It’s not easy being Carrie Mathison. Not only is she faced with catching and killing terrorists while dealing with her bipolar disorder, but she also has the worst luck. Really just the worst. In the fourth season finale, she’s right when she repeatedly insists that she has a lot to deal with right now — She’s still reeling from the “mindfuck” of Islamabad, her father is being put to rest, her mother has just shown up after abandoning the family 15 years ago, Quinn has finally makes a move on her, and she cares about raising her daughter now. Our girl needs a minute.
I don’t think we can ever win with Homeland, and we need to accept that. There will always be a frustrating polarity present, because it has always been there and it seems content to stay there. The series gives in to its best and worst tendencies on a weekly basis, thrilling in one scene with refreshing ease and then backpedalling in the next. It is a careful mediation on modern war, but it is also the 24-esque twisty action show. Sometimes, that binary opposition is entertaining and even beneficial, but other times—like this episode—it just feels disappointing.
Homeland sometimes feels like two (or more) different shows at once. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it bites down hard on both its best and its worst tendencies within the same episode, and it can make one uneasy. But until the last couple of scenes this week, Homeland is a slow burn master-stroke of tension and emotional power. Let’s talk about that first.
Despite whatever the writers may think, the best relationship on the show by far has always been that of Carrie and Saul. The show has wisely been playing up that connection despite the two being separated. When Carrie made the (botched) decision to bomb Saul and Haqqani, everyone thought she was crazy, but we know Saul would have understood her choice and perhaps even encouraged it. Her betrayal of his trust last week felt tangible in its comprehensive manipulation. These two both seem exhausted by what this war has done to them and as she says to him in this episode’s best moment, “No more dying.”
After a few uneven weeks, Homeland is back in top form. This show always works best when it’s deeply in spy mode, tense and forcing impossible decisions. This episode is also unpredictable in a way it hasn’t been. Saul’s escape is gripping and the position it leaves Carrie in is not only a perfect moment of frustration and heartbreak, but it also seemingly breaks the bond between the two. Her betrayal is not something that Saul will easily forgive (“Fuck you, Carrie! You goddamn lied!”).
There was a moment during this episode where I questioned whether or not I could continue watching this show. It came at the end, when we were treated to a surprise appearance by Damian Lewis. That’s right, Brody was briefly back, and though I knew better, it still seemed conceivable that he was actually there and not a figment of Carrie’s imagination. She had already thought the guy in the hospital had been Quinn, but it still seemed plausible that Homeland would bring Brody back because it didn’t know what else to do and for the headlines on Monday morning (it’s getting those anyway, of course).
What are we going to do with you, Carrie Mathison? In a season that still feels like it’s waiting to kick into gear six episodes in, the events of “From A to B and Back Again” feel overly telegraphed in a way that Homeland’s writers usually manage to avoid. It shows the seams in the season as a whole, which has been constructed in a manner that just feels wrong, and frustrating. Enveloped in melodrama and stupid decisions, Homeland is falling way off track.
“I’m a spy. I know shit.”
That line, spoken by John Redmond, is funny in the moment, but begins to feel ironic by the end of the episode. Practically everyone is off their game this week, with an abundance of questionable decisions leading to Saul getting kidnapped. By this point, we’ve spent plenty of time with Carrie, Saul, Quinn, even Fara. We know what they can do, we know how good they are at their jobs…except when the writers need them to be stupid. It all feels overly telegraphed, to the point where these uncharacteristic decisions not only frustrate on a plot level, but a character one too. It’s reminiscent of how a show like Family Guy treats its characters and its continuity, which is an unfortunate comparison to make with a high profile prestige drama.
There are several reminders in this episode about how good Carrie is at her job, as if the writers are making sure we have the right perspective on her character heading into the episode’s final scene. Fara tells Quinn when he arrives, “I don’t know how she finds time to sleep.” Later, the guy John Redmond had tailing Carrie last episode (and failing) tells John, simply, “She’s good.” Considering the fact that we’ve seen Carrie often at her worst, it is valuable to remember what a good agent she is. Which brings us to that final scene.
Is Homeland a show about romance? Put another way, is romance central to what it is trying to say about war, intelligence, bureaucracy? After the Carrie/Brody romance was present through three seasons of the show, there were undoubtedly many that hoped the show would get back to basics with Brody gone. They looked forward to Carrie moving to Pakistan, letting her baby and its father fade into the past, taking control of her new station and hunting down bad guys. That stuff is happening, but we also seem as if we may be heading towards a Carrie/Quinn romance, and it’s unclear if that’s a good thing.
The opening minutes of Homeland’s fourth season, designed to disorient and excite, throws us into Carrie’s new world as the CIA station chief in Kabul. This double feature premiere hits the ground running as we watch how Carrie and her team make a decision that looks as if it will have reverberations throughout the rest of the season. Welcome back, Homeland is saying, and let us get “back to basics”.
Officially two-thirds through its current season, Homeland is pretty much back to where it was before a spiraling second season finish: some great espionage and character beats here and there, some questionable plotlines on the table and a whole lot of confidence that the story it is telling is something viewers are invested in seeing unfold. Of course, some viewers are not interested. Others have checked out completely. But for those who took the third episode from this season, “Tower of David,” with restrained optimism, maybe things are on the right track to getting paid off. It’s less of a stretch to convince us that Brody still belongs on this show than, say, to convince us that The Governor still belongs on The Walking Dead. And even though neither is particularly convincing given that each series can stand up without these characters, it’s at least interesting to see how Brody is being reintegrated and why. When Saul comes face-to-face with the man at the end of “A Red Wheelbarrow,” it’s less shocking and/or affecting than it probably should be. That said, the scene works on the level that Saul is owning up to his conceived mistakes and putting Carrie through hell, which adds more color to Saul in a season that has revolved around him.
After a mostly averse critical reaction to last week’s “Game On,” Homeland returns this week with a more recognizable entry in the series that looks and feels like it could have come from the earlier version of this series that viewers enjoyed for the first season and a half. There is the traditional espionage sequence – the Yoga Play that gives the episode its title – accompanying some smoke and mirrors fare surrounding our big bad (Javadi). Even though those familiar Homeland trappings are there, though, they mostly fall short because of how well the series has done this kind of stuff in the past.
With the return of Brody to Homeland, there’s a lot at stake without even addressing how effective his incorporation into “Tower of David” is. If you look elsewhere on TV, you’ll find another series that begins its new season dealing with the temporary absence of an important character – The Governor on The Walking Dead. In both circumstances, these characters were used well last year at certain points, but were also used rather poorly at other points, culminating in season finale departures that raised a lot of questions (such as “Do we buy into this whole Carrie/Brody relationship?” and “Is Brody even a necessary part of this series? Are any of the Brody family members?” and “Is there any point in letting the The Governor live?” and “Was there a point in building up all that conflict between Woodbury and the prison if it was going to remain unresolved?”).
All’s well in the world of Homeland: Dana and Jessica are spending quality mother-daughter time with each other, Carrie and Saul share drinks and stories about the good ol’ days as they effortlessly run the short-handed CIA and Peter Quinn skips around Langley with a smile on his face singing Christmas tunes year-round. This is the feel-good season to balance out all the horrific things going on elsewhere in the land of television. Wait, what?