Whether or not you are of the mindset that Homeland trumps such television darlings as Mad Men and Breaking Bad in terms of cable television drama, it's difficult to ignore just how taut and thrilling the series can be. Just look at how quickly the series brings things to a boil following a cooling period between seasons with a storyline that jumps forward in time, but manages to feel terrifyingly present in terms of the events in the Middle East and the way the American political machine is built almost entirely on hype.
Some time has passed since last season's breathless finale, and things have largely quieted down in the respective households of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). For one thing, Carrie is living with her father and sister, teaching English as a second language, while Sergeant Brody is now Congressman Brody – and in a ridiculous, yet poignant stab at the insanity of an election year, the potential running mate of Vice President William Walden (Jamey Sheridan). During the transition from increasingly paranoid CIA agent to humble English teacher, and American war hero to effortlessly popular political entity, the common ground that links them, Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), has largely remained quiet. But, as luck (or the season premiere) would have it, the wheels of the international spy game and of global terrorist organizations never cease to spin.
And therein lies the basic, terrifying tenet of Homeland: In order for either of the series' main characters to be given their day, something horrible will likely happen. This puts the audience on a permanent state of alert, paradoxically looking forward to a resolution, but knowing it may only be possible through some horrific occurrence.
In the season premiere, 'The Smile,' Homeland is primarily concerned with reestablishing where Carrie and Brody have been, and showing how, at some point while the audience was away, both may have found themselves in a place where the thought of continuing on as they were became more distant, and that was largely a positive for them both. Because as each is sucked back into their respective positions, it doesn't take long to see just how caustic it was for them to maintain such single-minded pursuits – and how, as Carrie later comes to realize, she relished the way that pursuit defined her.
But with no means of interaction, it's no longer a game of cat and mouse between Carrie and Brody; it's their pasts hunting each of them. And while, for the time being, anyway, this helps Homeland to avoid falling into the trap presented by its basic premise, it isn't trying to rewrite how the series works, either. Brody is still very much at the whim of Abu Nazir, being contacted in his new office by a reporter (and fellow Nazir loyalist) named Roya (Zuleikha Robinson), with instructions to pull classified information out of a safe that happens to be in the office of CIA Deputy Director David Estes (David Harewood). And in the first hour, a small notebook left on a desk stands as a testament to just how well Homeland handles tension.
Meanwhile, Carrie responds to a request by Estes for assistance with the kind of reaction one wouldn't expect, considering the way she was removed from the CIA. While Nazir's request of Brody is treason, it feels downright simple compared to Estes asking Carrie to travel to Beirut and gather intelligence from the wife of a Hezbollah leader. The work means drudging up painful memories and emotions; it means working with Saul (Mandy Patinkin), and getting information about an imminent attack on America out of a source Carrie kept off the books and hasn't seen in years. It means everything Carrie sacrificed so much to suppress comes flooding back to the surface once more.
But Brody's battle is increasingly set at home. His wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), has moved past accepting her late husband's sudden resurrection, and begun enjoying the profile that comes with being the wife of a man whose name is suddenly a hair's breadth from the presidency. So when Dana (Morgan Saylor) outs him as a Muslim, to the disbelief of her class, but later, again to Jessica – a fact that Brody confirms – it's clear the truth that separates the two distinct halves of Congressman Brody is beginning to dissolve. And once again, as it is with Carrie, Brody finds himself at war with the person he is now, and who he once was.
Homeland does many things very well, but one of them is the show's awareness of just how long certain revelations must wait before they're made known by its characters. Brody's keeping a lot of secrets from his wife, but this one defines him. More importantly, Jessica's response makes who she is clearer to the audience. She's no longer an ancillary character who Brody has to keep secrets from; she's now an active participant in keeping truths about her husband from the public he serves. The writers know that building tension is great, but sooner or later, if its not released – even in little doses – it has a tendency to go flat. The trick to keeping certain areas of apprehension high is by relieving the pressure every so often.
This, in turn, serves to highlight Homeland's ability to give its plots multiple threads to explore, while still managing to pull those threads into a cohesive line by the end of most episodes – that's no simple feat, as often even the best serialized dramas opt to leave various threads dangling to be picked up (or not) several episodes down the line. The show is also blessed with an abundance of talent that, although it doubles up on two of the more popular forms of television characters right now, e.g., the unreliable protagonist and the morally ambiguous central character, manages to offer something unique and compelling about both. To their credit, Danes and Lewis are equally superb and affecting in their roles.
Most importantly, though, it's the way Carrie and Brody manage to surprise, even when the audience is given information the CIA doesn't. Having questions about your characters are the kind of questions a good series wants to have. There's still plenty we don't know about Brody and Carrie. And what's most intriguing is the way both characters are tempted to lead the audience down the road of predictability, but wind up surprising. As Brody proclaims to be something other than what people perceive him as, the same can be said for nearly everything on Homeland.
Homeland continues next Sunday with 'Beirut Is Back' @10pm on Showtime.