I really, really hope that U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody turns out to be a secret terrorist. This isn't me going out of my way to be a bad American. This is about what we've been trained to expect from our TV shows, particularly the ones with big question marks at the center. And the question mark at the center of the hugely promising Showtime drama Homeland is pretty significant: Has Sergeant Brody (Damian Lewis), found after eight years as a POW in Iraq, been turned by Al Qaeda bigwig Abu Nazir into a sleeper agent and delivered right back into the bosom of America? This is the intel given to CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in the first ten minutes of the show, but there's as much doubt over the veracity of the claim as there are ominous shots of Brody standing silent, inscrutable, and possibly sinister. So is the entire premise of the show going to end up being a big ol' red herring? Or are we going to spend twelve episodes biting our fingernails only to find out that what's going on is exactly what we thought was going on.
This is how it is with TV now. We've all seen too much and have been trained to expect any and everything. Is Homeland the kind of show that constantly tries to make you guess one thing so it can surprise you with another; or the kind of show that values character development more than plot twists and is thus not as concerned with pulling the rug out from under you? That it comes from executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, formerly of 24, offers a bit of a clue. That was a show where any and every character, no matter at what level of importance, government or civilian, could turn out to be a traitor. Thus far, I'm not seeing any Sherry Palmers lying in the weeds, but I'm remaining vigilant.
What Homeland does have in common with at least the early seasons of 24 is a lead character who is compelling, well-performed, and wildly intense. I really had my doubts about Claire Danes in this role after seeing the previews. Could she do hard-nosed? Could she do obsessed crusader? If I had any idea how much deeper the character of Carrie Mathison actually goes — anti-psychotic meds! looking for Mr. Goodbar! — I probably would have been even more dubious. But after just one episode, I'm totally hooked. Danes not only has Carrie's overeager striver thing totally nailed — she's the Rachel Berry of counterintelligence at times — but she really sells the character's dark corners. (Of all the hints that get dropped about Carrie's demons, I'm most interested in the implied affair that put her in David's doghouse, unless there's another reason he blames her for being estranged from his wife and kids.)
After bribing her way into an Iraqi prison, Carrie's told by an informant — an informant who's about to be led away for Very Bad Things in about five seconds — that an American prisoner of war has been turned. (Of course, we don't hear it. He whispers it into Carrie's ear. Obviously there wouldn't be much reason to make it up out of the clear blue sky, but since we're still tentatively on 24 rules, I'm just keeping options open. I'm maybe-possibly on to you, Carrie Mathison!) Several months later, after news of Brody's rescue, Carrie's suspicions are triggered, and she takes those suspicions to her old mentor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin).
Brody's homecoming plunges us into two layers of what is setting up to be a three-layered show. Obviously, the spy-thriller part is being well occupied by Carrie. Brody's story — in addition to the part where he may or may not be a secret terrorist bent on destroying his homeland — fits into two archetypes we've seen many times before. The Coming Home Drama, for one, sees Brody returning to find his world has changed. We're getting a Walking Dead–style triangle where Brody's wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), has been carrying on an affair with his best pal Mike. More respectable than an "affair," though. It had been eight years, and for all anybody knew, Brody was dead. It's hard not to feel for Jess and Mike, even though I'm not exactly inclined to take any sides in this triangle quite yet. Brody and Jess are warm but awkward around each other, and the push-pull is pretty intriguing. Their first night back at home together, the urge to reconnect physically gets interrupted by the sight of a sickening grab-bag of scars all over Brody's body. I'm not sure whether Jess's reaction was revulsion or extreme pity, but they're both total boner-killers, so when Brody resumes the lovemaking, desperate, frantic jackhammer-style, it's no surprise Jess isn't into it.
Also serving to creepify this bedroom scenario is what again? Oh, right: Carrie is watching the whole thing on illegally installed video and audio surveillance! After Saul tells her that she doesn't have enough to go on to warrant putting a tap on the government's favorite son, Carrie turns right around and contracts her own team to install cameras and microphones all over the Brodys' house. The speed with which a government agent (however rogue) is able to wire a family's home for picture and sound is appropriately frightening, and also awfully effective at making the audience uneasy about what Carrie is capable of. It also introduces us to the brother team of Virgil and Max. I have a feeling we're going to have fun with creepy, lurky Max, but I'm glad we have Virgil to be Carrie's accomplice while also serving as a check on her. When Max snoops in her bathroom and finds a rogue pill in her aspirin bottle, Virgil presses her with his findings: She's taking anti-psychotic medication? Carrie passes it off as a "mood disorder" and says it's one she's been dealing with all her life, but as her obsession with Brody's possible enemy status advances, we're going to have to wonder. Certainly, after her bug op gets busted by Saul, her actions take on a dangerous, self-destructive edge. The scene where Carrie, desperate for Saul to keep her operation a secret, puts a hand on his waist is shocking in its simplicity. Mandy Patinkin's reaction shot alone — furious and horrified at how far Carrie's prepared to go — justifies his presence on the show.
The other story type we're dealing with is the Soldier As Symbol. At the moment, Brody is the best thing the U.S. government has going for it, with regard to the war. It seems the show exists in a world where everything is the same — it's 2011, the wars are ongoing, Stateside morale is low — except for the people. Brody's not five steps off the plane before he's greeted by the vice-president (Jamey Sheridan). Brody's been gone for so long, he doesn't even know who the vice-president IS, but he's a good soldier (OR IS HE?) as he poses for photographs. The degree to which Brody is uneasy about being propped up as a symbol is going to keep coming up, because the government sure doesn't show any signs of being tired of using him. That would sure end up backfiring if he really is a traitor. When Carrie notices that Brody's hands are twitching during every public appearance he makes — and twitching in the same, repeating patterns — she's able to give Saul the first indication that her crackpot theory could be correct.
Which brings me back to my initial point: I really hope Sergeant Brody actually is a sleeper agent. We certainly get enough evidence that he could be. After meeting with the widow of a fellow POW, he lies to her about whether he was in the room when he was beaten to death. Not only was Brody in the room, as we see via flashes of Brody's tortured memory, but Brody was actually the one who beat him to death, at the command of Abu Nazir. (The image of Nazir cradling the head of a screaming, traumatized Brody was fantastically creepy.) Now, there are any number of ways that this could eventually be explained away. Certainly, Brody was under duress, having been tortured. The flashback we saw was choppy and frenetic — there definitely could have been more happening in that room that we didn't see. But I hope this is one TV show where misdirection isn't the prime objective. And isn't it a better story if Brody really has turned? The ethics get knottier, the race to thwart him becomes more urgent, and Lord knows Carrie will find her own ways to cross lines even (especially?) if she's right. I'm looking forward to it.