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Before jumping into the pilot episode of Homeland, it being a brand new series means it's probably worth starting with a little background check. The new series from Showtime, not only has a stacked cast and a talented crew of writers/directors/producers but also, has an irresistible hook... what if an American POW, rescued after years in captivity, had been turned?
Now, there are several reasons that make this great hook work so well on-screen, including three absolutely brilliant and award winning actors (Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin and Damian Lewis), a team of executive producers with a proven track record (Dexter, 24, Buffy) and a network willing to give them all the freedom to deliver a show that's uncompromising in its delivery.
"He's got intel about an imminent attack on US soil."
The series opens in medias res with CIA Agent Carrie Mathison in Bahgdad, trying to get a stay on a Iraqi prisoner's death sentence. Immediately, we're introduced to the kind of agent we're going to get out of Carrie, a little bit Jack Bauer and a little bit House, someone who's willing do to whatever it takes to get the job done. Whether that's because of her desire to protect the country or atone for personal demons or her obsessive compulsion, well, we don't. The open is very effective in introducing us to her character and her contrary stance with the rest of the department, represented by Deputy Director of the CIA David Estes (David Harewood). It's a full on Body of Lies situation where ground operatives are at the mercy of senor officials, thousands of miles away, enjoying a black-tie event. She just wants to do her job, even if it means she has to bribe her way into a prison and create an international snafu. Ten months later...
"I'm an American."
After the opening scene in Baghdad, we return home (as in, the USA) for the remainder of the episode. The series hinges on the conflict and inevitable showdown between its two lead characters - Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody and CIA Agent Carrie Mathison. The rest of the players fall into one (or both) of their narrative threads, and they even cross paths once with great effect. Let's begin by discussing the Brody story line, with the recovered soldier/possible terrorist played by the brilliant, British actor Damian Lewis. In fact, the casting is somewhat inspired since the role that most people would associate Lewis with (North American audiences anyway) would be that of Major Winters from the epic HBO, WWII set, mini-series Band of Brothers. His character in that dramatic re-telling of the airborne infantry is the very definition of an 'American Hero.' It adds an extra layer to his character as we would totally buy his returning hero act... that is, until moments of doubt begin clouding our judgement and aligning us with the show's heroine.
This is a juicy role for the actor and surely one that will garner awards attention after the season ends. Brody is introduced to us, just as he is to the CIA operatives, through a remote video recording that shows his rescue. He's been through hell and is now coming home but is he the same man that left his family and friends behind? That we discover slowly as the show unravels with our final answer coming in the final moments. There is inherently so much drama to this 'returning home' formula that adding the terrorist suspicions only raises the conflict and tension. Even if there were no such doubts, he's still returning to a family that has moved on; including his wife Jess (played with exceptional subtlety and strength by Firefly's Morena Baccarin) who's now seeing his former Marine buddy Mike or his son who was too young to remember his father before his tour and capture. These scenes are dramatic enough without adding the extra mystery as to where his allegiances lie.
Ultimately, we discover what side he's fighting for but, only after dropping a few hints along the way. He's caught in a couple lies, most of which are small and ultimately explainable but still raise questions as to his credibility. The most compelling and difficult scene of the episode comes during the first night the husband and wife share together since his return. They run them (and by extension us) through the emotional gauntlet of their initial awkwardness, her seeing his scars and finally, the overly aggressive, even hateful sex they have at the scene's end, which leaves her in tears. This is a tough situation for everyone involved, escalated by his fragile mental state, hidden secrets and keen sense of what's going on around him. You don't think Brody knows his wife and Mike have a relationship? Then you weren't watching as closely as he is, you're not seeing what he sees. Before getting to the big reveal during the show's final moments, let's catch up on Carrie's narrative.
"An American prisoner of war has been turned."
We're introduced to CIA Agent Carrie Mathison, played by the great Claire Danes, while she's on a mission in Bahgdad and, as mentioned above, we quickly learn a lot about how personally she takes her work and the rules she's willing to break in order to get the job done. Earlier I compared her to Jack Bauer, and there definitely is some of him in her (sorry, sounds really wrong) but she's much more cunning, much more paranoid and, obviously, much more feminine. These are all qualities she uses (or is stuck with) that makes her performance spectacular. Mathison is your typical reckless agent, only what makes her reckless is anything but typical or ordinary in this high-stakes world of international terrorism and counter-intelligence. Carrie's alone in her paranoia about the recently recovered POW because of a few reasons, not merely the information she obtained from her source in the opening sequence but she's fueled by many, many more demons, ones that we'll discover and delve into further as the series progresses.
Mathison is the only one who suspects that something might be rotten in the state of Denmark and immediately goes out of her way to be involved in every aspect of Brody's life, from using her relationship with Senior Agent Saul Berenson (and amazing actor Mandy Patinkin) to get into Brody's debriefing, to personally bugging the soldier's home and, finally, offering up her body in order to stay the legal ramifications when her private practice is discovered. To say she's complex is an understatement, and watching her breakdown and build back up all in the span on 50 minutes is extraordinary. The scene when the two inevitable adversaries first meet is electric, even though very little happens.
From the moment they make eye contact to her asking him to look at Abu Nazir one more time, the scene is full of slow-building tension. Lastly, we assume she's just a determined agent, perhaps someone who has lost a loved one on 9/11, but soon realize there's also a mood disorder that she keeps hidden from everyone (how she does this from the CIA, I don't know but am willing to let that slide). What we're left with is a shattered but driven woman who not only possesses a keen investigative eye but the willingness to pursue all leads wherever they take her... and I can't wait to see how far down the rabbit hole she's willing to go. Is Brody who she thinks he is? Or is she chasing her own psychosis? These are questions that you think might be left to stew but they aren't. The chilling final moments, spell things out rather clearly.
"What do you want to know?"
Just when you thought it might all be in Carrie's mind, Sergeant Brody decides to take an early morning jog. While he runs we hear soundbites from throughout the episode and the scene cross-cuts between the present and his time spent in captivity, specifically, the time he beat his old partner and friend to death with his bare hands. We get to watch the haunting moment when Brody may have been turned and the doubts are beaten out of us as we watch, jaw agape. We're left with our possible sleeper terrorist, clad in black, a tiny figure against the backdrop of the Capitol Building. I'm hooked. If viewers tune in to this series, that's like 24 via Rubicon and Manchurian Candidate, I would look for it come the next awards season. So far, it's smart, suberbly written, acted and directed. I've been turned.
Morena Baccarin naked...
Ms. or Mrs. Mathison? What did Carrie miss 'that day' ten years ago and why does she have the wedding ring?
Internal affairs with Deputy Director David Estes (for sure) and Mentor/Senior Agent Saul Berenson (implied and re-tried).
Chasing down the rabbit hole... what is reality and what is a result (or the extent) of Carrie's mood condition?