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'Homeland' finale recap: Carrie Mathison faces big dilemma back home

After the explosive action and plot twists of the previous three episodes, "Homeland" closed its fourth season on a quieter note, withCarrie Mathison looking inward to slay a few personal dragons.

LOS ANGELES ( - After the explosive action and plot twists of the previous three episodes, "Homeland" closed its fourth season on a quieter note, withCarrie Mathison looking inward to slay a few personal dragons.

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you have not seen the Dec. 21 episode of "Homeland," "Long Time Coming."

The season that saw Carrie get back to what she does best -- tenaciously fighting terrorists -- ended with her trying to adjust to dealing with the stuff of everyday life: being a mother, dealing with the loss of her father and the painful reconnection with her long-AWOL mother.

Even the requisite cliffhanger moment to keep us primed for season five revolves around Carrie facing a moral gut-check rather than the imminent danger of a bomb going off or specific attack unfolding. In fact, the dilemma Carrie stumbles into in the closing moments of "Long Time Coming," is the epitome of what "Homeland" does so well -- examining the gray areas of U.S. foreign policy.

How much do you compromise basic principles for the sake of making expedient progress? How much wiggle room is there to negotiate with sworn enemies when they offer something that could further the cause of U.S. security? It's all the more powerful that "Homeland" would return to form in asking these questions in a fictionalized drama during the same month that the country and the world was rocked by the findings of the Senate's investigation into CIA's use of torture in the real war on terrorism.

All of this taken together made for a powerful episode, written by exec producer Meredith Stiehm and directed by exec producer Lesli Linka Glatter. As has been the case in every episode of season four, star Claire Danes was masterful in her portrayal of a woman facing anguish and deeply conflicted feelings in every area of her life.

Compared to the last two episodes, the finale was less of a roller coaster ride for Danes as there were no shootouts, no bombs exploding and no running through the streets of Islamabad. But Danes had to bring it in so many other ways, including her angry confrontation with her long-lost mother and her effort to deal with Quinn's very dramatic -- and very romantic -- proposal. For once, Carrie was perfectly reasonable in telling Quinn not to pressure her on a decision and to give her time to think. It's her dumb luck that she falls for the high strung type.

Seeing her deliver an emotional eulogy for her father or take her daughter to the park reminded us that between the drama of her job and the trauma of her bipolar condition, we don't often get to see Carrie doing everyday- type things. She herself is the first to admit that she can't possibly have something so normal as a relationship with Peter Quinn, who finally shows up at her father's funeral service. "I'll f--- it up," she tells Quinn when he tenderly asks her to run away from the CIA with him. "I know how this goes. This will end badly."

By the end of the episode, she's ready to give Quinn the answer he wants ... except that he's off on a dangerous covert operation involving Syria. And then she's rattled by learning that Saul Berenson, the beacon of decency throughout her career in the CIA, appears to be willing to go along with fellow CIA veteran Dar Adal's ultra-covert plan to cut a kind of detente deal with Haqqani and the Pakistani military in order to return to work at the agency, perhaps as the boss again. And the fact that Adal was seen riding in the car with Haqqani when Carrie was ready to shoot him the previous week's episode indicates how long the plan has been in the works. Carrie can't believe Adal is willing to "dishonor the memory" of the more than three dozen embassy workers by cutting a deal with the devil -- even if it might help the U.S. achieve other worthy goals.

"Not every choice we make is blessed with moral clarity," Adal tells Saul. He's a shameless seducer: "Come back. Lead us. The agency is waiting for you with open arms." Saul, having been fired from his private contractor job, is desperate enough to get back to the CIA that he lets himself be wooed. If Haqqani is deemed off-limits by the CIA, that unfortunate video of Saul working from the wrong script will not be released. It seems a dicey bargain, but again, Saul is desperate. He's like a person let out of prison after 30 years with no ability to live a "normal" life on the outside.

The intrepid Quinn is in the same boat, much as he thinks he yearns for a life of bouncing a baby on his knee and helping with the dishes.

Considering the season as a whole, there's plenty of praise to go around, from sharp writing and directing to strong performances by Rupert Friend (Peter Quinn), Laila Robins (Martha Boyd), Tracy Letts (Andrew Lockhart), Nazanin Boniadi (Fara Sherazi), Nimrat Kaur (Tasneem) and Numan Acar (Haqqani). But at its core, this show turns on the relationship between Carrie and Saul, and the relationships they maintain separately in the wider world. The hard work done by Danes and Mandy Patinkinthis season made "Homeland" unmissable again.

Carrie has had her ups and downs this season but for the most part she's been in a pretty good head space. We've seen her be a leader under pressure, and we've seen her accept her failures. She was humbled by her father's death and enlightened by the visit with her mother, which allayed her fears about trying to make a go of a relationship with her bipolar condition. She took in the tough love from her sister, Maggie, who first chastised her for chasing their mother, Ellen, away, and then reminded Carrie that she also left her daughter shortly after she was born. Those words are sure to echo in Carrie's head, as much as she protested that it was always her intention to return to being a mother.

"I'm walking the line," Carrie tells her sister, assuring her that she is on her meds. The fact that Carrie appears to be in such a basically healthy place as the season ends -- notwithstanding some heartbreak to come regarding Quinn -- may be the most shocking twist of all for "Homeland."