The spies-versus-terrorists thriller “Homeland,” which had a good night at the Emmys on Sunday with awards for leads Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, for drama and for writing, begins its second season Sunday on Showtime. Coincidentally, the week between its win and its return has been full of news relevant to its concerns — Israel and Iran facing off at the U.N., President Obama speaking to the chaos occasioned by the idiotic “Innocence of the Muslims” video, a report from the law schools of Stanford and New York University on the self-defeating effects of American drone strikes in northwest Pakistan.
Indeed, the new season begins with Israel having already attacked Iran’s nuclear reactors (to less evident worldwide outrage than one might expect, though that might be more a matter of the production budget than narrative intent). If the writers aren’t actually prescient, they are certainly paying attention; and because they do not exactly take sides — that is, they make their villains complicated and their heroes ... also complicated — you watch what unfolds from different angles and with rapidly shifting sympathies that keep you from settling comfortably on a point of view.
Someone you might root for in one scene you will root against in the next — or sort of. Even from line to line, you might be called upon to recalculate the meaning of the action before you.
At the same time, you are concerned not only with the danger the series’ uncertain adversaries pose to each other — Danes’ bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, frequently off her meds, Lewis’ Nick Brody, a Marine turned (failed) terrorist turned congressman — but also the danger they pose to themselves. Putting them in bed together in Season 1 was an act of cheek that could also serve as a metaphor for the series as a whole.
Such ambiguity is not uncommon among the dramas of cable television; if anything, it’s what gives them their particular adult character. But “Homeland” does it extremely well, and with a story that resonates more than metaphorically with current events and common concerns. Given the extravagances of the plot and the characters, that it feels plausibly seated in the real world is a testament to everyone involved in its production.
But it is especially due to the actors. There is no success in television without successful casting. And while the cast is good from top to bottom — I especially want to direct your attention to Morgan Saylor as Brody’s daughter, Dana, who looks to be an important player this year — the series very much travels on the back of its three leads, Danes, Lewis and Mandy Patinkin.
Patinkin, who plays Carrie’s old boss Saul Berenson — now back in the field in Beirut — has a history in musical theater and has chewed a little scenery in his time. But here he holds back and pares down and lets himself seem a little worn, and is all the more powerful for it.
Lewis, who is British — as some might have learned for the first time during his Emmy acceptance speech — is known here for playing Americans; with his red hair and freckles and small twinkling eyes, he’s Norman Rockwell’s idea of a 16-year-old boy. That look of affable innocence, which can harden into its opposite, and which masks wells of rage and fear and a cautious optimism that he may be able to move toward the light without going into it — having not blown himself up at the end of Season 1 — was surely no accident. Compared to Danes, he’s the prettier of the two.
Danes’ strong features and a willowy form perfectly embody Carrie’s combination of fragility and resolve, the will and the helplessness that are poles of her character. Danes is beautiful in a way that makes room for pain, which somehow renders her more beautiful. As when she played Angela Chase in “My So-Called Life,” she’s a raw nerve — the world moves through her and leaves marks — and Carrie strikes me as one version of who the teenage Angela might have grown up to be.
You feel that there is nothing less than considered in Danes’ choices here, even as you feel that they are not choices at all — that she sees the one way through her character and takes it.
Carrie ended the first season undergoing electroconvulsive therapy when everything she thought she knew about Brody suddenly seemed to be wrong. (We know that she was right about him, but she still does not.)
She is gardening as this season begins, and teaching English as a second language, and taking her pills, when a call comes reluctantly from her old bosses, and she reluctantly answers it. And all hell breaks loose again.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and sex)