In an absolutely dazzling opening episode, the main themes of Homeland are laid out: US soldiers on operations in Iraq discover POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), missing presumed dead for eight years. He’s treated as a hero on his return, greeted by the Vice-President, but a bit of a stranger to his wife and kids. (His wife has understandably “moved on”, we discover, with his best friend.) Of greater concern to intelligence officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is that, nine months before, she was given apparently reliable intel to the effect that a POW had been “turned” while in custody and was now a sleeper terrorist agent. At the time she was told this she was unaware that there were any living POWs, but Brody’s return starts to make her wonder.
As we discover it doesn’t take much for Carrie to become fixated on something: she has some surveillance experts do a little bit of off-the-books work, wiring Brody’s house for sound and vision, and feeds the results to massive TV screens in her own house, where she can watch the Brodys going about their lives. (Some of these scenes are, deliberately, uncomfortably voyeuristic, in a way which makes us question both the nature of surveillance and TV-as-entertainment; the scenes from Carrie’s own life start to take on the same feeling.) No-one else shares Carrie’s belief that Brody might be up to no good, until a couple of twists in the last few minutes – one of which stacks lie upon lie in a genuinely startling way – and a final shot which hints that Carrie might indeed be right. I’m guessing, though, that with eleven episodes to go it won’t be as cut-and-dried as all that.
The acting is terrific. Without having seen the show I assumed that Damian Lewis would be the star, but in this first episode at least it’s Claire Danes’s Carrie who’s at the centre, and you can’t take your eyes off Danes’s driven, jittery performance. Carrie is referred to by colleagues – correctly – as “a little intense” and “obsessive”, and on top of that seems to be taking anti-psychotic medication. Even when she goes out to a bar to pick up some random stranger, there’s an edge of desperation to it; she’s not unattractive by any means, but her smiles feel forced, her desire for human companionship simulated. Danes’s performance lives and breathes, and for the moment everyone else is overshadowed a little. But Lewis’s damaged, brooding, watchful Brody is mesmerising, and there’s excellent support from (among others) Morena Baccarin as Brody’s wife, and Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor Saul.
Homeland has been touted in some circles as a kind of more cerebral 24. The shows do have a thematic similarity – a post September 11/war on terror/paranoia kind of thing – but I think it’s a little unfair to both of them. The allegation carries a little snobbery with it – 24, as I’ve said before, at its best carried much more subtlety and complexity than its critics are willing to allow. And it also short-changes Homeland, by hinting that it might be anything other than thrillingly exciting and fantastically watchable. I can’t wait for next week’s episode.