Many of the best television shows work on a lot of levels, and one reason "Homeland" (Season 2 premieres on Sun., Sept. 30 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime) has picked up so many awards is because it's especially adept at storytelling that resonates in a number of ways.
What grounds "Homeland" and makes it so immediately addictive is that the drama, at its core, is a realistic espionage thriller. It's not a story about heroic spies jumping out of planes or scaling buildings; it's about the grinding, stressful, often frustrating work of collecting leads, analyzing data and dealing with the political wrangling between agencies and Beltway factions.
Real conflicts are reflected in the story -- much of the first two episodes takes place in an especially jittery Israel -- and seeing all the grunt work of undercover operatives actually yields greater dividends, because when the tension is racheted up, it usually feels earned. Sometimes field work is really dangerous, and having been a fly of the wall the whole time makes those punctuations of fear and danger stand in even more stark relief.
Its crisp pace and its relevance to current events made it stand out, but "Homeland's" devotion to the thorny dilemmas and tentative connections of its characters is what probably made it catnip to viewers and Emmy voters alike. Graham Greene, that peerless chronicler of flawed human beings caught up in morally challenging events, called it "the human factor," and it's that ability to combine political urgency with strong emotional undertows that makes "Homeland" truly unique. The characters drive the plot, not the other way around, which is why the show isn't coy about tossing out twists and revelations: Big reveals exist to ramp up the characters' dilemmas; they don't exist merely to set another round of machinations in motion.
Some might argue that "Homeland's" second season is bound to be a disappointment, now that we know Brody is working for the terrorist Abu Nazir. But we also know something else: The show's writers, led by executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, are unlikely to settle for cheap thrills, which makes it even more pleasurable to settle in for the second saga of Carrie and Brody.
During "Homeland's" first season, I kept waiting for the show to cheapen or undercut the characters in order to artificially create pulse-pounding tension, but the show didn't go that route. I didn't care much for the Issa-centric episode -- it was a case of the show too strongly underlining points that had already been made -- but otherwise, Season 1 unfolded like a great spy novel, the kind that makes you stay up until 3 a.m. and also makes you wonder why more intelligence agents don't crack under the pressure. It wasn't just that Carrie and Brody couldn't trust anyone else -- the most poignant fact was that, torn by so many competing facts and allegiances, they often couldn't trust themselves.
The tragic irony of "Homeland's" first season finale was that Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison did, in fact, get things right. But she didn't know that; she didn't get the cathartic rush the audience did when she prevented Brody from blowing up a room full of high-ranking dignitaries. Though that sequence was one of last year's edge-of-your-seat high points, to "Homeland's" credit, it wasn't the point of the finale: The point was that Brody's human connections reeled him in (temporarily) from the dark side, and that Carrie's heedless desire to connect the dots left her bipolar agony on heartbreaking display.
We can't look away from Carrie or from Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in part because we know their wounds are unfixable. What gives this drama such weight and gravity is that they know it too.
Once you get past the characters' specific stories -- and I could spend this whole review writing about Mandy Patinkin's wonderfully empathic work as Carrie's mentor, Saul Berenson -- "Homeland" also works on a host of metaphorical and allegorical levels. Every person, and every nation, must, in the words of T.S. Eliot, "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." Very few people are fully forthcoming about who they are or what they want, aside from rare birds like Carrie, a modern-day Cassandra whose dismissal of the awkward ramifications of the truth make her inconvenient to almost everyone around her.
Is it lying if a person or a nation's representatives edit the facts to make a better case or get a job done? Does that make them bad or simply pragmatic? "Homeland" rejects the simplistic idea that being selective about the truth is always a bad thing. Hiding some facts from other people is standard operating procedure, especially for politicians and spies, for good reason: If there's a good chance you're going to get attacked, why hand your enemies even more ammunition? And like the analysts of the late, lamented "Rubicon" (whose head writer now works on "Homeland"), Carrie is living proof that too much knowledge can be a terrible thing.
Yet keeping enormous secrets comes at a cost, a cost that Brody, who is a congressman as the season begins, continues to pay. "Homeland's" makeup artists, directors and camera operators deserve special praise; there's a pale, sweaty pallor the characters sometimes wear, and when it's paired with a certain tilted camera angle, the aesthetic choices combine to make these otherwise attractive humans look sick with clammy anxiety. We know that apprehension comes from the darkest places in the characters' souls, but that doesn't make us popcorn-munching voyeurs any less obsessed with finding out what happens next.
That's hard to figure out because Carrie and Brody are evasive entities who are partly unknown to themselves, despite everyone else's desire to pin them down. Is Brody truly a devoted Muslim? Does he agree with the terrorist aims of Abu Nazir? His wife wants to know know if he can pull off the kind of credible political career that would raise the family's standing; it'd be her reward for enduring years of fear and doubt during Brody's captivity. Still reeling from her breakdown last season, Carrie wants to be far away from the CIA, but she can't help checking intelligence sites on the Internet. Once she tentatively gets back in the game, she wonders if her perceptions can be trusted, and almost all the characters have occasion to ask themselves if they're making the right choices. "Homeland" makes a convincing case that gut instincts, unrealistic ideals and incomplete facts can be very risky allies.
For both Brody and Carrie, not knowing which way they'd jump is, at times, a blessing, not a curse. Both know what it's like to lose their scars and their baggage behind secret identities, false fronts and cover stories. Neither of them can stay away from risky trajectories, and that, as we saw in Season 1, made them a toxically romantic pair of soulmates. The show wisely keeps Carrie and Brody apart at the beginning of this season; the charge they create together is, like an explosive device, indiscriminately destructive.
Having said all that -- and forgive me if I'm little too excited to see Saul's reassuring beard again -- I recognize that there's a danger in praising "Homeland" too much. It's not a perfect show: The second episode in particular resorts to some convenient developments and almost "24"-style plotting, and Brody's speedy political rise does strain credibility, even if he is generally regarded as a war hero.
Still, few shows are attempting to thread quite as many needles as "Homeland," and few dramas have combined storytelling rigor and superlative acting quite this well (the Showtime drama's only real competition in these arenas is "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad"). There's a wordless scene of Carrie having a panic attack in one episode that is a reminder that Claire Danes may (rightfully) have a lock on the best actress Emmy for years to come.
Carrie's breakdowns and Carrie and Brody's ill-fated weekend in the woods were among Season 1's many high points, but there were so many other terrific moments, large and small, that the wait between episodes became intensely annoying. There was Saul, working late one night, smearing peanut butter on a cracker with the only tool at his desk, a ruler; there was Saul and CIA careerist David Estes (David Harewood) having a frank conversation about drone strikes and the expendability of ideals; there was the bleakly amusing episode in which the characters underwent lie-detector tests and merely proved how much they knew about manipulating the truth.
"Homeland's" success lies not just in the big gestures but in the telling details. And there's nothing about the two episodes I've seen that makes me think the second season won't be as addictive as the first.
Three notes: I posted a two-part interview with "Homeland" executive producer Alex Gansa in July here and here (the second part of the interview goes into some details about where things stand when Season 2 returns, but you'll get a warning before that section). Also, Ryan McGee and I discussed "Homeland" (and "Last Resort" and "Call the Midwife") in the Talking TV podcast embedded below. More Fall TV podcasts can be found on here and on iTunes. Finally, the first 20 minutes of "homeland" Season 2 can be viewed here.