Season Premiere: Homeland – “The Smile”

“The Smile”

September 30th, 2012

Carrie’s life is just getting back on track when we rejoin her narrative. She’s living in her sister’s house, spending time with the family and teaching English as a Second Language. And so when the CIA comes calling, asking her to fly to Lebanon and engage a former contact, it asks her to return to the life she’s been trying to avoid.

Similarly, Brody is moving forward with his life as a congressman hoping that his relationship with Abu Nazir won’t become an active part in his life. He wants to believe that his subtle influence of policy is his role in the larger game, that his way of protecting Isa’s memory is to find ways to keep the same kind of attack from happening again. And so when he is contacted by one of Abu Nazir’s people to play a role in the planned attack in retaliation for the Israeli strikes on Iran, he’s forced back to that moment when he almost pulled the trigger. There, he was killing men responsible for the killing of innocents; now, he’s being asked to play a role in the killing of innocents in response.

“The Smile” asks us who these characters are in light of these new circumstances, testing their new identities based on their old lives. Does Brody still believe what he used to believe? Does Carrie still desire to live on the edge even once she’s spent time on stable ground? By combining the introduction of the season’s over-arching plot with this character study, “The Smile” serves as the perfect reintroduction to this world and the characters operating within it.

I will not suggest there is no contrivance operating with the two central characters here, particularly as far as Carrie is concerned. The only scenario that would require Carrie to reengage with the CIA is the situation presented here, as an asset emerges who only trusts Carrie and who only Carrie has dealt with in any capacity. It’s too perfectly designed, but once Carrie moves into the field you realize how much insight this offers into Carrie’s state of mind. It’s convenient, perhaps, but it’s not far-fetched, and it offers an outlet through which Claire Danes can explore more facets of Carrie’s personality. This is no more apparent than when she attempts to escape her tail as opposed to allowing herself to be arrested. There’s this brilliant—and eponymous—look on her face after she knees him in the crotch, this sheer thrill that is almost disturbing: when I watched the screener DVD, there was no episode title, so when I saw that it was “The Smile” I couldn’t help but smile myself. We root for Carrie, yes, but we also wonder whether she’s actually out of control: even though we know she wasn’t crazy when she accused Brody of being a terrorist, she believes that she was, and it informs and affects her decision-making throughout the premiere. This situation may have been dropped in her lap, but it’s incredibly compelling, and it rests entirely on the shoulders of the character: at this point the intel is left purposefully vague so as to allow this to be Carrie’s story.

Brody’s storyline also seems to jump in at the most interesting point, although this one has a certain logic: given his high profile, Brody would be a valuable person to be involved in the race to be vice president, if only for the press attention it would garner and his credibility as it relates to military affairs. But it’s a good litmus test for how is family is handling his new position, with Jessica settling into the high society alongside the Vice President’s wife and Dana not-so-comfortably fitting in at her new private school (which I’ll get to in a minute).

Brody’s story was always trapped between his family and his mission, and here we see roughly the same dynamic: while his mission has been redesigned as an intersection with the political world introduced last season, the impact on his family remains an important part of the story. One of the things that I think often goes unnoticed in the first season is that Brody’s change of heart makes perfect sense. When he agreed to sacrifice himself, he had been away from his wife for eight years. He did not yet know his children as individuals, as people with opinions and dreams and personality. It’s easy to sacrifice yourself when you feel like you’re alone, but Brody returned into the arms of a family that wanted to love him, and he ultimately wasn’t able to say goodbye to that.

This season, the show has smartly moved beyond that particular conflict, shifting Brody’s struggle from sacrificing himself to sacrificing others. His family is no longer in danger of losing their father, unless he gets caught stealing secret files from Estes’ office and uncovered for being a mole. And while Brody struggles with killing innocent people, he also still believes in the cause. His conversation with Estes is tremendous, as in a few brief moments you can see him make up his mind. When he discovers that Estes worked with the Vice-President on the drone program (which was responsible for killing Isa), and when he realizes that Estes doesn’t even know how many drones they have, he knows that this is retribution for other innocent lives that the CIA perceives as everyday casualties of a successful, growing program. The scene becomes your standard case of suspense, wondering if Brody will be caught in the act (which seems unlikely, but the tension is still effective), but I like the split-second morality on display.

Meanwhile, I also appreciated the split-second decision-making from Dana, who I feel has been unfairly dismissed as an unimportant character. The premiere rightfully notes that she is the one person who is closest to the real Brody. She might not know that he is a terrorist, but she knows that he’s a Muslim, and she seems more attune to his true personality than Jessica (and almost as much as Carrie before things went south). When she discovered he was a Muslim, she was confused but also excited to find some way to understand this man she barely knew, and who barely knew her. Whereas Jessica sees this as a betrayal, another lie that even forces her to question whether “Crazy Carrie” was right with her conspiracy theory, Dana sees it as something they can share with one another. Mind you, it wasn’t something she intended to share with her classmates, but “Tad”—what a perfectly douchey name—was playing a game of comparing relationships with fathers. For a moment, I expected her to simply retort that her father was a congressman, but that’s not what she values in their relationship, or what she sees as informing her worldview. It’s an immature outburst, but it’s a sign of a mature relationship with her father; Morgan Saylor really nails that scene, and the rest of the episode for that matter, and I quite like Dana’s storyline as a window into a person who is dealing with the complexity of this situation without realizing the larger implications we’re privy to.

Of course, as much as I would argue this grounds the episode and the series, others might consider it a distraction from the larger plot. Perhaps this gets back to the broader disagreements over the series at the end of last season that I discussed earlier today, and the balance between character and plot, but I would argue that “The Smile” served both. It successfully tosses characters back into a complicated plot that we engage with in two separate locations, but it also gives those characters moments of introspection. We end the episode of Brody burying his Qur’an with Dana, not Carrie’s successful escape in Beirut, but it doesn’t feel like an anti-climax: it feels like the logical point of reflection that puts the entire scenario into perspective.

Just in time for the pace to pick up next week.

Cultural Observations

  • Morena Baccarin gets the one showy scene, but this isn’t really Jessica’s episode, as far as the Brody family is concerned. We’ll see a bit more of her shifting role in Brody’s life next week.
  • Given how much Emmy love the show eventually received, it seems bizarre that Mandy Patinkin didn’t earn a Supporting Actor nomination. He plays a mostly supporting role here, with Saul not even getting to officially reunite with Carrie, but I continue to find his work in the role tremendously appealing.
  • As a Canadian, I appreciated the attention to detail regarding her passport and identity, particularly the refusal to let Carrie get away with pretending to not know who the hockey team is in Calgary. Even if you’re not a fan, chances are every Canadian living in an NHL market knows the name of the team.
  • I probably won’t have time to consistently cover the show week-to-week, but I hope to drop in on occasion at the very least, provided there’s interest.
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2 Comments

Filed under Homeland

2 responses to “Season Premiere: Homeland – “The Smile”

  1. Pingback: From Backlash to Beirut: Homeland Season Two [Review] | Cultural Learnings

  2. Hans

    Pleased to hear you are going to weigh in on this show.

    I rewatched the first season a couple of weeks ago and apart from the general awesomeness, the thing that impressed me most were how carefully they built the Dana – Brody relationship. Considering Morgan Saylor were asked to play age-appropriate sulkiness most of the time, the show did an amazing job. I am almost tempted to make her the MVP of the season.

    The only real negative of the first season were Jessica, who after the first couple of episodes only got to play the nagging wife. You know the one central character who isn´t in on the game and is just standing on the outside trying to get in way of the fun for the other characters and the audience. It seems like such a waste of Morena Baccarin. I usually have tremendous sympathy for all those characters the internet love to hate like Betty Draper, Skylar White, Christina Braverman etc etc. But I just found Jessica plain unlikable. And then the first episode made her into a full blown bitch, I really hope they are going somewhere with this.

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