1
Oct
2012
Homeland: Season 2, Episode 1
The Smile
Jordan
Before we dig into the meat of "The Smile," a rather good opening to season two of Homeland that was not without flaws, a few brief thoughts on the show's first season, which I did not cover in this space. Over the course of its first season, Homeland evolved from a fairly middling thriller into perhaps the greatest depiction of the ideological differences between the United States and its enemies, and all of the moral complexities and grey areas that plague both sides of that struggle, in the history of television. Adapted from the Israeli television series Prisoner of War and brought to American television by two former 24 writers, it would not have been that surprising to see Homeland largely pick up the torch dropped by that series, and for its first several episodes, I believed that was the show I was watching. However, as the season went on, it developed into a much more nuanced take on the differences between the government agents defending our nation and the forces plaguing them. The show had the occasional misstep (the most glaring of them seems like it will stay with the show in this season, as we will discuss below), but it ultimately developed Sergeant Nicholas Brody and Agent Carrie Matheson as real people with relatable motivations and understandable, human flaws. In short, Homeland became one of the best dramas of last year, and while I don't think it was truly better than Mad Men's stellar fifth season or Breaking Bad's intensely introspective fourth, I wasn't too depressed to watch it taking home all of the Emmys it did.

Now, to turn our attention to "The Smile," which wastes little time getting Carrie back into the spy game, though it does so rather clunkily. From the episode's opening moments, it was clear that the asset Saul was going to meet with would only agree to speak to Carrie, and that Estes would have to pull Carrie back in; what the episode doesn't spend enough time on is the decision to put a mentally unstable woman in the field. After the end of last season, and after Carrie's reaction to Saul and Estes when they ask her to reenter the field, it should be clear to everyone that Carrie is unfit for duty. Don't get me wrong, her instability is dramatically fascinating, and it allows Danes most of her greatest moments in the role, but a little veracity is lost when Estes basically says, "yeah, she's crazy, but this asset might know something, so let's roll the dice."

Ultimately, I'm not sure how much I mind the shoddy handling of Carrie's reintegration. It may end up being preferable to a slow burn where Carrie is out of the loop for three or four episodes, and I can forgive a slight misstep if it saves us from episodes of set up for an inevitable return to active duty. Plus, its all worth it for the beautiful, deeply unsettling moment near the episode's end when Carrie runs from a pursuer after being made, knees him in the groin and narrowly escapes. Then the titular smile comes across her face, and it is wondrous and terrifying at the same time. In the hands of a less capable actress, the moment might simply have said "Carrie likes this spy stuff." But in the hands of Danes, that one smile simultaneously reminds us of just how unstable Carrie is and why it was inevitable that she would be drawn back into the intelligence game. She loves espionage, even as she now recognizes that attachment is destroying her mind. Carrie is good at this, and she loves it, and those facts are both blessing and curse in that moment. Her former job is her salvation and damnation at the same time, and that is a dynamic I hope Homeland runs with in season two.

On the Brody side of things, I have more problems. For one thing, his story line is where that aforementioned glaring flaw appears. Let's address that head on before examining the rest: Abu Nazir is a problem for the show. In a series that has managed to develop a realistic, morally ambiguous potential terrorist in Brosy, Nazir has always come across as a magical terrorist ninja. That isn't to say the character himself is poorly conceived, just that the show's conception of his reach has always strayed into the ridiculous. I have no problem with the premise of a terrorist sleeper cell on U.S. soil, and some of the things that came up last season (the bomb maker hidden in Gettysburg, the terrorist couple secretly buying a house within shooting distance of the president's helipad) were things I was willing to suspend my disbelief on. Others, like the reporter tonight who somehow miraculously has the combination to Estes' safe and quickly gets Brody in position to steal perhaps the most important classified information currently in CIA hands, is a little silly compared to the show's more grounded take on its primary characters. If plot points like this popped up on 24, I would chuckle and shrug, but Homeland is clearly going for something more, and that means I expect better from it than Nazir's omnipotence and endless reach.

Another hole that gives me pause is the idea of Brody being floated as a potential VP candidate. His quick ascension doesn't bother me in the least, honestly, but the idea that the Vice President has had him vetted and hasn't found out that his wife was sleeping with his best friend (and that he beat said friend in the middle of a memorial service), that he shot a deer in the middle of a party, or that he (apparently) repeated sophomore year of high school seems a bit fishy. I understand that we are in a post=Palin age, and that its obviously possible for a VP selection to be poorly vetted. Also, Brody is still in the early stages of consideration at this point, and all of these things might come out later. At this point, though, it seems like the show is rushing through the preliminaries. Much like Carrie's reintegration into the intelligence world, I may not mind this in a few weeks if it pays off, but for the moment, its a little bit sloppy.

We also see the fallout of the last several months in Dana, and its a story line that is handled very well this evening. Dana now attends a new school, thanks to the VP's wife, and its apparently some sort of weird Quaker thing. This seems like an odd decision for a place to send the child of a potential vice-presidential candidate, but I'm willing to look past that for the well handled moment when Dana snaps during an argument with another student and confesses that her father is a Muslim. The scene isn't subtle, with the other child not knowing the difference between Arabs and Persians and suggesting we nuke Iran (also, shouldn't the teachers at least tell the kids that isn't how you pronounce Iran?), but I completely buy that a conversation like this would take place in a high school forum. Homeland does such a good job of avoiding these obvious proclamations most of the time that I am willing to attribute this one to the fact that its a bunch of ignorant teenagers talking, even if the kid is the son of the undersecretary of state.

And while Jessica's horror at the revelation that Brody is a Muslim is slightly less forgivable, it didn't feel for a moment unrealistic, perhaps because of how well Morena Baccarin played the moment. While her reaction was a little more "Muslims are all crazy terrorists" than I would have liked, this show gets credit from me for doing some work at dispelling that notion, so having a character break down and display some (fairly widely held) prejudice, especially in an episode where Dana so tenderly indicated her approval, didn't bother me too much.

One of the most fascinating themes that Homeland plays with is how impossible it is to ever truly know another person. Jessica is hurt less by Brody's religious conversion than by the fact that he could hide it from her. Brody is constantly forced to live a lie, to the point that no one knows his true motivations, himself included. The show began with Carrie surveiling Brody 24/7 in a desperate attempt to learn the truth, and watched her frustrations as that truth was constantly obscured.

It may seem like I did not enjoy "The Smile." I think that the show had problems on both sides of its main story, that it rushed some developments, and that it did some things that make almost no sense to get us to the point we arrive at by episode's end. All of that may pay off in future weeks, if the show has enough plot to unspool that I can forgive it for its rush to get us into the new status quo. Some of the problems I had with the episode are larger problems that plague the series, and Nazir the terrorist ninja is an issue that is likely to bug me throughout the show's run. But Homeland does a lot of things well, and many of them were on display tonight. Danes and Damian Lewis are both phenomenal in their parts, and the way the show balances their grand intentions against their personal flaws and the follies that trip them up still seems to be working well. And ultimately, that is what Homeland does best. If this continues to be a show about two deeply flawed, morally ambiguous characters on opposite sides of a struggle, but more similar than even they have recognized, I will continue to be fascinated by it. And if it can deliver something near as potent as that smile in any given week, well, I will walk away a happy camper.

Grade: B

Notes:

-Insane nit pick alert: How can the show's opening credits have Obama in them when he is not the president in the show's universe?

-"You're saying its not a coincidence this woman comes forward now?" "I;m saying its not a coincidence we can ignore."

-The show got 5 realism points for the fact that the hallways Brody walked through, and the office he entered, looked a lot like the actual Congressional office buildings. It then lost those points, and a few more, when it implied that Senators and Congressmen work in the same building. So close, Homeland. So close.

-Another thing that really irks me is the show's partisan obscurity. You cannot do a story about a presidential election without revealing what party the candidates belong to. Or at least, you can't do it without pissing me off.

-"I am not a terrorist." "There is a difference between terrorism and justifiable retribution." I like that Brody thought he was out, even if it is naive. I do not like how quickly he did something that actually qualifies as treason. The more ambiguously he is treated, the more fascinating the character is in my mind.

"That's not supposed to touch the floor." "Did you actually just say that?"
Tags: Homeland
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