“Homeland” just concluded season No. 4. But in the pivot the show made from its uneven past into its new-look present, it might as well have been called “Season ’24.'”
Of course, key producers on this Showtime series also worked on that earlier Fox show, which explored the war on terror in a world of tough choices and sacrifices, against an utterly ruthless foe. And while “Homeland” has maintained more nuance and finesse than its predecessor exhibited, the transition from the initial high of returned-POW Nicholas Brody and his “Manchurian Candidate”-like rise — exploiting a political class and media hungry for heroes — to a more conventional if often tense and surprising espionage thriller appears to have been completed this season, transforming Rupert Friend’s tormented operative/killing machine Peter Quinn into an updated version of Jack Bauer.
The fourth season also provided a showcase for Claire Danes, which might explain why the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) shifted gears into what felt like something of a letdown, relatively speaking, with Danes’ Carrie Mathison taking a sort-of break from the spy game after her ordeal abroad to reconnect with her long-lost mom. That allowed the producers to address head-on the untimely death of actor James Rebhorn, who played Carrie’s father, while setting up new threads for Quinn and Saul (Mandy Patinkin), who was presented with the ultimate Faustian bargain by the power broker Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham.
“Not every choice we make is blessed with moral clarity,” Adal told Saul, in a line that felt a bit too on the nose given the world of shadows that “Homeland” occupies. If you want someone who can be counted on to hold true and resist ethical compromise, apparently, better not call Saul — although given her own behavior involving an unfortunately placed youth earlier in the season, Carrie doesn’t necessarily have the standing to throw stones.
In some respects, season four represented a remarkable turnaround for “Homeland,” which became compulsively watchable again, barring a few key missteps (namely, Carrie’s “baby in the bathwater” interlude), without many of the distractions associated with the wince-inducing aspects of the Dana Brody years. That said, the series is notably scaled down in its ambitions, distinguished by the strength of its cast, the challenges thrown at its characters and the willingness to kill off supporting players.
By that measure, “Homeland’s” architects managed what once seemed impossible: Having written the show into a corner, they boldly killed off one of the leads, essentially reshaped the series on the fly and found light at the end of the tunnel, albeit generating a more mundane glow than the best of what preceded it. That includes the protracted courtship between Carrie and Quinn, who each might be too damaged for happily ever after.
What remains, then, is a perfectly good premium drama, just not the one that garnered a host of well-deserved awards recognition for Showtime — including back-to-back Golden Globes for outstanding drama in its first two seasons. If all that amounts to the TV version of a ticking-bomb scenario, the show survived, yes, but that doesn’t mean it escaped entirely unscathed.