This post discusses the plot of the Oct. 5 episode of “Homeland.”
When Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) co-workers in Afghanistan present her with a birthday cake, she notices that below the blazing candles is a new title for her: “The Drone Queen.” It would be an uneasy sobriquet under any circumstances: We first met Carrie three years ago when she was investigating Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American soldier and prisoner of war who dedicated himself to terrorism after a young boy he’d come to know in captivity was killed in a drone strike. And there is something particularly uneasy about watching Carrie, who used to do her best work on the ground at personal risk to herself, call in strikes from the the sterile chill of an operations center.
“We had an unbelievably rigorous first three months of this season because it is like a pilot,” Meredith Stiehm, an executive producer on “Homeland,” said in August, talking about the show’s reboot in the wake of Brody’s death last season. “We went to this week in Washington talking to these CIA people and asked State Department people, asking them, ‘What’s on your mind?’ And then we debated all five to seven of those countries for quite some time. So it did feel like the process you go through when you’re creating a new show.”
But even though “Homeland” is focused on Pakistan this year, the show feels more like a reset than a whole new program. Drones are still its main concern. It is just the way into the subject that is different.
In its initial iteration, “Homeland” focused on the impact of drone strikes by emphasizing how a Westerner — if one who had converted to Islam and spent years living with the Osama bin Laden-like Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) — was radicalized by America’s use of the weapons. This time, the show is coming in from a number of new angles.
First, there is Ayaan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma), a young man who survives a strike that Carrie calls in. The hit was supposed to take out just the No. 4 figure on the American kill list, but the weapon ended up detonating in the middle of a wedding. Ayaan is the only person pulled out of the rubble, and the look he aims at the cameras in the sky after identifying the bodies of his families is poisonous and grief-stricken.
“Homeland” has been talking for years about how collateral damage from drone strikes can produce new enemies for America. Ayaan’s performance for the cameras is unnerving to Carrie and her colleagues because it is clear he knew to look for them. The American drone teams are no longer anonymous figures raining death down on unsuspecting targets.
Pakistani citizens may not have the technology to shoot drones out of the skies, but they can make clear to drone operators that they know who they are and what they are doing. And they can visit their own kind of horror back on casualty-averse Americans, as they do when Sandy (Corey Stoll), the station chief in Islamabad, has his cover blown. The scene of him being cornered on a street, then dragged from Carrie and Quinn’s (Rupert Friend) car, is among the most effective and unnerving action sequences “Homeland” has ever put on-screen.
The cumulative impact of drone strikes and targeted killing grinds away at American personnel, too, as becomes clear in a young pilot’s tense confrontation with Carrie in a bar.
“You know me as Smash 12. I flew the mission into Pakistan the other night,” the man tells Carrie, before demanding to know how she deals with making calls that lead men like him to kill innocent civilians, as with the guests at the wedding. “Do you ever feel that? Sick to your stomach? … I killed 4 Canadian soldiers in January on bad orders. Dropped a 200-pound bomb on their heads. Monsters. F—— monsters. All of you.”
“It’s a job,” Carrie tells Quinn, who is clearly distressed by the prospect of “checking names off a kill list for a living.” They both know that what they are doing is not just a job. The new “Homeland” is not that new, and it has a major trust deficit to pay off. But it can still be unsettling when it asks whether jobs like this one should even be done at all.
[Correction: The initial version of this post suggested that Ayaan’s family had been killed by a drone. In fact, it was a targeted strike. Carrie is responsible for calling in both kinds of operations. The post has been updated to reflect the difference.]