The sophomore slump is certainly not a new concept. We’ve seen constant examples of it in sports, even when we were in high school or college and it’s certainly no stranger to television. There are plenty of TV shows that were wonderful their initial season, purely because they were better thought out in terms of building a foundation. When that second season rolls by, you end up realizing that the writers never really thought that far. Yet, with the first half of its second season Homeland looked like it was well on its way to crushing any doubters about a sophomore slump.
From the season premiere, The Smile to the excellent Q&A, we got what was far and away on its way to being the best drama on TV in 2012. Our initial worries that this would be a retread of another cat and mouse game with Brody and Carrie went out the window quickly after Saul found the footage of Brody’s suicide tape. Carrie Mathison, who was left broken at the end of season 1, was now set up for some redemption. For it to all culminate in a fantastic one on one exchange in Q&A between an admittedly broken Carrie and worn out Brody was a satisfying bookend to all the events that had started all the way back in the series premiere.
Everything after, however, unfortunately didn’t live up to the high standards the show has now set. The second half of this season was mostly set up for what would happen in the season finale. It was obvious that with the main cat and mouse game out of the way a new direction for the show was necessary. This however unfortunately kept going into a direction that wasn’t what made the show so compelling in the first place. Yes, some of the storylines in Homeland aren’t completely plausible, but they were more grounded.
In episodes such as A Gettysburg Address and The Choice, the show felt like it was going into 24 territory of sensationalism and would constantly challenge our suspension of disbelief. Be it a shootout in a store in the middle of the day involving people in SWAT gear to the idea that one of the world’s most wanted terrorists would take the fight to enemy territory, there were too many ridiculous aspects to the plot that became harder to ignore. To make it all feel like it was to set up Brody for a bomb against the CIA just seemed silly. Yes it fit Abu Nazir’s motivation to get back at Walden and the CIA, but it wasn’t something that required him to actually set foot in America. The only thing of merit we got is Brody in a pretty horrifying situation, and Carrie and Saul reunion to end the season.
Yet I still can’t say I was completely disappointed by this season. After all, those opening 5 episodes were, as far as I’m sitting, some of the best TV in 2012. Fully capable of going toe to toe with the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. While the 2nd half of the season became ridiculous I was still pretty invested in the characters.
Claire Danes continues to put on one of the best performances on TV as Carrie Mathison. After last season’s heart-wrenching (and frankly amazing) finale we now had a Carrie trying to live a more stable life. She was teaching English to immigrants, cooking vegetable lasagna and was recovering from the electroshock therapy she took for what she thought was wrong with her. Of course no one is going to watch the show to see Claire Danes teach English so it wasn’t long before she was thrust back into the action. While yes, her CIA contact that only would speak with Carrie was very much a plot device to bring her back, it was easy to ignore because that’s what we as audience members wanted. It reminded her of what she does best, and ultimately led to Saul getting the proof that Carrie needed. After what had to be the lowest we’ve seen Carrie in State of Independence – when she attempted to kill herself – we got some much needed victory for the audience in New Car Smell. And of course there is the interrogation from Q&A, where Carrie and Brody put it all out on the table; their grief, their weariness and all their insecurities.
Not to be outdone, Damien Lewis also continued his excellent performance as Nicholas Brody (by the way, why is it that even the girls in his life is won’t call him Nick?). Brody was feeling the weight of it all this season. The guilt he felt for killing another man, the guilt he felt for constantly lying to his family, and deep down the guilt he felt for what he did to Carrie. Brody wanted out, and watching him have these breakdowns made for some captivating TV in spite of some really silly plot points. While I’m not a fan of how they did it (Seriously? Remote killing a pacemaker via cellphone?), but watching Brody kill off Walden was some damn good TV. And the look on his face as he finds out that Abu Nazir is dead further cements how strong that relationship really was. We may root for Brody on a weekly basis, but we’re also reminded that deep down he’s been a pretty shady dude.
If there is one issue these two characters had throughout the season for me is that all of a sudden it feels like the chemistry isn’t there. Now that it’s genuine love for each other the relationship has lost some of its spark. The initial chemistry they had was compelling in large part because of how dishonest this relationship was. Yes there was clearly an affection for each other, but it was hidden behind one lie after another. These two worked wonderfully as foils and to a fault more like broken lovers. But now that it’s more genuine television romance, it just lacks that X-factor it had.
While the Brody/Carrie stuff eventually became less compelling I don’t think enough can be said about Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson this past season. Between his power plays with David Estes to his few meetings with Dar Adal (who hopefully is a bigger player in season 2) Saul continues to be simply awesome. The best of his moments being him visiting Aileen in prison for information only for it to end tragically. Saul is the even keel response to the highs and lows Carrie and Brody bring to the show. He also brings some much needed heart and humanity to the CIA as that’s an area the other CIA characters seem to be lacking in.
That said, other subplots were disappointing. The Brody clans stuff was mostly filler, with the most disappointing of which being Dana. Her exchanges with Brody in the first season were fantastic so to see her used in this hit and run subplot was disappointing. Instead of the heart to hearts we got last season, we got storyline that frankly dragged on for too long. Yes she was meant to show how much Brody had distanced himself from the family, but it just made her come off bratty and annoying as the season went on. I frankly adored her character in the first season and I would have preferred her progression to go in a different direction. And while I’m not the biggest fan of Jessica: there was a great heart to heart at least with her and Brody this year. Dana stopped having those after Brody buried his Quran.
So yes, the characters were still fascinating enough to keep the show entertaining in its second season, even if it was clearly dropping off after the emotional highs of the first half of the season. However, at the least, we are now at a crossroad for Homeland’s third season. On one hand they can make the third season about Carrie finding a way to prove Brody innocent, which is frankly an area I would like to avoid. On the other, the show could also go to a back to basics routine with Carrie and Saul doing CIA work. Gradually building to some justice for Brody. Which to me would be far more appropriate for a show that was once compelling for how grounded it was.
Either way, the second season of Homeland is a tale of two halves. The first of which was excellent and probably the best drama on TV. The second of which failed to live up to the lofty standards set by Homeland. Bringing in one implausible scenario after another. Ultimately leaving us with doubts and worries for where the show is heading next.