In 'Homeland’s' New Season, Hollywood Mideast Suspense Competes With Real-life Horror

Season Four of the popular thriller hit the jackpot in terms of timeliness when it came to their decision to confront the issue of drones and other air attacks.

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WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

On the one hand, you have to feel a little sorry for the creators of “Homeland” as they plunged into their fourth season Sunday night. It wasn't enough that they faced the challenge of the third season being such a disappointment.

In Season Three, fans openly actually got sick of Nicholas Brody, the once-compelling central character, as he wasted away into a pathetic and desperate fugitive drug addict skeleton, and the story that was that at the heart of the series behind the twists and thrills, the one that the original Israeli drama it was based on, “Prisoners of War” fizzled terribly - the story of Brody’s return to his family. His family left the scene and Brody himself was killed off in the final episode, before the eyes of his CIA-operative lover Carrie Mathison, who watched pregnant and horrified.

No, the biggest challenge for the show, as Season Four premiered in a double episode Sunday night was the need being more compelling than the evening news. Not only is truth stranger than fiction in the Middle East and Asia these days, it is far more dramatic and shocking. Could anyone in Hollywood conceive of anything as awful as the open brutality of Islamic State and its beheading videos? And if they had, wouldn't it have been dismissed as being terribly far-fetched?

If “Homeland” or “Prisoners of War” were premiering today, the viewers would probably be less appalled by the battered condition of the returning prisoners, saying, “Well, at least no one brutally sawed off their heads.” The terrorists of the first seasons of “Homeland” were positively noble compared to characters like “Jihad John.” Viewers would also likely offer considerably less sympathy to Brody and his Muslim religious conversion in captivity, as they watch with horror in the real world as non-captive Westerners embrace a radical and violent Islam.

But all was not lost for Season Four. “Homeland” hit the jackpot in terms of timeliness when it came to their decision to confront the issue of drones and other air attacks - what happens when Western nations drop bombs out of the sky on the home territory of its enemies, avoiding “boots on the ground” for as long as possible. It’s the strategy that Israel wrestled over the summer in Gaza and President Obama is sticking to in its battles against the Islamic State group. In “Homeland’s” premiere episode, after a bomb targeting a terrorist blasts apart a wedding - an event ripped from the headlines - the camera lingers on the rows and rows of dead bodies of women and children, driving home the meaning of the “collateral damage.” The images are the kinds of pictures that drew Israel such harsh world condemnation, images that weren't shown very often on Israeli television - and aren't likely to be broadcast on American television when US strikes inevitably kill civilians alongside the Islamic State jihadists they target.

Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa told Entertainment Weekly: “We went back to the same well this season because it’s just so front and center in the news—the whole question of the draw-down in Afghanistan and what U.S. forces are doing there on the ground and in the air to make conditions as positive as they can for the Afghan security forces. There’s just a lot of killing from the air going on in that part of the world right now and the actual criteria for who is a target has become very loose, and it’s a question that needs to be asked.”

The other question that needs to be asked - and which “Homeland” correctly asks - is about the cost of doing nothing. In his first scene of the season, “Homeland”’s rabbinical father figure CIA-chief-turned-security-consultant Saul Berenson worries about the result of drawing down U.S. troops from Afghanistan too rapidly. He recalls the bad old days of Taliban rule in Afghanistan: “Girls not allowed in the school, men with whips enforcing sharia law. Do we really want to go back to that?” This too, cuts directly to today’s headlines coming out of Syria.

But current events aside - the key to the success of “Prisoners of War” and “Homeland” was the successful combination of the action and suspense with a deep focus on the psyches of its main characters. Now that “Homeland” has jettisoned the entire Brody family and Brody himself, the focus is squarely on Carrie and her ever-changing states of stability and instability.

Aware that Carrie’s lip-quivering emotional love sick breakdowns over Brody, with her quivering lower lip have become cliché, the cold and compartmentalized all-business Carrie of Season One is back. At her CIA station, they call her the “Drone Queen.” She appears to be sane and functioning, on her meds, though she needs to load up on wine and Ambien to get to sleep.

In the TV-land CIA - where, it’s been pointed out, the ground rules are different than in real life - all her previous sins have forgotten.

So professionally, everything is great for Carrie. Personally, not so much.

In the first three seasons, the central emotional conflict of the series was Nicholas Brody’s double - and sometimes triple loyalties - to his country, to his family, to his terrorist papa Abu Nazir, and to Carrie.

In Season Four - it’s Carrie being a bad Mom. Or, if you want to give her the benefit of the doubt, about being a new mother of an unplanned child who is a bipolar workaholic in mourning seemingly with all kinds of undiagnosed PTSD and some form of postpartum depression that leads her to imagine drowning her baby at bathtime. Mother of the year, she’s not.

The bath scene is sure to be the talk of mommy-bloggers and parenting web sites this week. Being a new mother is tough even if you haven’t watched the father of the baby hang in front of you. I've been there - the long boring hours, the diaper-changing, the baths, the general exhaustion and sacrifice of all fun and interesting adult activity - including dangerous espionage missions.

It’s a rather daring move on the part of the “Homeland” creators - challenging us to forgive Carrie for leaving poor little red-haired Frannie and her poor sister behind and head for whatever action awaits her in Islamabad. She lies to her sister, who is stuck caring for the baby, that “I don’t have a choice” and is correctly called out on it. “I know what these war zone postings are all about - making sure there is no place for your daughter there.”

The show could have easily taken an easier path and kept Carrie more sympathetic. They could have had her doing her level best to be a good mom and somehow being forced back into the field by dire circumstance. But as her sister points out - she is making a choice.

Knee-jerk condemnation would be sexist and unfair. We tolerate all kinds of terrible anti-hero fathers in our movies and television series, leaving their offspring behind with a long-suffering spouse while they charge out to save the world (or cook meth, or work in advertising agencies.) Will we offer equal opportunity tolerance to a crappy mother like Carrie, who can be seen as using the war on terror as a way to avoid changing diapers?

To be sure - there will be other personal stories on hand to give the show more emotional punch - from Saul, Carrie’s increasingly disillusioned colleague Peter Quinn, and a new character Ayaan, a sympathetic young Pakistani student with the big brown eyes who had the unfortunate luck to have an uncle a terrorist on the CIA’s most-wanted list and a drone strike the Carrie ordered destroy his family.

But ultimately - “Homeland” will rise or fall on whether it survives a post-Brody era where it’s all about Carrie - and whether it can shock us to a greater degree than the evening news.