Homeland has a great premise... for a miniseries, many say. Winning the major categories at the Emmys was easy. Keeping the series going into a second season? Now that's hard. But Homeland's Season 2 premiere, "The Smile" (oh that smile!), didn't disappoint and made its case that this series has enough direction to keep things interesting for another season.
What made Homeland's first season so remarkable was the very black-and-white question that propped up the series: Is Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) working for Al Qaeda? There was no "sorta." Brody wasn't kinda working for terrorists. He either was or he wasn't, and the game that executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were playing was on us, making the case that he was working for the bad guys through the eyes of an untrustworthy bipolar CIA agent, and making the case that he wasn't working for the bad guys through the eyes of Brody himself, the accused war hero and family man. But no matter how you looked at it, there were only two answers: yes or no. It was black or white. And when we found out the answer to that burning question in the later episodes, there was enough momentum to ride out the season with snipers, bombs, and assassination plots. Season 1's structure and pace was about as perfect as a single season gets.
Things are looking a lot grayer in Season 2 as the main question has evolved. It's no longer IS Brody working for Al Qaeda, but how far is he willing to go with them? Does his faith match that of Abu Nazir's? Will his responsibility to his family trump his allegiance to his religion? And that's the conflict Season 2 needs to maintain the sense of paranoia that made Season 1 so great. While that's most important for Brody's character, it also carries over to Carrie Matheson's (Claire Danes). Shamed and exiled by the CIA but temporarily brought back, Carrie's now caught between doing what she loves and partnering with people she can no longer trust. Smashing these characters and spreading them across the page in a blur until we're unsure of what they'll do next is vital to the series, and somehow we're no more certain of their behavior than we were before, even with a full season's worth of hanging out with them under our
belt vest. And we haven't even thrown in any romance yet!
"The Smile" had a lot of housekeeping to do early on, which made for an uneventful beginning as we played catch up. We jumped forward months to find Carrie at a more peaceful time of her life, gardening and teaching English to non-English speakers. Brody used the summer vacation to join Congress and speed-climb the D.C. mountain, and has already been pegged as a potential vice-presidential candidate for Walden. But there are lots of unanswered questions. What were the effects of Carrie's electro-shock therapy, if any? Memory doesn't seem to be an issue, and the pill regimen appears the same. How does a released prisoner of war go from a bearded waif to knocking on the door of second-most-powerful man in the world? He couldn't even tell you the last eight Super Bowl champs, which sadly counts for a lot in voters' minds. It will be interesting to see if Homeland takes shots at answering these questions, or whether it just presses forward so much that we're forced to accept them as things of the past, like the series' questionable explanation of how Brody turned in "Crossfire."
But Homeland is so good at creating excellent individual moments that trains our focus on the present. There were at least four outstanding scenes in the opener, two of which showed masterful control of tension. Dana's schooling of her narrow-minded classmate was choice (I seem to be one of the rare fans of Dana out there; for all her angst, there's a bright girl in there who knows right from wrong), and Brody's admission to Jessica that he was Muslim and the ensuing fit thrown in the garage was a bomb I didn't expect to drop so soon into the season (Morena Baccarin also turned in her best work of the series in that scene). But it was Brody riffling through Estes' office and Carrie's evasion through the streets of Lebanon that showed off Homeland's ability to make the audience feel so uncomfortable. They're simple scenes, really, and we've seen plenty of shows do similar things, but in the hands of Homeland's directors and crew the stakes seem that much higher and the misses that much narrower.
It's that smile, though, that sends the episode into the territory of television that deserves little golden statuettes. Naming the episode "The Smile" is bold and arrogant, like a guitar player naming a song "My Guitar Solo," but it's played so incredibly well by Danes and it's such a Carrie moment–an instance that sums up a character–that it's well deserved. Sure, plots to vaporize America are interesting, but Homeland's main attraction without a doubt is Carrie Matheson and her raging battle between her brittle psyche and brilliant mind, and the childish exuberance she exhibits after kicking her pursuer in the sensitive man goods and ducking out of a crowded Lebanese marketplace is exhilarating for her and us; it's an immersive shared moment between the character and the audience. She's not flying into danger because she wants to stop terrorist plots, she's there because she NEEDS to be there. Just like she NEEDS to be with Brody. But that good romance stuff–my favorite part of the series–is still yet to come. Yes, thanks to its complicated characters, Homeland has enough left to become one of the longest miniseries ever.
– I'm totally okay with making this season more Cloak and Dagger-ish. "The Smile" showed the series can pull that off.
– Hey look! It's Zuleikha Robinson, as the journalist that's working with Abu Nazir! Already, Robinson's character is way more important than her character Ilana was in Lost. How far up does Nazir have people? And how common is it for journalists to take the Director of the CIA out for dinner?
– Still wondering why there was no room for Mandy Patinkin (Saul) to get nominated for an Emmy. He's absolutely fantastic.
– Another moment deserving of recognition was Saul calling Carrie to ask her to help out the CIA. The silences in the conversation carried so much weight. That's just two actors turning a simple phone call into something so much more, and the writers enriching the scene by not over-writing.
– All you Dana-haters out there need to ask yourself a question: Is Chris any better? Or worse? That kid needs something to do.
– Dana and Brody's relationship continues to be one of the more intriguing tandems on the show, and it's all taken shape from the Season 1 episode where Brody took her to see all those locks locked on the fence. Her fights with her mom clearly push her towards dad, and I think the rebel in her is fascinated by her dad's choice of religion, hence she's more interested in the Muslim practice than repulsed by it, as Jessica is. Is Dana on her way to converting to her daddy's religion? I've got her praying five times a day by Episode 4.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom