One of the more welcome and surprising things about television at the moment is that Homeland (Channel 4, Sunday) is good again. As I’m not the only person to have pointed out, the first series was great. After that, though, the show suffered badly from the diminishing returns which so often afflict a deserved American hit that’s obliged for financial reasons to just keep on going — usually by serving up increasingly minor variations on a theme. (Exhibit A: Lost; exhibit B: most of mid-period 24.)
Fortunately now that Damian Lewis’s Brody is dead, Homeland no longer has to think up any more ways to make us wonder which side he’s on. Instead, to the obvious relief of all concerned, it can start again with a different story. It can also let Carrie (Claire Danes) take centre-stage unaccompanied.
In last week’s opening episode, we learned that Carrie hadn’t allowed the little matter of bipolar disorder stand in the way of a successful new career in Kabul blasting America’s enemies to pieces with drones. If anything, she seems tougher and more driven than ever — despite a tendency to slurp the sort of large glasses of wine that in Britain might suggest merely a quiet night in front of the telly, but that here are presumably meant to signify something darker.
Then, however, Carrie ordered an attack on what turned out to be a family wedding. As a result, she was recalled to Washington by the slippery and careerist head of the CIA, Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) — a man who’s apparently been skipping his diversity training. (Pakistan, he told her on Sunday, ‘is not even a real country. It’s a fucking acronym.’)
For some women, such a return home might have represented a long-awaited chance to catch up with their baby daughter — in this case, the one fathered by Brody, and with the red hair to prove it. Carrie, though, is not one of nature’s mothers. To her credit, she did try for a day or two, changing little Franny’s nappy, resisting the urge to drown her in the bath and at one stage whispering a few maternal confidences into her ear. (‘I can’t remember why I had you.’) She was also scrupulous about taking her daughter with her when she tracked down a former CIA field officer to grill him about what might have gone wrong with the intelligence that led to the wedding-party bombing. (Perhaps unexpectedly, the officer in question is played by Adam Godley, who made his name with his performance as Kenneth Williams in Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick at the National Theatre.)
Even so, it was with a transparent sense of a burden shed that Carrie briskly blackmailed Lockhart into making her the CIA’s new head in Islamabad, a posting where no children are permitted. In a particularly strong scene towards the end, she went into Franny’s bedroom to say goodbye. From her cot, the baby put on an impressive, if slightly overdone display of cuteness, reaching out her arms and bombarding her mother with smiles and gurgles of affection. ‘I’m so sorry,’ whispered Carrie before leaving with neither a kiss nor a backward glance.
And still with terrorism: on Wednesday BBC2 brought us Gunpowder 5/11: The Greatest Terror Plot. As the title suggests, this was not a piece of television afraid to draw — or, indeed, force — any modern parallels it could, in an anxious and sometimes embarrassing attempt to show us that… no, honestly… history can be relevant and exciting. In the introduction, the narrator used the phrase ‘5/11’ as often and as significantly as possible. (Although, at the risk of being pedantic, wouldn’t the true parallel have been ‘11/5’?) And, just in case we didn’t get the point, the gunpowder plotters, we were told, wanted ‘to do something on a grander scale than had ever been seen before’.
Happily, having convinced itself of all that relevance, the programme then settled down for a while, and seemed content to be a fairly standard historical drama documentary. The academic talking heads put forward some interesting arguments; the basic story was clearly told; the drama bits did the best they could on a budget that, from what we saw, ran mainly to costumes and metal goblets for the conspirators to stand around drinking from.
Only with minutes to go, in fact, did the makers suddenly remember that a 17th-century plan to blow up the English parliament was just like what happened in New York 13 years ago. ‘This tale of faith and fanaticism,’ concluded the narrator rather desperately, ‘resonates in a new century darkened by terror perpetrated in the name of God. There are lessons still to be learnt’ — although what those lessons might be, he sadly didn’t say.