“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.