Claire Danes

Belated thoughts on the first season of “Homeland”

One of the many joys of being a film student is the media studies classes included in our curriculum. One of these classes, RTF 335, has incorporated the first season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” and the hardest part about the semester has easily been not watching the cliffhanger-prone show ahead of the rest of the class.

The entire season is built around Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), a POW returned to American soil after eight years in captivity, and CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who suspects that Brody may have been converted to the terroristic cult of Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). As the mentally unstable Carrie gets closer to the truth, the audience is clued in to increasingly suspicious activities on Brody’s part, all of it coming together with an intense finale that left me furiously Googling when I would be able to watch Season 2.

As the intimidating list of awards can attest, “Homeland” boasts two towering lead performances from Claire Danes and Damien Lewis. Danes’ unwavering belief in Brody’s diverted loyalties almost have the audience convinced even before “Homeland” clues us in, but she’s even more effective at the end of the season, as Carrie spirals into mania and jeopardizes her career. Meanwhile, Lewis plays the all-American hero to a tee, but his best moments are when his character is dealing with his reshaped values, particularly in the season finale. As Brody’s daughter begs him over the phone not to detonate a suicide bomb attached to his chest, Brody’s mental anguish, regret, and ultimate elation are beautifully portrayed by Lewis.

With a conflict as clearly defined as “Homeland”’s, it’s hard to imagine the show’s premise lasting more than one season. Thanks to some deft, innovative storytelling from showrunners Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, “Homeland” managed to deliver a satisfying debut season that still sets up a compelling sophomore effort. Though the question of Brody’s potential terrorism is answered, Carrie is out of a job and still unaware of the truth. The question of our heroine’s future, along with Brody’s upcoming political race, set up a second season that can continue to play out the cat-and-mouse game at the center of the show, while expanding and deepening the show’s roundly compelling cast of characters.

Review

In Showtime's compelling new political thriller "Homeland," Claire Danes portrays Carrie Matheson, a CIA agent convinced that recently recovered prisoner of war Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has aligned his loyalty with Al Qaeda and is a part of a planned attack on American soil. (Photo courtesy of Showtime)

Much of Showtime’s original programming falls into the trap of over-reliance on a central conceit, without which they generally struggle, having little substance outside that conceit on which to build a thematically strong story. “Dexter” would have little to stand on if the title character swore off serial killing, and if suburban mom Nancy Botwin ditched the pot business for good, “Weeds” would certainly flounder.

However, Showtime’s new paranoid political thriller “Homeland” defies that reliance. It is a subtly crafted show that expertly balances its many themes — the ethicality of government surveillance, Americans’ perception of Islam and its relationship with terrorism, the crippling mental effect of war on soldiers — with both ambiguity and delicacy, while also carrying off some spectacular plotting and character twists.

“Homeland” centers on Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), a young CIA agent who, although doggedly committed to her job, is emotionally and mentally unstable. Carrie lives with the unending guilt over not having caught a clue that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks and this guilt both motivates and handicaps her work.

When Carrie is given a tip from an interrogation subject that an American solider has turned to al-Qaida, she immediately zeroes in on Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a recently recovered American prisoner of war who spent eight years being interrogated by the Iraqi regime of Abu Nazir (a fictional and vaguely bin Laden-like terrorist leader). Carrie uses all the government power she can scrounge up to investigate Brody, beginning by setting up a surveillance system in his house and scrutinizing his every move.

In contrast with all the political intrigue involved in “Homeland,” the show also manages to make its portrayal of its characters’ domestic lives just as compelling. Carrie’s slow descent into paranoia, fueled by her as-yet unnamed mental illness builds tension, and Danes’s manic portrayal of a woman consumed in turns by jittery paranoia, self-doubt and fierce righteousness is blistering. Sgt. Brody’s wife Jessica’s (Morena Baccarin) indecision over whether or not to tell Nick that she’s fallen in love with his best friend while she took him for dead in his absence is also anguishing.

It’s the delicate ambiguity with which “Homeland” treats subjects like American surveillance, mental illness and the revelation of Brody’s conversion to Islam that make the show so remarkable. Paradoxically, the show’s hesitance to make any hard-and-fast moral statements about these subjects make “Homeland” all the more bold in its ambivalent assessment of post-9/11 America.

The show also sets itself apart by constantly defying viewers’ expectations about the typical twists and turns of a political thriller. For instance, any other serial drama might have drawn out Carrie’s surveillance of the Brody household for an entire season. However, the show dispenses with this plot device within four episodes as Carrie’s warrant expires, forcing her into more and more morally dubious situations in order to keep track of Brody.

Now that “Homeland” has been officially renewed for a second season and Showtime has confirmed that the enigmatic P.O.W. Sgt. Brody will be present for at least another season, it’s all the more uncertain what direction “Homeland” will take in seasons to come. Luckily for us, uncertainty is what “Homeland” does best.

Published on Friday, November 18, 2011 as: Showtime finds success with political thriller