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what i watched last week

homeland, season two premiere

A year ago, after watching the first two episodes of the new Showtime series Homeland, I wrote, “You never know when [Claire] Danes [as Carrie Mathison] is going to fall apart.” By the season finale, I noted that “she wasn’t neurotic, she was bipolar, and when her manic side took hold in the penultimate episode (surely the one they’ll send to the Emmy selection committee), it was frightening to behold. Danes gave herself over entirely to the role. In the finale, Carrie rides the bipolar emotional rollercoaster, going from a near-catatonic depression to a manic attempt to save the world”. Damian Lewis was also excellent (he and Danes both did end up winning Emmys), and since Danes had the more showy role, perhaps Lewis deserves an extra dollop of praise. The main point, though, is that this ripped-from-the-headlines show, with espionage and current events and terrorists and spies, was best when it was just a character study. Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody were fascinating, and their characters were revealed to us over the course of the season, so they never got stale.

Just watching the “previously on” segment before the Season Two premiere made me tense. I had written earlier, “It is not easy to use bipolar disorder as a dramatic device without turning your series into a freak show, nor is it easy to take a part with plenty of scenery chewing and award-bait dramatic sequences and turn it into something recognizably human. Danes pulled it off … she was astounding on a regular basis in Homeland.” Human, yes, but her mania grew to be as frightening as anything on TV, and revisiting it for a few moments in the “previously on” was enough to plant me right back into that fearful mode. There are a couple of plot devices designed to get Carrie and Brody back in action, but it’s like when Chow Yun-Fat turns up in A Better Tomorrow II, even though his character died in the original … Chow was so popular, they just gave his character a previously-unknown twin brother, and fans were overjoyed, no matter how silly it was. By the time Carrie was back on the job, I had quit worrying about how she had gotten there. And Danes is still knocking it out of the park, playing that bipolar edginess in a completely believable way.

Since Brody is just as strung out in his own way, and since Damian Lewis is also delivering in every scene, and since no matter what plot devices we get, Homeland is ultimately a character study, the important thing isn’t what is happening in the Middle East or what role the U.S. will play. No, the important thing is that Homeland is built around two lead characters that are, in many ways, off their rockers. And like I say, it’s not easy to use these kinds of characters without going overboard. But Homeland pulls it off. Grade for Season Two premiere: A.

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