Most of us don’t know much about counterterrorism – the illusion of peering into a secret world is one of the many enticing elements of Homeland – but we all know something about politics. As it starts its enthralling second season, the Showtime series goes beyond global terror and exploits another kind of nightmare: the weirdness, to the point of stupidity, of American politics.
Brody (Damian Lewis) is now a Congressman. Nothing strange about that; America considers him a war hero. We know, and the CIA still doesn’t, that he’s secretly loyal to terrorist Abu Nazir.
The more head-swiveling twist is that Vice-President Walden (Jamey Sheridan) publicly floats Brody’s name as a possible running mate in his presidential campaign. Is it realistic to think someone barely in Congress, without the experience to grapple with either Washington politics or world events, could zoom that high so fast? Is it ever. The initials SP are enough to remind us of the most obvious example. Brody’s new career is convenient for the story, but it also works as a mischievous tweak at the sometimes ludicrous results of our campaign process.
And if something that absurd can happen, why wouldn’t it be possible for a terrorist to infiltrate the government and try to undermine it from within, as Brody has? The conspiracy-minded might wonder: how do we know they haven’t?
That political storyline reveals how Homeland uses its frisson of reality to hit a nerve. ABC’s gripping new series Last Resort takes the possibility of a nuclear strike against Pakistan and spins it into a wild adventure. Andre Braugher plays the heroically rogue commander of a nuclear submarine, certain of the U.S. government’s corruption and malice. He lands his sub on a remote island and sets off a harmless – as if! – bomb in the ocean off the coast of D.C.
But Homeland uses its connection to the real world to create plausible nightmares. The second season premiere begins with events so topical the show might have been written yesterday: Israel has bombed Iranian nuclear sites, killing Iranian civilians, and Abu Nazir wants retaliation. The scenes of anti-American protests in the Middle East would be eerily close to reality even if recent events hadn’t caught up with the show.
Of course, Homeland thrives on its ever-more-complex characters and unpredictable plots. The bipolar Carrie (Claire Danes), tossed out of the CIA, is resting at her sister’s when the agency calls her to Beirut because the wife of a Hezbollah leader has information she’ll only give to Carrie. The performances are fantastic – that’s why Danes and Lewis won Emmys. Lewis is especially affecting, keeping us off guard about whether Brody’s best impulses will surface. Talking to a reporter who is actually a liaison with Abu Nazir, Brody insists he’s loyal to the cause but not a murderer. How naive can a smart man be? The second episode ends with Carrie’s CIA friend and mentor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin) making a discovery so jaw-dropping it’s hard to guess how the writers will keep Brody’s long game going.
President Obama has famously called Homeland is his favorite show, and as Jimmy Kimmel asked when hosting the Emmys, is that a good sign? Isn’t it like Charlie Sheen saying his favorite show is Breaking Bad? But why does the President like Homeland? For all we know, he might lke to laugh at the details they get wrong, the way journalists do at The Newsroom and doctors at Grey’s Anatomy.
There is so much we don’t know, and Homeland takes advantage of those gaping holes. But its suspense is grounded in realities we can clearly see: that global politics is explosive, and an untested first-term Congressman with a shiny public image and no experience could easily waltz into power.
Take a look at Homeland's elegant season two trailer, which without dialogue reveals a lot about what's to come.