A night in Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) nondescript Kabul apartment is a routine affair. After washing down her Ambien with a few glugs of white wine and being chastised over video chat by her sister (Amy Hargreaves) for missing a chance to see her infant daughter, Carrie curls up in bed with earplugs and an eye mask, enveloped by the haze of isolation. The sequence recalls Homeland’s debut season, in which Carrie’s anodyne, whitewashed home reflected the barrenness of her life beyond the confines of “the company.” In the fourth-season premiere she is, as she once was, a lone wolf, closing herself off to all but the surveillance footage, social-media chatter, unconfirmed sources, hunches, and lies that compose the war we’re living through right now. So, too, with “The Drone Queen,” signaling Homeland’s return to its roots as a multivalent story of imperial blowback: a portrait of the “War on Terror” as “Alice in Wonderland,” to quote beleaguered U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Martha Boyd (Laila Robins), sending Carrie through the looking glass once more.
Like the bottle labeled “DRINK ME” and the cake marked “EAT ME” in the opening chapter of Lewis Carroll’s mad fantasy, Carrie’s self-medication acts as the gateway into an increasingly fraught universe. She awakes to find that the airstrike she ordered in Pakistan’s tribal areas the night before, on intelligence from an anonymous source handled by Islamabad station chief, Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll), has leveled a wedding celebration, killing 40 civilians in the process. The episode sees Carrie and a constellation of characters in the United States and South Asia, some familiar and others new, dealing with the repercussions—and, at least for now, situates the narrative arc firmly in the realm of spy thrillers and geopolitical dramas, a heritage of genres that Homeland had long since seemed to relinquish.
Though I remain adamant that the finest episode in the show’s history is the second season’s blistering “Q+A,” in which Carrie’s personal relationship with Nicolas Brody collided with her professional suspicion to spark a pugilistic two-hander as compelling as Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” or Masters of Sex’s “The Fight,” the reset that follows his death in Iran at the end of season three may save Homeland from ignominy. “The Drone Queen” is focused and remarkably temperate, establishing the state of play for a new threat with precise, unfettered strokes. Danes, too, offers a stripped-down Carrie, far removed from her worst histrionics, but nevertheless uneasy in her new role. She practically winces when her colleagues in Kabul present her a birthday cake inscribed with the words “The Drone Queen,” clearly uncomfortable being hemmed in by the video screens, security details, and snap judgments that come with constant attention to the C.I.A.’s endless kill list. The work rarely employs her instinct for the human quotient of any operation, and though she evinces doubt as to the reliability of Bachman’s information, she orders the attack nonetheless.
Indeed, “The Drone Queen” depicts the willful iconoclasts of Homeland dulled by participation in the machinery of war, perhaps as a critique of the ways the United States turned post-9/11 counterterrorism into a perpetual global conflagration, the means and ends of which become more opaque with each passing year. Increasingly aloof C.I.A. operative Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) bristles, for instance, when Carrie repeats the party line that the wedding guests put themselves at risk by associating with the high-value target. “It hasn’t been a 14-year war we’ve been waging,” Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), dissatisfied in his new job at a private security contractor, says in a similar vein. “It’s been a one-year war, 14 times.” In speaking out of turn at an important meeting, Saul courts the displeasure of his wife, Mira (Sarita Choudhury), whose continued commitment to their marriage is predicated on an understanding that her career must be the focus this time around. Yet Saul’s choice words also suggest Homeland’s renewed fidelity to the notion that “terror” and “war,” “hero” and “villain” constitute unstable, even indefinable, categories, blurring and bleeding into each other until the only category left to contain them is “death.” “Fucking monsters, all of you,” an Air Force lieutenant who flew the bombing mission says midway through the episode, but it’s not the member of an Al Qaeda cell he’s addressing. It’s Carrie.
Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma), a university student in Islamabad whose mother and sister are killed in the attack, emerges here as the primary victim of a war reawakened by every new strand of data tossed into our intelligence community’s gaping mouth. Though he survives the blast, he feels “like a ghost,” and its the specter of his radicalization that recaptures the ideological nuance of Homeland’s freshman run. His iPhone video of the bombing turns up on the Internet, posted by an enraged roommate, but as yet it’s unclear how Aayan will be transformed by Carrie’s decision. More important, in the context of “The Drone Queen,” is how seriously the episode approaches his grief—stricken with it on a bus back to the city, trying to forget it by joining his classmates for a study group, bracing against its waves as anyone might, unsure if he’ll float away or be pulled under.
The episode’s climax, which finds Carrie and Quinn unable to save Sandy Bachman from an irate mob after his image is released on television, edges up to Orientalist cliché (something the series has been accused of in the past), but ultimately “The Drone Queen” suggests that the violence must be understood in the context of the mad, mad world the United States itself created. Homeland returns to form by returning to its once-central idea, which is that through the looking glass of drone strikes, “nation building,” the surveillance state, and the “War on Terror,” morality becomes as warped as Carroll’s Wonderland, and even our heroine is culpable. Fittingly enough, “The Drone Queen” ends with Carrie facing the mirror, washing the blood off her cheeks—and, figuratively at least, her hands.
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