By Ken Tucker
September 30, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Kent Smith/Showtime
Fall TV
  • TV Show

One week since winning what seemed like every Emmy that Modern Family didn’t, Homeland began its second season on Sunday night with Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison having, in her sister’s words, “finally gotten to a good place.” Which is spy-story code for, “soon to arrive in a bad place.”

Carrie — at the end of last season a disgraced CIA operations officer so emotionally damaged she was going One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest with electroconvulsive therapy — was shown living with her parents, employed in a teaching job, and making vegetable lasagna from veggies she herself has picked from the family garden. She seemed as close as anyone as intense and intelligent and vegetarian as Carrie can be to being happy.

But then something happened to pull her back into CIA huggermugger, reuniting her with her mentor-handler, Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson: One of Carrie’s old “assets” – a woman with ties to the series’ arch-terrorist, Abu Nazir – has come forward with important intelligence information, but will only talk to Carrie. Just as she was being at least temporarily reenlisted in the war on terror, Claire Danes showed us, with every blink of her wide eyes, every line-reading that’s suffused with tamped-down emotion, how conflicted — hell, how terrified — she was about this. It is one of the measures of Homeland‘s hypnotic persuasiveness that it comes pretty close to forcing a viewer to wonder whether the price of national safety is worth the risk of sending our fragile hero around the bend again.

As for Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody, he too has benefited from the slight time-jump the series made. The traitorous former Marine POW who had come close to completing a suicide mission that would have blown up himself and some of the government’s highest officials is now a cool-cucumber Congressman. He was approached by Jamey Sheridan’s Vice President Walden about joining the latter’s team for a Presidential run. Vice President Brody: It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Brody’s wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin) certainly thinks so, and Brody knows this move will get him one giant step closer to fulfilling the promise he made to Abu Nazir, that he’ll funnel U.S. secrets to this U.S. enemy. The series did not back down from Brody’s ongoing commitment; it almost dares us to maintain sympathy for him. (And by one of those nice coincidences of TV production schedules, the scene of Brody frantically copying codes in Estes’ temporarily empty office was reminiscent of Breaking Bad‘s Walter White bugging and de-bugging Hank Schrader’s temporarily empty office.)

Homeland maintains that sympathy for Brody in part by the way the series portrays his family. One of the most exciting moments of Sunday’s premiere occurred when neither Brody nor Carrie was onscreen: It was when Brody’s daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), blurted out, “My dad’s a Muslim,” to shut up a smuggie classmate, which I think breaks soooo many kinds of Quaker school silence rules. This led to Jessica’s discovery of Brody’s Muslim faith, with a beautifully executed series of reactions from everyone involved; you ended up feeling as much for the wife and her flabbergasted exasperation (“I thought you put this crazy stuff behind you!”) as you did for Dana’s fear of betraying her father’s trust and, in turn, Brody’s guilt for having unfairly burdened his daughter with a secret.

As for Carrie — well, one reason the episode was titled “The Smile” was for the triumphant grin she flashed when she’d shaken the people tailing her in that transferred her exhilaration to the viewer. Carrie in action — it was fun! Deadly serious, of course, but fun!

One key line was almost tossed away in this devilishly constructed hour. Carrie says to her family, “I trust Saul, he’ll be there to hold my hand.” A powerful Homeland theme is not just the war looming out in the world, but the war within Carrie: A woman with a genius talent who’s had a brilliant career, yet whose emotional tenuousness renders her prone to seeking the care and protection of men, men like Saul and like Brody, with whom she became intimate last season. Which only made this night’s undercover and in-control Carrie all the more engaging to watch.

Similarly, Brody is a superb soldier who has been broken spiritually; he’s at once tremendously shrewd and scarily vulnerable. It’s the fraught fragility these two characters endure – a delicate suspense that Homeland dramatizes in a swift, sure manner that transfers all that suspense to the viewer – that enables this show to sustain its excellent unnervingness.

Twitter: @kentucker

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