DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Season four of the Showtime drama series "Homeland" begins Sunday. And it begins with a very significant change. Claire Danes is back as Carrie Mathison - the gifted but troubled CIA agent with a bipolar disorder. But her co-star for the first 3 seasons, Damian Lewis who played former POW and suspected traitor Nicholas Brody, is not. When we left "Homeland" at the end of what ultimately was a disappointing season, Brody and Carrie's dreams to escape politics and run off together had died, along with Brody who was hanged in Tehran by an angry mob as Carrie watched helplessly. But Carrie was carrying his unborn child. As season four of "Homeland" begins, her baby is still around, but Carrie has found ways - most of the time - to keep an emotional and physical distance. She's pulled the same trick with her old CIA boss Saul Berenson played by Mandy Patinkin. He's now working for a private security firm. They haven't spoken in months. Yet when Saul shows up attending a Pentagon briefing and unable to keep his thoughts to himself, it's clear that "Homeland"- this many years in - is just like Saul. It still has things to say and ideas to explore even if they're not always comfortable to absorb.
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MANDY PATINKIN: (As Berenson) Actually, I have another thing I was going to mention - just a thought I want to throw out there.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK?
PATINKIN: (As Berenson) If we'd known in 2001 we were staying in Afghanistan this long, I would've made some different choices.
ACTOR: (As character) Right.
PATINKIN: (As Berenson) Instead our planning cycles rarely look more than 12 months ahead. So it hasn't been a 14-year war we've been waging, but a one-year war waged 14 times. I think we're walking away with the job half done.
BIANCULLI: What made the first season of "Homeland" so distinctive and so compelling was that we had two equally strong characters on very different sides of the story. And we couldn't be sure for quite a while which one deserved our empathy and loyalty more. Season one of "Homeland," if it had ended with that assassination attempt and its aftermath, could've been a standalone, one season, mini-masterpiece of television. But even back when "Homeland" began, TV wasn't making self-contained one season dramas as it's since done so well with "Fargo" and "True Detective." So "Homeland" kept going and eventually last year lost its way and much of its urgency. But now it's back. The quickly developing central plot this season has Carrie overseeing a so-called surgical strike bombing of a site in Pakistan aimed at a highly-placed name on the government's kill list. But thanks to some bad intelligence, the site is a wedding party. And the result is an international embarrassment for the U.S. military. One young man survives the carnage. And his smart phone contains a video showing the wedding festivities at the very moment the bomb goes off. This makes "Homeland" once again the story of twin protagonists who divide our loyalties as we watch. There is the young survivor who has been given all the motivation to become a terrorist, but it may not be in his nature. And there's Carrie who takes her laser focus and trains it on discovering why things went wrong while alienating almost everyone around her along the way. Even while she's dealing with one of the few people she trusts, Peter Quinn, a black-ops assassin with a conscience played by Rupert Friend, Carrie has a way of compartmentalizing that makes her hard to reach.
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CLAIRE DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Can we sit for 10 minutes. You give me the lay of the land?
RUPERT FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) Sure. The ambassador's out front with the locals on this, so she's pissed.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Well, I can't say I blame her. Sandy's intel was good until now. What do you think happened?
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) No idea. Not even his own case officers know what he's up to half the time.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Lone Wolf.
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) Leaves the embassy, odd hours, doesn't say where to.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Girlfriend?
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) Maybe or maybe he's meeting the asset who's feeding him these opportune targets.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) So who is this asset of his?
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) Thought you knew.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Nope.
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) Well, I have no clue either, so you'll have to ask him.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Well, I will 'cause I'm the one dropping fire on all these people.
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) Yeah, well I know what that's like.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) Why?
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) Checking names off a kill list for a living.
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) It's a job.
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) It doesn't bother you? What about when it goes wrong?
DANES: (As Carrie Mathison) It doesn't happen that often.
FRIEND: (As Peter Quinn) But it did this time.
BIANCULLI: I've previewed the first three episodes of the new season. And each of them includes a sequence so intense and so emotionally involving I leaned forward while watching them. This season four plot line doesn't paint Carrie as a good friend and certainly not as a good mother. But as a spy, when she follows her instincts, she's the best. And "Homeland," with an ultra-timely story about terrorism, could shape up again as one of TV's best, too. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Gone Girl," the new movie starring Ben Affleck. This is FRESH AIR.
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