Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 2, Episode 1 of Showtime's "Homeland," entitled "The Smile."
After weeks of hype -- culminating in last week's impressive Emmy haul -- "Homeland" (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime) is back where it belongs: on our TV screens! And judging from tonight's Season 2 premiere, we could have saved ourselves the trouble of worrying about whether the show would find a way to generate tension after solving the central mystery of Season 1. Yes, we know that Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is, as Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) feared, an operative loyal to the Pakistani militant Abu Nazir. (R.I.P., Brody-o-Meter -- you were fun while you lasted.) But we still don't know how far Brody will go to serve his master. And neither does he.
As for Carrie, when we last saw her, she was strapped to an operating table, getting a dose of electroshock therapy that she probably hoped would erase everything she knew about Brody and Abu Nazir from her brain. She'd been not just fired from the C.I.A., but ritually humiliated. As Brody says to his wife, Jessica, when she dredges up his suspicious relationship with Carrie, "That woman was fired by the C.I.A. and locked up inside a mental hospital."
Maybe so, but as the new season begins, Carrie seems to have found peace. We see her clipping fresh vegetables in the garden, looking like a person who does not spend 24 hours a day worrying that some small oversight is going to result in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. And she has a new job: teaching English as a Second Language, which is presumably a lot less stressful than chasing the spectre of terrorism day and night. If her sister had her way, Carrie wouldn't even know that the Middle East is boiling over with angry protests in the wake of Israel's decision to launch hundreds of air raids on Iranian missile sites with U.S. backing, but her father thinks it's important for Carrie to maintain some kind of connection to the real world. He's also worried that she's frying her brain with all that Lithium.
Jump cut to Beirut, where Saul (Mandy Patinkin) is holed up in the U.S. Embassy as chanting crowds burn Israeli and American flags outside. (By the way, I would never suggest that the tragic events of recent weeks have been "lucky" for anyone, but they sure made the occupants of the "Homeland" writers' room look prescient.) Saul and his fellow spies are puzzling over a coded bank note they received from a woman in a hijab. They don't know who she is, but she says she has information about an attack on the U.S. -- and Saul decides it's worth the risk to meet with her, given the sensitivity of the situation. He puts on his awesome Panama hat (can we TALK about how great it is to have Saul back in our lives?) and rides into the city, where he meets the woman in a courtyard. But he's not the one she wants to talk to.
Like Carrie, Brody is enjoying unexpected good fortune. He's a hot-shot Congressman now -- something that's clearly important (maybe too important) to his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin) -- and he's got an inside line to the man he very nearly blew to smithereens, Vice President William Walden (Jamey Sheridan). Walden, who's planning to run for president, tells Brody he wants to float the war hero's name as a possible V.P. pick. Would that be all right? "Hell yes!" Brody manages, and it's fair to ask whether he's questioning his loyalty to Nazir at this moment. Mustn't there be some part of him that just wants to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, religious and political convictions be damned?
If Brody is harboring thoughts of freeing himself from Nazir, they're short-lived. It isn't long before a reporter named Roya Hammad (Zuleikha Robinson) arrives to deliver a message from the Islamist overlord. (By the way, thanks a lot, Showtime. Just when I thought the reputation of journalists in pop culture could sink no lower, you add this slithering undercover terrorist to our fictional ranks.) Nazir wants Brody to steal a classified list of targets from the safe in the office of Saul's boss, David Estes (David Harewood); he's going to attack one of them in retaliation for the airstrikes on Iran. At first, Brody balks at the assignment -- "I told Nazir I would influence lawmakers through my access," he says, "I will not help you in the killing of innocent civilians" -- but Hammad lays down an ultimatum. "Nicholas, we're at war. You need to choose sides," she warns. "If your allegiance is truly with us, this is your chance to prove it."
Brody goes ahead and steals the code, copying them by hand into a Moleskine notebook that he almost leaves open on Estes' desk. (Side note: Could we not have found a slightly cooler, 007-worthy method for capturing this information?) To give him time, Hammad barges in to the Counterterrorism Unit offices to demand some info for a story she's supposedly working on, then stalls a bit further by asking Estes on a date. To his discredit, he says yes, but we kinda knew he was a dog after all that business with Carrie, didn't we?
Carrie, meanwhile, sees her tranquility utterly shattered when Saul and Estes demand that she immediately fly to Beirut to meet with the mysterious woman in the hijab. Turns out the mysterious woman is the wife of a top
Hamas Hezbollah official -- and, surprise surprise, a former source of Carrie's. The woman won't speak to anyone else, so it's up to the C.I.A. to clean Carrie up, give her a Canadian passport and a bad wig, ship her off to Lebanon, and hope that she can somehow remember her elaborate back story -- something about living in Calgary and rooting for the Flames -- in spite of the Lithium haze.
One of my favorite themes of "Homeland" is how Carrie is essential to national security precisely because she's a woman and can gain the trust of wives and lovers who are privy to damning information by virtue of their intimacy with and, at times, invisibility to powerful men. She comes through again in this episode, risking her own sanity to find out what the woman in the hijab has to say. We'll have to wait for the results of that conversation, though, because her meetup with Saul is stalled when a shady agent starts following her through the market. Carrie tries to give him the slip, only to get caught in a dead end among the stalls. Conveniently, it's a hijab seller's stand, and, after exchanging her patterned headscarf for a solid green one, she catches the officer by surprise, disarms him and knees him in the groin. The smile on her face as she hurries away might be the greatest moment this show has given us.
The final thread of this episode has to do with Brody's ever-exciting home life. Jess is still at war with Dana (Morgan Saylor), the Brodys' 16-year-old daughter, and Mom's instant transformation into the Jackie O. of the Congressonal wives' sewing circle isn't helping matters. She flies into a rage after Dana tells her Quaker school classmates that her Dad is a Muslim -- the notion is so absurd that it's immediately dismissed as a deeply off-color joke -- and then lashes out at Brody when he admits that it's actually true. She's mad at him for lying, mad at him for siding with "the people who tortured you," mad at him for putting everything they've achieved at risk.
The best moment comes when she flings his Qu'ran on the ground and he freaks out. "That's not supposed to touch the floor," he sputters, sounding like a country friar who just spilled a plate of Communion wafers. The look of shock on Jess's face is priceless. "Did you actually just say that?" she says, revulsion emanating from every pore. Finally, she spells it out for him: "I married a U.S. Marine. This. This can't happen. You have a wife, two kids, you're a congressman in the running to be vice president. It cannot happen. You get that, right?" Brody says he does, but we know not to trust anything this man says, don't we? The end of the episode finds him lovingly burying his Qu'ran, not because he's done with it but because his wife desecrated it during her unholy temper tantrum.
We know this because he says as much to Dana, who once again catches dear old dad in the midst of one of his funny religious ceremonies. She responds by crouching down and helping him cover the book with soil. So what are we to make of that? Dana kept her dad's religious secret for a long time, spilling it only when a classmate enraged her by defending Israel's right to attack Iran's nuclear program. Clearly, she shares some of Brody's disapproval of America and Israel's world-policing behavior. And let's not forget that it was Dana who heard Carrie's (correct) theory about Brody's plans to blow up the vice president -- and that it was Dana whose tearful cell phone call persuaded her dad not to hit the detonator. Is it possible that there's some part of Dana that knows her dad is a terrorist and agrees with him? Or will there come a day when Dana comes to represent the right kind of dissent -- wherein one argues one's case, however unpopular, but doesn't resort to murder?
"Homeland" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.