Carrie goes back into the field just as she's getting her mental footing, while Brody gets a mission from a convenient new contact

By Adam B. Vary
Updated May 28, 2015 at 05:01 PM EDT
Credit: Ronen Akerman/Showtime
S2 E1

Welcome, one and all, to the Homeland Happy Fun Hour, chockablock with mental instability, moral bewilderment, and the persistent menace of religiopolitical violence! Most of you are joining the story of bipolar former CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), American P.O.W.-turned-sleeper-terrorist-and-closet-Muslim Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), and perpetually dour master spy Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin, holla!) having already experienced Homeland‘s Emmy-winning first season. I suspect a healthy handful of you watched that season as I did, via DVD or VOD, over a weekend or two in a binge of white-knuckle anxiety and awe at Claire Danes’ masterful acting.

But I’m guessing at least a few of you checked out Sunday’s season 2 premiere having never seen the show, curious to see what all the hubbub was about. It’s as much for those newbies as for us hardened vets that the episode opened with a lengthy recap of the first season — but that recap left off a few key details, so let me fill in a few more of the blanks. (Hardened vets: You can skip ahead to the next paragraph.) Detail No. 1: Carrie had been told by a key source right before his own execution that “an American P.O.W. has been turned,” which is why Carrie suspected Brody from the moment she learned he was alive. Detail No. 2: That suspicion led Carrie to embark on a terrifically illegal surveillance operation on Brody and his family, against the expressed orders of her mentor/father figure, Saul. Detail No. 3: Saul grudgingly went along with said surveillance only after securing a super-secret-special warrant. Detail No. 4: Carrie’s constant, intimate scrutiny of Brody’s life led her to fall in love with him. Detail No. 5: During Carrie’s horribly misguided weekend at the family cabin with Brody, he began screaming “Issa” in his sleep. Detail No. 6: Before she underwent electro-shock therapy to end the severe bipolar episode that had cost Carrie her career, Saul told his protege/daughter stand-in of the classified drone attack ordered by Vice President Walden when he ran the CIA, which led to the death of terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir’s young son Issa — an attack the U.S. denied ever happened, which drove Brody to join Nazir’s cause. Detail No. 7: Right before the electro-shock therapy was administered, Carrie connected Brody yelling “Issa” in his sleep with that attack, proving, finally, that her suspicions about him were correct. Then: Zzzzzap! End of season. (Click here for Tim Stack’s even more thorough download on the first season.)

Some of these details mattered in the season premiere; some of them, I’m sure, will matter in the episodes to come. Because along with Danes and Lewis’ award-worthy performances, one of the best things about Homeland is that its characters are rarely if ever let off the hook for their choices. Sunday’s episode provided a great example or two of that uncommon storytelling quality, but it also indulged in a few of the show’s worst habits, making for an episode that I suspect left at least a few newbies still wondering quite what all the hubbub is about. Still, this merely “good” episode of Homeland was still packed with some great stuff, so let’s get to it!

Six months after Carrie’s electro-shock therapy, we opened on our once hard-charging heroine quietly puttering around the family garden, under the watchful eye of her sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) and the permissive care of her father Frank (the fabulous James Rebhorn). (Another important detail only flicked at in this episode: Papa Mathison is also bipolar.) Carrie’d turned to teaching English to native Arabic speakers and living in Maggie’s spare bedroom, decorated with homegrown art from Maggie’s young daughters — their cheery sign exhorting Carrie to “BREATHE” was at once touching and terribly sad.

But try as her sister might to shield Carrie from her old way of life, it remained stubbornly just an ominous news report away. We learned that in Homeland‘s merciless parallel universe, Israel had made good on its real-life threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities — five of them, in fact. Casualties were reported as high as 3,000, and although U.S. officials denied the number as anti-Israel propaganda, Muslims throughout the Middle East had nonetheless amassed in front of American embassies in protest. And Homeland once again sent a shiver up my spine with its eerie prescience.

NEXT: Saul gets some bad news in a fantastic hat

In one of those embassies sat Saul, who’d left his desk job at Langley to run the CIA’s bureau in Beirut, Lebanon. With all the flag-burning vitriol just outside his window, he was understandably busy: A woman had contacted the agency using a code reserved for intelligence on an upcoming attack on “U.S. interests.” No one knew who she was or how she knew that code, but she nonetheless wanted to meet at a drop site in just two hours. So out Saul went, grimacing at the hostility surrounding his car, and breathlessly evading his clumsy tail with some fleet footed subterfuge. Sporting a rakish Panama hat and sunglasses, I think this may have been the fastest I’ve seen Mandy Patinkin move in the entire series.

As Saul walked through a local bazaar en route to this mysterious contact, I was struck by the production value of shooting on location, using Tel Aviv as a stand in for Beirut. At times last season, the show, let’s face it, looked a little cheap, with underpopulated streets and obvious soundstage sets. The sudden real world texture of Saul’s surroundings lent the proceedings a welcome feeling of authenticity.

Saul’s meeting with the contact, meanwhile, was brief and curt: Turns out she’s been recruited by Carrie, and would only talk with her. But Carrie was not exactly leaping at the chance to get back in the fray. All her former coworker Danny Galvez (Hrach Titizian) had to do was show up at her classroom door and Carrie’s fragile equilibrium was thrown off kilter. Her voice wavering, she told Danny to tell her old boss David Estes that “he was right…I never belonged in the CIA in the first place.”

With the Arab world boiling and this high placed intelligence so tantalizingly close, Carrie’s simple “f— off” was not going to dissuade anybody. Saul called Maggie’s house, repeatedly, trying to reach Carrie. “I hate myself for even asking,” he said when she finally called back, but Saul had long grown accustomed to hating himself for doing his job, so why should this be any different? Estes (David Harewood) was parked outside of the house, waiting to brief Carrie. “Don’t make me talk to him, Saul,” she said, her face crumbling. “I don’t ever want to see him again. I’ve put all of that away.” But Saul knew he’d already won the moment Carrie had returned his call.

Sitting on the family porch, Carrie told Estes the mysterious contact was Fatima Ali, the wife of the Hezbollah district commander, whom Carrie recruited off books by using Fatima’s love of Julia Roberts movies to get close. (Fun totally made-up fact: Mary Reilly is huge in the Middle East!) Once Carrie had left Beirut, however, Fatima had refused to work with anyone else — that is, until she’d popped up the day before with apparent information on an attack, still demanding she share that information only with Carrie. As Carrie processed the gravity of what was being asked of her, Danes’ hairpin turns from agitation to pride to concern to incredulity to resignation proved once again why she won that Emmy, and why this show simply would not work without her.

NEXT: Carrie gets a new passport and a frightful wig

The stakes were clear; no matter how much her sister pleaded, Carrie was leaving for Beirut that night. The dynamics of her family life have always played second fiddle to Carrie’s professional life, but I still felt a pang of compassion for Maggie, watching her take in Carrie’s embrace with their father in a mutual understanding of their shared disease, while the sane family caretaker waited once more to pick up the pieces.

Before Carrie was dropped into Beirut, however, she stopped over at at CIA safehouse in Cyprus to be briefed on her cover story: a brunette Canadian named Kate Morrissey. Pulled away from the careful structure of her new, quiet life, however, Carrie was struggling to maintain even the basics of her backstory. (C’mon, Carrie, all Canadians worship hockey, everybody knows that.) It was heartbreaking to watch a woman who was once so fabulously capable crumble in the face of such a simple task while wearing what has to be the worst wig of the fall TV season. Also: Was Carrie always a vegetarian?

Saul was worried. If Carrie wasn’t up to the job, it could blow up in everyone’s face, quite literally. But Estes wasn’t having it. Not even a 24 hour delay was possible. “The mission clock starts in an hour,” he told Saul from Langley as he watched Nicholas Brody go through security for their impending briefing. (More on this in a bit.) “When the door opens, I need you to walk Carrie through it.”

Carrie made it through Lebanon customs fine, though by the time she arrived at her hotel, she was already a sweaty ball of nerves. But no rest for the psychologically borderline: Waiting in her room was a cell phone, a time, and the name of an outdoor café, where Saul was waiting in his killer secret agent hat. His perpetual tail was waiting too. Saul spotted them just as Carrie was walking up, and although he tried to wave her off to a safe house, Carrie glanced over her shoulder just as she was passing Saul, tipping even the elderly women there to shop for fresh onions that she was Up To No Good. She might as well have turned all the way around, waved her arms, and then walked over to Saul, yelling, “What tail?! I don’t see them!”

Saul told Carrie to let the man chasing her take her in to custody, but Carrie knew that would mean the entire mission was blown. “I can lose him, Saul,” she said, sounding for the first time like she might just believe in her own abilities. But as she dashed further into the belly of the bazaar, never quite losing her pursuer, Carrie’s face began to crumple — and then she reached a dead end. Panicked, Carrie turned to the nearest hijab vendor, and ditched her old head covering for a new green one. She picked up a mirror to see behind her. She saw her tail getting closer, pulling women aside to get a look at their face. Just as he stepped right behind her, gun pulled, the old Carrie snapped into action. She kneed him in the groin, knocked the gun out of his hand, and kicked it away. “Help, please, my husband, he needs help!” she screamed in Arabic, before scurrying away.

The last we saw of Carrie, her face was alight with a smile that I still can’t quite shake. Yes, Carrie had rediscovered her strength, but she’d also take a big step closer to the old life that had pushed her into a brutal, destructive mania. The title of the episode was “The Smile,” but I don’t yet know if that is meant triumphantly — or ominously.

NEXT: Meet Nicholas Brody, U.S. congressman, and al Qaeda sleeper agent

Nicholas Brody was also a stranger in a strange land: The United States Congress. We’d scarcely gotten a chance to even digest the idea of Representative Brody when he stepped into his office to find the godfather of his political career, Vice President Walden (Jamey Sheridan), waiting for him with yet another gilded promise of sudden fame and power. “Within the hour my campaign is going to float your name as a potential running mate on the ticket,” said the vice president. “I believe you’re the future of the party.” Brody could scarcely believe his ears — and he wasn’t alone.

One of the scrunchiest parts of Homeland has been its tin-eared treatment of domestic politics. If Brody had been truly vetted, his predilection for punching reporters in the windpipe, shooting a deer during a house party, and pummeling the crap out of his former best friend’s face after a military funeral would have been giant red flags screaming “October surprise!” Maybe Walden really does know these things, and his request that Brody reveal his “deep abiding secret” was more pointed than he let on. But this is also a show that has stubbornly refused to even mention the name of the actual president, let alone acknowledge that the president, you know, exists. With several characters spending so much time in this episode telling Brody that Walden really was serious about him as a prospect for the ticket, I’m inclined to think writer-showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon are too.

But at least they acknowledged the daffiness of this development by having Brody himself bat it away, saying that Walden was merely drafting off of his fame for political cover on his hard line against Iran. My real beef with the episode is with the sudden, convenient appearance of Roya Hammad (Zuleikha Robinson, Lost), a journalist for an unnamed outlet doing a story on the possible V.P. candidates, who also happened to be an agent of Abu Nazir. Last season, Brody had to be mugged for realsies in order to communicate with the most wanted man in the world. This season, apparently all Brody needs to do when he wants a line to Nazir is ring up the local Palestinian journalist with the posh British accent and killer heels.

Damian Lewis at least did a great job selling Brody’s panicked squirminess at Hammad citing Abu Nazir so directly in his office. She ultimately had to invoke Issa to convince Brody that she was indeed on his side, and once she did, Hammad didn’t just have a message for Brody — she had a mission. He was to break into David Estes’ private safe to find the encryption key to a database of possible targets, a safe Hammad expediently had the combination for. How she came by this extraordinary piece of intel was never explored, but it did remind me of another dangling detail from the first season: the mole in the CIA, who’d kept tipping off key allies of Abu Nazir just as the CIA was getting close to nabbing them. If this mission was so vital to Nazir, why didn’t he just have this mysterious figure do it instead?

NEXT: “The convention’s still months away. A lot can happen between now and then.”

In any event, Brody balked. He saw his original mission, to blow up Walden and his military compatriots, as a just punishment for the war criminals responsible for Issa’s death. Now that he was a high powered congressman, he wasn’t keen on getting his hands dirty as a run-of-the-mill terrorist. “I told Nazir I would influence lawmakers through my access,” he told Hammad, his ire rising. “I will not help you in the killing of innocent civilians!”

Like Carrie, Brody found the welcome tranquility of a new life unexpectedly disrupted, and his loyalty to his professed cause tested with a task that violated a self-imposed moral boundary. Also like Carrie, Brody ultimately relented, after Hammad pushed hard questioning his allegiance to Nazir’s cause, which in turn forced Brody to resurrect the ghost of Tom Walker. Oh right, that’s another lingering detail from season 1: The other U.S. marine who was turned by Abu Nazir, and played an instrumental role in placing Brody inside the tight, confined space with the vice president and a bomb strapped to his chest — a marine Brody had thought he’d killed during his time as a POW, and who Brody really did kill at the behest of Nazir. (Fun actual fact: The actor who played Walker is the same man who plays the affable black guy on Will McAvoy’s staff on The Newsroom. Hollywood, everybody!)

As Brody arrived for his briefing with Estes, the two had an ominous exchange that may have pointed to the end game for the season.

“And I was just getting used to calling you ‘congressman,'” said Estes.

“Oh, the convention’s still months away,” said Brody. “A lot can happen between now and then.” Indeed it can, Nick. Indeed it can.

Before Brody went to work rooting around Estes’ office, however, he got a needed boost of motivation after Estes mentioned offhand that he’d worked with Walden in the early days of the country’s drone strike program. Brody’s eyes flickered: Oh, reeeeeally. But just as things were beginning to get hairy, in walked Danny with Hammad’s promised diversion in the form of a story potentially going to air that night: Only four Iranian nuclear facilities were destroyed, and the fifth is still working. Whether it was true or a smokescreen, it raised enough of an alarm to pull Estes out of his briefing, and give Brody the window he needed.

With Hammad alternatively pressing and flirting with Estes to hold his attention — really, we’re going to dip into the feminine wiles well already? — Brody frantically searched for the encryption key, and this storyline finally took off. As Homeland so often does, I found myself in the fabulously uncomfortable position of hoping Brody wasn’t caught. The clangy, propulsive music evoked Brody’s surging heartbeat (and mine), and when Brody finally sat back down without the notebook into which he’d copied the encryption key, I caught myself mentally screaming, “THE NOTEBOOK! THE NOTEBOOK!” Again, much like Carrie, Brody ultimately executed his assignment with no small amount of sharp skill, but to what ultimate end remains to be seen.

NEXT: Meanwhile, on the Brody homestead…

Things at work were going well, so to speak, but Brody’s home life continued to fracture in terrifically unexpected ways. Brody’s wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) could barely hide her glee at her husband’s rocketing stardom. But if the veepstakes news made any impression on Brody’s sour teenage daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor, so good at being so adolescently abrasive), she did a good job of hiding it with her churlish sniping. (Poor young Chris Brody, doomed to a life of second-banana disregard.)

Dana may not have been overjoyed by her father’s political fortunes, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t on his side. During a fascinating class meeting at her new Quaker private school, she got into it with a particularly snotty crapweasel who bloviated about how Muslim Arabs “[don’t] value human life the way we do.” Dana called out the smug twaddle-bucket on not knowing the difference between an Arab and a Persian, but she was quickly scolded, since interrupting someone during Quaker Meeting is a big no no. Since Dana is wired to break any rule of decorum she’s presented with, she interrupted the obnoxious ratfink again, calling him, fittingly, a “douche.”

Obnoxious ratfink douche: “Who do you think you are? And what do you know about any of this anyways?”

Dana: “What do you know?”

Obnoxious ratfink douche: “Well, what if I tell you my dad’s undersecretary of state?”

Dana: “Yeah, well what if I told you my dad’s a Muslim?”

Ruh-roh! Though Dana’s outburst did catch the eye of the dreamy proponent of pre-emptive strikes — who tried to save the moment by cracking, “Right, and mine’s a Scientologist” — she knew immediately she’d screwed up big time. That night, an infuriated Jessica revealed Dana’s indiscretion to her father, and demanded she explain to them both why she did it. “I want to know why you would say such a thing!” bellowed Jessica, as the screws turned tighter and tighter on Brody until he could take watching his daughter get reamed for keeping his secret no longer. He confessed to his wife: Dana said it because “it’s true.”

Jessica was understandably blindsided. After Brody explained Dana had caught him praying in the garage, she tore into her husband’s ad-hoc sacred space and found his Koran tucked behind a shelf. But she had no interest in learning why Brody had adopted the religion of his captors. Instead, she threw the Koran down in anger, and Brody reacted on instinct. “That’s not supposed to touch the floor!” he said, snatching the holy book up like it was a baby tossed onto hot coals.

With that simple act, Jessica understood the depth of her husband’s devotion to his new religion. “I married a U.S. marine!” she said, gutted. “This — this can’t happen!” I wish the writers had given Baccarin lines that were a bit less on the nose here, but then the conversation took a more interesting turn. Just as she was about to leave, Jessica turned back to Brody. “Does she know?” she asked. “The CIA woman you were with. Does she know you’re Muslim?”

In fact, Brody had told Carrie he was Muslim the same fateful day Carrie told him she thought he was an al Qaeda sleeper agent. But Brody had already made enough damning confessions for one night, so he deflected. Why would Jessica even ask? Her eyes narrowed. “Because she stood on our lawn and said a bunch of things I’m remembering all of a sudden.” The temperature in the room was rising, fast, but like an ace politician who’d been in power much longer than six months, Brody had a slick non-answer at the ready. “Jess, that woman was fired by the CIA and locked up in a mental institution.” Jessica was too tired from fighting to push any harder, and went to bed.

So Brody had succeeded in extinguished that fire for now — but they both had also likely extinguished any lingering hope that their marriage could be saved. Jessica is ill equipped to deal with the man in front of her as he is, and let go of the idea of the man he used to be; Brody is ill inclined to reveal to her the man he had become, even if he wanted to. The only thing holding these two together now, it seems, is the fame of Brody’s career.

Late that evening, Brody woke up, went to the garage, wrapped the broken Koran in a towel, and took it out to the backyard to bury it — a potent visual metaphor for a show that more often runs on rattling tension and corkscrew plotting. Because apparently Dana spends her nights now waiting to catch her father doing something suspicious, she popped up in the backyard just as he placed the Koran in the ground. His marriage broken, Dana is now Brody’s only strong tether to sanity and stability. The father and daughter interred the Koran together, but I worry for what will happen to them both should Dana learn what else her father has been keeping buried.

Your turn: What did you make of Homeland‘s season premiere? Can Carrie find her secret agent mojo again without letting it shred her psyche? Do you think Brody will continue to be pulled deeper into his work for Abu Nazir, or can he possibly find a way out of it? And are Panama hats standard issue for CIA bureau chiefs in the Middle East, or does Saul just roll that way when he’s overseas?

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