As long as shows like Homeland exist, audience expectations are an endangered species. Its original premise — a mentally unstable CIA agent engaging in a fraught, complex relationship with a brainwashed sleeper agent — surprised us not only for its brilliant interpersonal riff on the war on terror, but for how it didn't play nice with television conventions. Carrie's failure to make her case against Brody, and her subsequent electroshock therapy, concluded one of the most bummer-ific, audience-unfriendly season finales in TV history.
But once you've proved that you'll be doing your own thing, thank you, how do you keep audiences surprised? Seasons two and three could no longer boast the thrill of discovery and instead dotted their runs with finale-level twists and explosions every few minutes. Almost in recognizance that this tactic had grown exhausting and messy, this season Homeland realized it not only had to defy traditional conventions, but also its own. Sure, we still had some classic Homeland elements — Carrie went crazy! Carrie slept with a mark! — but there were also more than a few left-field elements — Carrie considered drowning her baby! And now, as though leveling its sights on our expectations one last time, the season-four finale was almost shockingly low-key. Containing next to no running and almost zero shouting, "Long Time Coming" could have simply been a long exhale of relief, the post-victory cooldown lap of an exceedingly stressful season. But then, of course, things went bad.
As an episode "Long Time Coming" was solid; as a finale it was wonderful. Affecting, thematically satisfying, yet still managing to conclude with the characters neck-deep in creeping dread, this was both the finale that we didn't expect and the one we most needed. First of all, it ended at home. Second of all, all of its various family-related melodrama confirmed that this show is above all about Carrie's emotional state, her longings, her troubles. Yes, the introduction of Carrie's estranged mother (and heretofore unknown half-brother!) was a contrivance straight out of Passions. But considering a recurring theme of the show is that world's most powerful spy agency frequently harbors catastrophic intel-gaps, it was almost fitting that Carrie didn't even know her mother's address let alone her reasons for ghosting out on their family 15 years prior. Plus, this entire revelation ended up being in service to the episode's biggest pay-off, at least for you and me and anyone else with a beating heart: Quinn and Carrie's sudden romance! In short: Carrie finally learned that her parents' split hadn't been due to her father's bipolar condition, ergo Carrie's fervent belief that she herself could never be in a healthy relationship suddenly shattered. Just in time for a ready-and-willing Quinn to go off the grid!
But let's back up: that kiss. What is it about a post-funeral kiss that seems so especially romantic? Homeland has always been soapy; get over it. But come on, that moment when Carrie spotted a still-alive Quinn for the first time at her father's funeral, then nearly weeped as she crossed the lawn to embrace him? That was as subtly moving as any kind of epic, goopy romantic moment in a Michael Bay movie. Carrie had no way of knowing that Quinn had escaped Islamabad alive, let alone whether he still tolerated her enough to attend her father's services. But there he was, in that suit, his softened gaze now focused on Carrie like a switch had flipped. Their connection became even more inevitable by the time Carrie spotted Quinn playing with her baby at the wake. What kind of monster could resist that image?
But when Quinn finally made his move, the scene again subverted what we come to expect from TV romance. Yes, the kiss happened, but so did a suddenly fraught and confessional conversation about whether two people as fucked up as they were could ever have a non-disastrous relationship. So he gave her an ultimatum, she balked, and later, just before she'd realized her mistake, he'd accepted a potentially fatal assassination gig in Iraq. (The kicker? In the stack of in-case-we-die letters the guys left behind for their loved ones, Quinn had addressed his to Carrie.) Whatever you think of these kinds of soapy shenanigans, admit you didn't feel something in those final moments when Carrie got in her car looking panicked and lost. Will next season see Carrie going back overseas to find him? Is that too corny? Or too perfect? As with most of its plotlines Homeland teases the possibility of either option, but by now its track record is trustworthy. In other words, I'm into this romance and this cliffhanger is murdering my heart.
The other primary order of business in "Long Time Coming" was the explanation of what exactly Dar Adal had been doing in the back of Haqqani's SUV. As it turned out, that reason both was and wasn't what we'd expected. Yes, he was working with Haqqani in some capacity, but as we learned, it may have been in service of helping the CIA, in particular helping Saul get his job back. See, apparently the only thing keeping Saul from regaining the seat Lockhart was bound to vacate was the video footage Haqqani filmed while Saul was his hostage, as such a thing leaking would apparently make Saul look like damaged goods. Fortunately for Saul, Dar Adal managed to acquire what was possibly the only copy of that footage, allegedly through an act of goodwill by Haqqani himself. Unfortuantely for Saul, that meant he'd be accepting a favor from a known terrorist if he wanted that CIA job. Though we never got verbal confirmation, everything in Saul's body language suggested that he'd be agreeing to this deal, thus he'd officially stepped into the dark side. And for that he earned one of the most brutal death-stares Carrie's ever given.
One of storytelling's most staid conventions is the death-tinged "dark night of the soul" that precedes the triumphant climax. But Homeland season four, of course, ended with it. First Fara's death, and then the sudden death of Carrie's father, and more existentially, the death of Carrie's faith in Saul or her hope for romantic love. Dark times. While not the devastating bummer of season one's electroshock therapy, season two's CIA bombing, or season three's hanging, this finale seemed almost darker for how low-key it was. These characters had been through the ringer all season only to return home to emotional turmoil and bad omens lurking behind every well-manicured hedge. We know better than to expect satisfactory happy endings from Homeland, but that's why we love its particular brand of dread. Better a sad heart than a bored one! If anything this terrific season was testament that not-being-boring is pretty much the only expectation we should ever have for Homeland.
Well done, show.