Showtime's Emmy winner for Best Drama returns Sunday for its second season. Fans can spend a few days pondering last season's stunning finale, but for newcomers it's time to play catch up. Because everyone should be watching "Homeland": it's the most astute piece of film or television to come out of the War on Terror.
More than a decade after 9/11, no better portrait has emerged of why we fight. I don't mean that in a jingoistic sense — I mean that Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa's subtle, suspenseful drama, from creator Gideon Raff's Israeli series "Prisoners of War," takes the time to explain the personal and political motives of the fragile, human figures at its core. "Homeland," tersely nonpartisan, alludes to cable news tickers and military technology, but only as a way into the intimate lives of its characters. Ostensibly, Carrie Mathison (Emmy winner Claire Danes), a suspicious and whip-smart CIA analyst, installs surveillance equipment in the house of returning POW Nicholas Brody (Emmy winner Damian Lewis) to find out if he's part of a terrorist plot. But what she gets instead is a troubling glimpse of excruciating emotional pain: violent, literally bruising nightmares, sexual shame, the secrets and lies that penetrate even the most mundane lives.
As New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum pointed out last November, "Homeland" intuits that the too-easy heroism of "24" makes for television that is both morally suspect and strangely deadening — crisis ceases to be an effective plot device when crisis is the status quo. In "Homeland" the crises are meted out slowly; they're psychological, and no less grave for that. Carrie is in some ways a heroic figure — throughout the first season, I found myself rooting for her, warts and all — but she's a tragic hero, brought low by disasters of her own making. And it's Carrie's damaged inner life that elevates the show from a sharp procedural to a rich, complex attempt at redefining what "war" and "terror" mean in this War on Terror we seem bound to fight.
Danes, in a bravura performance, essentially plays two characters: savant Carrie, incisive and confident, and suffering Carrie, haggard and manic. Running her hands anxiously through her hair, pacing, pitching her voice into registers high enough to qualify as a shriek, she widens her eyes as though she might see afresh. "I missed something once before," Carrie laments to Saul (Mandy Patinkin), her mentor at the agency. "I won't... I can't let that happen again." In this scene, from the pilot, Danes conveys the wavelength of frailty on which the series vibrates. Confronted by Saul for her illegal surveillance activities, she shifts from assertive to vulnerable, wordlessly offering sex in exchange for a free pass. It's a humiliating, frightful moment.
It's also why "Homeland" demands to be seen: the show's revelations are quiet, insidious, building through 12 episodes until they burst forth in a finale of raw nerves that actually left me yelling at the TV (in a good way). Brody, after eight years in captivity, reflects just how much the world has changed, even in what would otherwise be a throwaway moment: when his wife asks him about a laugh he shared with their daughter, he tells her it was "a video called YouTube." In an election season, when the icky triumphalism that tends to come out of the intersection of politics and patriotism takes over the airwaves, it's important to be reminded of the intimate ruptures and dark recesses of war, not just in the abstract but on the terrain of actual lives. "Homeland" does just that.
Season Two of "Homeland" premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.