American film-makers have long looked to other territories for films to remake; the result is usually more commercially successful than the original and less critically lauded. Homeland is a television series which has come to us via a similar route – based on an Israeli show, it presents the story of an American prisoner of war, Nicholas Brody, who returns home after years of captivity. He’s a national hero and it’s not long before he’s ascending the political ladder. On the other side of the equation we have Carrie Mathison, an unpredictable CIA operative who, based on old intelligence and a few pieces of gut instinct, thinks Brody may have been turned in captivity and is now operating as an undercover terrorist.
The first series was a brilliant exercise in paranoia, confusion and tension; Brody and Mathison are two sides of the same unhinged coin, about whose motivations we remain in almost constant state of uncertainty. It was also a series where the plot was lean and clean, focussed and intense – pulling off, with great style, the difficult trick of almost making you side with someone on the brink of something evil. Series 2 has dropped a level – the plot has meandered and flirted with implausibility, Carrie’s character has gone more than a little stupid at times and a couple of side-plots (especially withe Brody’s daughter and her boyfriend) have had the air of aimless time-fillers. There’s an inevitablity to that – when the idea wasn’t original in the first place, it was always going to be a tough ask to maintain a very high quality into a second series. It went from great to merely very good. What saved the second season’s legacy is a brilliant final episode, containing the sort of out-of-nowhere shock that leaves you gasping for air. There was enough time left afterwards for some things to be dealt with and others to be left hanging tantalisingly; but for sheer shock value and excitement this was a hard to beat finale.
Two things remain, constant, though, which lift Homeland beyond the ordinary. One is Claire Danes as Carrie. British actor Damian Lewis as Brody is very good, but Danes is in another league; it’s her show, everyone else just appears in it. Even when her part was underwritten and poorly thought through in parts of series 2, she did an outstanding job of showing us a woman who was unsure of her own motivations. Mental illness was a real, but not totally dominant part of her life and the sense of obsession which drives her is palpable. It’s a brilliant performance.
The other constant plus is the show’s sense of American self-criticism. It asks hard questions about torture, the nation’s expressed desire to welcome all but still suspect people purely on the basis of a religious belief and what it means to be that often touted icon an ‘American hero’. Heroism, patriotism and service of country all appear here, but none of them are morally simple or easily praised. Bearing in mind this was based on Israeli original, I’d love to know if a similar self-awareness was evident there.
So we’re set up well for series 3; which will probably see another slight decline. As long, though, as Danes remains and the writers continue to turn a searching lens on America itself, Homeland will be a show worth staying with.
After the second series of Homeland, I’ve adjusted my imdb.com rating down from 9 to 8/10