Homeland recap: season four, episode one – The Drone Queen

The Homeland ‘reboot’ means no Langley, no Brody (of course), a particularly dislikeable Carrie and a new location in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Are you glad to see it back?

“I try to see the big picture, the mission”

Hello! I’ll be taking over from Rebecca Nicholson on Homeland recapping duties this season. I’m looking forward to reading your observations and wild theories, so please do share them in the comments.

When we last saw Carrie Mathison, she was turning the page on the most traumatic chapter of her life. Well, actually she was vandalising the CIA headquarters, but the symbolism of the gesture was pretty clear. That makeshift star, scribbled in marker pen on the organisation’s wall of merit to commemorate the late Nicholas Brody, felt very much like a full stop.

Had we not already known that the show had been renewed for a fourth outing, that final episode of the season might have felt like a coda to the entire series. The show’s loose ends seemed largely tied up, its character arcs resolved: Brody, in death, had gained some small slice of redemption; Carrie had a new role and a sense of closure – though had retained “a part” of Brody in deciding to keep his child; and Saul had finally left the CIA, a place where he felt increasingly conflicted, and which had gone some way towards damaging if not destroying his marriage.

Moreover, there will be many who will feel that the show should have ended with Carrie’s act of impromptu graffiti. Ever since the cat-and-mouse nature of her and Brody’s relationship gave way to a far more basic “doomed romance” plotline, Homeland had felt like a series that was treading water. Those much-criticised creative missteps in seasons two and three – Brody’s endless reversals, grim standalone episodes in Venezuelan high rises, pretty much every storyline featuring Dana (the Kim Bauer of Homeland) – betrayed a show lacking a big picture, desperately throwing anything and everything at the wall in the hope that something would stick. In truth, I’m not sure how many people would have been all that disappointed if the show had called it a day then and there.

Yet here we are, nine months later (six in the show’s universe), with Carrie staring pensively into the half light against a soundtrack of moody, noodling jazz. Yep, Homeland’s still here all right. But it’s a different Homeland to the one before, to the point where some people are suggesting that the show has “rebooted” itself. Gone (for the time being, at least) is Langley, with the show now centred in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gone are Brody’s family, who, let’s be honest, had outstayed their welcome by at least a season. And gone too, of course, is Brody himself. In fact, what’s notable here is the fact that not once is he mentioned by name, as if the show is denying that the character ever existed. The only lingering reference is his and Carrie’s child, unseen in this opening episode, though referenced in a Skype call with Carrie’s sister.

With Brody gone the show’s emotional axis has shifted firmly to Carrie, now a station manager of the American embassy in Kabul after – surprise, surprise – jettisoning a far safer position in Istanbul. Outwardly Carrie remains largely the same – still working too hard, still washing down her pills with booze, still a little in love with danger – but here too there is evidence of a subtle recalibration by the show’s creators. Whatever misgivings Carrie had towards the CIA seem, for the time being at least, to have abated: she now seems firmly on board with “the mission”, something made abundantly clear by the blase way in which she OKs the air strike on an Pakistani farmhouse at the episode’s outset.

That air strike proves to be a messier operation than Carrie and the man who gave her the intel for the attack, Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll, thankfully minus the ridiculous hairpiece he’s been sporting in The Strain), initially assumed. It emerges that, along with the terrorist target, Haissam Haqqani, the strike killed about 40 civilians attending a wedding party. It is an atrocity that the show is happy to linger on, starkly juxtaposing scenes of survivors desperately pawing through the rubble against the relative calm and order of Carrie’s bedtime routine.

Indeed, while Homeland has always exhibited some sense of unease about American foreign involvement, I can’t recall the show ever being quite as damning in its assessments as it is here. Everywhere you turn, there is a character criticising US foreign policy, from Saul – now working in the private sector – denouncing the conflict in Afghanistan as “a one-year war waged 14 times”, to the pilot involved in the air strike calling Carrie and her fellow decision-makers “fucking monsters”. And while in previous series such criticism might have been tempered with a cartoonish villain – the moustache-twirling likes of Abu Nazir and Javadi – this time there doesn’t seem to be one; just a bereaved student, Aayan, wanting to be left alone.

Suraj Sharma as Aayan
Suraj Sharma as Aayan. Photograph: Twentieth Century Fox/Joe Alblas/Showtime

At this point, I’m not entirely sure where the storyline with Aayan is set to go. The obvious route would be for him to be radicalised in some way – as seems to be the case with his roommate, who uploads Aayan’s video of the moments leading up to the attack – though I’m hoping the show can avoid being so clunkingly lazy. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, too, as the creative decisions made in this series opener were largely good ones. I’m pleased that the show has kept hold of the morally murky Senator Lockhart, now head of the CIA, whose introduction was one of the few bright spots of last season. And the world-weary Quinn, now working for the American embassy in Pakistan, has always provided a nice counterbalance to the zeal of Carrie. What’s more, the episode’s climactic sequence, in which Sandy, after being outed as a CIA operative by his source, was dragged off by an angry mob, was genuinely unsettling in a way that Homeland hasn’t managed to be for some time.

My one concern is with Carrie, who has rarely been as dislikeable as she is in this opening hour. It almost feels as if, in attempting to compensate for the loss of Brody, the show has decided to amp up the antihero aspects of her character – the myopia towards her job, the general disinterest towards her family and child, and the unwillingness to accept fault for the drone strike. Carrie has always been a flawed character, but here she feels like a caricature, which is worrying, given that we’re going to be spending a lot more time with her this season.

Notes and observations

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson
Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson. Photograph: Twentieth Century Fox/Joe Alblas/Showtime

• In the US, the first two episodes of the season were shown as a double bill. While I can’t yet speak about the quality of episode two, Channel 4’s decision to show them in consecutive weeks feels like a bit of a misstep. Much of this episode dealt with scene-setting, with some characters – most notably Saul – given very small roles indeed.

• Judging by various characters making pains to emphasise that the attack on the farmhouse was an air strike rather than a drone attack, I’m guessing that distinction will prove crucial in future episodes.

• Also one to keep an eye on: the chemistry between the US ambassador to Pakistan and Quinn. Something’s definitely happened there.

• I fear that Sandy is dead, but I hope that he’s not. Corey Stoll is fantastically good at playing conflicted characters, and would be an excellent full-time addition to the show.

So what did you make of the ‘rebooted’ Homeland? Let us know in the comments below.


Gwilym Mumford

The GuardianTramp

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