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Did you stop watching Homeland? Now is the time to start again

Homeland has built its fourth season resurgence atop a damning indictment of the US security state.
Homeland has built its fourth season resurgence atop a damning indictment of the US security state.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

"I suppose Carrie is our characterization of America. When it’s performing well, it’s performing extremely well. And when it goes over the edge, it goes over the edge with both feet and both hands." — Alexander Cary, producer of Homeland, in the Sunday Times

Season four of Homeland is one of the most damning critiques of American foreign policy and the security state US television has ever aired. It started slowly and took its time to wind its many story tendrils around the characters’ ankles, but now, it’s begun tugging at them, and the characters are toppling like so many dominos.

Late in the season’s eighth episode, after she has guided her mentor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), from one terrible situation into another, brilliant but deeply troubled CIA analyst and station chief Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) says to a coworker that there are no good choices left in the "fucked-up" world she and her colleagues have created. The idea that spies have to choose the least bad option out of a panoply of terrible ones is common to espionage fiction, but what makes Homeland so potent this season is the fact that every single choice available to every single character is a grim, awful one. Carrie, for instance, keeps drawing innocents into her sphere, using them up, and then tossing them out, because she doesn't have any other recourse, short of leaving her job entirely. These people aren't just choosing the least bad option — they’re choosing the one that will corrupt their very souls the least.

In other words, the season is about the literal impossibility of goodness, about the fact that even the slightest step down the wrong path is inevitably followed by another and another. You can try to avoid these evils, but evil begets evil in a way that goodness rarely does. It’s a dark, grim vision of the world around us, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the ideas of true love (between Carrie and her now-dead lover, Brody) that drove season three. And it has meant that the show is back to being very, very good, even if it continues to have its warts.

And almost all of that has to do with how it’s treating Carrie.


The series' treatment of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has leaned in to some of the serious issues it has had with the character in the past. (Showtime)

Carrie Mathison = America

Heading into the fourth season, Homeland’s writers had to have known that their biggest hurdle to getting audiences to re-engage with the show would be in getting them to re-engage with Carrie. After the death of Brody (via public execution, no less) at the end of season three, Carrie was the show, in a way she hadn’t entirely been before. Though her relationship with Saul had always been the series' grounding element, now it was pretty much all the show had. Plus, in the third season, Carrie's misadventures tried the patience of many and left them wondering just why the CIA would continue to employ a woman who created far more problems than she solved.

Instead of making Carrie hyper-competent, however, season four has simply leaned into the problem. Carrie is a mess who creates more problems than she solves. She’s frequently brilliant, but she's also plagued by gigantic blind spots. And she uses people for her own ends, often without entirely realizing just what she’s doing, considering herself so much better than the alternative without ever really interrogating that idea. And if you don’t like that, the show argues, then you probably have gigantic problems with the American security apparatus.

It’s an incredibly canny move, and it’s resulted in a revitalization of the series’ storytelling, to say nothing of the character of Carrie. Carrie might be an unthinking, unfeeling monster at times, and she might keep going back to the same bag of tricks and expecting them to work, even as others find them incredibly difficult to stomach. But she’s a product of her country, of the system that produced her. Indeed, she might be its only product — a hollowed out operative who clings to whatever moral justifications she can gin up in whatever situation she finds herself.

What’s been interesting is both how clearly the show draws these parallels between Carrie and the country she represents and how much the geopolitical world of the show has shifted under her feet (just as it has in reality). This season of Homeland is largely about negotiated withdrawal, about the idea that the war on terror was a boondoggle of epic proportions, and now all the US can do to salvage its interests is save face by negotiating a drawdown that doesn’t look like a complete surrender.

And it’s done much of this by using Saul.


Saul (Mandy Patinkin) has become a captive this season — and forced to confront how rarely America lives up to its ideals. (Showtime)

Saul Berenson = America as it imagines itself

Saul Berenson has always been the closest thing Homeland has to a conscience, which means that the season’s most important arc necessarily had to involve his being kidnapped and held for ransom by terrorists intent on locking up rural Pakistan under their control. The series’ willingness to view both sides of the war on terror as featuring factions within factions within factions has gratifyingly returned this year.

On an emotional level, this works, since most of the characters on the show would risk anything for Saul. But on a symbolic, thematic level, it also works — here is the way the US would like to think of itself: captured and held in a hole, used as a way to rub the country’s face in how rarely it lives up to its own ideals. Even Saul was responsible for a drone strike that killed the father and brother of a young boy who is among his captors.

Homeland has always been a series about how political matters — even gigantic geopolitical ones — often boil down to tiny, personal moments that are, at their heart, unpredictable. (That was eventually the only justification for the increasingly strained Carrie/Brody pairing.) But season four has leaned into this more than the show did before, as well. One of the things that made the show so difficult to take in previous seasons — its insistence on boiling everything down to the personal — has made this season perversely fascinating. Saul would rather die than be used as a bargaining chip in the release of several US-held Taliban prisoners. But he is, because of his pre-existing relationship with Carrie — and because of an emotional phone call she has with his wife.

The argument here is that the US has always swaggered about the world stage as if it believes it could do whatever it wanted, without consequence. And for a long while, that might have been true. But in the 2010s, in a world where the Taliban is slowly retaking Afghanistan and may be making inroads into Pakistan, at least in the show’s reality, that’s as far from the truth as it could possibly be.

The US is slowly being pushed out of the picture. It now watches the horrors on the street from high above, via drone coverage, but it is too often powerless to act. The season’s best shot is of Carrie, in a control room, standing before a giant screen displaying Saul being retaken by the enemy, a sea of red triangles swarming one blue circle. It looks sort of like a video game; it also looks like the utter inability to do anything that won’t make the situation even worse.

She, as proxy for her country, might keep turning to things that worked before — as when she sleeps with a young man in his 20s who has connections to a known terrorist, just to get intel — but they turn disastrous much more quickly now. Where her affair with Brody lasted for three seasons, her new young lover is dead by the end of the season’s sixth episode. Carrie, like her country, is running out of time.


The characters spend much of this season watching drone strikes on video screens, far away from the death they are dealing. (Showtime)

Homeland = America as it probably is

It helps that Danes, who's already won two Emmys for this part, has been brilliant almost all season long. She seems to understand how much the season needs to present Carrie as someone worth caring about, but also someone worth being deeply suspicious of, and she finds ways to play up both sides of the character as often as she possibly can. Where earlier seasons over-relied on her ability to cry at the drop of a hat, this season has painted those tears often as crocodile tears. And it’s continually mocked her by reviving the idea of Brody, the man she loved and couldn’t save.

Brody’s ghost haunts the proceedings throughout. His voice pops up at the end of the revamped opening credits, as if providing a whispering reminder of everything Carrie has sacrificed. She has a child with him whom she tries not to think about. She talks about him with her young lover in one of the season’s most potent scenes. And in a devastatingly brutal sequence, she has an encounter with him while under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen — an encounter that results in her realizing just how lost she truly is.

But that sense of loss spreads throughout the story this season, and what’s been so beautiful about it is how it functions less as a literal, realistic interpretation of how US foreign policy operates and more as an intensely symbolic, political opera about these topics. The show feeds you just enough plot verisimilitude to get you to buy whatever character arc it doles out next, and it creates just enough emotional resonance to get you to accept that Carrie wouldn’t just continue to be employed by the CIA but would thrive there. They — all of us — are stuck with her, because she is them. She is us.

As Carrie crouches near Saul near the end of last night’s episode, she asks if he’s really willing to sacrifice the life of a child suicide bomber to salvage his own pride. She points out that the US has been involved in the region for 14 years, with surprisingly little to show for it, tells her adviser that he’s literally advocating the death of a boy because he’s so tired of it all. "And for what?" she asks. For what? Why has all of this been done in his name, in her name, in our names?

It’s been done because we don’t know enough better. Somewhere along the way, somebody took a wrong step. Maybe it was in the decision to wage war in Iraq, instead of finishing out the war in Afghanistan. Maybe it was in the decision to go to war in the Middle East at all. Maybe it was years earlier, when the victors of World War II were carving out empire. Or maybe it came before the US even became a nation. Maybe we’ve all been on this path all of this time.

The point is that the one wrong step became many, and here we are, with nothing to show for it and no way to rectify what went wrong. The world of Homeland is one where moments of goodness are fleeting, because everything else is dragged down into the mud. The greatest thrill of season four has been watching the show remember that.

Homeland airs Sundays on Showtime at 9 p.m. Eastern. It will return Dec. 7 for the final three episodes of the fourth season. You can catch up with it here.

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