Homeland, Ep. 2.01: “The Smile” teases progress and potential pitfalls of new season

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Homeland, Season 2, Episode 1: “The Smile”
Written by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime

It’s US election season. Fears of terrorism, domestic and foreign, are being stoked by candidates from both parties. The release of anti-Islamic videos uploaded to YouTube from the States have resulted in fatal reprisals abroad. The notion that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya remains a prevalent one in certain, especially bigoted circles. What is referred to as “the intelligence community” has ballooned in size since 9/11. “The attitude was, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth overdoing”; those are the words of Adm. Dennis C. Blair, former CIA director of national intelligence, on said development. The same growth that has led to, among other excesses, supposed terrorist-hunters sitting at their desks monitoring online gamers.* Meanwhile, unmanned drones deployed by the US military wipe out suspected enemies of the state (along with, on occasion, innocent bystanders). Reprisals surely await, in forms seemingly none can truly anticipate. After a while, the silly and absurd facts blend in with the tragic and infuriating ones, rendering them harder to parse for meaning.

Is it any wonder Showtime’s Homeland has captured the zeitgeist? (That is, if the zeitgeist can be said to be measured in Emmys, and the surely-coveted status of being the President’s favorite TV series.)

When last we saw Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), she was not in a good place. She was disowned by the Central Intelligence Agency, subjected by electro-shock therapy that swiss-cheesed her short-term memory, and dismissed as a crackpot loon by nearly everyone not in her immediate family or named Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). That she inadvertently saved the lives of a bunker-ful of politicians and military brass is of little comfort, since she has no idea. Conversely, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is politically ascendant: the decorated war hero is not only a congressman, but is being groomed and vetted as a possible running mate for the current VP’s forthcoming campaign. Not bad for a guy whose allegiance secretly lies with radical Islamic terrorists.

The principal challenge of Homeland‘s second season: we all want to get back to the Saul and Carrie Show, watching their strained-but-strong relationship be tested in the field as Carrie puts her theories in order and tries to keep sane, but last season’s resolution is one hell of a thing to walk back from. For its part, “The Smile” doesn’t take on too much of that burden all at once – Saul and Carrie don’t have a proper scene together, for starters, and she’s still not an all-out CIA operative again just yet – but it’s far from inert. Of all the ways to theoretically pull Carrie back into the action, executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon contrive one that doesn’t strain credibility too badly: a former asset in Beirut has potentially vital information about an attack, but will only speak to Carrie, who “made” her several years back. David Estes (David Harewood) shows up at Carrie’s doorstep to explain the situation and, of course, her resistance is mostly for show.

So while Carrie is on her way back to some form of status quo, things are already beginning to unravel for Brody. Following an ill-advised outburst at school courtesy of daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor), Brody is forced to out himself as a Muslim to long-suffering wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin), who seems even more repulsed by the notion that her husband adopted the foreign faith of his captors than by the fact that he’s been constantly lying to her for many months about the time he’s spent in the garage. Brody’s other subplot, his being recruited by one of Abu Nazir’s loyal followers to steal some information from Este’s office, is suitably tense, but it’s the material at home that resonates most strongly. The nature of Brody’s “turning” has always felt to me to be too sudden, too thorough, too neatly predicated on specific events. A more thorough exploration of his faith, especially as it conflicts with his family life, might start to amend that shortcoming.

But of course the episode is called “The Smile” for a reason. Carrie is back undercover by episode’s end, winding up being chased by two thugs who were previously tailing Saul. After she ditches them with a well-placed kick, she cracks a wide grin. She’d missed this, a lot. How much are Gansa and Gordon going to push Carrie’s mental frailty this season? We’ve already seen her be torn down once, so repeating the process would likely be overkill. But ignoring Carrie’s self-destructive tendencies would be a mistake as well, one there is absolutely no indication they’ll make. Going forward, one of the show’s trickiest gambits will be getting that balance right.

Brody’s potential arcs this season are more worrisome. His political rise has happened awfully fast – he’s a war hero, sure, but hardly the most charismatic presence ever. Hopefully Jessica’s invoking of Carrie’s seemingly-crazed rants on their front lawn will lead to complications that will put the kibosh on his political ambitions, at least for the time being, because there’s no conceivable way for Homeland to go on for multiple seasons with Brody in so high a position of power. Then again, I couldn’t conceive of how a second season would even function as the first was nearing its end, so perhaps Gansa and Gordon have more tricks up their sleeve than anyone could divine. After all, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Right?

Simon Howell

*Quote and anecdotal details are lifted from the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” feature, viewable in its entirety here.

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