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Claire Danes has won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her role as CIA agent Carrie Mathison in Homeland, the critically acclaimed drama that recently returned for its second season. Last season, Homeland viewers were torn trying to figure out whether bipolar Mathison was right about Sergeant Nick Brody (Damian Lewis), the returning prisoner of war whom she believed was turned into an al-Qaeda operative by Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) whilst in captivity.

Although Carrie’s instincts were correct, she’d begun to doubt herself and her sanity, ending the season on a hospital bed, committing herself to psychiatric ECT (electroconvulsive therapy).

Season 2 of Homeland picks up six months later with Carrie back on her feet in a safe haven, staying with her sister, Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) and her kids. On set in Charlotte, N.C., where most of Homeland is shot, Carrie’s temporary bedroom is covered with children’s drawings on the wall and a large handwritten sign on her dressing table mirror says, simply, “Breathe”—perhaps Carrie’s mantra as she starts her new life away from the rigorous stresses of CIA work.

“She has been very committed to the goal of stabilizing herself and regaining her equilibrium and her sanity,” reveals Danes. Appropriately, Danes sits in a room that stands in for an office in the CIA’s HQ in Langley, complete with an investigative chart on the wall focused on Abu Nazir.

“Carrie’s gone through that full course of treatment and been living with her sister and she has really cocooned herself and tried very hard to accept this new reality, this pared down reality. She’s now teaching English to Arab students.”

Season 1 ended with her mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) believing Carrie’s CIA career was over as a result of her hiding her bipolar condition and reliance on medication from her employers as well as crossing the line in her pursuit and surveillance of Brody. But in true Homeland style, a sudden turn of events soon draws Carrie back into the unpredictable world of the CIA.

“Her well-being is still fragile and tenuous and then, of course, she gets a call from her favorite people at the CIA and her stability is then threatened, so initially she is very reluctant,” adds Danes. “She is trying not to admit that she is excited. She is tempted to believe that they might allow her back in. She’s surprisingly timid, especially at first. It takes a while for her to get her groove back.”

To complicate matters there’s tension between Carrie and a newcomer to Homeland, her new CIA colleague Peter Quinn, played by British movie star Rupert Friend in his first TV role.

“He is a CIA analyst who is brought in by Carrie’s boss and he is not what he seems,” reveals Friend. “When we meet him we aren’t really sure who is he, nor is Carrie, nor is Saul, nor is anyone. There’s a deliberate level of ambiguity because he’s effectively running a show of one kind, he’s therefore the boss and that’s weird for someone to just show up and suddenly outrank everyone.”

As for Sergeant Brody, he’s entered the game of politics in season 2. A short walk from the replica of the Brody house on set in Charlotte, there’s a replica of the corridors of power in Washington, complete with marble floors and flags of different states. Stopping at the office of the Representative of Virginia, Nicholas Brody’s name is on the door.

“Brody is in congress now,” reveals Michael Cuesta, the director of the first and last episodes of both seasons. “He is in a higher position so that has, obviously, major repercussions; what does that mean to his family? Where does that put him in the government? Where does that put him in the eyes of the vice president? We have Jamey Sheridan playing the vice president, who’s hawkish. Ultimately, there’s a Manchurian Candidate premise in our series about this guy, Brody, rising in the ranks to influence policy.”

Following his aborted suicide bomb attempt at the end of last season, Brody’s rise to power is not without its obstacles. Actor Damian Lewis, fresh from filming a new interrogation scene for episode five, takes a chair in the CIA office set, his shirt cuffs bloodied where he has been handcuffed. “I’ve just been doing a scene which was described to me by [producer] Alex Gansa, only yesterday, as, ‘the pivotal scene of the entire season,’ which put the wind up me a bit!” he says.

“Brody’s mission statement at the end of last season, to operate politically and peacefully without violence is basically subverted all the time by different sources. Too many people know what Brody tried to do last season so he’s not in, really, a position of power like he thinks he is. Abu Nazir has still got his hooks in him and he is really, still, it turns out, at his beck and call.”

Inevitably, Brody and Carrie’s paths cross again, Lewis lets slip. “Let’s put it this way, Carrie and Brody will always be drawn to one another because there’s a, frankly, unhealthy co-dependency there between two people who suffer from conditions. She has a volatile temperament which becomes clearer what that is as the [first] season goes on and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It seems Brody’s world has caught up with him. Discoveries are made in the first half of this season that brings Brody to this point where he is in another psychologically complex interrogation, effectively, with Carrie Mathison.”

Mandy Patinkin, who plays Carrie’s mentor, Saul, cuts an avuncular figure both on and off screen. Saul, of course, feels paternal towards Carrie and they find themselves working together again as season 2 unfolds. “His greater concern is Carrie Mathison,” says Patinkin. “Their relationship is the world to him and everything it represents so he would die and sacrifice everything for her. He was certainly reeling after what happened to Carrie at the end of the season. It was not his desire that she have that (ECT) treatment. I think it had an effect on him. Whatever the internal politics were he ended up going back to where he’d been before, which is the station chief in Beirut. So we find him there at the beginning of the season.”

In order to retain the element of surprise that the audience feels, Patinkin asks not to see the scripts of upcoming episodes until he has to learn his lines. “I can’t wait to get the next script and I can’t wait to turn the page to see what happens. It’s great fun for me; I’m in the same position the audience is in. It’s great fun to see these turns and twists. You’re constantly wondering, who can you trust? Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? Is it a lie or a secret? And are they the same?”

Claire Danes, too, revels in the complexities of the show. “It really is a psychological thriller, almost more than anything else,” she says. “The plot is incredibly dense and the pace is very fast, it makes one’s heart race. But at the center of it are these very carefully drawn characters who are all fallible and conflicted and right and wrong. It makes for great drama and there are no easy conclusions.”

The fact that Homeland feels very current is another draw. “The show is unusual in that it is entertaining and it is also so immediately relevant to what is happening in the world. When I first read the pilot I was almost concerned by how relevant it was because it’s talking about very provocative ideas and conflicts that are still raging, and that we haven’t resolved as a culture and that’s risky,” concludes Danes, hitting on why Homeland has friends or, rather, fans in high places.

Patinkin discussed Homeland at a benefit in New York with two important avid viewers of the show, President Bill Clinton and President Obama. Damian Lewis, too, has his own presidential anecdote, having been invited to the White House in March 2012. “I said to the president, ‘When do you watch?’ and he said, ‘Well, Michelle takes the girls out to play tennis on a Saturday afternoon, I pretend I’m gonna go work in the Oval Office and I turn on the TV and I watch Homeland.’ So, Saturday afternoon is his slot.”

President Obama and other fans of Homeland have 12 new episodes to look forward to now that the show has returned for its second season on Showtime.

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