The first season of Homeland had the element of surprise on its side. While shows like Dexter and Weeds have been hits for Showtime, the cable network has always lagged behind HBO (and, lately, AMC) when it comes to generating the mix of critical praise and audience devotion that translates to Monday-morning water-cooler chatter. With its international intrigue, riveting suspense sequences, and rich lead performances, Homeland struck a nerve right away, and kept working its viewers' nerves right up through the final seconds of its inaugural season.
Now that the series has received its Emmy coronation (winning a total of four awards, including Best Drama) only a week before the debut of its second season, that element of surprise has been replaced with high expectations. Homeland swings for the fences in the first couple of episodes of the season, but the pitfalls that occasionally bedeviled last season—notably, a 24-like imperative to ramp up the tension through implausible or overly convenient plot developments—crop up again here.
Viewers eagerly awaiting the show's return are no doubt wondering how long it takes Homeland's writers to get Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, who won a deserved Emmy for her role) involved with the CIA again following her dismissal and subsequent electroconvulsive therapy at the end of last season. The answer is not long at all. Thanks to her old friend lithium, now prescribed rather than lifted from her father's supply, and her largely stress-free lifestyle gardening and teaching English as a second language, Carrie's maintaining a relatively even keel. That all changes when her former boss, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), now stationed in Lebanon, gets word that a CIA asset who'll only speak to Carrie has information related to an impending attack on America.
Meanwhile, Carrie's former target, now-congressman Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), gets another jolt to his already meteoric political career as Vice President Walden (James Sheridan) offers to float Brody's name as his running mate in the upcoming presidential election. While Carrie finds herself in the familiar position of trying to convince Saul and counterterrorism director David Estes (David Harewood) that her instincts are correct about a pending threat, Brody is dealing not only with the domestic fallout from his daughter Dana's discovery of his Muslim faith, but his own divided loyalties between his country and al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Nazir.
Homeland hasn't lost a step when it comes to constructing crackerjack suspense sequences, from Carrie trying to shake a tail in Beirut to Brody attempting to send a text under extreme duress. Yet the danger that it'll lapse into 24-style absurdity remains, not only because producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are both veterans of the Kiefer Sutherland spy show, but because prolonging the cat-and-mouse game between Carrie and Brody sometimes comes at the expense of logic. Even Jack Bauer would scoff at a couple of the narrow escapes Brody pulls off in season two.
Given these concerns, a potentially game-changing development at the end of the second episode is an encouraging sign that Gordon and Gansa have no intention of spinning their wheels. And Danes continues to display complete mastery of Carrie's mood swings, while Lewis, who arguably has the more difficult internal conflict to convey, manages to retain our empathy for Brody. Morena Baccarin makes the most of the somewhat thankless role of Brody's long-suffering wife, and Patinkin is delivering the most subtle, witty work of his career. Even when the spy-thriller plot gears are audibly grinding, the acting remains expertly calibrated.