakes, as insurance, I’m not going to get carried away here. It’s easy to get excited when a show makes a turnaround like this, but I wouldn’t call Homeland great. Instead, it’s simply tried to be good, and that’s been the show’s smartest choice of all.

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