[This is a review of Homeland season 1, episodes 1 & 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
Whether you want to call it a reboot, a restructuring, or a restart, the Homeland of season 4 is, from the very early going, a much more refined and well-structured affair than what viewers were treated to in season 3.
And that is definitely a good thing. For the last season-and-a-half (more depending on how compelling you found the cat and mouse between Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody in the early part of season 2), the series has felt like it was fighting with itself as to what kind of show it ought to be – a paranoid thriller playing off present-day concerns of domestic terrorism, or a love story between two of the most misguided and complicated individuals to ever find themselves embroiled in a global terror plot.
Very early on in 'The Drone Queen' – in fact, through almost the entire episode – there is a notable dearth of the Brody clan. There is no mention of Nicholas, Jessica, Dana, or the already barely mentioned Chris, and the show feels lighter and more nimble because of it. That's a hard thing to do when the opening shot is of your troubled protagonist negotiating with her security for a leisurely, late-night stroll through downtown Kabul, and yet Homeland manages to pull it off without drawing too much attention to its plainly obvious nonchalance. Much like in its first season, the show seems content to let key silences handle the talking.
That silence is far more versatile than it might be given credit for, though. At first glance, the lack of Brody's brood makes for an oddly effective defining characteristic, which, in turn, helps to insulate the episode – right through to the second one premiering on the same night – from the question of: Without Nicholas Brody, what is the defining characteristic of Homeland?
The answer: Who knows? But at least it isn't the overwhelming sense that the main crux of the plot is played out or otherwise no longer working. And with that, Homeland begins something of a grand experiment to discover whether or not it can reclaim its status as one of cable television's most prestigious dramas by allowing itself to take on a new direction and rediscover itself at the same time as the audience.
In that sense, Showtime made the right decision in premiering season 4 with back-to-back episodes. What would have been a one-sided affair of the two parts of Carrie's life is now made whole after the end of episode 2, 'Trylon & Perisphere.' If 'The Drone Queen' is Carrie as Homeland always wanted her to be – i.e., smart, decisive, and clinical to the point of being cold – then episode 2 is the other half, a demonstration of the emotional imbalance that helped make her an interesting paradox, a character of multitudes, and possibly dictated too many of her actions over the last two seasons.
The two episodes work in tandem to establish some of the new conventions that will be at play, while reinstating familiar ones – just to declare that Alex Gansa and the rest of the writers haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, Gansa and his writers establish how, with a complicated, sometimes difficult protagonist like Carrie, the normally benign combination of baby and bathwater is rendered surprisingly volatile.
It seems like transitioning from a chaotic event in Islamabad to the domestic strife of Carrie's otherwise forgotten daughter and sister in Washington D.C (which, sadly, no longer includes the late, great James Rebhorn as Frank Mathison) might be difficult, but like each episode, the differing locales are compelling in their own unique way.
The death of a U.S. station chief played by Corey Stoll (the real, proudly bald, Corey Stoll, mind you) - who was dragged from an SUV and beaten to death in a crowd of civilians angered by his role in a bombing that hit a wedding party - helps Homeland gets its feet wet with a persuasive central mystery around Stoll's character.
But it also attempts to show the impact of America's drone strikes through the eyes of one of its unintended victims. In this case, a young medical student and relative of the targeted terrorist named Ayaan Rahim (Surah Sharma), who becomes the face of propaganda via social media. The sentiment is later spelled out when Stoll's boss, Martha Boyd (played by Laila Robins), mentions how many people are on the "kill list" today, as opposed to just after 9/11.
Yes it's true, the strike that kicks things off is not a drone strike, but the way in which Stoll's Sandy Bachman splits hairs over the attack and its fallout by stating such helps to underline the much larger problem of civilian casualties and poorly vetted intelligence that led to such a massive misstep.
By the time the two-hour premiere has reestablished familiar characters like Saul, Lockhart, and Peter Quinn, Homeland is off to a convincing start – and that's even before Carrie blackmails Lockhart for the Islamabad station chief position at Bachman's funeral. The fact that Carrie makes her move at the end of episode 2 after spending the day with the daughter she barely knows and yet holds on to, almost as a memento of the man she loved, says a great deal about what kind of war is being waged inside the mind of Carrie Mathison, and why she would choose to head toward conflict to avoid the conflict of her private life.
Like Saul and Peter, Carrie finds herself unhappy in comfort (or potential comfort, since they never stay in one place long enough to technically settle in). And as the series continues to grow into whatever it will become, perhaps the restlessness of its characters will keep it from settling on any one thing too quickly.
Homeland continues next Sunday with 'Shalwar Kameez' @9pm on Showtime.