The Showtime drama returns on Sept. 30. Now in its sophomore year, will it live up to the high standard it set last season?

By Tim Stack
Updated September 07, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Carrie Mathison is not herself. Literally. Homeland‘s bipolar former-CIA-agent heroine, as embodied by Emmy nominee Claire Danes, is struggling to learn her new identity as a Canadian tourist, which is necessary for her secret mission to Beirut (more on that later). A mousy brown wig covers her blond locks, but that’s not the only difference as she rehearses in a Cyprus safe house: The normally (over)confident Carrie is noticeably uncertain. ”My name is Kate Morrissey,” she begins tentatively, before losing her concentration and dissolving into a series of F-bombs. (Fans of the Showtime hit know that Carrie’s use of profanity could make a sailor blush.) Though she was aggressively tenacious while chasing soldier-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), Carrie now crumbles under the stress of remembering simple details due to her mental breakdown at the end of season 1. Her eyes well up and, frustrated, she murmurs to her Beirut adviser, ”I think I want to go home.”

Hurry back, Carrie — your fans are waiting. In 12 airtight episodes, Homeland became one of last fall’s most talked-about and acclaimed new series, averaging 4.4 million viewers weekly and garnering nine Emmy nominations, including best actress (Danes), best actor (Lewis), and outstanding drama. The deliciously dysfunctional cat-and-mouse game between the unbalanced CIA officer and the suspicious POW was so addictive, it even hooked the White House: President Obama told People magazine last December that Homeland was one of two dramas he watches (the other being HBO’s Boardwalk Empire). ”We tend to be stunned over and over again by the response to the show,” says exec producer Alex Gansa. ”Then all of a sudden the President of the United States says he’s stealing time away from Michelle and the kids to watch Homeland. It was just unbelievable.” Adds Showtime president David Nevins, ”That was when we had gone to another level.”

But with all this hype come enormous pressures for season 2 — and questions, so many questions. How long can Brody fly under the radar? Will Carrie’s memory return? Can she ever be an agent again? ”I think the reaction still feels outsized, and of course to me it only loads up the fear of the second season,” says executive producer Howard Gordon, who adds with a laugh,”We say, ‘Take a deep breath, and lower your expectations.”’

Hours after Danes shoots her Beirut meltdown, it’s Lewis’ turn on set, filming a sequence in which Brody — now a congressman who’s considering a run with outgoing vice president Walden (Jamey Sheridan) — visits CIA headquarters for a briefing with unit chief David Estes (David Harewood). In between takes, the actor is the opposite of costar Danes; she stays laser-focused, while he’s in constant motion, almost restless with energy. When the cameras roll, Brody and Estes’ briefing is cut short by a visit from Middle Eastern journalist Roya Hammad (Lost‘s Zuleikha Robinson), who’s also a secret ally of terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). Alone in the office, Brody begins to scour Estes’ file cabinets for codes needed by Nazir. He manages to slip into his chair just as Estes walks back into the room, flustered from his meeting with Roya. ”Is everything all right?” Brody asks Estes, who nods. Says the war hero (in a line later cut from the episode), ”For a spy, you should be a better liar.”

As viewers are well aware, Nicholas Brody is a fantastic liar, and his manipulations fuel Homeland, which was loosely inspired by the Israeli series Hatufim. Whereas that program focused on two prisoners of war returning home, Gordon and Gansa, both previously producers on Fox’s 24, decided to infuse the formula with a bit more fraud and femininity. ”We figured, Let’s have one guy come back, and possibly he was turned,” explains Gansa. ”And let’s introduce the Carrie Mathison character and have it be the quarry and the hunter.” The pair developed the script with Danes in mind (Carrie was initially called Claire) and lucked out when the actress, who had just come off her Emmy-winning role in HBO’s Temple Grandin, was looking for another thoughtful project to dig into. ”I felt so creatively fulfilled by [Grandin], and so my tolerance for silly stuff had just completely vanished,” admits the actress, 33. ”The thought of having this wonderfully dynamic character waiting for me was very enticing.” While Gansa and Gordon initially envisioned the first season ending with Brody’s death, Showtime pushed to keep the former soldier around. ”The key decision we made was that the show was not just about Carrie — it was also about Brody,” says Nevins. ”We really wanted to invest in both halves.”

In Homeland‘s sophomore season, those two halves will be separated for the first few episodes. The action kicks off six months later with post-electroshock Carrie living a peaceful life at home with her sister and father while teaching English to Arab students. Saul (Mandy Patinkin), her mentor and fellow agent, has been reassigned to Beirut after the fallout from Carrie’s firing. ”There was great upheaval and tragedy in his personal life — first and foremost the condition that got escalated with Carrie,” explains Patinkin, 59. ”He was very undone by that. It was a good time for him to get away from the bureaucracy.” In the premiere, Saul learns that a source has come forward about a potential terrorist attack on the U.S, but she will speak only to her former contact, Carrie. ”She just can’t resist the opportunity,” says Danes. ”But it’s challenging because she’s put in as stressful an environment as one could imagine, in Lebanon. And the stakes are stupid high.”

More important, it solves the problem of bringing Carrie back into her former world, even if it isn’t on the books. Says Gansa, ”If she’s not officially back in the CIA, she could be unofficially doing their bidding.” The cast and crew shot for 10 days on location in May in Tel Aviv (which stands in for Beirut), and the resulting footage will be used in the first two episodes. ”You’ll see the dynamics of Iran, Israel, and the United States play a big part in season 2,” says Gansa. What viewers won’t see is Danes’ real-life pregnancy being worked into the show. In July, the actress announced that she’s expecting her first child (with husband Hugh Dancy); she’ll give birth shortly after Homeland wraps production in November. ”It’s going to be a challenge,” admits Gordon. ”I tell people that [the shots] are going to get tighter and tighter as the season wears on. There will be a lot of countertops.”

An even bigger challenge for Gordon and Gansa is figuring out how long to draw out the Brody-as-secret-terrorist story line without losing tension, credibility, and viewers. Thankfully for Homeland fans, the pair’s previous gig taught them a lot about the do’s and don’ts of suspense thrillers. ”What I learned from 24 is to exit a character when their story has been told,” admits Gordon. ”That was a show where there were real stakes — characters that you loved could either be arrested or killed. Everybody was fair game.” And yes, teases Gordon, that does mean Brody could die at the end of the season. Or maybe not. No matter how the writers choose to end Brody’s story, they’re working to expand Homeland‘s universe beyond the POW by adding new characters, like Roya, the journalist secretly working for Nazir as Brody’s handler. ”She’s a master manipulator whose cover as a reporter allows her access to people,” says Gansa. As for the good guys, the CIA will welcome a new agent, Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend). ”He’s an ally of Estes and will be introduced into Carrie and Saul’s life,” says Gansa. ”It’s not a potential love interest for Carrie. He’s more of an antagonist, actually.”

Of all the lingering questions from season 1, there’s one that every Homeland watcher wants to know: Will Carrie’s memory — specifically her memory of the crucial detail (”Issa!”) linking Brody to Nazir — return? Says Gordon, ”It may, but [not] in the way we had thought.” Producers also promise that the location of the missing video featuring Brody’s admission of guilt will be discovered, which will no doubt complicate things for the newly minted politician. Says Lewis, 41, ”There’s a massive acceleration in his political career, which is exciting because it gets him closer to the targets he needs to be closer to. At the same time, it’s hair-raising because it’s happening very quickly and he has no experience in any of it.” Wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) takes to the political life very well, though. ”She’s feeling a little taste of what it’s like to be important in D.C.,” says Baccarin, 33. ”That awakens an ambition in her.”

Still, everyone knows that the real love story at the core of Homeland is between the conflicted terrorist and the complicated woman who chases him. ”The centerpiece of season 2 is the doomed relationship between Carrie and Brody,” says Gansa, who reveals that the pair will rendezvous in episode 4. ”That’s really what this year is about.” Adds Lewis, ”It’s the ultimate destructive codependent relationship. They’re like these two trains coming down the same track in opposite directions. It’s just an inevitable collision.”

With additional reporting by Lynette Rice and Jessica Shaw

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