Blu-ray Review: Surveillance, Sex, and Madness in HOMELAND: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON

The first season of Showtime's hour-long terrorism drama Homeland is about nothing so much as the complete and utter destruction of Claire Danes' character, C.I.A. analyst Carrie Mathison. This smart, driven, and somewhat compulsive spook is undone by those very things that make her so good at her job (along with a "why won't anybody believe me" plot that tears away at her already fragile sanity).

Homeland's premise centers on Carrie's suspicions that recently-freed Iraq War P.O.W. Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) might in fact be a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda under the auspices of the slippery Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban). We watch Carrie watching Brody whose trouble fitting back into life in the States after eight years of imprisonment, torture--and possible brainwashing--have left him damaged in some profound way.

Carrie can't take her suspicions to her career-minded boss (David Harewood), who sees Brody's rescue as a big intelligence win for the troubled Agency, while her mentor, the perceptive veteran interrogator and field agent Saul (Mandy Patinkin) can only see her suspicions as the product of an overworked, possibly emotionally-frayed mind. Meanwhile, Brody tries his best to settle in with his wife and two kids, the safety and comfort of home kind of hard to live with after years of being in the midst of men who... well, I won't spoil what happened to Brody, but the scars on his body aren't nearly as profound as the ones in his heart and mind.

Showtime's series is a remake of the Israeli program Prisoners of War (2010), and its strength lies in a couple of places: first, because of its timeliness--Homeland is about how the nation and the world at large might see the conflict in Iraq as one that's wound down while regular reports of the killings of high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders would indicate that we're "winning" in as much as you can beat a set of ideologies. The war's not done with its veterans or the men and women out their still prosecuting the so-called "War on Terror," we just don't talk about it as vigorously as we used to because most of us just want it to be over. Ironically, Carrie's unable to reveal her suspicions about Brody to her boss because bringing Brody home shows that the C.I.A. is still making very public gains against Al Qaeda, and besides, who would believe that a national hero could be manipulated into bringing the war home with him?

The second, most important thing the show has going for it are strong performances by the trio of Danes, Lewis, and Patinkin. Danes in particular is fearless as a troubled woman with a keen mind and instincts for her job. We find out early on that she's been keeping a secret about her mental health from her bosses at the C.I.A., and much of the tension from the show comes from waiting to see when and how Carrie will ultimately break (and her final scenes at the end of the season are just painful). I've heard some complaints about Brit Damian Lewis' accent, but it was never such a problem that it overwhelmed his performance as the deeply disturbed Brody. He plays the character with this coiled, pent-up emotional (and later physical) violence, keeping so many of the things he saw, did, and were done to him, a secret from his family. Patinkin's always great, and here he gets the understated role of someone in complete emotional control, able to push and manipulate others even while his own life is going through a carefully-managed tailspin.

The layers of character interaction and perfectly crafted performances actually help us swallow the is he or isn't he a terrorist premise of the series, and actually smooths over some of the clunkiness late in the season as the big happening starts to happen (the trouble with this kind of show is that it exists with the tacit hope that there is a second season to keep drawing things together).

Presentation and Special Features

Fox's set includes all 12 episodes across three discs inside of a handsome plastic slipcover.

For a show that picked up an Emmy, the extras are a little sparse, with commentary on the pilot, a 33-minute making of "Homeland Season One: Under Surveillance," a handful of deleted scenes, and "Week Ten" a three minute prologue to season two. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but something that drilled deeper into the characters might have been nice. As it stands, the included content is satisfying if not exactly illuminating.

Homeland: The Complete First Season is available on DVD and Blu-ray now in the U.S. and Canada from Twentieth Century Fox Season two begins September 30th on Showtime.

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