by Gary Levin, USA TODAY
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- It's a sweltering upper-90s July day, and Damian Lewis is standing outside a quaint old gas station, sweating in a wife-beater, eating blue shaved ice between takes.
His character, POW-turned-terrorist Nicholas Brody of Showtime's Homeland, failed to blow himself up in last season's finale. So when the Emmy-winning drama returns for a second season Sunday (10 ET/PT), Brody's leading a double life: Six months after his aborted plot, he's a newly minted congressman , but also a reluctant soldier for his former captor, terrorist Abu Nazir.
And on his latest mission, things don't go exactly as planned, a typical outcome for this high-stakes political thriller.
Brody has "never really been in control," says Lewis in an interview on a shop-lined Main Street in this small town 30 miles north of Charlotte, where the series is filmed.
"He was psychologically unstable and borderline irrational at points in the first season. Now he's more a kind of hunted man. He's been asked to work alongside (the vice president), a guy he actively tried to kill in the first season, in order to get close to the people in power, and it turns out very quickly he's also being hounded by the people he thinks are his allies," Lewis says. "That's the state he lives in, high anxiety and paranoia, and it's fun to play."
Emmy voters thought so too. The series swept best drama, writing, and lead actor awards Sunday (Showtime's first series win). Alongside Lewis, co-star Claire Danes won for her role as bipolar CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, whose dogged suspicions about Brody were confirmed last season. And her shock-therapy treatments erased her brief memory of a crucial link that provided his motivation for revenge.
All is not as it seems
In Sunday's premiere, she's in forced retirement, gardening, teaching and living quietly with her sister in a stately home meant to evoke suburban Washington, where the show is set. But her mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), now stationed in Beirut, recruits a reluctant Carrie for a critical meeting with an informant she'd cultivated years earlier.
And though she's back in the game, her former bosses don't roll out the welcome mat. When she returns to the CIA (which actually is a generic Charlotte office building filled with call-center workers), she's eyed warily.
"It's interesting coming back to her at this point, because she was not so recognizable to me," Danes says. "I mean, she's just so consumed with self-doubt, and she'd lost her swagger and her bravado, totally. I like that it's new," though "I kind of miss the thrill of playing a bad-ass. But I appreciate that there is a consequence to what happened, that we're not on some ridiculous loop."
Brody, too, has changed from ambiguous war hero -- he's Muslim, but is he a terrorist? -- to quiet villain. He's "very consciously living a double life, so that puts him more in the realm of a conventional bad guy," Lewis says. "Before, he was dealing with the genuine emotional distress of reintegrating himself into civilian life."
A different ending
Of course, if producers had had their way, Brody's bomb would have detonated, and Lewis would be off to another project as they "reset" the show for a second season. At least that was the early plan until Showtime nixed it, insisting that at its core, Homeland was about the relationship between Brody and Mathison.
Even executive producer Gideon Raff, who created Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the Israeli series on which Homeland is based, agreed.
"I was very intrigued by the relationship between Carrie and Brody, and I didn't want that to go away yet," he says. "I thought it was too early. And knowing that he's a terrorist and still being able to love the character is something that's weird and bizarre and very interesting to explore as an audience."
Executive producer Howard Gordon admits to a change of heart. "The premise they identified had more in it than we thought it did," he says. "They are on a collision course," as a damaged Carrie tries to regain her mojo and Brody realizes he's in too deep. "He's not an acolyte; he does it begrudgingly. It's not as simple as black and white or good and evil."
Gordon and co-creator Alex Gansa endorsed the idea, and worked toward pairing them up more often. Their doomed romance, Gansa says, is "really the story we're telling in the second season."
But doing so meant frustrating some fans with last season's finale.
"People were disappointed in a strange way that Brody didn't actually blow himself up," he says. "Then I think people were infuriated by the fact that Carrie, having all of a sudden realized she was right (in suspecting Brody), forgot it in the next moment."
Lewis says the writers settled on the foiled bunker-bombing plot very late in the season. "My initial instinct was to resist it. I said, 'If we were just having a U.S. Marine go find Allah and then become a violent jihadist I think it's irresponsible. Really? All Muslims want to blow us up? And there are enough dumb people out there who believe that already." But "the imagery was so strong," he says. And "because he's psychologically damaged, it's a disproportionate response."
Popular in high places
The finale's plot twists certainly didn't affect the show's momentum in Hollywood and beyond. Danes, who is expecting her first child with actor husband Hugh Dancy, had been tipped to win the best-actress Emmy for months.
Even President Obama has called Homeland his favorite show, describing to Lewis at a White House dinner last spring how he's watched episodes on Saturday afternoons while the first lady and their daughter played tennis.
"I have a tremendous sense of gratitude," Patinkin said the morning after the Emmy sweep. "For the show to be so embraced, it's like raising a child and seeing the world love your loved one."
Showtime's programming president David Nevins made Homeland his first drama series at the network, and says it's not difficult to explain its appeal. "It's timely, it's very today, it's challenging politically and I just think it's a great combination of highly relevant and highly entertaining," he says. "And it's subversive to its core."
Even before the Emmy wins, he said, "it probably has more heat surrounding it right now than any show we've ever had," and Homeland is poised to overtake Dexter as the network's most popular series. (Showtime scheduled a first-season marathon for Saturday at noon ET/PT.)
Like Homeland, Prisoners of War, a 2010 series that became Israel's top-rated drama, focused on the reintegration of soldiers into society. Both feature a pair of suspicious investigators trying to determine why soldiers lied to conceal their experiences. And "both shows are very similar in the fact that they raise very relevant and timely questions in their societies," says Raff.
But only Homeland added a looming terrorist threat that propels the high-stakes action, a device Gansa and Gordon honed working on Fox's real-time thriller 24. But while that show's Jack Bauer was a "wish fulfillment" hero, Carrie is more rooted in reality.
"We feel vulnerable for the first time, and that creates an incredible anxiety and sometimes even paranoia," Danes says.
"It's really unusual to find a story that is this pulpy and this heart-racing and engaging in terms of plot that also centers around really sophisticated, dynamic, complete characters," she says. "It's usually one or the other, and here we have both. These writers know how to create a cliffhanger."