Homeland Season 4 Review: A Triumphant Return To Form

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After two seasons of messy, overwrought spy antics, Homeland is back and—dare I say it?—better than ever.

Homeland can, at times, be the most frustrating show on television. When it’s good, it’s incredible, and when it’s bad, it’s cringe-worthy. The problem is, the show is constantly shifting its focus. Is it a pitch-back, realistic spy drama? A tortured romance story? A high-octane thrill ride? It’s difficult to say. I often think I have this show’s strengths and weaknesses pinned down, but then a new episode will arrive and I’ll have reanalyze everything.

I like the episodes that give a sense of authenticity to the espionage action at-hand, yet I’m able to easily forgive a lapse in plausibility if the plotting and character work remain strong. Still, there’s a limit to the suspension of my disbelief, and there were certainly moments this season that had me rolling my eyes.

It’s hard to give a one sentence explanation of why you like or dislike Homeland when certain elements work in one episode, and then don’t in another. It’s polarizing to say the least, but, at the same time, that’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s hard to think of another show on TV right now that could inspire equal parts praise and outrage.

Take, for example, two of this seasons most shocking episodes “13 Hours in Islamabad” and the finale “Long Time Coming.” A compelling case for and against each episode could be made.

“13 Hours in Islamabad” dropped, as I said in my review, the show’s stellar use of slow-building suspense in favor of big machine gun flare. Still, it’s hard to ignore the parallels between the attack on the embassy and the attack on Benghazi. Terrorism isn’t something that makes logical sense, so when it happens, we’re taken aback at how much it plays out like a disaster movie. While I think, in terms of this season’s overall tone, the first half of the episode felt out of step, it was far from contrived.

Conversely, “Long Time Coming” eschewed all of the season’s cinematic set pieces in favor of some effective, but gradual character drama. I still maintain that this was a fitting end to a season full of traumatic and exhilarating events; a calm-ish regrouping before next year’s storm. Yet, this episode could’ve existed on another show entirely. It lacked the heart-pounding oomph that the season had built up thus far. It’s easy to see why some felt it was too much of a change.

Reading all of this so far, you might think that I disliked this season of Homeland for its immense ambiguity. On the contrary, I think season 4 is the best the show has had to offer in years. In fact, the strong debate over which episodes are good only adds to its quality. The writers have figured out a way to stir just enough controversy with their work so that everyone has a different reason for wanting to watch. Seasons 2 and 3 were almost universally panned, but season 4 is it’s own animal. Some love it, some had their issues with it, but I think it’s safe to say that no one changed the channel.

There are a number of things that this season got right, no matter what your reason is for tuning into the show. The first is the return of a true, gut-wrenching, espionage thriller. Episodes like “Iron in the Fire,” “From A to B and Back Again,” “Redux,” and the marvelous one-two punch of “Halfway to a Donut” and “There’s Something Else Going On” each provided an exciting sense of mystery; a feeling of complete uncertainty as to what would happen next.

“There’s Something Else Going On” is, I think, the episode that did this best. From the moment Carrie steps onto the tarmac without her weapon, my eyes were completely glued to the screen. Then the sense of calm you feel after everything is over is just a ruse, because the worst is yet to come. The pacing is nothing short of brilliant, and all of the episode’s moving parts are put to expert use.

The second thing this season did well is utilizing a strong supporting cast. Suraj Sharma’s Aayan quickly became a powerful voice of innocence in his short, but memorable time onscreen. His character’s struggle to do the right thing was admirable, and his purity in the face of such darkness was heartbreaking. Meanwhile, other players like Laila Robin’s Ambassador Boyd, Tracy Letts’ Senator Lockhart, and Nimrat Kaur’s Tasneem each got chances to shine.

Homeland proved last season that it wasn’t afraid to kill off a major character—although I’m sure the surprise ending of “Redux” had everyone fooled for a few seconds—and this season it kept with its fearless tone. Aayan and Fara aren’t exactly part of the show’s core cast, but they each made such a strong impact that their deaths had a very profound effect.

The third thing that this series excelled at is creating a compelling journey for its lead. With everything going on in Pakistan, I could not stop paying attention to Carrie. While previous seasons have seen her frivolously jump from one plan of action to the next, here she was lazer-focused on her mission. Yet there was a pain and confusion behind her determination that was so interesting to examine, and it wasn’t until the finale’s confrontation with her mother that I fully understood why she was throwing herself so hard into her work. Carrie has always had many layers to her, but this new one is perhaps the most important one of all, as it gave us a sense of clarity.

Of course, it’s hard to talk about Carrie without bringing up Saul and Quinn. The former played an important part in her growth this season, as she realized how much of a fatherly bond he has with her. I thought, for a while, that this was done to pave the way for Saul’s death. Carrie has officially moved out of his shadow and he has nothing new to teach her. Really, though, it was all primed for the moment in the finale when she sees him aligning with Dar Adal. There’s nothing worse than being betrayed by the ones you love.

Quinn is a whole other matter. Homeland wouldn’t be Homeland if there wasn’t some sort of romantic aspect to it. After all, that’s what drew people to the show in the first place. But now that Brody’s gone, Carrie needs someone new to begin a tainted love story with. Not because she needs to have a boyfriend, but because part of this show’s allure is its examination of love and happiness in a state of complete chaos. The way the show has slowly developed their relationship—having it come out in quick bursts in inopportune moments before finally coming to a head in the finale—worked very well. There’s still work to be done in this department, but I’m excited to see where it goes.

Season 4 of Homeland was, without a doubt, a major improvement. Not everything panned out smoothly, but what did worked so impressively well that the minor flaws are easy to forgive. I think this show will always be a divisive one, and that’s okay. As long as it keeps bringing these well-plotted storylines and haunting character portrayals then I’ll keep watching. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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