Developed for American Television by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa
Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff
Original Air Date: October 5th 2014-December 21st 2014
There’s a clean slate feeling to the opening moments of Homeland’s fourth season; Sean Callery’s jazzy theme music plays almost serenely over Carrie in the backseat of an SUV, her life (and by extension the series itself) on a new course after having resolved the Brody situation as devastatingly as it did at the end of the previous season.
If ‘The Star’ could have passed as a series finale of sorts for the entirety of Homeland, then ‘The Drone Queen’ has an almost pilot episode feel, as if it’s a new series, albeit one with characters that appeared in a pre-existing story.
24 also had a habit of semi-reinventing itself at the start of every season, with its characters remaining the same but more often than not finding themselves in new stories where it was their lives or certain plot elements that carried over from season to season.
Homeland initially ignored that trend by feeling more like a continuing story which detailed the lives of Carrie and Brody amongst the War on Terror, their decisions and lives, not to mention those around them, being affected and dictated to by an increasingly fraught and ugly American foreign policy.
By the time Homeland got to bringing Brody back to the series more concretely for the last third of season three, you could see the characters discussing the increasingly tangled Brody as if they themselves were the writers of the show trying to figure out what to do with someone who was clearly very important to everything going on but which everyone, including television critics, seemed to be in agreement had reached a conclusion of sorts.
It gives the opening episodes of the fourth season a weirdly serene feeling of not quite knowing what to do, somewhat like Carrie, and having to readjust to a new paradigm, but the writers of this show know what they are doing and by the time the second half of the season rolls around, we soon learn they are playing a long game and are in full control of the narrative.
Season four is simultaneously a brilliant adjustment of the series that also happens to find itself falling into certain traps that Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa did while writing 24; the thriller component is expanded upon more fully and the central antagonist of the season is a Bin Laden-inspired terrorist that perhaps falls into the realm of stereotype that is clear evidence for critics of the series and arguments about its depiction of characters who are Muslim.
That Carrie and Saul find themselves up against not only a terrorist threat while in Pakistan where the bulk of the season takes place, but also corrupt members of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI, the season frequently threatens to make the story here one in which our predominantly white American heroes are at the mercy of antagonists who are Muslim, and while the story depicted here is a complex one and there are Islamic characters who are on their side, it’s perhaps easier to make those criticisms here given just how much more into something reminiscent of 24 the series falls into during the latter stages of the season.
As the series as a whole continued, it showed itself to be unafraid to mirror real-life events and include stories that played on things that were dominant in the news cycle. It was a natural fit for the series to devote a large part of one of its episodes on something that was clearly inspired by the siege in Benghazi and it is certainly a very exciting couple of episodes, but it is perhaps the first time that Homeland genuinely starts to feel like 24 and the work that many of these writers have crafted before.
Sean Callery’s music pounds on the soundtrack, the suspense builds, the cliffhanger reaches a crescendo and truthfully the only thing missing is a split screen montage showing what the cast are up followed by a ticking clock.
Of course, 24 was always in a rush, and Homeland has always shown itself to be a series more willing to take its time. The first half of the season is devoted to Carrie’s attempts to get into the life of drone attack survivor Aayan (Suraj Sharma), a drone attack that Carrie herself authorized, something she is so adapt at that she has earned the nickname The Drone Queen.
It’s a disconcerting and uncomfortable storyline given that she is somewhat older than him and Aayan is barely into his adult years, but then everything about their relationship and Carrie’s actions are supposed to elicit discomfort, showing that while Homeland isn’t afraid to really tip its hand towards a more overt thriller setting in this season, it hasn’t lost sight of pushing its characters and the audience into the realm of discomfort and asking of the audience tough questions related to what is appropriate for its CIA characters (and the agency in general) to partake in for the name of National Security.
While that some might lament the loss of that slow burn thriller that made season one such an intense and immediate classic, its turn into the world of heightened thriller stakes here is perhaps the best example of Homeland utilising that type of style and feels more natural here than in season two when it started to make that turn in the first place.
Maybe because it was following on from a more grounded first season that emphasised character over explosions and gunfire, the more elaborate plot twists and set pieces in season two felt exciting yet weirdly unnatural at the same time. Season four reconceptualising the series somewhat away from story threads and themes of that season towards new concerns (Carrie’s baby woes aside which are obviously still related somewhat to the Brody storyline) means that there are new tropes and story telling language for the series to explore and truthfully the more set-piece dominated sequences in the second half work wonders.
On top of the US Embassy siege which manages to actually never feel as bombastic as anything 24 did when it turned towards similar story beats, there’s also the nerve shredding moment when Saul, who spends the majority of the season as a hostage, tries to escape only for Carrie to lead him back into his captor’s hands in order to keep him alive.
It’s genuinely great stuff, even if also means that the series jettisons some of the shades of grey that came with characters like Abu Nazir in the first two seasons. Haqqani is a formidable antagonist, but he never feels as three-dimensional as Nazir. Numan Acar does his best, but he can only do so much with the character that has been written that frequently places him into the story as someone inflicting damage and not much else.
If there are complex characterisations to be found, it’s in the central figures within the CIA and the US Embassy where we witness Carrie, Quinn, Dar Adal and Saul wrestle with right and wrong. A pivotal moment in the middle of the season sees Aayan killed by Hassani in a location that the CIA are in the position to strike with their Drone Programme. Unfortunately, that would also mean killing Saul, something Carrie seems to believe is an acceptable loss.
It’s a moment that will prove polarizing to fans, and like the best of 24 before it, will have different factions of the audience debating as to whether Carrie is right in her belief that the strike should happen, or Quinn’s in that it would be wrong because it would mean killing Saul.
Four seasons in, Homeland showed no signs of losing any of its power in that regards, and better yet, even though this is perhaps its best example of the series functioning as a pure thriller yet (and is setting a tonal stall for the rest of the series’ run post-Brody), its controversial nature is perhaps still showing it to be a much more complex series than the exploits of Jack Bauer and the CTU.
(Once again, I should probably apologise to Homeland fans who have never watched, or have any intention of watching 24, but in watching both shows, it’s sometimes hard not to see the stylistic and thematic similarities given that they share a lot of creative talent.)
That series also managed to elicit strong responses from the audience who might have found themselves divided over the actions of some of its characters, but where its uses of things like torture and breaking protocol sometimes felt like something it was more than eager to condone, Homeland never allows Carrie or the audience off the hook when it comes to the idea of responsibility when partaking in unethical methods. In fact, two seasons from now we’ll get a prominent character elected to the Presidency in Homeland’s universe asking of its central characters ‘what the f**k is wrong with you people’ when their methods are questioned.
It’s an approach that you would never see much in 24 where sitting Presidents and government agents were more inclined to break the rules to ‘do the right thing’. Homeland may have been questioned constantly over its reliance of having Islamic characters who were villainous, and rightfully so sometimes (the one Islamic character who was unquestionably on the side of Homeland’s version of the good guys ends up getting killed towards the end of the season), but in truth part of its power by this stage is in being unafraid to suggest that even its heroes are part of a larger problem. By the end of the season Carrie faces the possibility that Saul may have sold out his ethics to take charge of the CIA in the season’s superb finale that actually dares to slow down the pace and place more emphasis on character as opposed to trying to outdo itself in the spectacle. It’s a great choice and a great episode with which to end the season on which finds quiet and subtle drama to be found in smaller moments as opposed to endless gunfire and explosions, but which sets the stall nicely for another reinvention in its fifth season.