Tuned In

Homeland Watch: They Pull Them Back In

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Ronen Akerman/SHOWTIME

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, heat up some vegetable lasagna and watch last night’s second season premiere of Homeland.

“Just so we’re clear: this is not you getting your job back. This is you being a good citizen.”

“If your allegiance is truly with us, this is your chance to prove it.”

Homeland is about a lot of things, but on a personal level, it’s about two people–Carrie and Brody–who find their individual lives, wishes and welfare subordinated to the needs and wants of a larger group. It may be that Carrie, at heart, belongs in the CIA no matter how destructive the work is to her; it may be that Brody truly wants justice for Isa. But as the second-season debut of Homeland, “The Smile,” made clear, at this point, what they individually want is beside the point. Their country / cause wants them, and they’re being reactivated.

The episode begins with Carrie, who we last saw attempting to get her mental illness–and perhaps her memories–shocked out of her. And, for once, she’s in the company of people who see her not as a colleague or an asset but a person, and care for her as such. But caring doesn’t mean agreeing: while her sister wants her medicated and sheltered from the news for her protection, her father worries that too much lithium will make Carrie less who she is.

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It’s a nice break from the expected setup: Carrie’s father is not given the “paternal” reaction, but–more like a friend or peer who’s been through the same thing–believes his daughter needs to be allowed to feel, even at risk of being hurt. And Carrie’s journey in this episode allows recent Emmy winner Claire Danes to show her teetering between two sides of her nature: you feel she genuinely wants a quieter life making vegetable lasagna, and she genuinely feels pulled to act, to risk, to get in the game. It’s a great, annoyed-but-telling reaction Carrie gives, once sent on her mission in Lebanon, to being served a kebab: “I don’t eat meat.” And a great metaphor: she wants to tend her garden, but she probably knows, at some level, that there’s no escaping the sausage-making business.

It’s not as if Carrie’s colleagues are callous; it was, after all, Saul who tried in vain to stop her electroshock. But part of that reaction was wanting Carrie to be the agent that she was, and now, with a Mideast crisis blowing up in front of him, he needs her to be it again.

(After the past month’s embassy attack in Libya and protests around the Muslim world, by the way, how chilling was it to see that crowd gathering around the embassy in Beirut? And Benjamin Netanyahu’s “red line” speech to the UN about Iran’s nuclear ambitions was a reminder of just how ripped from the headlines season 2’s premise—an Israeli strike on five Iranian nuke sites—really was. Not prescient, exactly, because those tensions have been in the news for a long time, but disturbingly timely.)

David Estes, on the other hand, is no more a people person with Carrie than ever; their history still weighs heavily on both of them, and beyond a perfunctory effort at civility, he makes plain that, whatever happened, he feels he owes her nothing. Estes ends up being the fulcrum of the episode, as we end up seeing him meeting on much friendlier terms with Brody, now a congressman, potential vice presidential candidate and re-activated threat.

For Brody too, more triumphant than Carrie, thought he had a deal by which he’d no longer have to get his hands dirty. But the deal, he is informed, has changed. And as with Carrie, we’re left to sift through his complicated reactions and emotions to see whether that is or isn’t what he wants. At the end of last season, Carrie’s warnings ignored, he had to choose between his love for his daughter (calling him desperately on the phone) and his desire to avenge Isa, who was next to a son to him. He chose the former, but can he do that forever?

What I love about Homeland, and this episode, and Damian Lewis’ performance, is that we get to see there’s no neat answer to that. Brody has not been made into a monster. He’s not the man he was when he got taken prisoner, and yet he seems truly not to want to kill innocents. But innocents will be killed, are being killed, with or without him, and there’s still rage in him—rage that flashes briefly and brilliantly when Estes casually fails to come up with the number of Predators drones in the field: “You lost count?”

At the end of last season, some viewers felt that it seemed like Brody was being kept alive against the demands of the story, to keep Lewis and the story spinning out for more seasons. We’ll have to see how that decision plays over this year—you can only hit reset so many times—but what made this such a strong season debut was that the internal drama of the characters was at least as compelling as the thriller stuff.

Yes, there were tense moments as Carrie shakily went back into action in the field and Brody raced to loot Estes’ safe for Abu Nazir. But what stuck with me were more intimate scenes. Carrie trying to wriggle back into the mindset of a field operative, willing herself to retain her alias’ backstory: “DiCarlo. Like the olive oil. DiCarlo DiCarlo DiCarlo DiCarlo DiCarlo.” The fraught moment when Dana glanced at Brody and he had to decide whether to let his daughter hang for a “lie” he knew was true, or come clean to his wife. And the fantastic scenes afterward: Jessica’s hurt, Brody’s snapping as she drops his Koran, the tender as she helps him bury the holy book.

I don’t know if Homeland has 6 or 7 seasons of this in it, and I don’t want it to become Dexter, keeping its premise alive at all costs past the point of creative returns. But I think, and hope, it at least has another great season left in it this year, and I left this episode glad to see Carrie and Brody pressed back into service. It is indeed for our greater good.

Now for a quick hail of bullets:

* Did I hear Brody in passing refer to being held in a “Taliban hole” when he was actually captive taken prisoner* in Iraq (the Taliban, of course, being in Afghanistan)? Did I mishear? Is that a figure of speech I’m not familiar with? *(Update: A comment below clarifies this, a little. I still don’t recall the Taliban being referenced in connection with Nazir, but I may be forgetting something.)

* We see a lot of Carrie, and a lot of Brody, but not what Carrie thinks of (or remembers about) Congressman Brody, whom she ended last season being supposedly “wrong” about. It’ll be interesting to see when and how the subject comes up.

* I love the testiness between Carrie and Estes in their encounter: she has no interest in maintaining a pretense of politeness, and he doesn’t bother to for more than a few seconds anyway. Also enjoy that quintessentially Estes move of simultaneously demanding Carrie’s help and questioning her as if defying her to prove why she should go on a mission she doesn’t want in the first place.

* My sympathies for Dana. Shutting up through Quaker meeting would be the hardest I’d ever had to do in school.

* OK, another quibble, but: anyone want to explain how Carrie manages to disarm a man and knee him in the groin with half a dozen women within a one-foot radius, but manages to convince them “her husband” collapsed of a physical attack and not, say, being kneed in the groin?

* Great little smile of satisfaction by Danes there at getting the old feeling back, though. Kneeing an armed assailant in the groin? Just like riding a bicycle! You never forget.