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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Homeland hooks you with "The Smile"

Grade: 85%

Showtime’s HOMELAND begins its sophomore season with “The Smile.” Saul (Mandy Patinkin) is in Beirut trying to make contact with an important woman who can give the U.S. information about an impending attack. Unfortunately, she doesn’t want to talk to Saul. The only American this lady trusts is Carrie (Claire Danes), who is in no shape mentally to return to spy work. But Carrie does anyway.

HOMELAND stunned viewers in its first season, presenting an intricate, complex mystery. Carrie is a bi-polar woman straddling the edge of insanity and genius. She could see things others could not see, but her dogged efforts came at a price. She did save the world, but it left her strung out and wasted. After hospitalization and some meds, she is finally finding peace. Is she really ready to go back to this world?

No, she is not. That is the frustrating part of “The Smile.” Here we see a familiar, beloved character finally getting a bit of happiness, and she willingly and knowingly puts herself in a position to destroy that. Worse is Saul, who knows full well what bringing Carrie back into the field will do, and yet he asks for her anyway. This is a disaster waiting to happen, one that is totally preventable, and will hurt main characters that we don’t want to see hurt. Which means the series already starts off the second season on the wrong foot.

The thing is, Saul and Carrie’s decisions are completely rational. Saul has to weigh the mental health of a woman he cares deeply about against the lives at stake. He doesn’t want to cause Carrie more harm, but if it stops a terrorist plot, he has to. HOMELAND doesn’t let the weight of this decision play heavily enough in the episode for Saul, but it does provide a justifiable motivation for anyone who stops and thinks about it.

Carrie can’t help herself, so her choice to go to the Middle East is even more understandable. She has a personality that cannot just walk away when she senses a crisis. She will probably go down swinging one day, refusing to give up, even as she knows it is destroying her. It’s a bad recipe, and one that I am not anxious to see play out.

Which is why I didn’t love “The Smile.” It left me with a feeling on intense displeasure. How can Saul and Carrie do this? Surely, there are other ways to get the information for the CIA. Why set up something so bad for the characters?

Brody’s (Damian Lewis) story is a little less annoying. He is being offered the chance to run for Vice President. Though he tells his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), that he doesn’t stand a chance, it’s easy to see that Brody himself doesn’t believe such nonsense. Whether he is a bit drunk on power, or the prospect of power, or if he is just foolhardy, isn’t clear. What is obvious in the episode is that Brody plans to get into higher office.

What will Brody do with his position? Will he help the American people, or will be betray his country for Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban)? The terrorist leader sends someone to remind Brody of his commitments. These are promises Brody did not make lightly, even if he seems to be regretting them now that he is back in the comfort of home. What will Nazir do if Brody refuses to follow through? One thing is certain. Nazir will not let Brody maintain his comfortable life.

Even though Brody is in just as precarious a position as Carrie, one in which his satisfaction with life won’t last, it’s harder to feel sorry for him. He may have a mental illness, too, having sympathy for his captors. However, he seems to have the chance to break away, and he’s continued to make bad decisions. He can fight to save people over there by scaling back the drone strikes and still be patriotic, but this isn’t the way he is portrayed. Brody carries a bit more responsibility than Carrie for the position he is in.

Lastly, there is a subplot about Brody’s daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor), telling her classmates that Brody is a Muslim. This could be the seed of a neat plot where a war hero openly runs for president as a member of an alternate religion, and tolerance is battled for. However, because Brody is one of those bad Muslims who might kill innocents, it kind of falls a little flat. Instead, it’s a bit about continuing to trick his family, rather than an uplifting, inspiring turn of events.

HOMELAND’s first season was good for a lot of reasons. It kept you guessing who the characters were, what their purposes and beliefs were, and what would happen next. These elements do not feel as blatantly present in “The Smile.” Maybe it will just take time to get back into the world. Or maybe HOMELAND would have worked better as a miniseries, with a defined beginning and ending, rather than trying to drag something out that becomes a bit staler the longer it is continued. Either way, while still entertaining, “The Smile” did not live up to the greatness of season one. Only time will tell if this is a trend for the season, or just a fluke.

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