In the second season of Homeland, loosely based on Israeli writer Gideon Raff's series Hatufim, or "Kidnapped," Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has endured the humiliation of having been ousted from the Central Intelligence Agency, numerous sessions of electroshock, a period of hospitalization, and far too much time with psychiatrists. Non-spoiler alert: Even though she's picking vegetables in her garden in Season 2's first episode, she is still crazy.
It's so good to have this year's Emmy-certified best actress back on our screens again, although she begins the new season in a boring job that has nothing to do with espionage or protecting the homeland from terrorists. She may no longer be certifiable. But she's still a little off—endearingly intense, brilliant and bipolar, and equally compelling. Her messy blond hair still cries out for a comb; her thin, tight frame, while striving for calm, remains in constant jerky motion. Our rogue heroine still seems perpetually on edge—a mass of complexes and contradictions, as truly creative people often are.
She struggles not to think about Sgt. Nicholas Brody (fellow award-winning best actor Damian Lewis), a Marine whom she has suspected all along of being a terrorist sleeper agent. Having endured eight years of captivity in the custody of Abu Nazir, an Islamist terrorist leader, Brody, too, is a little nuts. But unlike Carrie, he seems sane. As a result of his captivity, he has not only become a closet Muslim, but an al-Qaida sympathizer and occasional, self-directing operative of Abu Nazir. But to the Pentagon, Brody is a politically useful hero. To ambitious politicos, he is a candidate for Congress.
Among other things, the show is a psychological roadmap for how far Americans have collectively traveled in the decade since terrorism became a household word. In the 12 episodes of Season 1, it is easy to see why Carrie's boss, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), became her mentor in the frightening new world that she represents. An American patriot who serves in Iraq before returning home, Carrie cannot forgive herself for having missed a clue that might have prevented Sept. 11; she is a woman as creative and complicated as she is willing to bend and even break rules to accomplish her mission. She's troubled, and trouble.
Saul, too, is slightly crazy, but in a more contained way. A lifetime at Langley has blessed him with the bureaucratic skill that Carrie lacks. Unlike her, he has thrived in one of Washington's most frustrating, impenetrable puzzle palaces. But Saul's life, too, is a mess. Earlier in Season 1, his Indian wife—Nehru, not Navaho—and probably not his first, returns home. We are never explicitly told why. But his marital woes are no mystery. Saul's true mistress is the agency. And no sane woman, no matter how exotic or forgiving, can compete with her. The only exception is, perhaps, Carrie, who needs Saul only in a crisis, which means in just about every episode. At the end of Season 1, Saul is faithful to his true mistress, though that devotion requires him to sacrifice his children—even Carrie, for straying out of bounds.
The most enigmatic of the series' complex characters, Saul is what passes at Langley for a nurturer—a recruiter, caregiver, controller, de-briefer, editor, second-guesser, a spy who possesses an innate, almost infallible bullshit barometer.
Saul, of course, is Jewish. While the CIA would never be confused with New York's Upper West Side, Jews have long flourished at Langley, and even at its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Created during World War II to coordinate espionage behind enemy lines, the OSS recruited operatives out of the many linguistically gifted refugees who had fled Nazi Germany.
Some say that Jonathan Pollard's conviction for spying on naval intelligence in 1987 had a chilling effect on the agency's attitude toward Jews. A decade later, for instance, Adam Ciralsky, now a highly regarded TV producer but then an agency lawyer whose rotation was blocked over concern about his "Jewish roots," sued the agency, charging it with anti-Semitism. CIA Director George Tenet apologized and hired the Anti-Defamation League to perform "sensitivity training."
But the agency continued promoting talented Jews before, during, and after the episode. Tenet's predecessor, John Deutch, was Jewish; Stanley Moskowitz, a former chief of congressional relations, was a former chief of station in Tel Aviv. And David Cohen, a Boston Jew who helped design and now heads the New York Police Department's counter-terrorism intelligence division, was a former deputy CIA director for analysis and later, for operations. "In my 35 years at the agency, I never experienced any anti-Semitism," Cohen told me. "Particularly after Sept. 11, the agency has employed Americans of widely diverse ethnic and religious heritage."
Numbers remain elusive. A CIA spokesman told me that while the agency "does not collect data on the religious affiliation of its employees … we can say confidently that the Jewish community is well represented in the Agency workforce."
So, there are Saul Berensons at the CIA, just as there may be a Carrie Mathison, a rogue shikse or two. What makes Saul and Carrie natural allies is their battle against the CIA's "standard operating procedures" and obsession with bureaucratic self-protection, epitomized in the series by CIA Director David Estes, an ambitious, ingratiating, and politically savvy climber who happens to be black (and is convincingly played by David Harewood). The fact that Homeland's characters are so meshuge is what makes the series so compelling. For the drama is, as its producers have called it, a "psychological thriller," emphasis on the psychology.
It is also very Jewish—in origin as well as spirit. The first 10 episodes of the Israeli original, commissioned by the Israeli network Keshet and broadcast in 2010, placed even greater emphasis than Homeland—if that is possible—on psychology, concentrating on the lives of families when POWs return from captivity. In the Israeli version, which can be seen with subtitles on Hulu, two of the three soldiers sent to kill a high-level Hezbollah operative finally return home in a prisoner exchange after being imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured by their Islamist tormentors for 17 years—more than twice the length of Sgt. Brody's incarceration.
Perhaps most interestingly, there is no Carrie counterpart; but an army psychologist suspects that the soldiers are hiding information about the fate of the third soldier, whose body is not recovered and whose whereabouts remain unknown. The soldiers believe they were forced to kill their compatriot to stay alive—a plot point that also appears in the American version.
The Israeli series, which is also less of a thriller than Homeland, highlights the adjustment families must make after loved ones return home from such a traumatic experience. The theme was much on the minds of Israelis while Gilad Shalit was being held captive in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Repatriated last October after being held incommunicado for over five years, Shalit visited the Homeland set when part of the new season was being filmed in Israel.
Prior to Hatufim, the reintegration of Israeli POWs into fast-paced Israeli society had never before been fictionalized in an Israeli TV serial. It was so popular that a second season is premiering on Israeli TV next month.
Working with Hatufim creator Gideon Raff, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon adapted and produced Homeland as the American version for Showtime. Both Gordon and Gansa were part of the creative team that produced the hit 24, which also focused on a renegade counter-terrorist, Jack Bauer, and a team of homeland-security officials charged with protecting the nation from terrorism.
Gordon and Gansa's learning curve attests to the differences in the two dramas. The Twin Towers were smoking, and memories of the Sept. 11 attacks were still fresh, when Jack Bauer routinely tortured recalcitrant suspects to prevent terrorists from nuking Los Angeles. But Bauer's casual embrace of torture and other illegal counter-terrorism tactics sparked controversy and outrage among some viewers and reporters as distance from that traumatic event grew.
While 24 was driven by its nail-biting narrative and suspenseful endings of each episode, the first 12 episodes of Homeland, though hardly devoid of thriller moments, focus far more on relationships. If 24 was all about a thrilling plot, Homeland is far more about characters. Carrie and Saul are patriotic, brave, and often heroic, but they can also be cowardly, misguided, and duplicitous. Carrie crosses most professional boundaries, most notably, by sleeping with Sgt. Brody, the Marine she is surveilling. Carrie's complex feelings for him—and also for Saul—coupled with her creative if unorthodox tactics, are the emotional driver of the series. What 24 and Homeland share is the ticking-bomb endings of each broadcast hour—drama that has made both President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton into fans.
Early in Season 2, Saul and the CIA will draw Carrie back into action for a crucial mission for which only she is qualified. And so for another thrilling season, we will be able to watch three of television's most compelling characters and the gifted actors who portray them wrestle not only with America's enemies, but with their own internal demons. Homeland is, as 24 was for what seems already a different era, a barometer of our times.