“Tonight is Thursday. I make dinner for the family on Thursdays. I’m making vegetable lasagna with vegetables I picked from the garden this morning,” Carrie Mathison says, with increasing desperation when the CIA comes for her, six months after they came for her job, six months after she burned out part of her brain to try to silence it. “I don’t want to see him. I’ve put all of this away.” Homeland, which won the Emmy award for best drama last weekend, much to my delight, is a plot-heavy thriller, but it’s also a deeply humane show about the pleasures and connections war denies us. And it makes sense to me that as it begins its second season, “The Smile,” from its titles to its details, constantly returns to questions of how its characters feel about their roles in the Great Game of story, and of the war on terror.
When we first met Carrie a year ago, she was living alone in a relatively anonymous town house, pursuing one-night stands, and flouting the rules of her agency to set up surveillance on Nicholas Brody, a recently-returned prisoner of war who triggered an old warning from one of her informants. The Carrie we meet outside of the agency is someone who has acknowledged her mental illness rather than managing it erratically in secret, who lives with her father and sister rather than by herself, who teaches rather than interacts, and who sees that Israel has struck Iran’s nuclear development sites, but observes rather than acting. When her mentor Saul recalls Carrie to active, if temporary, duty because one of her sources, a Lebanese woman who “had a weakness for American movies. She loved Julia Roberts,” there’s a deep cruelty and kindess in the call. Carrie has sacrificed the nimblest part of her mind (if not the best of her self) to the maintenance of her sanity, had it treated like trash by her mentors and enemies. Saul’s call offers a chance for Carrie to serve, and to reclaim some of her damaged reputation, but it’s freighted with two terrible possibilities: Carrie could fail and have her brokenness reaffirmed, or she could succeed but remain shut out of the place that to her was once a kind of tortured heaven.
In a sense, Carrie begins this second season in the same place Brody began the first: believing that she is the vessel for a mission she has neither the desire nor the political capital to shape. “Believe me, I wouldn’t be going if I had a choice,” she tells her sister, shoving choice away from her the way Brody initially did on his return to the United States. “You do have a choice. You always have a choice,” her sister begs her, but Carrie tells her “Not this time.” If last season was about Brody’s coming into a power he didn’t know he had, and in the process separating the CIA from its most valuable asset, this season of Homeland could follow Carrie on a similar journey, gaining the hard intelligence, the credibility, and the mental strength to prove Brody guilty and her detractors deadly wrong, restoring the proper balance to the situation. Her weapons are paltry: a fruit basket from Saul, a phone, a bad brown wig, a flimsily-constructed story about hockey fandom, a headscarf, the ability to throw a knee. And her only victory in this first episode is to throw a tail. Carrie catches no terrorists or torturers, but she does, crucially, catch herself when she falls, and watching her, I cheered, even though I know that for Carrie to return to the CIA would put her further from lasagna, from the garden, and the blue books, and her father’s gentle concern about her lithium.
At home, the plot lines, and the emotions, are more complicated. When I initially saw this episode, and I’ve watched it several time since, I didn’t like the decision to make Brody a potential vice presidential nominee because it struck me as a bit of implausibility that isn’t actually necessary to any of the points the plot seems to be trying to make. It’s one thing for John McCain, who was held as a prisoner in Vietnam, to be a viable presidential candidate years after his return home, and long after the conflict that resulted in his imprisonment and torture had ceased to carry the specific sting and suspicion for the American populace that the September 11 attacks still have for ordinary Americans. Brody is a fresher victim of a rawer conflict, six months into his service in an abruptly-vacated Congressional seat. His only political asset is also a potential liability, even for people who don’t suspect Brody as Carrie once did: his experiences in Abu Nazir’s custody.
It only makes sense, as Brody tells Jessica, that “I think he’s just using my name to sell the public on a harder line with Iran.” But Walden could have easily asked Brody to serve on a committee, encouraged him to do an investigation, asked him to make some speeches, all things that would have given Brody a chance to make political hay as a freshman lawmaker, preparing him for a time when he’d be a more credible candidate, a hawkish Paul Ryan. When I spoke to Homeland creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, Gordon emphasized that it was important to note that “he’s still a long shot,” and I think the vice presidential storyline can really only be credible if it’s short-lived. Brody may want to make policy that would save a generation of Isas, but I can imagine Abu Nazir having other uses for Brody’s office: he could ruin Walden, a warmonger if there ever was one, by revealing what kind of man the Vice President has put his trust in.
In a sense, I think the vice presidential storyline works best at home, where it flushes out Jessica’s ambition. “It wouldn’t be easy on the family,” she tells him, issuing a perfect political-wife demurral. “But I would be lying if I said this hadn’t been fun.” Morena Baccarin (and David Harewood, for that matter) gets less attention than Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin, but as Jessica, she’s put together a very carefully-calibrated portrayal of a very old-fashioned position, a woman who has calculated that whatever readjustment problems she and Brody had sexually and emotionally when she came home, whatever spurred Brody’s affair with Carrie, the position his new job has given her is a worthwhile reward.
It’s why Jessica reacts so strongly when she discovers that Brody has converted, and has kept his new identity as a Muslim secret from her. She gives lip service to the idea that it’s the secret itself that bothers her, to the idea that the most conservative Muslims might stone her daughter for having premarital sex, but really, it’s the loss of position that seems to upset her. I married a U.S. Marine. This. This can’t happen. You have a wife. Two kids. You’re in the running to be vice president. This can’t happen. You get that, right?” Jessica tells her husband in an attempt to realign her understanding of him, and the guarantee of the benefits that flow from him, with her new reality. “Does she know?…The CIA woman…you were with. Does she know you’re Muslim?” The prospect that Carrie knows that Brody is Muslim is threatening because it suggests that Brody’s relationship with Carrie, however brief, was deeper and more honest, than Brody’s marriage to Jessica. But it also carries the risk of exposure and loss with it.
There’s something striking and important about the difference between Jessica’s reaction and Dana’s. While Jessica is enjoying the prestige of being a Congressman’s and a war hero’s wife, for Dana, it’s meant she’s at a Quaker private school, a clear comment on Sidwell Friends, in recent years the school of choice for Presidential children, where she’s disgusted by the pretentiousness, and in some cases, militarism of her classmates. Last season, Dana’s discovery that her father was Muslim was one of the things that helped the tentative growth of their broken bond. I was chatting with Mother Jones‘ Adam Serwer about this episode, and he suggested it was strange that Dana hadn’t said her father was a war hero as a way of bolstering the opinions of his that she’s adopting during Meeting. I actually think it’s significant that Dana reached for her father’s faith instead. She understands, on some level, that it’s a critical point of his identity. And she’s appealing to her classmates to see the common humanity of the people they’re reducing to abstractions, rather than speaking to them of strategic considerations. Homeland‘s come a long way from our early introduction to Dana as a bratty teenager. Here, and in the backyard of her house, where she helps her father bury his Koran, she’s one of the few non-Muslim characters who sees the beauty of Islam rather than reducing it to a geopolitical force.
It would be a fascinating end to the series to see Brody get caught but to see Dana convert, honoring her father’s religion but repudiating his association with terrorism. As it is now, Dana’s decency despite the eight years with her father Abu Nazir stole from her is a repudiation of the uses to which Nazir put his own son and the focus of Brody’s turn to terrorism. “Issa’s birthday is Monday. He would have been 13 if he survived the drone attack,” the journalist who visits Brody’s office to reactivate him says. “Do you remember what you gave him for his tenth birthday? He was scared of the big black crows on the fence. You made him a slingshot.” If there’s been one weakness in the characterization of Brody’s turn to terrorism it’s been that the show didn’t devote much time to portraying Issa as anything more than a generic, dead little boy. When Brody’s reminded of details like these, we can see Issa more clearly, and more clearly feel the ugliness of turning this boy into either a casualty of war or a weapon of it.