At its most fundamental level, Homeland has never been a show about terrorism, or patriotism, or religion, or mental illness: it is, at its core, concerned with the fissure between the private and the public self, and all the attendant complications that arise when that fissure widens to a degree that makes life precarious.
Setting their story within the realm of counter-terrorism has given show runners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon a rich terrain in which to explore this theme: so much of what intelligence agents do revolves around observing people who do not know they are being watched. This was made manifest most directly in the early episodes of the show’s first season, when Carrie spent a month or so watching everything that happened in Brody’s house (excluding that pesky, off-camera garage), from his awkward sexual relations with his wife to her whispered conversations with his old friend Mike about the affair that had developed in Brody’s eight-year absence.
The problem with this kind of thinking lies in the fact that even having a camera on somebody 24/7 can’t yield a full-bodied and utterly accurate depiction of his character. Whatever “character” is, exactly, is nebulous and unstable, and as Carrie herself discovered when she found herself alone with Brody, our reactions to other people cannot be entirely predicated, labeled, or quantified. Their short-lived, disastrous affair – even calling it an affair is a bit of a stretch – provided the emotional core of the first season precisely because it did not feel like two liars playing their personas off of each other but simply two people connecting to each other in a way that was surprising – to them and to us – and moving.
This feeling is simultaneously genuine and an illusion: both Carrie and Brody are playing certain roles in those scenes, just as they always are. Carrie thinks Brody is a terrorist and hasn’t told him; Brody is a terrorist and hasn’t told anybody. And though they spin away from each other in the aftermath of his finding out that she suspects him, their connection remains a source of attraction and fear for both of them. There are two things pulling them together: their visceral emotional connection and the fact that each of them has seen something in the other that typically remains hidden. It’s a fair bet to say that these will overpower the mere self-preservation that should keep them away from each other.
We haven’t gotten there yet, though: this is, after all, only the first episode of the season. But it is encouraging to see that Gordon and Gansa, who wrote this episode, seem to have identified their central theme and stuck to it in their premiere. This episode is about what identity is and whether it can weather being constantly subsumed by a false public persona. Both Carrie and Brody, in storylines that elegantly echo each other, are struggling to come to terms with the new lives that have been handed to them in the wake of the events of last season’s finale. Brody did not blow himself up and now must live with the consequences – his accelerating political career – and Carrie’s psychotic break has rendered her somewhat impotent: she is living with her sister and teaching ESL classes after being unceremoniously fired from the CIA when her mental illness was discovered. Despite the fact that Carrie’s lot seems clearly the inferior of the two (depending, at least, on your view of national politics), they’re equally stymied by their respective occupations, which require them to put on a show nearly all the time.
In the months that have elapsed between the end of season one and this premiere episode, Brody has found himself with a seat in Congress and a suggestion of a vice presidential nomination on the ticket with current Vice President Walden, with whom he is tied both professionally and socially (his wife, Jess, is apparently spending a lot of time with the Second Lady). His interactions with Walden are the filmic equivalent to nails on a chalkboard: the falsity of Brody’s public performance in these moments, though not overplayed by Damian Lewis, is excruciating. (Walden, you’ll remember, is the man responsible for the death of Brody’s protégé, the terrorist Abu Nazir’s son Issa, in a drone strike, the event that catalyzed Brody’s radicalism, such as it is.)
Things aren’t much better at home. Jess has always been the show’s weakest link, and the tone her character strikes in this episode is not encouraging. It is difficult to write wives, particularly wives who stand in the way of something the audience wants very badly to happen. Jess has always stood between Brody and Carrie, but so have a host of other things, including but not limited to the former’s penchant for terrorism and the latter’s for voyeurism. Based on her understandable but unflattering reaction to the revelation that Brody is a convert to Islam (revealed inadvertently by their daughter, Dana, who caught her father praying in the garage last season), and her apparent intoxication with the trappings of her husband’s political career, this season will also place her in-between Brody and any chance he has at expressing an authentic self. Her remark that she’d “be lying if [she] said this [Brody’s career] hasn’t been fun!” is telling. Nothing about the past several months has been fun for Brody, very much including his career, that’s for damn sure.
The problem he faces, and that he will increasingly face as time progresses, is that he is not simply lying about who he is but rather that he has lost hold on who he is, period. Last season he had two fairly real identities – he was a devoted family man and a suicide bomber – that he alternated, and which he only managed to drop, briefly, in his tryst with Carrie. This kind of doublethink is hardly psychologically healthy, but in a way it’s easier than what he’s faced with now: he’s not particularly thrilled about having to steal information for Abu Nazir from Estes, Carrie’s old boss, and the patina of false cheer that he wears at the office shows up in his scenes at home, too. He’s in-between a rock and a hard place: he just doesn’t have anywhere to go. We actually see him, in the moment after stealing that information, putting himself back on, twitching himself back into false position.
This explains his devotion to Islam pretty well: it’s a very necessary escape for him, the only place where his frayed personality can come together in any semblance of unity. Jess’ outright rejection of his conversion is very bad for Brody: it cuts away his last semblance of solace. There isn’t a more wrenching moment all episode than his scrambling to pick up the Qur’an his wife has so unceremoniously thrown to the ground. “That’s not supposed to touch the floor,” he tells her, sounding almost like a child who has been slapped. He at least has the love and support of his daughter – who puts other TV children to shame (I’m looking at you, "The Good Wife”) – but he still has to bury his desecrated Qu’ran in the yard under the cover of darkness. Things are going to get a lot worse for Brody before they get better.
Which brings us to Carrie, who’s jetted off to Beirut in order to help Saul and the Agency get information about a potential threat from Hamas against the U.S. The plot contrivance that gets her there – an informant who won’t talk to anybody else – is a bit of a stretch, but then the plot of “Homeland” has always been a bit of a stretch. It may not be entirely believable, but it exists to serve the characters, and not the other way around; so plausibility doesn’t much matter in the long run, at least within reason. Carrie seems to still be suffering from short-term memory less from her ECT treatments, and is visibly too anxious to be engaging in this kind of high-stress, high-risk work. But she goes and does it anyway – out of duty, out of desire to go back to the only thing she loves, because that’s just what she does.
What makes Carrie Mathison such a fascinating character, particularly in light of the central theme of Homeland, is that her authentic identity – if we want to call it that – is inherently tied up in her facility with duplicity: her authenticity is rooted in deception. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to be seen, to be recognized – but that this desire has to coexist with an equally powerful drive to bury herself in work that inevitably obscures her. She lives for that obscurity, for the adrenaline rush of it. The ESL class, which she never has to lie about, is far more a lie to Carrie than anything she was doing at the CIA. The life she’s living at her sister’s place is a lie by virtue of its honesty.
This episode is titled “The Smile.” There’s not much smiling going on until the end, when Carrie gets made by somebody in Beirut on her way to meet Saul and, against orders, decides to try to ditch him instead of letting herself be taken in. She comes close to losing – she’s far from the top of her game – but she doesn’t. She manages, instead, to incapacitate the man following her, and as the camera tracks her as she darts out of the market where she’s left him, we are treated to the sight of a childish, giddy little smile breaking out over her face. Her life already has gotten worse; last season it got about as bad as it could get. She’s on the upswing now.
Odds and Ends:
- The decision to focus on Israel (hypothetically) bombing Iran’s nuclear sites is smart and topical – and the images of angry Lebanese protestors outside of what appears to be the American embassy in Beirut, or perhaps the CIA’s equivalent complex, were eerily prescient.
- The journalist who provided Brody with the code to Estes’ safe has to have gotten those numbers somewhere. Gordon and Gansa have been careful not to make a big deal out of who the mole in the CIA might be, but it’s pretty clear now that there is one, somewhere. Saul seems like an increasingly unlikely candidate, given that he’s now off in Beirut. The problem with this is that we just don’t know very many people at the CIA outside of him, Carrie, and Estes. I guess my bet would have to be the young guy who interrupted Estes and Brody’s meeting, just by virtue of him being recognizable, but there’s really no way of knowing much at this point.
- While I appreciate that the views expressed by Dana’s fellow students in her school’s morning meeting are not exactly unrepresentative of much of the American public’s feelings about Iran and Islam, hearing them articulated so baldly – and in such a contrived setting – seemed a little excessive, though I guess they get a pass for putting such folly in the mouths of babes.
- Saul’s fedora. I have nothing to add, just wanted to acknowledge its existence, and the panache with which Mandy Patinkin was wearing it.