At the conclusion of its messy, melodramatic third season, with Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) hanging in the main square and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) clinging, grief-stricken, to a chain-link fence, “Homeland” seemed poised to slink quietly into TV viewers’ memories, a once-great counterterrorism thriller lost in the thicket of love. By the conclusion of the fourth season, on Sunday, Showtime’s aging drama had reinvented itself entirely, emerging as a stark, surprising tale of life during wartime. On the basis of the final five episodes alone, it easily qualifies as the year’s most improved series. Here are the keys to the unexpected resurgence of “Homeland”:
1. Know When to Fold ‘Em
The decision to discard Carrie and Brody’s frenzied romance arrived more than a season too late — the long, slow decline from the series’ finest hour, season two’s miraculous “Q+A,” to “The Star,” the season three finale, pained even the series’ most committed fans — but “Homeland” nonetheless deserves credit for admitting defeat. The fourth season shifts the action to Islamabad, Pakistan, where Carrie comes up against bureaucratic red tape, office politics, and adversaries at the host nation’s Inter-services Intelligence during a short, tumultuous tenure as the CIA’s station chief. The result is a narrative that focuses on the series’ strengths (Carrie’s damaged loyalty, the strategic machinations of the war on terror) and purges its worst excesses (Carrie’s much-mocked crying jags, plotlines that strain credulity).
2. Recruit Diverse Voices, On Screen and Off Despite the frequent comparisons between them, “Homeland” entwines the personal and the political with far more nuance than, say, the cougar-trapped travails of Kim Bauer on “24” (where “Homeland” stalwarts Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon, and Chip Johannessen notably cut their teeth). At least in part, this appears to reflect the diverse array of talent “Homeland” deployed this season. On screen, Nimrat Kaur and Raza Jaffrey offered a compelling glimpse inside the ISI, while Numan Acar lent U.S. target Haissam Haqqani a moral and ideological conviction no less considered than Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson. Off screen, only four of the season’s twelve episodes were directed by white men, with TV pros Charlotte Seiling, Seith Mann, Carl Franklin, and Lesli Linka Glatter all stepping behind the camera. If you’re looking for the root of the series’ multilayered portrait of post-9/11 “blowback,” this distinctive blend of perspectives is it.
3. Spread the Wealth Compared to the impossibly narrow focus on Carrie and Brody that plagued season three, this season assumed global scope even as the action remained more or less tied to the U.S. Embassy, Islamabad’s bustling streets, and the tribal areas along the Afghan border. Introducing a CIA station’s worth of new characters to the familiar faces of Carrie, Saul, and Peter Quinn (an impressive Rupert Friend) prevented any one narrative arc from absorbing all the oxygen. As U.S. ambassador Martha Boyd and her emasculated husband, Dennis, for instance, Laila Robins and Mark Moses unearthed the skeletons buried within a marriage of convenience in the service of a rousing double-agent gambit. Their power struggle is the season’s most engaging subplot, and the reckoning at which they finally arrive — symbolized by a belt tossed on the floor — knocked me senseless.
4. Amplify the Tension If the first half of this season reflected a stripped-down “Homeland,” patiently arranging the elements of a grand conspiracy, the second half (including “There’s Something Else Going On,” which I ranked as the third-best television episode of 2014) applied the manic energy of seasons past to a procession of increasingly grim, gut-wrenching adventures. “Halfway to a Donut” features the arresting, inventive use of a surveillance monitor’s red and blue dots to depict Saul’s recapture by the Taliban; “There’s Something Else Going On” stretches the suspense of a prisoner exchange to an almost unbearable, brilliant hour; and “13 Hours in Islamabad” combines a breathless, 25-minute set piece — the season’s climactic moment — with a mournful, bitter epilogue. Of the year’s television dramas, only “Mad Men” and “The Americans” managed such sustained brilliance.
5. Come Down Soft Smartly, “Homeland” refused to compete with itself, and the final two episodes, “Krieg Nicht Lieb” and “Long Time Coming,” quietly examine the consequences of the war’s return to Carrie’s doorstep. Though not all viewers were satisfied with Sunday’s elegiac conclusion, it seems unlikely that trying to top “There’s Something Else Going On” and “13 Hours in Islamabad” would have resulted in anything but contrived fireworks. Indeed, by returning to the bereavement that ended season three, “Long Time Coming” closed the circle on the series’ walkabout, and established the outlines of next fall’s fifth season. “Homeland” is back, and reuniting never felt so good.