09.27.12

‘Homeland’ and ‘The Good Wife’ Season Premieres: Review

Set your DVRs! Jace Lacob reviews Season 2 of Showtime’s Homeland and Season 4 of CBS’s The Good Wife, finding common ground in their deft and subtle explorations of identity.

In the season opener of Homeland, which airs on Sunday, Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison smiles.

If you’ve been watching Showtime’s Homeland, the newly crowned winner of the Emmy Award for Best Drama, this seems entirely contrary to her character, a bipolar and deeply disgraced CIA officer who underwent electroconvulsive therapy in the first season finale. Carrie isn’t prone to happiness: she has been misunderstood, mocked, and kicked out of the intelligence community. For all of that, Carrie was also right that Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Emmy Award winner Damian Lewis), a former prisoner of war, is not what he appears to be.

Danes—who also won an Emmy on Sunday—inhabits Carrie with a crippling onus placed on her, one that has only widened the cracks in her sanity. Her prescience and her instincts go unheeded, and the damage that she causes threatens to consume her altogether.

CBS’s The Good Wife, also returning on Sunday evening, will deal with its own identity crises this season. On the surface, these two shows don’t seem to share many similarities. One is a tense terrorism thriller on premium cable, the other a contemplative legal drama that explores technology, politics, marriage, and the law with a subtlety that make it a paragon among television dramas. Both, however, tackle issues of self-identification with insight and perspicacity, and this is felt even more keenly in Homeland’s second season and The Good Wife’s fourth.

Within The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) has played the dutiful wife and the aggrieved spouse with equal vigor, a friction that cuts to the core of The Good Wife. What does it mean to be good? And how does that reflect our own needs and desires outside that of familial responsibility? Having lost everything after the betrayal of her philandering husband, Peter (Chris Noth), Alicia had to, out of necessity, redefine herself through her work, returning to a profession that she had left. Her discovery that she excelled in the field is the first in a series of transformations for the character.

When we come back to Alicia in Season 4, she’s confident in her position, even amid a bankruptcy crisis at the firm. Despite the fact that no one’s job is safe from the guillotine wielded by Nathan Lane’s trustee, Alicia is a solid place. In her personal life, however, there is more uncertainty. Alicia is hounded by the press (embodied by Kristin Chenoweth and later Miriam Shor) and forced to answer a series of personal questions about the state of her marriage to Peter, now running for Illinois governor. Within the political fishbowl, Alicia is under as much scrutiny as Carrie, in a way. While she is rigid in her belief about marital unions, Alicia has proven flexible in her morality as it influences her career, though she doesn’t apologize for her ambition. The idealism of Alicia in Season 1 has been replaced by a harder pragmatism, one that’s more noticeable due to the return of Matt Czuchry’s Cary Agos, who admits that he still “has one foot in the State Attorney’s office.”

Her one-time lover, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), practically lives at the office and solely defines himself as a lawyer, despite the fact that he hasn’t practiced law in six months. At the end of last season, he became adrift, haunting the offices of Lockhart/Gardner, unable to leave, but unable to enact any physical results. Will’s struggle to find meaning outside of the job was painfully realistic for high achievers like him and Homeland’s Carrie; once his suspension is lifted at the start of Season 4, his identity as a lawyer is restored once more. (Charles and Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart share a touching scene as the clock runs out; their platonic relationship remains one of the show’s high points.)

On Homeland, Carrie must also construct a new self that is separate from what she viewed as her life’s purpose. Her sense of failure was so acute and so cutting that she willingly accepted the risk of short-term memory loss as part of her ECT treatment. In Season 2, we find Carrie using her skills in a very different way than before, living a far more simple life than we’re used to. In the premiere, she’s calm and without the intensity that colored her judgment in Season 1. (There’s a line about Carrie cooking dinner for her family with vegetables she picked that morning that’s deeply and wonderfully at odds with what we’ve seen before.)

Her quarry, Brody, meanwhile, defined himself as a soldier, a patriot, and a father. His function, as a Marine, was to protect his country and lay down his life in the name of democracy and freedom. But that has been co-opted during his captivity in Afghanistan, to be replaced with a fanaticism and desire to destroy the thing he once upheld above all others. He may wear Nicholas Brody’s face, but the fledgling politician—and a potential vice-presidential candidate—is not the man he was.

The two shows continue to play with audience expectations. The frantic pace of both Homeland’s narrative and Carrie’s high-risk profession continue to erode her sense of sanity, something that plays out within Brody, too, as his double life—that of the American veteran and politician contrasted with the ideological truths he is concealing as a secretly Islamic jihadist—risks exploding spectacularly. Homeland’s writers aren’t content to slowly eke out little morsels of plot; instead, storylines unfold at high velocity within Season 2, amping up the tension to a pleasurably torturous level. And that holds true on The Good Wife as well. Alicia, once more under the near-constant scrutiny of the public eye, is under pressure to make decisions about her own sense of self. Here, Alicia had been committed to forging her own path, but in Season 4, she’s being forced back into a role that is tied to Peter and his career, rather than that of independence.

The characters’ interior conflict even permeates the physical spaces they inhabit, informing their psychological state. Carrie’s fractured universe is reflected in the morass of her apartment last season, where documents and photographs coated the floors and walls of her apartment, a color-coded string-laced flow chart at the center of the controlled chaos. Brody conceals his secret religious rituals within the family’s disused garage, a prayer rug and his copy of the Quran hidden among ephemera. Both locations reveal fraught minds divided by loyalty, duty, madness, and rage.

On The Good Wife, Alicia’s ordered universe—reflected in the war between the modern elegance of her apartment and the cozy nostalgia of the family home she once shared with her husband—belie a conflict that’s only going to get more loaded as the season wears on. Her former best friend, investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), meanwhile, lives in a nondescript apartment, a bolt-hole with little adornment and even less food in the fridge. Ready to run at a moment’s notice, the space is more or less empty. Her escape—embodied by a stash of guns, cash, and passports—is concealed within a wall, itself hidden, pointedly, behind a mirror.

Kalinda is used to being whoever she needs to be in order to get what she wants. Creators Robert and Michelle King have toyed with the audience here, creating in Kalinda a chameleonic character. Is she straight? Is she gay? Her answer to Alicia last season that she’s “flexible” is an understatement. She casts off identities like people do their clothes at the end of the day.

In that respect, Kalinda is still struggling to find herself as much as viewers seek to define her. But in the end, Kalinda remains indefinable. She may not be a trained intelligence operative, but Kalinda is far more of a badass than either Carrie or Brody, adept at wielding a baseball bat, sledgehammer, knife, and skillet. (Brody, a trained Marine, is often too conflicted, while Carrie is often too much in her own world.) But like Carrie in the Homeland season opener, Kalinda is deftly accomplished at slipping into people’s lives, exchanging skins with a fluidity that is astounding.

This season, viewers will get to learn why she is the way that she is, as Kalinda is forced to face off against her violent husband, Nick (Marc Warren), who has tracked her down in Chicago. Warren’s Nick gives Panjabi a real adversary while allowing the writers, sans flashback, to reveal the source of her psychological damage. Their ruthless pairing gives the season a volatile heat.

There’s a Svengali-like hold that Nick has over Kalinda, a persistent emotional battery that explains why she’s constructed her hard-as-nails exterior. Like Homeland’s Brody, she’s juggling multiple lives and purposes. But there’s progress for Kalinda, an insistence that she not run away this time. What follows is hot—certainly by broadcast network standards—and disturbing, a look into the psyche of an abused woman who cannot escape the maniac she wed and who finds herself drawn to him in spite of herself. (Their psychosexual relationship tests the limits of the broadcast network censors; one scene, set in an ice cream parlor, will have everyone talking.) As Nick ramps up his assault on the life she’s built for herself, Kalinda fights back physically and savagely, but also reveals an essential truth: we can’t always escape where we come from.

I won’t spoil just how Homeland’s Carrie ends up back in the field or how she reconnects with Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson, but the first two episodes of Season 2 of Homeland find the disgraced agent returning to the dangerous life she left behind in some unexpected ways, and they lead to that aforementioned smile. But despite the threat of violence, Carrie’s smile conjures a beatific joy that is contagious and telling.

For a moment, the world isn’t as grim as it was, but this is Homeland, and Carrie’s euphoria is short-lived. What follows is a heartbreaking portrayal of self-doubt and anguish, one that connects Carrie to her prey. Brody too faces the shakiness of his convictions, the hazards of the false life he’s built. The tragedy of one child’s death has become the impetus for a terrorist plot to take down the government from within. But Brody’s manipulator, the charismatic and dangerous extremist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), isn’t satisfied to let Brody influence policy, and he demands action.

The crisis of conscience that Brody undergoes, the battle enacted within his fragile psyche and within Carrie’s, play out on a far larger scale than those of, say, Alicia or Kalinda. But what the superb new seasons of Homeland and The Good Wife prove is that there’s narrative currency in exploring the collateral damage of our lives.