Developed for American Television by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa
Based on the Israeli series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff
Original Air Date: September 30th, 2012-December 16th, 2012
To say that the second season of Homeland was eagerly awaited is something of an understatement. Its Emmy victory for Best Drama Series signalled the arrival of a potential new Emmy winning dynasty, and coupled with great ratings for Showtime, not to mention nominations across many Award shows culminating with that Emmy win and copious amounts of critical acclaim, when the second season of the series began, it did so with a lot of bated breath.
The obvious thing to say about season two is that by any other yardstick it’s an excellent season of television, but the open ending to its first season, which culminated with that nervy, tension-soaked bunker sequence, means that the series has several decisions it needs to make to successfully continue.
Whether or not the writers’ room of the series make the right decisions is a matter of some debate.
There’s a great sense of resetting the pieces on the board a little as it begins; Carrie is out of the CIA, now in a teaching job, Saul is on assignment in Beirut and Brody is a congressman, his role as the ultimate PR recruiter for the military now having parlayed into one where he is now in the realm of the political world and best friends with the Vice-President who, as it turned out at the end of season one, isn’t afraid to make horrifying decisions in the US War on Terror, some of which as we have learned set in stone the paths that the story and the characters are on.
The first season was an increasingly complex beast of a season, one drenched in twists and turns that somewhat subverted the expectations of the audience and from what we might have expected from a series set within similar confines that was coming from a creative team that had previously produced 24.
24 was a magnificently entertaining series, even if some of its politics at the time (and even more so today) can give one pause for thought. Homeland appeared to be a series that wanted to take those themes of ‘whatever it takes’ and ‘the ends justify the means’ and throw them into a moral quagmire of a drama. Jack Bauer’s exploits could sometimes act as a litmus test for the audience, with many probably coming away with an opinion differing to someone else that was watching it, but Homeland very much appeared to be a series that really wanted to make the infrastructure of the story and its events even more thematically complex.
How else to explain its first season reveal of the Vice President (Jamey Sheridan) and CIA Director David Estes (David Harewood) being responsible for the death of Abu Nazir’s son in an ill-fated airstrike that took out more innocent lives than the terrorists they were aiming for.
It gave the impression that Homeland was never going to be a story of easy answers or black and white heroics; here was a series where even the terrorists that our protagonists were chasing had motivations that were fuelled by something approaching what might be construed as understandable.
If the first season got mileage out of having the audience wonder if Brody was good or bad, then the reveal that he was in working with Al Qaeda means that the series hasn’t got that ‘is he or isn’t he’ element to play with anymore, instead having to gain suspense from how long it will take before the rest of the characters find out and with it the revelation that Carrie was right all along.
Amazingly, the characters and the audience doesn’t have to wait too long and it’s in the second half that Homeland season two runs into a few snags compared to the tighter first season. Season two is more fraught for sure, but it appears that the writers have opted to try and up the ante in terms of pace and revelation this season on a keel approaching that of 24 than the slow burn that made Homeland’s first season an edgy delight.
That’s not to say that any of this isn’t good; like the best of 24, Homeland pulls you into an orbit that doesn’t let go, and for the first half genuinely plays as good as, if not better, than season one did mainly because Gordon, Gansa and the writers pull the pin on several storytelling grenades that you might have thought they would hold off on for a little while longer.
The second episode sees Saul encounter Brody’s confession tape that he made at the end of the first season, and with it learning that Carrie was correct in her assumptions. The moment he reveals the tape to her and her teary ‘I was right’ moment is amongst the most powerful moments of the season, a reaffirmation for the character and those around her that she was never crazy in her beliefs, and it comes as a lovely moment of catharsis for both Carrie and the audience whose sympathies have never wavered for her. It’s a superb moment portrayed to perfection by an always brilliant Danes.
There are moments of contrivance, however; Brody texting Nazir while in the Situation Room with the Vice President during an operation to take out the infamous antagonist of the series feels more like something from 24 than the slow burn character drama of the first season, and it’s a moment that pretty much outlines the differing intent of this season compared to season one.
Homeland’s debut year felt very much like the type of slow burn cable drama that you might expect from the series; there is a danger in the second half here that it’s about to become the type of terrorism drama that many tried to produce in the wake of the success of 24.
Pop culture being what it is and television and film being mediums that react to the world, of course there would be a plethora of terrorism and espionage flavoured series during that period. 24 flew the flag for the genre on the small screen whether you liked it or not and you couldn’t help but feel that the likes of Sleeper Cell (which also aired on Showtime), and The Grid were more fuelled by attempts to capture that Jack Bauer inspired lightning in the bottle than wanting to have something to say about the nature of espionage and the foreign policy of Bush/Chaney.
Homeland still shows an ability to try and place itself away from the more explosive antics that made Bauer an action icon to many and which many of his imitators tried to replicate, and what is still one of the great joys of Homeland in its second year is Carrie Mathison and her reintegration to a world that she desperately wants to get back to but that we know isn’t good for her really.
Like Jack Bauer, you can’t help but want the character to be happy and have a good life but there is no show without her going back to the confines of the world that the series is set in. She might say she’s in a better place during those early moments of season two and somewhat resistant to going back in the field, but the smile on her face right at the end of the appropriately titled ‘The Smile’ says everything; this is a world she’s good at being a part of, even if it isn’t one that’s actually good for her.
The season effectively begins and ends with a smile, even though there isn’t much for the characters to be happy about here. The smile Saul gives Carrie right at the end of the finale says a lot about his relief at seeing his protégé and friend alive, but it also comes in an episode that opens the floodgates and leaves a lot for the series to come back to.
The season ends with an episode that, in a similar manner to season’s one final chapter, builds in tension and suspense, but also feels more like a concession to Homeland’s descent into something resembling a more conventional thriller . Like Brody, you could feel the series wrestling with itself regarding whether to go through with the dastardly attack that the first season was seemingly building up to, eventually opting to find a way to keep Brody alive and find new storytelling avenues.
The first half of season two superbly builds off that moment, but by the time we get halfway through the season, it feels like we’ve reached a crescendo of sorts with ‘Q&A’, arguably the best episode of the season, one of Homeland’s very best episodes and a superb combination of Henry Bromell’s writing and Leslie Linka Glatter’s direction.
Glatter is one of television’s best directors, having worked on Twin Peaks and Mad Men, as well as directing the pilot for the preposterously entertaining YA mystery Pretty Little Liars. Marking her debut on the series with ‘Q&A’, Glatter would go on to become Homeland’s most prominent directorial voice, pretty much defining the series’ style from this point on and directing many of its best episodes.
Her first episode really feels like a game changer of sorts. The previous episode ended with Brody finally being arrested, showing just how much into the realm of unpredictability the series has opted to go for. Instead of slowly building up to it, the series goes through key revelations fast and as great as the episode is, and it’s a five star classic for sure, it does mean that the series has to continually up the dramatic and emotional ante as it goes on, eventually building itself up to the CIA being blown up for the finale and with it the death of Estes and Brody having to go on the run having been framed for it.
For anyone who was drawn into the series by its slow burn pace and seeming rejection of the type of increasingly fraught thriller tropes that were part and parcel of its creators work on 24, there is a feeling that Homeland is becoming more and more like it as the season goes on. It’s still more of a slow burn compared to Jack Bauer’s antics, but it still feels considerably faster and more of a ‘thrill ride’ of sorts compared to how methodical and glacial some of season one was.
You get the impression that the writers are finding themselves at a crossroads with what to do with Brody, a feeling that will only become more apparent in season three, which will become a legitimate watershed season for the series as it figures out what way it wants its future seasons to be.
Damian Lewis is superb throughout here and there are some incredible stand out moments throughout, not least in the previously mentioned ‘Q&A’, although I have a massive soft spot for ‘State of Independence’ which plays like an increasingly fraught black comedy of sorts as Brody finds his evening plans for a dinner where he is meant to be giving a speech waylaid by having to chase after the Gettysburg tailor who supplied him with his suicide vest at the end of season one, a chase which eventually leads to murder and Brody having literal blood on his hands during what must be television’s most stressful telephone call.
The increasingly fraught complexities of his life clearly cause him to have a near break down, with constant lying back and forth and the series either deliberately opting to muddy his motivations or maybe not really knowing them at all, but it never falls short of being intensely entertaining.
The upscale in pace and reliance on more overt thriller tropes does means that the series can only work if characters are constantly placed in mortal danger or doing dastardly things to get the plot to work. As well done as it all is, Carrie being held hostage by Nazir and whose life is threatened unless Brody kills the Vice President via hacking the latter’s pacemaker means that the series feels more of a piece with 24 than its first season did, but then again, 24 had a similar trajectory in that its first year was more of a suspense thriller with personal stakes before opening itself up to nuclear bomb threats and increasingly outlandish ticking time bomb scenarios.
With more emphasis on shoot outs, hostage situations, pacemaker hacking and even the inclusion of a Jack Bauer-style character in the shape of Peter Quinn (although if anything he’s a much more complex iteration of the Bauer archetype even if Sutherland’s iconic character was himself a very complex character and played to perfection here by Rupert Friend), you really get a sense of Homeland upping up the thriller stakes.
The final episode’s bombing plot itself is a grandiose moment and plays in the opposite of what the first season did. While it might be easy for many to complain about ‘Marine One’ not having Brody blow himself up, thus paving the way for more Homeland with the character, it also showed a willingness of the series to not capitulate to typical thriller scenarios the likes of which that 24 made its stock and trade.
There is a brilliant contrast to the events of the second season finale compared to season one’s and that Brody’s confession tape is the thing that is used to incriminate him gives the events a deadly irony that is inescapable. By the end of the episode and the season, Brody is on the run, now believed to be the type of terrorist that he somewhat found himself conflicted at being, even though he knew he didn’t quite want to be the clean-cut senator that the Washington establishment was wanting to carve out for him.
By the time the season has come to an end, his indecisiveness and inability to figure out what he wants to do has been decided for him in an episode that not only plays with the conventions that had been set out at the equivalent point in the first season but comes in an episode that has also paid tribute to ‘The Weekend’, the best episode of season one. ‘The Weekend’ worked so well in the moment and in hindsight because of what Brody and Carrie were hiding from each other, while in ‘The Choice’ they are in the perfect moment to be finally honest with each other.
Their chemistry and tentative move towards a romance is played awkwardly in a surprisingly tender way. We’ve watched these characters go through so many chess board moves in lying and hiding their motivations from each other that to see them try and recreate a tender moment from their past when they were being far from honest with each other with something now approaching raw honesty plays into the series’ core strengths that character moments like this is where a lot of its strengths lie. That the script for the episode is co-written by Meredith Stiehm, writer of ‘The Weekend’, and one of the very writers of the series who can get to grips with the relationships at the heart of the series, is not a surprise.
It reiterates just how important the relationship between Carrie and Brody is at this stage of its run, even if the very final moment is between Carrie and Saul, the other relationship that is a defining hallmark of the series. Saul might look relieved, and his smile brings the season full circle with itself, but it also leaves one questioning, quite wonderfully and with stomach churning uncertainty of the type this show is brilliant at evoking, at where the series will go next.