In case you didn't get the memo, Homeland is good. The spy thriller, now returning for its second season, is a darling of the critical establishment.
At the Primetime Emmy Awards last month, it won a rare perfect trifecta: best drama, best actress and best actor. This is the closest thing in the television industry to an official judgment that Homeland is now the best show on TV.
Has it maintained that level of quality in season two? I am happy to report that the answer is yes. In its second season, Homeland appears to have lost none of its power and cleverness.
For those who were not around for the first season, here is the basic setup: Brody (Damian Lewis) is a United States marine who was captured by al-Qaeda in Iraq and held prisoner for eight years until he was rescued. Everyone thinks he’s a war hero, except Carrie (Claire Danes), an intelligence analyst working for the CIA. She believes that Brody was “turned” while in captivity and is now a terrorist himself. But Carrie has problems of her own. Suffering from chronic bipolar disorder, she uses medication to conceal her condition and pursues Brody in secret.
Homeland’s treatment of terrorism is both more sophisticated and less optimistic than anything else on television. The obvious counterpart here is 24, which initially won plaudits for its unusual format before it veered into the realm of the ridiculous. Lacking 24’s confidence in government agencies and its creepy fascination with torture, Homeland is more plausible and more interesting.
The new season takes us into an alternate political reality that is even less stable and happy than our own. Israel has bombed Iran’s nuclear reactors, killing thousands of civilians in the process, and most of the Islamic world believes that the US is complicit in the attack.
In a disturbing echo of recent events in Libya and Egypt, the US embassy in Beirut is surrounded by protesters. Terrorist conspiracies unfurl and pretty soon a series of admittedly contrived coincidences combine to send Carrie back into the field for the CIA, from which she was unceremoniously fired in season one.
Danes and Lewis are at the heart of the series and both of them continue to turn in impressive performances. Homeland is fundamentally a story about two damaged individuals, each traumatised by their experiences on the front line of the “war on terror” and the twisted relationship that binds them together.
Carrie, who is equal parts fragile and impulsive, is hardly the archetypal action heroine. The strain of hunting terrorists has driven her to the edge of sanity, perhaps reflecting the anxieties of the US in general. But Danes shows us flashes of the brilliant spy hiding underneath and it is impossible not to root for her in these moments of personal triumph.
Brody is also not a typical terrorist villain. The deepest mystery in the show has always been why a US marine would agree to serve al-Qaeda in the first place. We now have an answer, which is that Brody witnessed the US’s drone war from the receiving end and did not like what he saw. Still, he clearly has serious qualms about betraying his country and Lewis does a wonderful job of capturing the character’s ambiguity and weirdness.
Does all this combine to make Homeland the best show on television? Possibly, but I think we need to wait another season or two before making that judgment. For now, let’s just say that Homeland is a well- written, superbly acted, thought-provoking drama series. You absolutely should be watching it.
Homeland is broadcast on Wednesdays at 9.30pm on M-Net