The series ended its inaugural season with a bang, then a whimper. Is there any suspense left for next year?
Note: Spoilers for last night's Homeland finale to follow.
"It doesn't matter why terrorists do what they do."
–Vice President William Walden
The threat of a large-scale terrorist attack loomed over Homeland's gripping first season, but last night's season finale, "Marine One," saw just two deaths—one bystander and one terrorist. Overall, Homeland has spent the majority of its screen time on emotional consequences: the dual extramarital affairs of Nick and Jessica Brody, the dissolution of Saul's marriage to Mira, and the complete mental breakdown of protagonist Carrie Mathison. Is this the level of sacrifice it takes to do what you believe is right?
That's certainly the case for Brody, who risks family, reputation, and his own life in "Marine One," and for a cause that he truly believes in. Despite the vice president's comment, it does matter why terrorists do what they do. It's exactly that attitude that turned Brody, after seeing the drone bombing of a schoolhouse, into an ally of Abu Nazir. Brody claims that he's not brainwashed—that he's living up to "an oath to defend the United States against enemies both foreign and domestic." He's wrong on both counts, but his horror is both understandable and justified. His ultimate action—a failed, then aborted vest-bomb—was a bit of a cheat, allowing him to go through with the attack in principle without writing him out of the series. But until Carrie's timely intervention, he was ready to strike. It's a daring action for Homeland to makes its ostensibly-sympathetic main character take, but Homeland has always been a daring show.
That level of daring certainly applies to Carrie, who spends the majority of "Marine One" laid up in bed after last week's psychotic episode. Carrie ends the episode in the midst of voluntary electroconvulsive therapy, which she hopes will cure the psychosis that has wreaked havoc on her personal and professional lives. The tragedy, of course, is that she's been right all along; she did stop a terrorist attack, though now she'll never know it. Homeland was sold on a hooky tagline: "The nation sees a hero. She sees a threat." But as the first season draws to a close, we can now clearly see Brody as a threat, just as Carrie finally concludes that he's a hero. Carrie spent much of the first season trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to convince the people around her that she's sane. In the second season, she'll also need to convince herself.
As a finale, "Marine One" was smart and impressively dark, paying off most of the series' major plot points and answering the central "Is Brody a terrorist?" question with a definitive yes. Homeland's first season has rightly drawn near-universal acclaim from critics and amassed a sizable fan following (including President Barack Obama ). But as the first season ends with a bang, then a whimper, the question remains: Where can Homeland go from here?
Looking to the second season, Homeland's biggest challenge will be moving beyond its intriguing but limited central conceit. This is a problem occasionally plagues sitcoms (like The Office, which has had to significantly expand the scope of the Dunder-Mifflin world, or How I Met Your Mother, which essentially abandoned its titular concept). But it's a usually much bigger problem for serialized TV dramas, which can only sustain so many cycles of setup and payoff before repetition sets in. This would be less of a concern if Homeland was on another network, but Showtime has a particularly unfortunate history of letting its most popular shows drag on interminably; Dexter, which saw its sixth season draw to a close last night, has strained its premise to the point of bursting (just how many psychotic serial killers live in the greater Miami area?), and flagship dramedy Weeds is somehow premiering its eighth season in 2012.
Homeland is much better than either of those shows, but its primary strength—its plausible, evocative contemporary political climate—is also much more difficult to consistently maintain. Few shows are so thoroughly engaged with the here-and-now of American politics; this is a series that scrambled to insert a reference about the death of Osama bin Laden, and had a finale that synchronistically coincided with the end of the Iraq War. Homeland can be fairly blunt about its real-world parallels (see: the disgraced congressman caught up in a sexting scandal who Brody aims to replace). But it's impossible to say what the political climate will be like when the second season premieres next fall.
But after a strong first season, there's no reason to doubt the skill of creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. On the whole, "Marine One" sets up for a second season that seems a lot like its first: Brody is still intertwined with Abu Nazir, and still conflicted between his love for his family and his desire to avenge Issa's death. If Saul is to be believed, Carrie's days at the CIA are irrevocably finished (though as she tells Virgil, this will always be her job, even if no one's paying her to do it). The hanging threads Homeland leaves—like Brody's missing video confession, or Saul's strange aversion to polygraph tests—will continue to dangle until next fall. And like Carrie on surveillance, we'll all be watching and waiting with nervous, bated breath to see what Brody will do next.