The Emmy-laden sophomore drama remains fascinating and well-acted -- but its MacGuffin is showing.
After the wrenching finale of its first season, "Homeland" had its work cut out for Season 2. Carrie Mathison, disgraced and mired in the depression that follows a manic episode, chose to undergo electroconvulsive therapy, and may have erased the critical connection she made as the preprocedure anesthetic took hold. Nicholas Brody came this close to smithereening half the Cabinet with a suicide bomb; only a faulty switch and a desperate call from daughter Dana kept a tragedy from turning into a catastrophe.
The writers would have to figure out how to get Carrie back in the game; continue making Brody's double life believably secret; and cook up a season-long narrative that put Carrie and Brody back on a collision course.
Then the show won every Emmy in sight. So, no pressure.
The premiere checked all these tasks off its to-do list. Carrie's leading a soothing life at home with her father and sister, working in the garden, teaching English, and secretly inhaling news out of the Middle East like she's huffing paint -- until an old contact surfaces in Beirut. The asset is a Hezbollah district chief's wife, and she'll only talk to Carrie.
Brody, meanwhile, is already being circulated as a vice presidential candidate, and the Hill gossip puts him back on Nazir's radar. Brody's commitment to serve Nazir's ends in a nonviolent, legislative way isn't cutting it, and a Nazir ally pressures Brody to steal codes from a safe in David Estes's office.
It's to the show's credit that they didn't pants around putting Carrie back in the field. Her sister protests that she's not ready, and Carrie seems to agree -- but she clearly wants back in (and just as clearly hates herself for how readily she consents to Estes's request).
Throwing Carrie back onto a "three-day" mission she may no longer have the composure for is contrived, but so is leaving her on the bench in the name of realism.
Ditto Brody getting strong-armed by Nazir. It's not really credible that he's already installed as a freshman congressman, the vice president's favorite son, and a possible VP candidate himself, with not one suspicion raised about the bomb -- but "credible" isn't always interesting to watch.
Still, the plot developments for both characters felt a lot like "24" used to, the machinations required to get Jack Bauer back to CTU at the start of each season -- necessary, sure, and yet a little cheap.
A prayer for Dana's father
The most unsettling and nuanced part of the episode came with Dana's accidental revelation about Brody's religious conversion. Brody's elevated political status has meant fancier friends for him and Jess and a posh school for the kids. Dana is, unsurprisingly, having none of it, and in a straw-man debate during the school's Quaker Meeting hour, she blurts out that Brody is a Muslim. Jess is enjoying their new status to a somewhat unseemly degree -- part of her issue with Dana's behavior is that it occurred in front of the vice president's son -- but eventually Brody comes to Dana's defense, admitting to Jess that he's now a convert.
Jess is furious -- ostensibly because he's lied to her about this since coming home, but for pettier reasons as well. Dana knew about it, and Jess didn't, and he's jeopardizing Jess's ability to enjoy reflected glory: "I married a U.S. Marine. This can't happen." She's genuinely wounded when, during their argument, she slams his Koran to the floor and he immediately shouts that it can't touch the ground. The reaction is Brody's first instinct -- not comforting Jess, or explaining why he converted (and lied about it). And suddenly Jess has to consider whether "that CIA woman" might have told her the truth about her husband.
Back in the game
The can of worms the disclosure opens up for Brody, for Jess's agenda, for their family and their marriage, is something to look forward to this season. Carrie's reintegration into high-stakes intelligence work is less appealing, as another ugly breakdown seems inevitable, but she gets off to a good start. Carrie has trouble remembering number sequences thanks to the ECT, but she recalls how to lose a tail just fine -- dumping her phone, switching her headscarf to confuse her pursuer, yelling for help and escaping in the commotion. As she's fleeing, she has the smile of the episode title on her face; she's genuinely delighted, and it's a brief fun moment amid all the tension.