David Bloomer/Showtime
By James Poniewozik
December 22, 2014

Spoilers for the season four finale of Homeland below:

On Sunday’s Homeland, Carrie dealt with the aftermath of her father’s death and the re-appearance of her estranged mother–which not only raised old resentments but cast sharp light on her own efforts to adjust to motherhood. In the process, she struggled between her feelings for Quinn and her conviction that she wasn’t suited for a relationship, all of which was complicated by his disappearing on a dangerous mission in Syria. Meanwhile, her partnership with Saul was tested when she learned that he knew about Dar Adal’s deal with the terrorist Haqqani. It was a slow episode, but not a bad season premiere!

The problem, of course, was that it was actually the season finale.

If you can somehow manage to forget that, “Long Time Coming” looks much more promising. Say season four ended at the end of last week’s episode, with Dar Adal driving off alongside Haqqani, who’s cheated death again. Or even earlier, on the dark note of the U.S, cutting off relations with Pakistan after the Taliban massacre. Either might have been a fitting finish for a fourth season of a show that, after a shaky start, managed to rein in its worst silliness and become a focused, tight international thriller again.

If you play that mental game (or if you could travel back in time and tell yourself to simply wait nine months to watch the episode) you could see this as a perfectly good beginning episode for season five. Your mileage may vary on the pairing of Carrie and Quinn–I like them as colleagues but feel like the romance has been forced as a Brody replacement–but it keeps the Taliban conflict in place as the long game, while introducing tension between Carrie and Saul as he attempts his return and raises the legitimate question of when it’s justified to cut deal with the horrible likes of Haqqani.

For that matter, if you took out out a few plot points and used “Long Time Coming” as the premiere of season four, it’s really a better treatment of Carrie’s psychological and personal state than the actual first episodes of season four gave us. Rather than overdramatizing her fragile state by having her contemplate infanticide (on the apparent grounds that Carrie’s mental illness can justify any shocker scene), it shows motherhood as a task she truly has to work at–and shows us why by bringing her in contact with her absentee mom, who turns out to have some of the same runaway tendencies that Carrie does. Claire Danes rage/betrayal in their confrontation is arresting, and the storyline adds to our understanding of her character (all while taking care of the unfortunately necessary business of writing off actor James Rebhorn).

And it does that without assuming it has to constantly OMG us to keep our attention. (Oddly, the uneventfulness of the episode had me tense all the way through–at the point that Carrie’s sister had the baby wave “Bye-bye to Mommy,” I was sure something terrible would happen to both of them, and Carrie would never see Ginger Baby again.)

Maybe that assumption was wrong, since most of the reaction to the finale I saw on social media ranged from bored to pissed off. And sure, it was not exactly an episode for the record books. But given Homeland‘s crazy whiplash history in the past, I’ll actually take it as a somewhat positive sign that it’s showing too much restraint for once.

So I can live with Homeland‘s finale, as long as I pretend it wasn’t the finale. Sometimes success is just a matter of knowing when to stop.

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