Homeland, Ep. 201: The Smile

Between it’s stirring Season One finale and it’s Season Two premiere, much has been written about Homeland’s unique rise into the pantheon of contemporary television. Contemplation has gown over whether the show may be a digression back into forced drama or a sleight-of-hand addition to the topical, yet nuanced, likes of Mad Men and The Wire. Now Showtime’s first Emmy winner for Best Drama, Homeland’s polarizing response has only heightened the anticipation for its newest season. The premiere appeared this past Sunday, bringing with it all the mixed bag of tricks that made the first season such fascinating TV.

What most critics have pointed to as the challenging similarities between network dramas and Homeland, are the exaggerated political underpinnings reminiscent of West Wing or the dramatic fireworks similar to 24 (Homeland’s creators also conceived that ABC hit) or the unabashed use of cliffhangers to keep you hooked in. There’s also the linear plot line from one episode to another. A concept that runs counter to the elliptical dramas made popular by The Sopranos and The Wire.

For me, what actually makes Homeland feel so “network” is the intense, narrowed focus on its lead characters. This aspect may also be the show’s greatest strength. All the
drama runs through Carrie and Brody as though they are mythical centers of the universe. Only on sitcoms or network dramas can a similar idea be found. In Friends, the six leads hold the keys to the world, while what’s outside only evolves with them; never beside them. Think about 24. Only Jack Bauer can change the course of fate. We aren’t following an example of a world, but we are following the most important thing in that world.

Sure, Mad Men follows Don, The Sopranos follows Tony, and Breaking Bad follows Walt. But in all these instances, the worlds around the characters are developed concurrent to the players at the center. Thus, lending a more topical nature to the overall product, while also creating a structure where other characters are as important as our leads. In  the “Signal 30” (5.5) episode of Mad Men, Pete Campbell’s struggle with masculinity and career angst takes up virtually the entirety of the episode. Nothing like this could happen in Homeland, where the drama is always intensely fastened on the two central characters. This makes for engaging TV, while also giving viewers that feeling that it might teeter over the edge into the realm of pop candy.

Season Two begins with Carrie out of the loony bin, holding down a job as a ESL teacher. Brody enjoys a career as a congressman, now buried even deeper into American intelligence. He’s just been asked by the current vice president to be his running mate for the upcoming election, an offer that Brody would be excited to accept, knowing it will allow for an even greater attack on the United States. When the CIA gets a tip from a woman demanding that she speak with Carrie, the agency once again must recruit it’s manic-depressive castaway. As Carrie goes into Beirut to meet with Saul, she’s tailed by people who are onto the agencies presence. We are once again introduced to Carrie’s expertise as she narrowly escapes her stalker. Meanwhile, Brody’s religious beliefs come to a head when he’s forced to confess that he’s now a Muslim.

This episode smartly focused on the program’s greatest asset, it’s two leading characters. Carrie, played with even more intensity by Claire Danes, can barely keep it together now. In every scene, she’s hardly holding back head twitches, shakes, or ferocious bodily tenses. She’s now a ticking time bomb that could explode into a fit of mania at any moment. On the other hand, Brody has accomplished the unthinkable by penetrating American intelligence almost as deeply as he can. The nerves that made him a uniquely vulnerable villain in Season One are suitably on display throughout this episode. Unlike Carrie, he’s the master of disguising what goes on below his surface, never externalizing his fears.

Like all Homeland episodes (perhaps it’s trademark at this point), this one too had the elements that made me wonder if it could continue to sustain such a high quality of drama. Like the leads themselves, the show always seems to be on the brink of meltdown. This particular show moved into the realm of the didactic. With Brody’s religion being talked about with little subtext, first by his daughter at Quaker school and then by Brody himself when he confesses to his wife. I found the hidden nature of his religion to be a provocative and telling aspect of Brody’s character. The on-the-nose handling of it in this episode threatened to diminish its intrigue. I also wish that Carrie’s illness could be talked about with a little less ignorance. While her manic depression makes her as deliciously nerve-wracking as could be, the discussion of the illness often feels trite.

Regardless of its dichotomies, Homeland always does a fascinating job of leaving the viewer wanting more. By the end of “The Smile,” I was completely reabsorbed into Brody’s subtle deception. The closing moment where he buries the Quran again managed to conjure a sense of sympathy for a man planning to take down an entire nation. Carrie’s boiling pot personality becomes all the more endearing when we watch her kick ass and escape  from a gunman. She’s as brilliant as they come, a fact the show has to constantly remind us between her off-the-chain outbursts. [B+]

 

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