“The Smile,” the second season première of Homeland, contains one of the best moments of acting I’ve ever seen on TV. With my writerly biases, I don’t talk much about acting in my reviews, both because I have less training in the field and because I have the unfortunate tendency to view “characters” as something pushed around by a bunch of writers in a room, not fictional people that are actively created in collaboration with the actors playing them and the directors guiding those actors through their paces. Plus, so much of acting is invisible to us in the audience, especially on TV. We may know that Claire Danes made the choice to play a scene a certain way, but we can’t really know why she did so without asking her, or without seeing the dailies from the set where she and the director pick through the script. Particularly in television, the writers so often write to the performance that the whole thing eventually becomes like a second skin.
This is all a way of saying that I’m pretty sure that the moment when Carrie smiles after narrowly escaping her pursuer in a Lebanese market is scripted. In fact, considering the episode is named “The Smile,” I’m almost certain the moment is scripted. But there’s a long gap between writing, “Carrie smiles” on the page and whatever it is that Danes does, which suggests both the many ways in which Carrie’s brain is prone to breaking, as well as why she had never been able to avoid this life for too long. She likes it too much, and on some level, deep down, that’s destroying her. She’s conscious of that fact now, but she’s also unable to resist the pull of her old life as a spy. No matter how long she’s been away from it, it’s always with her. No matter how much she struggles to become “Kate Morrissey,” she’ll always know exactly what she’s doing when she’s out in the field. Having something become second nature can be a curse as well as a blessing.
Something like two-thirds of “The Smile” is very well done. The other third is also well done, but it’s the sort of storyline that leaves me wondering how the hell the writers think they’ll ever be able to pull it off. Considering the show now has plenty to prove in the wake of its numerous Emmy wins, and considering that the series should see a boost in its audience (even if it’s a minor one) from those wins, it’s potentially risky to toss us immediately into a storyline where Brody is in line for the vice presidency. Like many things in this episode, not only does it feel as if it’s happening too soon—there’s a time jump between last season and this one, but only one of about six months, according to the producers, which seems… short, to say the least—but it also rather strains credulity that Brody could have been vetted without his knowledge and that the vetters wouldn’t have turned anything up. I buy that they wouldn’t find out about his connection to Abu Nazir, to be sure, but that they wouldn’t have learned about him assaulting a friend at a party because said friend slept with his wife seems less plausible. I can buy that they would set that aside as non-relevant, but you’d think it would at least, y’know, come up.
I’m also not a huge fan of the new journalist character, who doesn’t get much to do here other than be shady. She’s in league with Abu Nazir, she’s got a standing reservation at a fancy restaurant, and she’s completely fine with stooping to asking Estes on what’s basically a date if it gets her what she wants. It’s as if the show wanted to do a clumsy homage to Brenda Starr: Girl Reporter in the midst of everything else, then also wanted her to be sort of a villain. I’m not too worried about this because the show has managed to redeem even less successful characters after spending enough time with them, but this is hardly the most auspicious of debuts. She’s a plot device more than she’s someone who has her own agenda and thoughts, and I hope that shifts very soon.
That said, the rest of the episode is aces in how it deals with the fallout of last season’s finale without directly dealing with the fallout of last season’s finale. Things have moved on for both Carrie and Brody, but the scars of what happened last year are still present. Of all of the characters who seem to have been shattered by those events, it’s Dana who’s most susceptible to the cracks showing on the surface. Brody has gotten so good at hiding who he really is that he can tell the truth and it feels like yet another lie in his elaborate work of performance art. Carrie’s slowly working her way toward “healthy” with a low-stress job and lots and lots of gardening. Saul has sequestered himself off in the field and returned to his low-key, pessimistic self. Only Jessica seems blithely unaware of what’s happened, which could make her seem a little bitchy, were it not for Morena Baccarin’s performance. In her hands, Jessica simply becomes a woman who’s had a lot of hard times and is now enjoying some good ones, for a little while at least.
But it’s Dana who is falling apart. She’s always been a little sullen, so most aren’t going to notice. But when those who attend her school start saying bad things about Muslims—about how they don’t have the same respect for human life as Westerners do, about how maybe we should just nuke them preemptively—she stands up for the faith, saying her dad is a Muslim. There’s a sort of shocked laugh, as the rest of the student body tries to discern whether she’s joking or not. (She’s saved by another guy, who will inevitably become her love interest, who says his dad’s a Scientologist.) Set aside that this is another example of Dana not quite fitting in somewhere, even if she looks the part. (At a Quaker meeting, you don’t interrupt, even if you find what the other is saying abhorrent.) Even set aside that Dana is saying this in a room full of people who could damage her father’s political career, including the Vice President’s son. What’s clear here is that Dana was asked to bear the burden of a host of secrets, and she’s been unable to do so. She’s only a teenager, and being asked to carry all of this around hasn’t helped her in any way.
Homeland is about a great many things, but if I were asked to boil it down to one basic idea, I’d say it was that you can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head, no matter how close you are to them. This is a series obsessed with the differences between public and private spaces, which began with a woman invading a man’s privacy—completely legally, I might add—because she had a wild hunch. (That it was a hunch that turned out to be accurate is beside the point.) But the ultimate private space is the inside of your own head. No matter how many FISA warrants the government serves, it can’t wiretap your brain activity. When you’re alone with yourself, nobody has to know what secrets you’re keeping. Carrie, Brody, and Saul can deal with that because they’ve carefully built themselves to be able to. Dana cannot because, well, she’s a teenager, and teenagers are bad at keeping secrets when they’re under pressure.
Naturally, this leads to everything coming out at the Brody home. I’ve always liked the way that this series keeps revelations off-kilter, choosing to follow the characters as they might actually behave and not in a manner that would be most convenient for the plot. Brody telling Jessica that he’s a Muslim seems like something most shows would save for a season finale somewhere, but when it comes out in the première, he tells her that he is, yes, what Dana said he was. What works best here is that Jessica is less upset about him being a Muslim, and more upset about keeping from her what he was doing in the garage. During their long separation, Brody and Jessica both had to turn to other places for solace and healing. But where Jessica’s was Brody’s best friend, his was another religion entirely, one that would instantly wipe out his political ambitions if anyone knew about them. (Keith Ellison, who represents the Minnesota Fifth, is a practicing Muslim, but he also represents a very liberal district and seems unlikely to have political ambitions beyond where he currently is, unless I’m really misunderstanding Minnesota politics.) Plus, there’s the question of just what Brody believes. The show has danced around this for quite some time now, but Jessica cuts right to the heart of the matter: There are Muslims who think Dana should be stoned if she has premarital sex. Is he one of them?
Brody doesn’t answer. He can’t answer. On the one hand, this seems a ridiculous question on its face. Isn’t it obvious that he skews away from the fundamentalist Muslim side of things, simply because of his cultural background? On the other hand, the way he acts when Jessica throws his copy of the Koran on the ground must seem horrifying and, ultimately, foreign to her. We don’t know a lot about the Brody who left for the war before his captivity, but we know enough to guess that he was never this devoted to Christianity. What’s happened to him and what he’s kept from her mark him as a man Jessica can’t entirely know. It’s telling that when he goes out to bury his Koran—in a moving scene—the person who helps him is Dana. She knows him less. His new self isn’t as much of a betrayal. There’s an honesty and trust growing between them, and when she silently joins what he’s doing to close out the episode, it’s a beautiful moment.
Yet for me, my thoughts on this episode always loop back around to the titular smile, to the damaged but brilliant Carrie Mathison, who’s always on the edge of both a nervous breakdown and some kind of breakthrough that will keep her country safe. The season wastes no time in bringing Carrie back into the field—an asset she recruited years ago has come in with intelligence, and she’ll only speak with Carrie—but the first half of the episode succinctly lays out what her life has been since the electroshock therapy: a hard, slow climb that’s returned her to a semblance of wellness. She gardens. She goes to work. She avoids thinking about the past, until the past comes back in the form of phone calls and knocks on the door and Saul begging her to come back in. It’s Saul who does the trick. She leaves behind the comfort of her home and she heads into the field, where she becomes the jittery, on-edge Carrie we know so well. But something’s been lost. There’s something for her to go back to now, and that very brief glimpse we get of a Carrie who’s healing makes the smile that much more tragic.
Because sometimes you can know what’s going on inside somebody’s head. Sometimes, their facial expression is just that easy to read, or their eyes are that forthcoming, or they just come out and tell you. And it can be good news—oh, he’s going to ask me to marry him—or it can be bad news—oh, she’s dying—but it’s right there, plastered on the face for all the world to see. I might not write about acting a lot in this space, but the greatest virtue it can bring to a performance is to lay out all that is unseeable about a fictional character—all that lives inside their head—for the audience to see, to make the unknowable known, just a little bit, without having to soliloquize about it. When Carrie smiles—correction, when Claire Danes smiles—we can see just how much she missed this, even as the little glimmers of game face in between let us know just how in the zone she is. And when we think back on where she started the episode, in a garden, tending plants, getting better, it makes that moment at once all the more exhilarating and all the more tragic.
- I first saw this episode a few months ago at TCA, when I was more critical of the vice president storyline. At that point, I believe I said something like, “Is Mitt Romney even considering any Representatives?” to which somebody said, “What about Paul Ryan?” and I scoffed. So… consider yourself vindicated on that score, Homeland.
- David Marciano, who plays Virgil; Navid Negahban, who plays Abu Nazir; and Jamey Sheridan, who plays Vice President Walden, have all been promoted to series regulars this season. In the case of Virgil, let me just say that this is the greatest news ever.
- Carrie recruited her asset because she had a weakness for Julia Roberts movies. Good thing this all happened a few years back. I don’t think Mirror Mirror would cut it.
- The Quaker meeting scene is a fine example of how writers (and the script for this is credited to creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon) can do a scene that seems to be obviously laying out the themes of the show for new viewers—which this scene absolutely is—then steer into the skid to come up with something new. By injecting Dana into the middle of one of those classroom discussion scenes from Margaret, the show ends up with some conflict in the midst of its thematic pondering. (It’s also another scene that gains a boost from recent world events, with the discussion of whether it’s right to destroy Iran for its threats toward Israel.)
- My favorite little touch in this episode is that Brody forgets his notebook when he’s copying the codes in Estes’ safe. I thought I hadn’t noticed him putting it in his pocket earlier, and then, indeed, he hadn’t. It adds a grace note of suspense to an already suspenseful scene.
- Homeland fashion spot: Saul Berenson says beards are in. Beards are always in.
- The series shot in Israel to double for Beirut, and it’s great that it was able to go to the actual Middle East. Some things are just harder to fake stateside.