Hoo boy. I did not plan to get to this series this soon, but it’s been falling like a rock in the rankings thanks to its current season. It can still pull out of the tailspin (and seems to be working on it), but let’s get through this entry just focusing on the positives of Seasons 1 and 2, okay?
I missed something once before. I won’t, I can’t let that happen again.
At the outset, Homeland was positioned as almost an “anti-24,” as in where the latter show is action-centered, with a hero who will do whatever it takes regardless of the consequences, Homeland is ALL about consequences. It takes an unflinching look at the people directly involved in the War on Terror, and on the toll it takes on them personally. The fascinating thing about the series is that the spycraft–while tense, exciting and well-staged–is secondary to the characters and their relationships. But as the series carries on through the back half of its second season and beyond, this becomes a point of criticism.
Based on the Israeli series Prisoner of War, producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa (24, obviously) spin the tale of a former American POW who returns home after being thought dead for years, and attempts to put his family back together… while possibly harboring a dark secret. One lone CIA agent suspects what he might be up to, and tries to uncover the truth at great personal and professional cost. It’s a great, hooky premise that carries a strong narrative momentum throughout its Emmy-winning first season.
Spoilers from the first two seasons follow, because there’s really no other way to do this. If you haven’t seen the show, just know that it’s worth watching despite its recent problems.
The single best thing about Homeland, of course, is the lead performance from Claire Danes. As the bi-polar agent Carrie Mathison, Danes is shattering nearly every episode. Carrie is incredibly obsessive and more than a little crazy, but her gut instincts almost always turn out to be right. It’s a delicate balance in playing the “insufferable know-it-all” in a sympathetic way, but Danes nails it. She owns every frame of every scene. It’s a masterclass in manic toughness, and she’s well-deserving of all the awards thrown her way.
But the rest of the cast is outstanding, too — Mandy Patinkin has his best role and performance in years as Carrie’s supervisor/mentor Saul, and English actor Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers) is Brody, the POW who’s been turned into a potential terrorist by Abu Nazir. He’s a war hero to the country (and indeed to the rest of the CIA), but Brody is a broken man, who is unable to reconnect with his wife (Morena Baccarin) and children, and whose moral compass has been completely re-calibrated. It’s in this weakened state that his cat-and-mouse relationship with the equally-broken Carrie turns into something romantic, and ultimately doomed.
The central idea of Homeland is not of thwarting an impending terrorist attack (as it would have been for 24), but in two damaged people finding comfort in each other in a world spinning out of control. Carrie’s suspicions (that she has no evidence for) don’t keep her from falling in love with Brody when she gets close, and Brody’s dedication to his mission (not to mention who Carrie is) doesn’t keep him from falling for her, either. The audience knows there’s no way it’s not going to end terribly, but through Carrie and Brody’s intimate conversations we see new shades of both characters, which just makes things all the more heartbreaking when they’re forced to turn on each other.
Brody doesn’t go through with the attack, thanks to a well-timed phone call from his daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor, one of the very best teenage actresses on television), but in his “innocence” forces Carrie — who’s gotten herself in deep trouble by harassing Brody’s family — to admit to the CIA what she’s been up to, and that she’s been wrong all along. It’s an extremely difficult and brave ending to the first season, but was not without some controversy: Brody was originally supposed to die, but the writers loved Lewis so much they decided to keep him around. Therefore, the second season is a series of diminishing returns as Carrie and Brody continue to make googly eyes at each other, with Brody now in his new role as a Congressman–and still on the hook with Nazir.
Not that there’s not still a lot of great stuff in Season 2 — the first several episodes chew through story at a ridiculous pace, as domino after domino falls in a way that is consistently surprising and cathartic: Brody’s unused confession tape is found; Carrie is shown to have been right all along, and the CIA agrees to surveil him; Brody is dramatically brought in and interrogated (the episode “Q & A,” the series’s all-time best) in an extraordinarily well-written dance between he and Carrie where she tries to turn him back to the side of the angels, with all of their romantic history out in the open. Of course, it doesn’t go as planned, because nothing on this show ever goes as planned, but it’s thrilling and a near-perfect hour of television even so.
But at about the halfway mark, the wheels start to wobble a bit, and the thrill of the the writers slamming down on the accelerator gets replaced with a “wait, but they don’t know where they’re driving.” Furthermore, it becomes increasingly more obvious that Brody and his family have outlived their usefulness in the story, but the writers are still committed to these characters for some inexplicable reason. The end of Season 2 sees another terrorist attack, this time a catastrophic bombing at Langley, that Brody is framed for despite (this time) not actually having been responsible. Carrie spirits him away to Canada, knowing that she’s going to be made the scapegoat for letting Brody wander free.
Again, there are still a lot of fantastic things here. The performances are across-the-board brilliant, and the direction and crafting is worthy of “prestige drama.” Even the writing missteps (looking at you, Dana/Boyfriend hit-and-run) can be overlooked because the story is so propulsive, so daring, a lot of it just doesn’t matter in the broader context. But the fact of the matter is that Brody and Carrie have expired as a viable “item,” and the more the show returns to that well the less satisfying it is. And don’t get me started on the questionable plotting of these early Season 3 episodes.
Even though the future of Homeland is very much in doubt, that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — erase its extraordinary accomplishments. Even when it has felt more like it’s brainless cousin, 24, (or worse, a soap opera) it’s been a pulpy, engaging roller coaster of a series, and might not be dead just yet. At least, I haven’t given up on it.