First Look: Is ‘Homeland’ the Great Post-9/11 Story We’ve Been Waiting For?

This isn’t a typical first look, since Homeland, Showtime’s excellent new national security drama, doesn’t actually premiere on television until Oct. 2, but the network’s been kind enough to put the pilot online with some sexy bits blurred out, and I’ve watched it twice since it hit the Internet. And I think Homeland has the potential to be what a lot of other pieces of popular culture have tried to be: a truly great examination of what we did to ourselves in the wake of September 11.

The title has a double meaning. Claire Danes plays Carrie Anderson, a CIA agent who has returned from Iraq with some boundary issues and a prescription for anti-psychotics, and is convinced that there’s more to Nicholas Brody, a POW who’s been rescued from the Iraqi insurgency, than simply a family man with high upside potential as a political symbol. As Nick tries to return home to a family that moved on from him and is trying not to show it, Carrie begins investigating him, risking her career and credibility in the process. They are both seeking different kinds of American security.

Homeland has an impressively deft grasp of organizational politics and political realities and builds drama beautifully out of those constraints. In a frenetic opening scene, Carrie begs her boss, David Estes, back in Washington to intervene to prevent the execution of a source she believes will give her valuable information about an upcoming attack. “What did you expect for someone who blew up 129 civilians in a market in Ramadi?” David spits at her. “We don’t dictate law to the Iraqis anymore. This is their jurisdiction and Assam is their prisoner.” Later, David tries to keep her out of Brody’s debrief, but Saul, Carrie’s mentor, puts her in the room, needling David about playing politics rather than focusing on expertise, noting, “Frankly, I’m surprised that you didn’t assign her yourself since she’s the only person in the section who’s ever been to Iraq.” The show’s written with a trust that the audience is smart enough to catch the constraints through characters’ conversations, rather than laying out a series of harsh truths directly: that we don’t have enough people with Arabic language skills; that the professional shark tank is immune from terrorist attacks; that our hunger for political symbols can devour individuals. This is The Manchurian Candidate remake we actually need, rather than a Denzel Washington horror show without nuance or compassion.

The show also stakes out a critically important political position: that it’s entirely possible to be deeply traumatized by September 11, and to believe that conventional investigation methods are superior to sacrificing civil liberties. When Saul catches Carrie conducting totally illegal and unapproved surveillance of Brody and his family, she tries to justify herself, declaring querulously, “I’m just making sure we don’t get hit again…I missed something once before. I can’t let that happen again.” Claire Danes is utterly convincing selling the personalness of Carrie’s fragility and conviction. She may be terrified, but when Saul tells her, “It was 10 years ago. Everything missed something that day,” Carrie is entirely certain that it’s her responsibility, that she is more capable than the people around her. And it turns out she’s right, but that she finds a vital clue not by spying on Brody, watching him have sex with his wife for the first time since his return in the sickly glow of her television monitor, but by watching news footage and his body language. She is correct that she is extraordinary. Saul is correct about how to direct that extraordinariness.

And speaking of extraordinary, I’m profoundly glad that in between Homeland and Temple Grandin, Danes seems to have decided that she wants to devote her time to television, where her fragile, cut-glass features fill up a screen, but where she can seek out parts that are interesting totally independent from her looks. Carrie is a fascinating character, someone it’s probably safer to observe from a distance than to come into contact with. She’s emotionally toxic, a woman who wears a wedding ring to bars so she’ll scare off men who might be interested in commitment and zero in on the ones who just want to sleep with her; the destroyer of David’s marriage; she makes a desperate move on Saul when it looks like he might expose her. But we know that the way she sees the world is kind of beautiful, from the fingers of a jazz pianist to the signaling of a sleeper agent, that she is courageous when she’s caught sneaking into an Iraqi prison. Being afraid doesn’t mean she’s not strong.

It remains to be seen where Showtime is going with Homeland, which is structured in such a way that it could end predictably. But this is a handsome, sober, exciting and emotionally engaging show with a fascinating female protagonist. If it achieves any of its ambitions, it will be quite an accomplishment.