Review: Homeland Season Two
September 30th, 2012
When I saw the finale of Homeland’s first season, a season I oddly never wrote about it any capacity, I was quite impressed. As far as I was concerned, the finale was stuck in a situation where an anti-climax was inevitable: I did not believe they would ever actually kill Brody, and therefore I did not imagine a scenario wherein he would go through with his attack. That belief was something I carried into the episode, and so the fact that they still created a stellar finale with this fact hanging over their heads was quite an achievement.
It worked because it forced both Carrie and Brody to go through the emotional climaxes of their respective arcs without giving them the expected result. Brody presses the button but it doesn’t go off, while Carrie pieces together the plan only to have Brody’s malfunction and change of heart turn her into a liar. Both of them were so sure that they were doing the right thing, that they were doing what was in the best interest of their country, and yet in the end both were forced to move on with their lives wondering if they had just dodged a bullet or made a mistake that will change their lives forever.
I was fascinated, however, to see some substantial backlash toward this conclusion, although this backlash took two different forms. For one group of people, the very idea of Brody not going through with his plan was itself a disappointment, and a betrayal of the show they believed they were watching. For others, meanwhile, the deus ex amnesia ending with Carrie was a copout, an easy way of undoing Carrie’s revelation regarding Isa and delaying any real confrontation until some undetermined point in future seasons. Whereas I had expected the first development based on the logic of television development—which suggests you don’t kill your male lead—and found the latter cheap but also satisfying in its cheapness, there were others who were actively turned against the show in the process, comparing it to The Killing and vowing never to watch again.
While I still find this reaction puzzling, I’m starting to understand it better. I was talking to a friend recently who had watched the first three episodes and been somewhat underwhelmed. Said friend remarked that it might be because they have been watching almost exclusively “character dramas” in recent years, and so it was an adjustment to switch to something so focused on plot. On the one hand, this surprised me, since I would absolutely argue that Homeland is a series focused on characters, particularly given how it transitions from its first season into its second (which premieres tonight at 10/9c on Showtime). However, it also helped unlock the backlash: for the people so violently unsatisfied by the finale, the show never switched from being about plot to being about character. “The Weekend” is perhaps the point at which this switch turns as far as I’m concerned (not that the characters were weak or uninteresting before then), but for others the weight never shifted, and the anti-climax of Brody choosing not to blow up the Vice-President was a failed ending as opposed to a complicated transition point for a character we relate to.
It seems very strange for someone to think about Homeland season two as the beginning of another plot, although I suppose that’s possible. The premiere does introduce the threat of an attack against America in response to Israeli strikes against Iran, another pre-determined end point that one expects the season to build to. However, it’s also a conflict designed to implicate and involve the characters that carry over from the first season, presenting them with new challenges that are very much determined by their complicated involvement in last season’s climax. While Abu Nazir’s involvement in said plan creates a degree of plot serialization, it is Carrie and Brody’s character arcs which provide the continuity between seasons, continuity that results in more tremendous work from both Claire Danes and Damian Lewis that is worth every anti-climax.
I would also argue that the first two episodes of the season don’t dwell on those anti-climaxes, or rub them in the audience’s or characters’ faces. We’re not seeing constant reminders of Carrie’s memory loss, for example: in fact, the Isa memory doesn’t even appear in the extended “Previously on Homeland” montage that reminds us about the important events from last season. It’s a similar to how Breaking Bad has handled some of its smaller mysteries, wherein details that would fundamentally change certain relationships remain secrets but often go unmentioned or unreferenced for entire seasons. While the fact that Carrie almost knew about it does make it a bit “cheap,” that the show treats it as something dormant as opposed to something constantly under the surface peeking out to tease us allows the focus to move beyond that moment. If you spend the premiere constantly annoyed that Carrie isn’t remembering about Isa, I’m comfortable suggesting this show might just not be for you. Personally, I became invested enough in Carrie and Brody’s new storylines, and their implications for the people around them, that any baggage from last season was pushed far back in my mind.
And yes, this does mean that Homeland is not unlike 24 in that you sort of have to ignore some things and focus on others instead. However, I think that’s sort of how all serialized shows move forward: as the writers get a chance to change course between seasons, they pick and choose what they’re interested in expanding on in future episodes. None of Homeland’s baggage feels accidental, nor would any of the new storylines qualify as baggage as far as I’m concerned. Homeland remains a tightly paced, superbly acted, and compelling drama series. Do I think it’s definitively better than some of the shows it beat at least week’s Emmy ceremony? No. But it certainly belongs in that conversation, and the first two episodes of the season confirm this.
[In lieu of expanding more in a non-spoiler space, I'll be posting a review of the premiere, "The Smile," later tonight. You can find that review here.]