The death of Damian Lewis’s Nicolas Brody at the end of Homeland’s third season left the show’s creators free to reboot the saga, and its fans free to hope that, in ditching all the melodrama that had attached itself to the Brody narrative, the series could go back to its smart, post-9/11 spy-procedural roots. In its fourth season, like a John le Carré novel, Homeland once again grants what feels like an insider’s perspective on espionage and the politics behind it, offering up characters whose often shifting or hidden loyalties make it hard to know who to trust and exploring complicated issues that muddy the morality of the decisions made by Carrie (Claire Danes) and her colleagues.
Season four takes on drone strikes and the terrible toll they exact on those who order and execute them, not to mention the survivors of those who are killed, raising the troubling question of who’s to blame when a strike against a known enemy also hits nearby civilians. Back on her meds, Carrie is painfully aware of her own fallibility. At the start of the first episode, she makes a mistake so serious that it takes all her ingenuity and sheer force of will just to convince Lockhart (Tracy Letts) not to sideline her, and it looks like she may spend the rest of the season finding out who set her up and why. When she slips free of her bodyguards this time, it’s not to attempt something as superhuman as singlehandedly extricating Brody from Tehran, as she did last season. Instead, she sneaks off to debrief a couple of allies on a secret mission they’re planning—and that plan doesn’t work, at least initially.
Part of Carrie’s vulnerability comes from the fact that she’s starting over in important ways. Though she stays as far as she can from her new baby, Franny, parking her with her increasingly frustrated sister (Amy Hargreaves), she spends enough time with the child to come face to face with her frightening inadequacy as a mother, a realization that comes to a head in an overcooked bathroom scene that strikes one of the few false notes in the first few episodes of the season. Meanwhile, with Brody dead and her ties with most of her former colleagues on ice, she seems at first to have no friends left, and she works overtime to pull old allies like Fara (Nazanin Boniadi), Max (Maury Sterling), and Quinn (Rupert Friend) back into her orbit. Carrie seems confident and capable as she asserts her control over a recalcitrant new staff and begins to cultivate a new source, but from the wine she gulps down first thing whenever she gets home to her increasing trouble with getting a good night’s sleep, there are reminders everywhere of how easily her competence can crumble.
New characters open up intriguing new avenues to investigate Carrie’s ability to operate effectively. Her would-be source, Aayan (Suraj Sharma), is a Pakistani med school student with a winning combination of innocence and maturity who’s doing his considerable best to keep from getting buried by the C.I.A.-initiated shit storm he finds himself caught in. He promises to serve as a welcome stand-in for the Muslims in countries like Iraq and Pakistan who are the main victims of the war between the U.S. and Islamic extremists—and a window into Pakistan’s twisty politics. It’s refreshing to watch Carrie parry with the American ambassador to Pakistan (Laila Robins), the first female character in Homeland who may be powerful and savvy enough to say no to her. “Two sensible women cutting through all the bullshit? I wish it were as simple as that,” the ambassador responds with a disingenuous smile the first time Carrie tries to sweet-talk her into something, startling her into silence. That’s the kind of high-stakes poker that made us fall in love with Homeland in the first place.