The near unstoppable success of Homeland in its first year was less a story of the little Showcase drama that could, than it was the little bomb that didn't go off, and I'm not just talking about the suicide vest that we all held our breath over during the first season finale. Despite proving week after week that a serialized post-9/11 conspiracy-thriller could be a nail-biter in the vein of Breaking Bad, -as well as a thought-provoking, often ambiguous, political drama- a lot of viewers maintained a "sure, but" attitude for all twelve episodes. Sure, the pilot was a textbook example of how to launch a premise and establish interesting characters, but pilots are rarely representative of an entire season. Sure, showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa kept the story moving at a pace that made their last series, 24, seem flat-footed, but by burning up more plot points in six episodes than some shows do in a season, would there be anything left for the second half? Sure, the finale deftly brought all the intricate plot lines and elements together into the most sweat-inducing scene of any show that year, but were there enough stray threads left hanging to turn into a second season? Toppling perennial Emmy favourites Breaking Bad and Mad Men in both the acting and best overall drama categories last week was no doubt sweet vindication for the creative staff, seeing as half the reason some viewers watched Homeland was to pinpoint the exact moment when one slight misstep would bring the whole apparatus crashing down. The show winning over critics and audiences alike meant that it got to go into its premiere last night with a lot more trust on the part of the viewer than was given at the start of season one, but that question of "when is Homeland going to blow up in everyone's face" still remained, and likely always will. If the newest episode, "The Smile", is any indicator though, then we've still got plenty of time left on the countdown clock.
Six months after getting some of the crazy electroshocked out of her, Carrie Matheson is back in the field. Well, it's more of a garden, where she's collecting veggies for the dinner she'll be cooking for her sister and father. Upstairs, a stack of ESL papers wait for her to be graded. It's the terrifying mundanity she knew waited for her if the C.I.A. ever found out about her mental problems, and it's strangely more depressing than encouraging to see that she might be enjoying it. Sure, there's the occasional glance at news stories covering unrest in the Middle East, but it's as harmless as seeing what an ex is up to on Facebook. If ever there were a Carrie more at odds with the fiery, bulldozer we were first introduced to, this is it.
Homeland's never been coy about putting its characters through the wringer, and despite all the punishment Brody endured during his eight years of captivity, at least he wasn't the one who got terminated from the job they lived for, their heart broken, and a yet unknown amount of their memory wiped out through electroconvulsive therapy. And yet, despite having found a modicum of peace amidst the routine of suburbia, the world just isn't through with making Carrie's life hell.
When Danny (the guy who who was always around helping Carrie with C.I.A. grunt work) crashes her class and asks her to come in to Langley, she shoots him down, mostly out of spite, but perhaps also because she actually agrees that she never belonged with the C.I.A. to begin with. It takes a call from Saul before she even gives Estes the time of day, and he lays out the situation for her on the family front porch. Fatima Ali, an asset in close with a Hezbollah district commander that Carrie recruited years ago, has information about an imminent attack on U.S. soil. The only problem: she won't talk to anyone but Carrie.
We see why once we check in with Saul, who's dusted off the pork pie hat and is now back in the field, having gotten that transfer he asked for last year. He couldn't have picked a worse time to do so it seems; a series of bombings on Iranian nuclear sites by Israel's military has caused massive protests across the region. Simply leaving the U.S. embassy in Beirut without being followed becomes a quick little game of cat and mouse, which Saul proves more than up to the task for, but it's all for not. Fatima will only cough up the information if Carrie meets her, in person, in Beirut.
Estes' plan is made to sound simple, though is anything but: have Carrie learn a cover ID, sneak into the country, make contact with the informant, and get back home in 72 hours. He doesn't sugarcoat it though, and makes no attempt to bait Carrie (with something, it turns out, she doesn't want) by telling her "this isn't you getting your job back, this is you being a good citizen." Despite the protestation of her sister, Carrie packs up, head to Cyprus, and gets to work on being Kate Morrissey, from Calgary, Alberta.
The other half of Homeland's equation also starts the year on a high note, as Congressman Brody might soon be upgrading to Vice President Brody. Yes, it seems that the recall election went about as well as Vice President Walden could have hoped, so much so that he's started floating Brody's name for the convention ticket (which party's convention that is still remains a mystery). Brody's pragmatic about it, telling Jessica that Walden just wants to leverage his Marine background to look strong amidst all the unrest in Iran. All the same, the Brody clan seems to have finally found normalcy, and Brody himself seems like he's enjoying it…
Which is why probably why Abu Nazir is wondering just what exactly he's getting out of the mole he spent eight years creating. Despite killing his best friend again to prove his loyalty at the end of last season, Brody's rather nebulous plan to influence government at the highest levels isn't helping Nazir's cause fast enough, and he makes his displeasure known via an alluring news reporter. Brody smartly feigns ignorance when she claims to be an emissary of their mutual friend, but he starts to believe her once she name drops Isa. Seems that old wound hasn't healed just yet.
Brody's crash-course on the oval office includes a meet and greet over homeland security at Langley, and the reporter gives Brody the combination to Estes' office safe. In it is an encryption key that will provide a laundry list of sites vulnerable to attack, which doesn't cotton to Brody's more passive approach to changing the U.S. Their microcosmic debate on the difference between a nation defending itself and getting revenge as determining Brody's decision to play along is largely irrelevant, since we know the character at this point, and equally important, what makes for good TV.
Brody gets some alone time with the safe the next day when Estes is distracted by the reporter pretending to have a scoop on the Iranian nuclear site bombings, only to buy more time for Brody by offering Estes a dinner date. It's a fun little sequence of Brody debating his choice for a moment, only to quickly scramble around the office and write down the key code in a ledger that will no doubt be of importance later. Granted, Estes getting personally involved with a reporter seems a little hokey, but nothing stopped him from cheating on his wife with Carrie, so perhaps he has a thing for mixing office and bedroom politics.
But the big scene of the night goes to Jessica, often the most under-utilized player in season one, who gets a bombshell dropped on her thanks to a misplaced word from Dana at her fancy new school. After almost outting her dad as a muslim, Dana tries to cover her tracks, but Brody comes clean to Jessica, and she does not take it well. No small part of her reaction is due to the fact that its one of the last lies Brody has maintained since getting his marriage back together, but what's most surprising is how Jessica's indignation comes with a huge dose of xenophobia. "These are the people who, if they found out Dana and Xander were having sex, they'd stone her to death in a soccer stadium," she yells angrily, before throwing Brody's Qur'an on the floor.
It's an unnerving sequence, partly because it relays the show's shift in focus away from surveillance and the military, to a larger arena of politics and religion, which were mostly background elements last year. It's not quite as jarring as going from the slums of West Baltimore to the docks in Season 2 of The Wire, but already, there's a greater sense that Homeland is taking off the kid gloves with regards to how reflective of the real world it wants to be. Sure, Brody was working for Al-Qaeda all last season, but as an institution, they're treated not that differently from any of the off-brand terrorist groups 24 would use every season. Howard and Gansa seem emboldened to start using more real geography, more bits ripped from the headlines (the massive protest scenes will be familiar to any viewer who's turned on the news in the last month), and the result could make the tightrope they walk on even tighter. Part of Homeland's appeal has been its ability to traffic in moral grey areas, but it's a lot less dangerous to play in that traffic when you're talking fiction, not fact.
It's represented best by the episode's final scene, where Brody and Dana bury the damaged Qur'an, but whether that's meant as a funeral, or the seeding of something meant to grow, is unclear. Brody's conversion seems like the kind of secret Walden asks about earlier, the kind that can kill a political career, as well as a campaign. And yet, it seems possible to envision circumstances where, as an act of global harmony, a golden boy, true-blooded American, comes out as Muslim, and the world doesn't end. The season starts with our two leads happier than we've ever seen them, now that they've escaped the duties and missions that drove them in the first season, only to get pulled right back in against their will. In Brody's case, we're unsure of which side of the war that the reporter alludes to he'll end up on.
Carrie though? If that last shot of her tells us anything, it's that she truly didn't have a choice about coming back into the espionage fold. Despite looking rusty after six months on leave, and perhaps missing some of that mojo her illness provided, Carrie gets thrown right into the deep end when her meet with Fatima gets interrupted by a tail. A costume change and a swift kick to the groin later, and suddenly the Carrie Matheson we fell in love with last year is back in action. And that's certainly something to smile about.
- Stray Thoughts
-I can confirm that if you don't know who Calgary's hockey team is, you're not really from Alberta.
-Some new images pop up in the credit sequence, which slowly went from a bizarre montage to one of my favourite intros for any show. Where else do you get to hear two of the lead actors say "fuck" two minutes into every episode? Looks like a shot of Tehran and a news broadcast are some of the new things.
-So who got Estes' safe code? It was a relief that the temptation to have a mole be exposed late game last season was avoided, but the longer Nazir keeps getting sensitive intel, the more likely it seems that the reveal has just been delayed.
-Virgil Watch: No signs this week. Here's hoping for an episode-long flashback to catch us up on what he and his creepy brother have been doing the last six months.
-Having never been to a Quaker meeting, I hope that's how they actually go down. Otherwise, that scene felt like some uncharacteristically overt laying out of themes, although if anyone has to do it, get a snot-nosed trust fund punk. Douche is an understatement.
-The continued presence of the prep school boy who bails out Dana after her "my dad's a muslim" gaffe seems almost certain.
-Update on Chris: He's got 300 more Facebook friends. Good for him.
-Carrie details to Saul the vegetable dinner she's making for her family, as well as refuses a kebab in Cyprus, claiming she doesn't eat meat. Something to watch for in the future, or has Compulsive Homeland Conspiracy Syndrome already taken hold of me?