Homeland was so exhilarating and vital in its first season because it managed to be a thoughtful rumination about the war on terror and a top-notch thriller at the same time. The cat-and-mouse game between Carrie and Brody worked as well as a story as it did as an allegory, but all that screeched to a halt after “Q&A.” It was about the thrill of Carrie’s hunt and the ramifications of Brody’s subterfuge, and once those elements were gone, Homeland ceased to be both a great thriller and a well-observed, cerebral drama at the same time.

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In season three, the bracing thriller elements were absent, and not until “Big Man In Tehran,” the season’s penultimate episode, did the pace pick up. (Incidentally, “Tehran” is the episode that effectively reunites Brody and Carrie.) Season four has brought Homeland’s strengths back into their proper balance, and though it took time to get there, “13 Hours In Islamabad” is the liveliest, most startling, and emotionally bruising episode in the show’s post-Brody phase. But there was a price of admission, and how high that price is depends on how unsettled you are by Homeland veering into 24’s lane.

For a viewer who thinks Homeland is better off when it steers entirely clear of 24’s histrionics, “Islamabad” probably isn’t going to work for the first half of its running time. It’s the most Homeland has ever felt like 24 in its history, and that includes Carrie’s run-in with Abu Nazir towards the end of season two. It’s not for nothing Howard Gordon got his Homeland writing credit since “The Smile,” and only his third since the show began.

I represent the type of Homeland viewer who likes the show to feel serious and substantive, and realizes it’ll have to lurch into 24 territory sometimes in order to be serious and substantive, but also arresting, nail-biting entertainment. For me, “Islamabad” worked, even while it made me feel the same emotions I’d imagine would lead someone to the exact opposite reaction. It does sometimes feel over the top, and it does feel occasionally manipulative. But it’s hard not to strike those chords when the subject is a terrorist attack. It might be impossible not to.

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Consider the infamous “Broken Hearts” (that title still makes me cringe), in which Brody has to help Nazir kill Vice President Walden by helping him hack into Walden’s pacemaker and upload a virus of some kind. After the plotline was mocked for its 24-like excess, Alex Gansa defended it by saying it was based on a theoretically possible scenario, a scenario which reportedly inspired Dick Cheney to deactivate the remote functionality of his own pacemaker.

Nothing about the explanation acquitted that story choice because terrorism is so horrific and difficult to grasp that even the real stuff doesn’t feel real. Having the vice president die due to a hacked pacemaker doesn’t sound like real life, it sounds like something that happened on a television show. Just like the prospect of someone flying commercial aircrafts into the World Trade Center wouldn’t have made any sense on September 9th.

“Islamabad,” like “Broken Hearts” before it, is an absolutely plausible episode of television that feels excessive and manipulative because a terrorist attack is more awful than any real thing should be. Before Benghazi became shorthand for Obamaphobia, it was a devastating 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in which four Americans, including an ambassador, were killed. The casualties weren’t as great as they are in “Islamabad,” but it’s an actual event.

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So while I understand exactly what my colleague Josh was saying about the urge to call bullshit when Haqqani comes barreling into the embassy because Duck Phillips flapped his bill to Tasneem, this is how these things happen. A key event in the Benghazi timeline was a distress call that initially went unanswered because the recipient didn’t recognize the phone number. A fact that tragic and crazy-making is risky fodder for a television episode because such a thing is so hard to fathom, it’s tough to render in a way that feels earned.

The upside of an attack on a U.S. Embassy, from a story perspective, is that it provides all the necessary ingredients for a suspenseful thriller, which Homeland has only become again within the past few episodes. A terrorism thriller can only be so subtle. There eventually has to be rocket-propelled grenades, shocking deaths, hostage standoffs, and impossible choices. “Islamabad” had all of that going for it, and what makes it all the more satisfying is an unshackled Quinn being the badass he’s been repeatedly described as.

It’s been a tough season for Quinn between the trauma of the Sandy Bachman attack, his anger issues, his conflicted feelings for Carrie, and his fallout with Dar Adal. Quinn has been looking for a reason to come alive, and he gets it in “Islamabad,” pairing up with a callow soldier to mount a resistance to Haqqani’s crew. With Carrie and Saul pinned down by sniper fire following the convoy ambush, Quinn practically has the first half of the episode to himself, and he’s able to force Haqqani and his men to retreat, but only after Haqqani murders Fara.

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I was surprised by how much Fara’s death affected me, given that I’ve always struggled to connect with the character. Of Homeland’s regulars, Fara is the one I’m least likely to miss when she’s missing for a couple of episodes. But it’s clear Fara was ambitious, passionate, and sincere, and was often held back by her inability to set her greater principles aside when doing so will benefit the current objective. It feels like a bit of a late hit to have Max frame Carrie and Fara’s relationship as that of an aloof mentor and her mentee, but it was emotionally effective. Carrie’s call to Fara’s father was brutal.

Though she spends half of it out of sight, pinned to the side of a car, Carrie has the most significant journey in “Islamabad” and demonstrates the most growth. “The attack on the embassy, it was Haqqani’s plan all along,” Carrie tells Saul repeatedly, making sure that he gets it. That’s no small moment. This is the same Carrie who in season one was fretting about having missed something on September 11th, who was obsessed with making sure the U.S. is never attacked again. Now, she’s clear on how this works: Sometimes you’re the windshield, other times the bug. This is one of the losses. Haqqani was set on attacking the embassy and Saul’s kidnapping was an improvisation in a broader scheme that would have otherwise taken a different path to arrive at the same destination.

Carrie sounds not only more mature, but generally healthier. But she’s no less effective at her job. This is a new mode for Carrie because the show has always intimated that Carrie’s tragic irony is the necessity for her to control and conceal her mental illness to be an agent when, in fact, she’s most effective as an agent when she’s at her most unstable. (Remember the color-coded timeline in “The Vest,” created when Carrie was in the throes of a manic flight?) In “Islamabad,” Carrie has enough healthy detachment to understand—much as she did in “Halfway To A Donut” discussing her poisoning with Khan—that this is a war in which some battles will be won while others are lost. The lost battles feel especially significant because your side is the one suffering, but such horrible things are ultimately just dots on a grid.

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Carrie is even gracious enough to offer comfort to Director Lockhart when he’s ready to beat himself up about unlocking the vault. As the “Drone Queen,” she understands how hard it is to build a life and a career out of making awful decisions you’re never sure you’ll be able to defend.

Stray observations:

  • Congrats to Max for finally getting his Chloe O’Brien moment.
  • Tracy Letts did a tremendous job in this episode. Lockhart has come a long, fascinating way.
  • Duck Phillips couldn’t even keep his promise to hang himself with his belt in order to spare his family any further indignity. Those scenes were phenomenal, and I was glad Gansa and Gordon didn’t let him off that easily.
  • Something about Tasneem makes me feel super uncomfortable. A little help here?
  • I have to assume, given what a political football the Benghazi attacks have become, that this episode will renew the debates about Howard Gordon’s politics and whether the show is being responsible about these issues.
  • I’m taking over for Josh for the last three episodes of the season. Be gentle.

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