BREAK OUT THE LASAGNA! Claire Danes is back with a fresh Emmy for her role in Homeland.
Is there a more compelling spectacle in television these days than Claire Danes slowly decompensating into full-on mania? Formerly the mopey, doe-eyed teenage star of My So-Called Life, Danes, now 33, more recently has scored hits on premium cable with extreme characters. Her turn as the autistic title character in the 2010 HBO bio-pic Temple Grandin was a feat both of technique and sympathetic imagination. She won an Emmy for that performance, as she did Sunday night for her role in Showtime's Homeland (returning Sunday night at 10), in which she plays a bipolar CIA agent. Her award was part of an Emmy sweep by the dramatic series, which also included prizes for writing, best actor (Damian Lewis), and best dramatic series.
As Carrie Mathison, Danes has a disorder that seems custom-fit for the job: after all, isn't it the CIA's job to be paranoid, to believe that there are no coincidences, that conspiracy is everywhere? Last season, we saw Carrie chipping anti-psychotic meds wheedled from her shrink sister, trying to keep the hounds of delusional mania at bay. (And yes: that's not anti-depressant, that's anti-psychotic. Carrie tends to feel worse than blue.) As Carrie traced her suspicions that returning war hero Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Lewis) had been "turned" during his eight-year incarceration in Iraq, eventually becoming sexually involved with him, we saw her tip closer and closer to the edge. In the blockbuster finale, we got the payoff we'd been waiting for: Carrie was off her meds and on a tear, filling an entire wall of her apartment with colored notes and maps and arrows, carrying on like, well, a madwoman. Except we in the audience knew she was right. The season ended just as Carrie, on the verge of remembering a key bit of evidence, voluntarily undergoes electroconvulsive shock therapy.
As the new season starts, Carrie is trying to get her life together, living at her sister's house. And she's really working hard, taking her meds, trying to maintain structure. So naturally she nearly blows a fuse when her old mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin) gives her a call. The Agency fired her, but now they're trying to suck her back in, to work an old asset in Lebanon. And it's hard not to identify with Carrie. After all, who hasn't at some point felt that sanity depends on fulfilling that weekly commitment to make vegetarian lasagna on Thursday night?
Of course, the issue of Carrie's "sanity" is as at least as old as Hitchcock: the protagonist who no one believes. Just as Hithcockian is a scene in the new season where Brody — the man who nearly blew up the vice president last season — is rifling a government office and we so don't want him to get caught. Oh, sweet dramatic manipulation!
Part of the success of these turns also has to do with the writing and Lewis's subtle performance. He's not a bad man, just a bit confused, a good American whose only experience of kindness during his imprisonment and torture happened to come from a terrorist mastermind, and whose only solace was Islam, his closest relationship with a boy killed by an American bomb. And, of course, he's also the perfect war hero, now a freshman congressman. No wonder no one believes Carrie.