Claire Danes reprises her Emmy-winning role as Carrie Mathison in the tantalizing season two premiere.

[rating:5/5]

When I picked this show to win the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy in my “Hypothetical Emmy Ballot” back in July—I have proof!—I didn’t think it was deserving. I said “Breaking Bad” should win. I stand by that when you compare the two seasons side by side. Since “Homeland” was a freshman, the fact that it can say it’s on the varsity squad at all is enough. But to say it’s the team captain? Nahhhh. There’s also the unflinching drama and moral terror of “Bad’s” fourth season to consider. After watching this season premiere, maybe I should rethink the show’s contender status.

Obviously, the Emmys saw a collection of episodes worthy of an ultimate prize, and I knew they wouldn’t resist the urge to champion something fresh after “Mad Men” reigned for an entire president’s term. It’s not that I didn’t see a potential masterpiece in the work, it’s just that a felt there was a few storytelling hiccups along the way. While I thought the pilot, “The Weekend” and “Marine One” among others were exemplary episodes of television, I worried that maybe logistical issues were weighing down the lofty ambitions. “The Smile” has one glaring plausibility issue that I will explore later, but its mission was not hindered in the slightest.

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Carrie and Brody returned with an abundance of battle scars and even Dana, a character who didn’t shine until the season one finale, has open wounds that Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon are not afraid to pick at. While the subject matter is comparable to another one-time Outstanding Drama Series honoree, “24,” there was never this kind of psychological depth or societal contemplation. And how rare is it to see that small-scale character struggles aren’t being sacrificed in favor of grand themes? Both the philosophical and the personal can share the stage here as the clock is running out on a meltdown—we’re just not sure who it’s going to happen to.

At the episode’s inception, we see Carrie Mathison tending to a vegetable garden. Remember, last season ended with her receiving electroconvulsive therapy, one of many methods of attack in the assault on her own mind. Just as she was being prepped for her shock, she pieced together a puzzle that would lead to a breakthrough in her investigation of Sgt. Brody—the inciting incident for Abu Nazir’s resurgence was his son Issa’s death by drone strike. Issa was a name that Brody had yelled out while they slept together at her family’s cabin. This was the missing link in a chain that for Carrie always bonded the rescued P.O.W with conversion. This would explain the connection that Brody had already divulged he established with the Al-Qaeda mastermind.

Anyway, this is what we are supposed to recall as we watch Carrie conducting her new routine. In the background, the news talks of Israel’s recent bombing of five Iranian nuclear facilities. It’s also revealed that Carrie, along with her father, is living at her sister Maggie’s. She goes upstairs to grade exams. Another part of this normalized schedule she’s been cultivating is that she is teaching ESL to Iraqi immigrants. An awesome detail of this scene is when Carrie looks in the mirror, and there’s a drawing that reads “BREATHE” in the corner. Presumably, it was given to her by her nieces. Nice touch, Homeland.

Next, we see a massive group of rioters outside the American embassy in Beirut. Clearly, some folks aren’t happy with America’s support of Israel following their act of aggression against Iran. Saul is there, working in the field. Poor Saul, his wife left him and now “the job” is all he has. Is it cool that I want to give Mandy Patinkin a million hugs? He’s being debriefed about a woman who has come forth saying she has information about an impending attack on America. They would be looking into it, but they don’t have her in the system as an informant. She’s requested a face-to-face. Saul volunteers despite the danger—recently five men were killed by a suicide bomber they thought was a source—because he feels this rumored intel is no coincidence. Along the way, his car is tailed, but he dodges it. He arrives at the “dead drop” and the woman begins to flee. He asks why and it’s because she only wishes to speak to one person. Guess who?

During the six months—in story time–that we’ve been away, Nicholas Brody has been busy. He’s replaced that Anthony Weiner wannabe in Congress and Vice President Walden informs him his name will be floated around as a potential running mate for the upcoming election. This is where some are calling foul. Even if he was elected Congressman the second the camera cut to black, he’s a extremely green representative. His public persona as a hero aside, is it even remotely likely that he would be picked as a running mate in the real world? Some would say Sarah Palin wasn’t an experienced politician. Hell, Barack Obama had only served one term as a Senator before successfully winning the presidency. But the logic police are in full pursuit. Me personally? I’m a cynic when it comes to politics. While reason would say that Brody is not qualified to be a VP candidate, I’m not naive enough to think that a presidential candidate wouldn’t try anything if he thought he could sell it to the American people. And what sounds sexier than a decorated Marine sitting at the new executive’s right hand during a time of war?

There’s another layer of criticism to this storyline though. Walden then tells him that he’s already had Brody vetted. And they turned up nothing. Some are saying, how incompetent were those investigators? Well, I’m not sure what they thought they would turn up. Usually those PIs dig up dirt and scandal, not treason. Why would he risk the public eye if it were so easy to detect. The only thing I wondered about, was why the incident where he bloodied up his buddy for sleeping with his wife wasn’t at least addressed. I wouldn’t say it’s enough to derail a campaign by any stretch, but wouldn’t you want to hear from the horse’s mouth what went down? Regardless, I don’t think the writers are asking us to believe too much, nor is it a glaring hole in the universe’s believability. It may not have happened before, but it most certainly could.

Carrie’s in the middle of class when she’s visited by a former colleague who says her ex-boss David Estes wants to talk. Carrie asks that he pass along a “Fuck off.” Upon returning home, she spots a car sitting across the street and Maggie says Saul has been calling multiple times. While she’s putting her life as an agent behind her, she respects Saul. He has jumped through hoops for her, she should grant him the courtesy of a call returned. He says that he needs her help—he hates himself for even asking. Estes is in the parked car with an urgent security matter to discuss. She cries, “It’s Thursday. I cook dinner on Thursday. I’m making vegetable lasagna from the vegetables I picked this morning!” Then her anger turns into panic. She can’t face the man that disgraced her. All Saul has to say is a sincere “Please” and she stomps outside.

Estes tries to be cordial, but Carrie is ice cold. He shows her the photo of the woman Saul met with. She identifies her as Fatima Ali, first wife of a Hezbollah commander. She recruited her, off-book. She had a weakness for American film, Julia Roberts in particular. She tried to pass her off to another case officer, but she refused. She’s been a dead agent since 2005. Now, she’s willing to talk, but she won’t say a peep for anyone but Carrie. Despite the unceremonious, humiliating way Estes ran her out of the agency, Carrie complies, agreeing to help. Maggie is irate, worried that all the progress she has made toward healing, toward removing herself from the past that wrecked her mentally, it will all be for naught if she gets back in the groove of the spy game. She also calls Carrie out on her bullshit, saying this isn’t about patriotism. She feels Carrie has been hoping for this opportunity all along.

Now that Carrie is back on the playing field, what will snap Brody back into action? A reporter named Roya Hammad  (Zuleikha Robinson of “Lost”) stops by for an interview and after she’s assured that there are no concealed recording devices in the room, she says that Abu Nazir sends his regards. He’s careful at first, asking her to leave. But then she proves herself by giving details only a Nazir follower would know—Issa’s birthday is Monday, he would have been thirteen, Brody bought him a slingshot for his tenth birthday. Having calmed him down, she informs him that Deputy Director David Estes will be briefing him on homeland security tomorrow. She provides him with a code to a safe that holds an encrypted list of potential targets. Brody astutely determines this means they plan to hit one of them. He vehemently protests that he is influencing lawmakers through his access, that’s what they agreed upon. He is not a terrorist.

I appreciated this scene a great deal. This is the first time Brody has spoken with someone who is knowledgeable about his collaboration with Nazir, and has voiced that he doesn’t consider himself a terrorist. His position is that he won’t kill innocents (he’s the Omar from “The Wire” of the muslim insurgent world). Roya rebukes that there’s a difference between terrorism and a justifiable act of retaliation. I love that the show isn’t afraid to address U.S foreign policy without condemning it. This is simply a rationally argued opposition, not an indictment. Roya then urges Brody by saying he should pick a side—they are at war. Brody’s rightly incensed that his loyalty would be questioned, but Roya says that he shouldn’t object then to confirming it.

Gansa and Gordon boast even bigger balls in the next scene, staging a crosstalk of sorts about the opposing political stances on the Israel/Iran conflict—especially bold given the timeliness. At the “morning meeting” at Dana’s new school, a girl stands up and declares humanity insane because the Israeli actions of bombing to preempt Iran’s bombing makes no sense. Then a boy responds that Israel had the right to defend themselves. Another boy follows up saying that “The Arab religion doesn’t value human life like we do.” Dana interjects, correcting him—Iranians are Persian, not Arab.

Her hippie-dippie teacher then says that Dana should let the little warmonger finish before she speaks. He continues to  spew ignorance (sorry, am I expressing too much opinion?), “Persians, Arabs, what’s the difference? They all want the same thing, to annihilate us…Maybe we should hit them first.” Dana mumbles, “Douche.” When her teacher responds by saying name-calling won’t be tolerated, she objects saying “What about mass murder?” The boy, whose name is Tad, asks who she thinks she is. What do you know? When Dana asks the same question he brags about his Secretary of State father. She blurts out that her dad is a Muslim. She immediately regrets the outburst, but the impact is softened by a boy behind her (I believe he might be VP Walden’s son?) says sarcastically, “Yeah and my dad is a scientologist.”

Once Brody gets home, Jessica rains hell upon her daughter. She’s furious that Dana would politically ruin her father with such a ludicrous admission. Dana apologizes profusely for her slip-up, saying it just came out. But Jessica wants to get to the root of the matter—what would compel her to say such a thing? Dana’s eyes pleads with her father. Out of pity for Dana having to take the brunt of her mom’s fury, he yells to stop. He says she said it because it’s true. Jessica is aghast, then she bolts for the garage and starts rummaging through all the shelves, perhaps hoping to uncover proof of his deceit after he admits Dana found him praying in the garage one night. She’s incredulous, unable to understand since “these people”—gesturing with the Qur’an she discovers—tortured him and would stone Dana if they knew she and boyfriend Xander were having premarital sex. She throws down the holy text and he freaks out, saying it mustn’t touch the floor. She’s insulted that his concern extends more to a book than to her.

This scene is acted wonderfully by both Damian Lewis and Morena Baccarin. If Baccarin wasn’t able to extract sympathy from us, then the scene would fall flat. It would be a bitchy wife ragging on her husband for adhering to a traditionally non-white religion. But she isn’t wrong when she says that she married a U.S Marine, and is currently married to a U.S Congressman. This sort of secrecy cannot happen. While you would like her to be supportive, she is being asked to carry a heavy burden. And Lewis also gains our sympathy because while he is finally able to come clean,  there’s still that pain of feeling like an outsider in his own home. This is what makes the final frame where Dana helps him bury the Qur’an that Jess has desecrated so touching. Dana seems to be the only person who understands him, when from every other view he is either traitor or a hero—and he doesn’t believe in his heart that he’s either.

At the CIA, Estes brings Brody into his office and Roya gives him the window he was promised by pulling him out for a comment on a phony lead—that she has sources saying only four of Iran’s five nuclear facilities were destroyed. He stalls a bit, then gathers the wherewithal to search for the safe. He locates it and fumbles for the file. He jots down the necessary information on his notepad then stows the file safely back where he found it. He almost forgets to snatch up his notepad from Estes’ desk before he returns, but he nabs it just as he enters. The only troublesome aspect of this scene is Roya’s journalistic tactic of inviting Estes on a dinner date. Do women reporters really use their “feminine wiles” to secure a story? Or, was she just trying to give Brody more time? Because I don’t see how this would help her as a sleeper cell. Unless, she’s going the Carrie route of sleeping with the enemy.

Speaking of Ms. Mathison, after some brief scenes showing her preparing for the mission, memorizing her new identity, she finally touches down in Beirut. She’s visibly anxious as she goes through customs and when she gets to her hotel room, she breaks the facade and is a nervous wreck. In a fruit basket there’s a phone. She calls Saul, who she has been asking to meet with since she left home. Saul is worried about her well-being, but also the mission. Not only could Carrie harm her fragile mind, but she could endanger their chance at seizing some vital intel. She’s close to the cafe when he says he has company. She must walk past him. They spot her anyway and Saul orders her to let herself be arrested. Instead, she insists she can dodge the tail. After a thrilling chase, she is cornered, but knees her assailant in the crotch and scurries off. The titular image of her glee is equal parts amazing and horrifying. The smile that Claire Danes conjures up is a beacon of danger—Carrie loves this shit. Like a soldier addicted to war, she is high off the fumes of a mission accomplished. There’s no doubt she is good at what she does, but her sanity is in jeopardy because of it.

After both Brody and Carrie had tried to wipe the slate clean and escape the lives that forged a bond between them while ruining their psyches, they were sucked back in like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III.” Both are reluctant, trying to stand upon the principles they have constructed to keep them safe, but ultimately they can’t hide from who they are—destructive tendencies and all. And what about the wordily implications of them being torn from the comfort of their respective outer shells? Now they’re completely vulnerable. You know that Carrie won’t be able to extradite herself from intelligence work, and Brody is most certainly going to be a pawn in a Nazir master plan.

While the television tendency to make clear divisions between good and evil is still present, Gansa and Gordon have done the best they can to blur the line. While people like Saul are upstanding, there are always the Estes and the Waldens of the world who will do as Tad believes all Arabs do—diminish the value of a human life. And while I’m not rooting for Brody to topple the American government, I feel that his value system, like Carrie’s bipolar disorder, rules him. And whether my socially progressive views align with his or not, I think we can all empathize with the fragility that is our thoughts. When we are alone, it’s all we have. And whether it’s with a stray, creepy smile or another subtle cue, our minds can betray us too. And just when we thought we were safe, the world is judging us, and plotting to punish our deviance. It’s a good thing “Homeland” isn’t afraid to stand out. Otherwise, if this episode’s any indication, we’d be deprived of a new American classic.

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