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Thursday, October 9, 2014

HOMELAND Tries to Be "Queen" Again

Article first published as TV Review: 'Homeland' Season Four Premiere on Blogcritics.

Showtime’s Homeland has returned! The drama, which premiered to all kinds of critical love and adoration a few years back, has struggled to maintain both the attention and quality as time has gone on. To combat this malady (I assume), at the close of season three last year, the show basically hit the reset button. It killed one of its two central leads, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a character that was only supposed to stick around for one season, and dropped his family and friends from the cast, too. Now, fans finally get the chance to see what the new Homeland looks like in the two-part season opener, “The Drone Queen” and “Trylon and Perisphere,” premiering this week.

To be honest, the new Homeland looks much the same as the old, except with fresh stories and players, which reinvigorates it a bit. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is still the mess at the center, ticking off authority while pursuing a righteous cause. Saul Berenson (Mandy Pantinkin) offers Carrie some sound advice, but has trouble keeping his life on track, which includes not giving his wife, Mira (Sarita Choudhury), enough consideration. There are terrorists and political issues and unconsidered actions and bombings and death. It’s pretty solid.

As “The Drone Queen” opens, Carrie is now a station chief in Pakistan, an interesting setting relevant to the larger story. This is only temporary, though, as it must be, considering that not only are most of the other characters back in the United States, but so is Brody’s baby that Carrie gave birth to, whom she’s foisted off on her sister, Maggie (Amy Hargreaves). We know Carrie should be stepping up and taking responsibility for the baby, but she is soon distracted by a conspiracy behind the death of a colleague, and as viewers know, Carrie will pursue leads on this issue doggedly, even while neglecting everything else in her life, infant included.

Saul has his own issues to deal with, though he takes the time to talk briefly to Carrie when they bump into one another. The pair had not kept in contact in the interim, an unfortunate turn of events. Saul isn’t taking well to the private sector and seems to chomp at the bit when working with the government again, even though not officially working for them. The problem is, going back to the feds would mean moving out of New York, and Saul promises Mira he will give the city and his new position a chance. Can he keep his promise, or is this new life just at odds with who Saul is?

H2Equally compelling, if not more so, is new character Ayaan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma, who played the title character in Life of Pi), a young Middle Eastern man who seems poised to join Carrie as this season’s focus, though not listed on the show’s website as a main character. We meet Ayaan immediately after his family and friends are killed in a drone strike. While he agrees to release a video of the attack, he doesn’t initially demand blood for blood, being a reasoned individual, and many of his peers disapprove of this stance.

Ayaan is important because he not only gives a face to the other side of this story, but also is a very complex character. Not everyone in the Middle East hates America, but Homeland drives home the danger of drone strikes, a current hot-button political issue, and Ayaan’s story makes it personal. We see how things can go wrong, and the effect this has on people. We see, too, that not everyone is blinded by emotion, but it’s a struggle to go against the grain, especially under these circumstances. Ayaan is a chance to explore the debate from a new perspective, and I welcome it, certainly the strongest element of the season four opener.

Interestingly, Quinn’s (Rupert Friend) arc this season sort of parallels Ayaan’s, from an American position. He, too, is bothered by the drone strikes and the fallout from them, painting a stark contrast to Carrie’s coldness. I’m not sure what change Quinn may be able to affect, especially with the new CIA boss, Senator Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts, yes the same Letts who won a Tony and a Pulitzer for writing the play August: Osage County, which he later adapted into a movie), wanting to sweep any mistakes under the rug.

The title “The Drone Queen” is obvious, but what does the second hour’s moniker, “Trylon and Perisphere,” mean? The name refers to two buildings at the center of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which inspired hope and thoughts of progress, but are no longer standing. Giving meaning to this title requires a bit of contortion, and I’m not exactly sure what the series has in mind here. If you think you know, please feel free to explain in the comments below.

Some random thoughts on guest characters in this premiere: Corey Stoll’s (House of Cards, The Strain) role is way too small for such a great actor, and it’s regrettable it won’t grow any larger, though he is a busy man. James Rebhorn, who sadly died last year, has not been written off the show, his character, Carrie’s father, is merely mentioned to be out of the room during a scene. Is killing his character off being saved for an emotional impact at a critical juncture, or will the show continue to skirt around it?

I do think season four of Homeland has the potential to be the best since the show’s first. What that will depend on is how long Ayaan is kept interesting and evolving and how unsympathetic Carrie is allowed to grow. It will also matter if the less-important subplots drag in the middle or steal too much focus, as sometimes happens on the series. The jury is out,  but there are promising signs.

Homeland airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.

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