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'Homeland' shows life after Brody and keen social conscience

In the opening episode of Season 4 of “Homeland,” Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), CIA station chief in Kabul, is sitting in a rec center within the U.S. compound drinking a beer and watching baseball on TV, when a young Air Force pilot approaches.

After an exchange that establishes Carrie as the person who called in the airstrike he flew on the home of a suspected terrorist, the lieutenant says, “Monsters.”

“What did you say?” Mathison angrily demands of the young man she had previously been sizing up sexually.

“[Expletive] monsters, all of you,” he says, all but spitting each contempt-laden word into her face.

How’s that for a prime-time TV critique of the women and men responsible for executing our policy in Afghanistan? You can be sure you won’t be hearing that take in the rah-rah, sugarcoated CBS version of U.S. foreign policy found on “Madam Secretary” with Tea Leoni.

Nor will you find anywhere else on television a heroine anything quite like the Carrie Mathison who returns to the screen Sunday night on Showtime in this re-energized, redesigned version of one of the most culturally daring dramas in the history of cable TV.

Mathison has an infant child now, daughter of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), but she is a terrible mother. She’s dumped the baby on her sister, and the one day she’s forced to spend caring for the child herself when she’s back stateside, you fear Mathison will drown the girl while giving her a bath.

And then there’s her bipolar disorder and the meds she is supposed to take. Instead of taking them, we see her chasing sleeping pills with two and three glasses of wine at the end of the day — after she’s done drinking beer and calling in airstrikes on civilian homes.

And worst of all, Mathison seems to have lost anything resembling a moral compass. She appears to have become one of the higher-ups she once despised in the CIA, Pentagon and State Department.

After telling her he feels sick to his stomach about the airstrike, the pilot aggressively asks Mathison if she ever feels sick about what she does.

“Sometimes,” she says flatly, taking another swig. “But I try to see the bigger picture, the mission.”

Carrie Mathison, station chief and monster. A birthday cake presented by her staff in Kabul just after the airstrike says, “Happy Birthday, Carrie, The Drone Queen.” While the attack on the farmhouse was executed with F-15s, Mathison has become very, very good at using drones to kill — just as our real-world administration has.

I came to the season opener wondering if there was any life left in this powerful but erratic series after the death of Brody at the end of Season 3. I was rocked by that season finale in a way no TV death has rocked me in a long time, and I am still not sure why. But as I sat looking at the remains of Brody hanging from that crane, I felt a cold, existential emptiness creeping through my bones.

When it finally passed and I could think critically about the series again, I concluded “Homeland” had nothing left to say. I was not holding my breath waiting for this season opener.

But after seeing the first three episodes of Season 4, I can unequivocally say the producers have found new life. And am I glad to have this critique of America’s war on terror still available to millions of American viewers every week.

I love the complexities, contradictions and TV taboos that the producers embrace in the creation of Mathison.

And show me another prime-time TV series in which the heroine abrogates virtually all parental responsibilities the way Mathison seems to do this season.

“You bring a life into this world, you take responsibility,” Mathison’s sister, Maggie (Amy Hargreaves), a doctor, says angrily to her when she realizes that Carrie is again conniving her way into a war-zone appointment so that she will not be able to take her daughter with her.

And I love the care and creativity with which scenes and images are presented for maximum emotional and intellectual impact.

Watch Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) take on two young men who are verbally mocking a woman in a diner, and tell me his actions don’t move you in ways that make you uncomfortable with your own response.

And in the second of two episodes that airs Sunday night, note the way in which Mathison starts the bath of her daughter by drizzling water over her head, just as water was drizzled over Brody’s head in a rite of purification prior to his execution. The imagery is precise and, as a result, the resonance is instant and profound.

And check out the aftermath of the bombing of the farmhouse that sets everything in motion this season.

As the rescue and cleanup begin, bodies are placed on biers by the survivors. Viewers of “Homeland” see the biers on a big screen in the American war room in Kabul. The point of view is from a camera on a drone relaying the image.

As we look down on the carnage caused by Carrie’s airstrike, a young man standing next to the bier of a woman, who turns out to be his mother, looks up at the drone and seems to make eye contact with the U.S. officials in the war room — and those of us watching at home. What a complex, brilliant and unsettling media moment.

The tableau works seamlessly into the narrative as the surviving son, Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma), a medical student in Islamabad, becomes a central figure in the series by the second episode. But the moment also transcends the fictional storyline to make American viewers feel their real-world complicity in a drone policy that has killed more than 2,400 people in the first five years of the Obama administration, according the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

That group further reports that at least 273 of those deaths were civilian and that the Obama administration in its first five years has launched eight times as many as were launched during the entire Bush presidency. Social critic Cornel West calls Obama’s White House the “drone presidency.”

And nowhere on TV — including all-news cable channels that have 24 hours a day to do it — have I seen our use of drones presented in such a compelling way as they are in this episode, titled “The Drone Queen.”

“Homeland” has suffered from its fair share of over-the-top moments during its first three seasons. In fact, it is famous for them. Remember the episode in which then-Congressman Brody was trying to bury a body in the woods outside Gettysburg while his wife was calling him to complain about him being late for a dinner at which he was supposed to speak?

But I believe in the reality of Carrie Mathison and her CIA universe this season at least as much I do Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his Washington. At least, Mathison has not yet pushed any reporters under subway trains to try and kill a story.

And I believe even more in the power of television to make us face uncomfortable truths about ourselves like no other medium can — even if it is rarely done these days.

“Homeland” returns Sunday night infused with a sense of social conscience and the courage to ask its audience to consider what the pilot in the rec center in Kabul says about “monsters,” America foreign policy and not just Carrie Mathison but, by extension, all of us.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

“Homeland” returns at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime

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