Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) ranks among the CIA’s most talented intelligence analysts, dedicating most waking moments to thwarting the next major terrorist attack on American soil. But a pair of secrets threatens to derail her hopelessly tangled personal and professional lives.

The first is that Carrie suffers from bipolar depression, a potentially career-ending condition she conceals from her Langley superiors, including pragmatic-to-a-fault Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). She manages her condition with clandestine meds from her M.D. sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves), but also thinks it can be a gift when appropriately harnessed, and wonders if her next manic flight could yield a game-changing counter-terrorism insight.

The second and more pressing secret is her dogged suspicion that Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an Army sergeant discovered alive after eight years under al-Qaeda captivity, is turncoat. The series begins with Carrie creating a diplomatic incident by bribing her way into an Afghan prison to talk to a local asset about to be executed. His final words, whispered into her ear as the guards yank her away, will change the course of her life: “An American prisoner of war has been turned.” Naturally, Carrie is suspicious when a rescue team extracts Brody long after he could have produced valuable information for the enemy.

Saul, Carrie’s closest ally within the agency, is unsettled by her nascent theory, but won’t sign off on the invasive surveillance she wants, especially as Brody is greeted with a hero’s welcome. Ever the maverick, Carrie installs cameras in Brody’s home and monitors them on her off-hours, peering into private moments as Brody integrates himself back into a family that had assumed he was dead. Carrie’s off-the-books operation runs out of funding, but she’s more obsessed with Brody than ever, the consequence of a one-sided intimacy formed through hours of watching him.

Carrie’s fixation on Brody accelerates from passive surveillance to contrived in-person interactions, and finally, to a perilous sexual affair. Despite her deepening feelings for Brody, Carrie continues to search for evidence that he remains under the sway of the charismatic terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). A near-death experience triggers her mania, which leads to a breakthrough about Brody’s true motivations, but also exposes her condition to the agency. An unemployed and discredited Carrie still manages to thwart Brody’s terrorist attack–which would have killed most of the presidential succession line–but is unable to expose him as the culprit.

In the beginning…

Few shows in the past decade have debuted with the kind of instant critical acclaim and cultural resonance that greeted Homeland in October 2011. The brisk and thrilling first season won four Emmys: an Outstanding Actress In A Drama statue for Danes (who’s been camping in the category ever since); Outstanding Actor for Lewis; and for the show, Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Drama Series. Homeland also took the top drama award at the Golden Globes, won a Peabody, and was talked up by President Obama as his newest cultural obsession.

By the end of the tortured third season, Homeland had mostly dropped off the Emmy radar, with only Danes and Patinkin nominated. More than that, Homeland was being talked about as a show that was doomed by the instant success of a story that felt self-contained and self-limiting. The less charitable explanation was that the show had become too reliant on unearned plot twists and had mired itself in Carrie and Brody’s romantic quagmire. Troubleshooting the show became a new national pastime for television critics.

Understanding why Homeland followed its parabolic trajectory requires a closer look at its source material. Homeland was based on Hatufim, an Israeli drama that ran for two seasons comprising 24 episodes. While Hatufim has thriller elements, it’s primarily a domestic ensemble drama. Nimrod (Yoram Toledano) and Uri (Ishai Golan) are two Israeli military prisoners freed by their government with a prisoner swap. How would they ever relate to their loved ones, some of whom had been preparing for a life without them? How would they navigate the guilt, anxiety, and survivor’s remorse?

Homeland would become a distinctly different narrative as a result of who adapted it. 20th Century Fox bought the Hatufim pilot and hired Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who’d previously worked together on the whiplash-inducing terrorism thriller 24. They localized the story by rooting it in post-9/11 paranoid and fears around how Osama bin Laden’s ideology could metastasize in the wake of his assassination.

But the biggest change they made was supercharging Haim—the psychiatrist with suspicions about Nimrod and Uri—by turning him into Carrie Mathison, a more cerebral and nuanced version of Jack Bauer character Gordon and Gansa wrote for so many years. Like Jack before her, Carrie would be instinctual, resolute, and constantly coloring outside the lines. The Homeland pilot is a potent character study of Carrie, the vigilant intelligence officer fraying at the seams and single-minded about preventing the next domestic terror attack. Much of what comes to define the character is proffered up front: Carrie’s mental illness and her attempts to hide it; her love of hard bop and stiff drinks; and her habit of seducing her way out of trouble.

Brody is richly drawn too, with good reason, given that the character absorbs elements of both the Nimrod and Uri characters. But whereas Hatufim was all about the former prisoners’ emotional states, in Homeland, Carrie is the one with all the interiority. Brody remains opaque for much of the first season while the mystery of his reappearance unfurls. As a result, the audience is forced to empathize with Carrie, the only person savvy enough to keep a gimlet eye on Brody even as a cheerful propaganda campaign springs up around him. Factor in Danes’ muscular, intense performance, and it’s no surprise the show skews in Carrie’s direction. Brody would soon be identified as the show’s dead weight—the foolish choice made repeatedly by an otherwise smart woman.

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis
Claire Danes and Damian Lewis
Photo: Showtime

For all its nuanced characterization, Homeland quickly becomes a story about a “good” girl trying to take down a “bad” guy. Rebalancing the show in favor of Carrie supercharged the show’s storytelling, putting her and Brody on a collision course that could only end with one of them dead or in jail. But the strategy also made Brody expendable. That wasn’t an unanticipated consequence for Howard and Gansa, who reportedly planned to have Brody complete his suicide mission, only for Showtime brass to intervene and insist Lewis was too valuable to lose.

Season two resumes six months later, with Carrie in professional exile, only to be dragged back into the intelligence world when Saul corroborates her theory about Brody. Despite Brody’s current hero status, Saul and Carrie launch a task force to take him down, enlisting stoic company man Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) to run point on a sting built around Carrie and Brody’s fraught emotional bond. What’s intended as a disciplined, methodical operation hits terminal velocity when Carrie confronts Brody about his terroristic intentions and turns him against his handlers.

Most storylines in Homeland accelerate wildly, the result of a deliberate strategy by Howard and Gansa to jolt the audience. They spoke in season one postmortems about their theory that contemporary television viewers had become too savvy, and would probably see the plot twists coming. The only way to surprise, they concluded, was to do what the audience expected to happen eventually, but at a much faster pace.

But by the back half of season two, Homeland’s thrilling pace began to feel like the result of the narrative equivalent of deficit spending. The season’s fifth episode, “Q&A,” remains among the show’s finest episodes. Danes and Lewis are invariably excellent together, and the scenes in which Carrie compassionately interrogates Brody are nearly perfect. (Executive producer Henry Bromell won a posthumous Emmy for writing the teleplay.) But as soon as Carrie and Brody are fighting on the same side and openly dating, their story hits the same patch of inertia as does the will-they-won’t-they romance in an office sitcom. The relationship pulls the most focus at the exact moment it becomes dramatically inert.

Fears about the show’s direction solidified early in season three. Brody is flapping in the wind and Abu Nazir is dead after the latter masterminded one final attack on the CIA, killing much of the agency’s leadership structure and leaving Brody to take the fall. The uncertainty around Brody’s future made his story feel at once beyond its usefulness, and in serious need of resolution.

Without Brody in custody, the heat for the cataclysmic attack falls on Carrie, who gets publicly outed for her illicit relationship with the main suspect. Neither one of the show’s leads is effectively present, between Brody’s scofflaw status and Carrie in a darker place than she’d ever been. She suffers a breakdown after being backed over by the agency, including Saul, who callously implicates Carrie at a televised congressional hearing. But what looks to the audience like Carrie’s abandonment and descent into madness turns out to be a ruse cooked up with Saul to convince a hostile foreign power that Carrie could be compromised.

That arc sparked a targeted backlash from critics, who accused the show of crossing the boundaries of good faith with its narrative sleight-of-hand. In addition to being poorly conceived, the storyline was ill-timed, absorbing the first four episodes of the season. For anyone already put off by season two’s antics, it seemed as if Homeland might never overcome its worst instincts. The season improbably builds to a thrilling and poignant end, with Brody receiving a martyr’s death after pulling off one final mission for his country. Carrie will keep a part of Brody with her after his death, as their final dalliance resulted in a pregnancy she intends to take to term.

The peak season

Image for article titled To save itself, Homeland had to get over the loss of its leading man
Photo: Showtime

Homeland was in desperate need of a rebuilding season when it returned in October 2014. “Of course it’s painful and it hurts,” said Gansa to the Los Angeles Times of the critical drubbing season three took. “Hopefully we can get back to the mountaintop again.” To do that, Gansa and his team had to stop telling the audience Carrie Mathison was an international terrorist hunter and actually show her doing it. The Carrie of current Homeland seasons is more comfortable skulking around internecine hot zones than living a placid domestic life. But prior to season four, there was woefully little of that character on display.

The season premiere, “The Drone Queen,” finds Carrie heading up the field office in Kabul, Afghanistan and running point on the long-distance strikes that earned her the half-admiring, half-snide nickname of the title. She’s using Skype to stay connected to family, but the physical distance allows her to avoid the maternal responsibilities she feels ill-equipped to handle. Carrie receives tantalizing intelligence from Islamabad station chief Sandy Bachman (Corey Stoll) on the location of infamous Taliban leader Haissam Haqqani (Numan Acar). She authorizes a drone attack at the coordinates Sandy specifies, only to find out the location is the venue for a large wedding. Haqqani isn’t there, but plenty of his family members are, and 40 civilians are killed in the strike.

The errant drone strike reverberates when one of its survivors, a young medical student named Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma), allows an incendiary video clip to fall into the wrong hands. Aayan was a wedding guest, recording with his cell phone seconds before the missile hit. He unwittingly captures the exact moment the joyous wedding becomes a funeral pyre, and a rabble-rousing friend uploads the footage to YouTube, setting in motion a crescendo of events that ends with Sandy beaten to death by an angry mob. Carrie strong-arms her way into the newly vacant role as Islamabad bureau chief, then enlists Quinn to help her trace Sandy’s tip back to its source and determine Pakistani intelligence’s role in the purportedly spontaneous riot that killed him.

The plot is knottier and more complex than anything Homeland had done before. Carrie is still American foreign policy made flesh, but the show changes from a meditation on how the war on terror changed America into an exploration of the global consequences of fighting it. Carrie’s unorthodox methods are now in service of a mission that puts innocents in harm’s way as often as it makes them safer. This compromised version of Carrie is often called to account for the wreckage left in the wake of her well-intentioned choices. In the premiere, Carrie is confronted in a bar by the soldier who piloted the drone, who’s just learned the payload he released incinerated a wedding. “Monsters, all of you,” says the guilt-wracked soldier to his superior. She gives him a steely response, but she’s shaken by the exchange, and her reckoning is just beginning.

Image for article titled To save itself, Homeland had to get over the loss of its leading man
Photo: Showtime

Carrie is forced to make a gaggle of wrenching, no-win decisions, several of which have lasting ramifications for Homeland’s foundational relationship. While Carrie and Brody’s torrid affair blazed in the foreground, Carrie and Saul’s quasi-paternal mentorship was simmering in the background. In season four, their unique partnership is pulled into focus and tested like never before. She’s conflicted when he shows up at her Islamabad post unannounced, even though it’s mostly a social call. Saul has since departed the agency for a cushy gig as a private security contractor, but Carrie is still worried her new team will think she’s called in a powerful ally for help. He finally takes the hint and goes to depart Islamabad, only to be intercepted by Haqqani’s men and held captive for the bulk of the season.

The story of Saul’s kidnapping and eventual rescue is key to the success of season four. Homeland, at its best, takes complex geopolitical issues and turns them into deftly written and acted conversations between two characters. The zenith of season one is “The Weekend,” the episode most known for Carrie and Brody’s fateful cabin trip. But the secondary plot is all about Saul, who advances an investigation by conducting a patient, empathetic interrogation with an American suspected in a terror plot, played by Marin Ireland. Those scenes became something of a template for Homeland, and Saul’s kidnapping replicates that template with the dynamic reversed. Now it’s Saul as the captive, trying to find the right combination of words that will keep him alive under extreme duress. But Saul’s captivity only ends if he dies, or the U.S. pays his freight by freeing Taliban prisoners who could go on to carry out deadly attacks. Saul makes clear he doesn’t want to be rescued at the cost of freeing dangerous detainees and won’t allow Haqqani to turn his capture into propaganda.

Saul’s prideful stance puts him at odds with Carrie, who’s determined to bring him home at all costs. But the road to Saul’s safe return is riddled with obstacles. In “From A To B And Back Again,” Carrie manipulates Aayan to get him to lead to Haqqani, Aayan’s uncle. Carrie is initially fine with using a drone to take out Haqqani even if it means killing Aayan, whose innocence Carrie has already compromised with an on-the-job seduction. She holds back when Haqqani reveals Saul as his captive, but is ignited again when Haqqani casually murders Aayan. Carrie demands the drone take the shot—Saul’s life be damned—but is talked back from the ledge by Quinn. (Executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter took home an Emmy for Outstanding Direction for her work on the episode.)

Two episodes later, Saul manages a short-lived escape. After slipping his captors, he reaches Carrie with a satellite phone and presents her with a wrenching decision: either lead him out of harm’s way, or allow him to avoid further embarrassment by taking his own life. Just as Saul has concluded death is the only way out, Carrie convinces him she’s found a path to safety. But it’s all a ruse, like the many Carrie and Saul had sprung on so many others. Her turn-by-turn directions lead Saul back into the hands of his captors, an imperfect solution that leaves him in harm’s way, but still alive. Saul screams and curses at Carrie upon realizing she lied to him in a gut-wrenching scene.

The season should feel skeletal with Brody dead and Saul missing in action, but Homeland restocked its cast by adding excellent recurring characters and breathing new life into familiar faces on the periphery. Acar is brilliantly sinister as Haqqani, and he’s well matched by Sharma, whose delicate performance as Aayan made an impression that long outlasted the character’s life. Nazanin Boniadi was promoted to the regular cast as thoughtful yet timid CIA analyst Fara Sherazi. Though her character doesn’t make it through the season, Fara’s memory is carried forward by Max Piotrowski (Maury Sterling), a tech wizard who starts Homeland with barely any dialogue and slowly turns into the show’s beating, broken heart.

Art Malik, Raza Jaffrey, and Nimrat Kaur
Art Malik, Raza Jaffrey, and Nimrat Kaur
Photo: Showtime

But the best new character is Tasneem Qureishi (Nimrat Kaur), a Pakistani intelligence officer who schemes to get Carrie ejected from her post before she can finish tracing Sandy’s calamitous tip back to its source. To carry out the plan, she recruits Dennis Boyd (Mark Moses), the intelligence source Sandy Bachman had been keeping under wraps. Tasneem blackmails Dennis into compromising the medication keeping Carrie’s mania at bay while working covertly to influence the prisoner trade. Homeland has long excelled at folding nighttime soap-style plots into its batter, and with the Tasneem and Dennis subplot, the show takes on the contours of a show like Dallas, complete with poisonings and professional sabotage. Kaur’s shrewd performance left such an impression that she was brought back as a regular for the show’s final season seven.

Homeland season four still has its missteps, including an early scene in which Carrie submerges her daughter in bathwater before changing her mind about drowning her child. (Gansa dubiously explained that the scene was edited to leave room for a less literal interpretation.) A slight blowback greeted the seventh episode, “Redux,” in which Carrie suffers a mental break (due to Tasneem’s skullduggery) and appears to wind up in Brody’s comforting arms. Turns out it’s not actually Brody, but Aasar Kham (Raza Jaffrey), Carrie’s Pakistani counterpart and her unlikely ally. Even though Homeland didn’t actually resurrect Brody, the brief appearance was an uncomfortable jolt for anyone relieved to be rid of him.

But for all its faults, the fourth season of Homeland represents the peak of the show’s strengths, achieved as a direct result of expanding it beyond The Carrie And Brody Show. Homeland became riskier, tenser, and more potent when it finally abandoned Brody, and the show’s insights about the global war on terror only got sharper once it left American soil.