Will Homeland Ever Be Homeland Again?

HOMELAND (Season 4) Photo: David Bloomer/Showtime

Homeland went to great lengths this season to "prove" that it was still good. Many, many people, some of whom I treasure and respect, agreed — Homeland pulled off the rare TV turnaround, boldly killing off characters and reestablishing the show's espionage-thriller credentials. I found some of the plot mechanics exciting and competent, but Homeland absolutely lost me on its characters. Why are we still talking about Carrie and Saul when all we're going to see is their characters doing the same old thing again? Back into the field they'll go, shouting in danky rooms, their faces illuminated only by monitors; Carrie will discretely cover her hair and make furtive dashes through crowded public areas; Saul will bitterly chuckle while an enemy asks for a favor and even more bitterly chuckle when he asks an enemy for one in return. Last night's finale more or less promised another season of that, with Quinn's danger-hunk return to Syria, but what it also did was highlight everything Homeland stopped being, all the things Homeland isn't good at anymore. Homeland may still be good at shock-and-violence political stories. Too bad it has apparently given up completely on compelling domestic stories.

I think I am the only Homeland viewer who still remembers this show used to have a character named "Brody" (BRO-dee), and I am learning to accept my fate. Gather round my creaky rocking chair and I'll tell you about looooong ago, when we old folks considered season one's "The Weekend" the best episode of Homeland, the kind of episode that defined what we could hope for from the series. (Ironically, that episode and last night's finale were both written by Meredith Stiehm.) Carrie's a spy — but she was spying on her own relationship, and that created a variety of problems. Brody was finally supposed to be free — but he was in many ways still very trapped, hiding his religion and also the fact that he was now a double agent. There were a lot of powerful, resonant ideas at play, and they were all framed in this really ordinary, let's-go-to-my-folks'-cabin setup. We spent all of last night's finale in domestic territory, and yet nothing felt anywhere near as resonant. The most potent sensation of the episode was genuine sadness that James Rebhorn had died.

Homeland used to be about the psychological damage inflicted by a surveillance state, and how Carrie's mental illness meant sometimes she reflected that damage, and sometimes she was the only person able to understand it. That was not part of this season in a meaningful way. When Carrie took her sad, unwanted daughter Franny to the park on last night's episode, a passerby spotter the baby and immediately recognized her. This is gonna be something bad, I thought. Silly me; he was just a park buddy of Carrie's father. I wondered briefly if this was supposed to feel like a misdirection, turning all of us into little Carries by making us suspicious of even innocent encounters — except Carrie herself didn't seem bothered at all.

I thought earlier this season that Homeland would be really adventurous and examine what happens to someone who raises a child she doesn't want: Carrie's momentary idea of letting Franny drown was disturbing and shocking, but then the show abandoned any further exploration of it until the closing minutes of last night — and even then, I can't tell if I'm being too hopeful reading into Carrie's anguish because that's the sad face I also make when forced to listen to jazz. Carrie alluded to Brody's existence briefly last night, grousing to her new park friend who weirdly knew all about her that Franny's grandfather was the only father figure the baby ever really had. It's not like Brody's some deadbeat dad who's behind on his child support, though; Carrie (and the rest of us!) watched his execution. She discovered that she had a half-brother she'd never met, who's 15 years younger than she is. Hm … I wonder if there's anyone else out there who's got a half-sibling about 15 years older. Oh, yeah! Your own damn baby, Carrie. If any of this was on Carrie's mind, the show did not make that particularly clear.

Shows change over time, of course they do. But there are only 48 episodes of Homeland, and the fact that the show has already abandoned the very things that made it special is disappointing. Carrie is not torn between parenthood and patriotism the way she was torn between her career-destroying love of Brody and her Brody-destroying love of career. Carrie's fully able to hand off her daughter and barely look back. That's her right, I suppose, but "feels mostly fine about decision" is not much of a story. Carrie and Saul have betrayed and then unbetrayed and then seems-like-betrayed-but-not-betrayed each other so many times at this point, I'm not sure why they'd want to continue working together. Carrie grappling with the idea that she'd been afraid of becoming her father when in truth she'd become her mother could be juicy, but it deserves more than two minutes of a season finale. After overdoing it with Dana Brody, I get why Homeland backed off its, er, homeland stories, but without a meaningful emotional anchor in aspects of civilian life, the show might as well be a list of things CIA agents do — and as of a few weeks ago, I actually have a list of that, and the real list is far more devastating and frightening than the fictional one.