TV: Homeland (Season 2)

I called Homeland’s first season a “perfected and distilled” spy drama: a left-handed compliment, in retrospect. It was a brilliantly structured story full of strong performances, and it won well deserved critical acclaim, but it also felt derivative of earlier, more innovative spy shows, and it may have had more style than substance.

Going into season two, I found myself asking a different question: is the series built to last? As the year begins, conflicted former Marine Nicholas Brody (the brilliant Damian Lewis) has been cleared of terrorist suspicion, and he’s gone into politics. In fact, he’s become a frontrunner as a running mate for slimy VP William Walden (Jamey Sheridan). Brody’s also reconsidering his cooperation with notorious al-Qaeda mastermind Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). Unfortunately, the terrorists, spearheaded by journalist contact Roya Hammad (Zuleikha Robinson), still have plans for him, and the leverage to make him carry them out.

Meanwhile, the CIA officer who tried to expose Brody, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), has been chased out of the service by her boat-rocking failures and shaky mental health. She’s struggling to stay out, until an informant in Beirut, recruited by Carrie years ago, demands to speak to her. Reluctantly, the CIA sends her back into the field on what’s supposed to be a temporary assignment, but soon develops into an off-grid operation to prevent another attack by Nazir, with Brody as their primary lead.

Season two’s plot is executed well enough, but the show frequently feels hamstrung by its very world and all that’s come before. The writers jump through hoops to keep Carrie and Brody in play, and the rest of its fine cast isn’t always best situated for involvement in the story. (Brody’s family and best friend, central to the set-up of season one, often feel shoehorned into events.) The show also over-relies on an unlikely Carrie-Brody romance, which was interesting when we weren’t sure who was playing whom, but feels much less credible when extended. The stresses of renewal take their toll on the scripts, which aren’t quite as strong and occasionally lose their grip on intelligence world protocols. Is this a black op or isn’t it? How realistic is Carrie’s reinstatement? Why is Virgil (David Marciano), an independent contractor, hanging out at CIA headquarters? The first season was such a carefully clocked and streamlined affair; these clumsy moments make me wonder if it might have been better off staying a one-off season.

That said, I still found season two worth watching. There’s plenty to enjoy in terms of clever plot, spycraft, and intrigue. While Danes struggles a bit selling the weaker scripts, on the whole the performances are still excellent. Damian Lewis is a marvel in a difficult role, somehow both accessible and inscrutable as a character who is both easy to like and impossible to trust. In the CIA world, Mandy Patinkin continues his understated and intense performance as old hand Saul Berenson, and there’s an interesting new player in shady Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend). At home, there’s great support from Morena Baccarin and, in an expanded role, Morgan Saylor as Brody’s daughter Dana. Baccarin in particular is just exquisite, in a role that is tragically limited; whatever part she lands next, it deserves to be a big one.

As a spy fiction fanatic, then, I still enjoyed the season, but there’s definitely a slip here, and it left me wondering how much longer it can sustain its increasingly strained scenarios.

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