By Josh Logue
Do you play that game where you listen for the quote in an episode that encapsulates the show that week? I play that game sometimes.
Near the end of tonight’s second episode of “Homeland,” Carrie’s sister says, “There’s not even a diagnosis for what’s wrong with you.”
That certainly wasn’t true for the past two seasons when the show’s plot dissolved into a bubbling, ridiculous mess. Now, though, it’s harder to say.
In retrospect, it feels like “Homeland” shot itself in the foot with its ultra-dynamite first season premise. An unstable, but ingenious CIA agent convinced a returning war hero was turned by the other side during eight years of captivity. Hard to turn off even before you factor in Claire Danes’s irresistible performance and Mandy Patinkin’s immense on-screen presence. Clearly that was unsustainable, and the first two episodes of the fourth season feel like a tacit reboot. A humbled scaling back. Which is fine, but even if you’re willing to overlook the silliness of the last two seasons, the show still feels underwhelming compared to its super intense opening season.
Maybe that was unavoidable, and maybe it’s OK.
For now, the paired-down “Homeland” is juggling two highly manageable storylines. First, of course, are Carrie’s personal and professional struggles. A botched air strike leads her down a dangerous rabbit hole at work, while her baby daughter and sister push her away and (attempt to) pull her home respectively. Orbiting around her are Saul Berenson, who’s got the same old trouble at home on top of some new discomfort in the private sector, and Quinn, who’s suddenly developed a crippling case of conscience that’s lead him to heavy drinking and at least one “brawl.”
The show’s second major plot arch, still fairly mysterious at this point, revolves around a kid named Aayan (played by Suraj Sharma of Life of Pi fame), who’s parents were killed in that disastrous air strike. He appears pretty innocent at first, but some secret vials and a late-episode masked encounter imply otherwise.
More than anything, these first two episodes felt reserved and a little slow. With the exception of one chase scene near the end of episode one and another honestly harrowing scene of Claire bathing her daughter in episode two, there’s not too much that stood out this week. “Homeland,” for now, is a mostly conventional spy show. Even one of, if not the driving conflict of the first three seasons – Claire’s bipolarity – barely registered on screen in these first two episodes (we see her take a pill, and that’s pretty much it). The show seems more interested in Claire’s conflicted relationship with her daughter rather than her mental state, and it’s hard to blame the writers on that count after three seasons pretty much draining that well dry (I hope and pray this show has seen its last faked hospitalization).
Whether any of this pans out remains to be seen. The first episode, while slow, built up to a genuinely tense chase sequence, and what we’ve seen so far of this season’s ‘Big Mystery’ isn’t uninteresting (though, again, it can’t and doesn’t compare to the Season 1 “Homeland” craziness). It’s enough, at least, to keep me on board for another episode or two. We’ll see what happens.