[Warning: There are minor spoilers in this review.]
The title sequence of “Homeland” makes for unnerving viewing. It’s like watching the nightly news have a small seizure. There are snippets of reports of recent wars, presidents from Reagan to Obama addressing the nation, Claire Danes’s remorseful Carrie in a maze of hedges, all set to dissonant industrial sounds that accumulate into a melancholy jazz piece. The first time I saw it, I hated it; now I am riveted.
The images in the sequence of a little girl sleeping and the adult Carrie with her eyes closed suggest that we’re actually looking through a window onto Carrie’s anxiety dreams — or maybe onto her chaotic consciousness, when she’s off her lithium. “I missed once before,” we hear her bemoaning to her father figure, Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, referring to 9/11; “I won’t — I can’t let that happen again.” Having come of age since the Gulf War in 1991, a child of the age of terrorism, she is portrayed in the title sequence as the troubled mind of America, desperate to keep us safe, tormented by missed clues, wary of her own judgment.
“Homeland” co-creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa gave us Jack Bauer of “24,” an American comic-book hero who only saw black and white, us and them, good and evil. Now they’re giving us a far more conflicted and sophisticated embodiment, a person who is chastened, whose memory, as we enter season two, may or may not be very good. And while Kiefer Sutherland created a grunting action figure, Danes delivers an expertly layered study in psychological instability. When the show returns on Sunday at 10, Danes’s Carrie is as emotionally fascinating as ever, a woman both fiercely strong and fragile.
Of course, “Homeland,” which swept the Emmys on Sunday with drama, actor, actress, and writing prizes, is a piece for two characters — Carrie and Damian Lewis’s Brody, the lurking threat. Brody is the personification of Carrie’s nightmares. During season one, Lewis was dazzlingly ambiguous, as we wondered, like Carrie, if he had been turned into a terrorist during his years as a POW. In the first two episodes of season two, which I previewed, Lewis is dazzling once again, but now as a man who may be in too deep. The story picks up six months after last season, and Brody is a congressman who’s being eyed as a possible vice presidential candidate. He has more power, and yet, with his obligations to his terrorist keepers, less.
Last year, Carrie and Brody had parallel narratives until they converged toward the middle of the season. That appears to be the case this time around, as well. They will cross paths again, eventually, not just because the show would fall apart without their cat-and-mouse game but because they are each other’s fate. In the meantime, Carrie, who has been recovering at her sister’s home, gets pulled back into CIA work when a source with vital information will only speak directly to her. Soon, despite mixed feelings, she is in Beirut with Saul.
One of the twists in “Homeland” last season was the revelation that Brody is a Muslim. That theme remains in play, now that Brody’s daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), knows he has converted. The bond between the father and daughter has been a sweet subplot on “Homeland,” as their trust grows while Brody and his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), are still working at theirs. But, in some ways, Dana is more like Carrie than Jessica, a cynical observer who has a nose for the truth. Dana is becoming Brody’s weakness, a person who knows too much — remember, the ranting Carrie told Dana her father is a terrorist — and who has an emotional hold on him.
Does Carrie recall the time Brody yelled out “Issa,” the name of Abu Nazir’s son, while he was sleeping? Or has the electroconvulsive therapy erased that? I won’t say here, but I will say that the show doesn’t seem to have lost any ballast moving forward from the intensity of season one. The suspense is still tight, and the writers haven’t resorted to any of the upping-of-the-ante plot absurdities that ultimately turned “24” into a Chicken Little joke. Of all the new and returning shows raining down on us this month, “Homeland” is the one to beat.