Carrie Mathison has always been a contentious character. As played to iconic effect by Claire Danes, the bipolar CIA Agent has divided fans from the get go. There are those who see her as a relentless pursuer of personal patriotism and others who see only a manic control freak with heedless decision-making skills. Her relationship with returning POW Nicolas Brody drove the show through its first three thrilling seasons, and simultaneously pushed its protagonist to the brink. Carrie has never been a full-fledged anti-hero like Walter White or Don Draper. She’s eccentric, sure, but driven to madness rather than deriving it from within. She’s always had a chance at happiness, but her profession gets in the way.
Viewers recognized as much throughout the first two seasons, and, some, albeit blindly, into the third. Fans were so taken aback by last year’s heart-wrenching finale, many suspected Brody to somehow survive his public hanging and return for Season 4. He has not, nor will he. “Homeland” is now a one-woman show, and while there’s no doubt the two-time Emmy-winning Danes can anchor an hour of drama on her own, it’s less certain after watching Season 4’s first three episodes Carrie can do the same.
Showrunner Alex Gansa, who also wrote season premiere “The Drone Queen,” has made plenty of changes heading into a new season and, arguably, a new series. Carrie is working in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, ordering enough drone strikes to her earn her the aforementioned episode title as a nickname. Notably, she’s working with a completely new team: Not only is Brody gone, but Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Quinn (Rupert Friend) are both elsewhere, handling their own projects. Instead, she’s got Sandy, the Islamabad station chief (played by “House of Cards” veteran Corey Stoll) who’s been feeding her intel on targets from a mysterious contact no one else knows.
Problems arise quickly, but not as quickly or even as noticeably as in seasons prior. Season 4, or as it should be called, “The New Homeland,” is actually a much more business-like approach to the spy thriller. Very little sneaking, lying and lurking is done through the first three episodes, with attention instead being paid to establishing a plot that seems to reflect the broader world around us. Frankly, it’s slow — a pace unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen the first two seasons. A new conspiracy is being hatched, and this one is more firmly invested in analyzing the effectiveness of Homeland Security in 2014.
It’s an intriguing question and one the show surely meant to tackle before getting caught up in the Carrie/Brody relationship saga: “This far removed from 9/11, what is the purpose of our 9/11 response agency?” “Homeland” has managed to briefly touch on its titular inspiration at times, mostly in passing, but Season 4 appears committed to coming up with an answer, even if it’s not the answer you’d immediately suspect.
Two perspectives are embodied by the two new leads of “Homeland”: one, illustrated by Quinn, shows a man beaten down by too many murders and too many innocents taken out for “the greater good.” He becomes convinced the ends do not justify the means, implicitly arguing America has gone too far in their role as global policemen. The repercussions for the agency’s actions grow exponentially larger as this alternative line of thinking creates more and more problems, and thus keeps the “kill list” growing.
This other way of thinking is brought out by Carrie, who now believes more firmly than ever in what she’s doing, even though she does things for the wrong reasons. The “Homeland” writers have twisted Carrie into someone who is almost unrecognizable to the loose cannon of old. She’s more than a cog in the machine — she’s its engine. Gansa’s bravest decision wasn’t killing off Carrie’s co-star, but taking Carrie to an even darker, almost inhuman place in Season 4.
Carrie was always a bit crazy — both certifiably and romantically, often making conscious choices to prove a point with much greater risks than rewards. Now, she’s been pushed to an extreme, placing herself above all others and purposefully distancing herself from the elements in her life that kept her connected. She’s lost Brody. She doesn’t return calls from Saul. She even refuses to engage with her own child — but is it that she won’t engage or that she can’t? The first three episodes certainly point to the former, making it hard to root for Carrie whether you’ve been an apologist or a hater, even if the question is another one worth properly exploring.
Yet the rest of “The New Homeland” certainly doesn’t translate to “better TV.” Without a compassionate protagonist to latch onto, everything else seems adrift. We’re waiting for something to happen, and, until it does, all we can talk about are big ideas. Here’s hoping Carrie gets one soon.