On the sun-dappled sidestreets of Charlotte, North Carolina, a crowd is forming. A mother and son emerge from a house, worried expressions on their faces. A few cops huddle to block the sight lines of stray passersby, who gape and point toward the intersection. It seems there's been an accident: A black sedan is perched precariously on the curb, its driver's side door ajar. But that's not what everyone's looking at. They're looking at the man standing next to it, methodically bashing what appears to be a perfectly good Chevrolet with a perfectly enormous sledgehammer. As the dents begin to pile up, the man's bearded face is briefly illuminated by the red-and-blue flashes of the bubble lights atop a police car. The man pauses, hammer in hand. Then one of the lights conks out. There's an eruption of laughter and another bearded man cries out, "This is a hit show?" Amused, the crew continue prepping for the next shot.
Despite a few technical snafus on its Southern set, Homeland is indeed a hit. Building off of its captivating first season — and surprise sweep at the Emmys this past September — Year 2 of the Showtime drama has seen its ratings soar. (This past week, it surpassed Dexter for the first time, making it the highest-rated series on the pay channel.) But more important than numbers, Homeland has also ascended to the top of zeitgeist mountain, that rarified cultural air where Saturday Night Live mocks you, Twitter feeds on you, and white people, well, they just love you. President Obama was an early convert, but now the show's popularity has trickled upward to more important executive suites: those of rival networks, where cries of "get me a Homeland" have replaced the traditional requests for tofu scrambles and doomed Christian Slater vehicles.
But you wouldn't know any of that spending an afternoon in Charlotte. On that unseasonably warm October day as I watched the extras practice their pointing and Paul Bunyan–esque grips attempt to approximate an SUV's worth of damage on Carrie Mathison's car, the dominant feeling in the air was quiet contentment, not giddy triumph. Part of this can be attributed to the workmanlike nature of all successful TV sets, where actors and gaffers punch the same clock and raid the snack tray for the same granola bars. But it's also a factor of distance: While the writers plot and panic 2,400 miles away in Hollywood, the cast is left to learn its lines in relative peace. "We're still in a vacuum this year," says Morgan Saylor, clad in Dana Brody's signature hoodie. "It's very different from going to L.A. or New York, where everyone's a big fan of Homeland. People here are just so psyched to be a part of it." Nothing I saw that day contradicted Saylor's very un-Dana-like enthusiasm. Everyone I met, from stars to stand-ins to Saylor's chipper mom, was exceptionally pleasant and polite, swapping organic lollipops and laughing. If anyone had the slightest inkling that the episode they were currently filming would break the Internet in half, it certainly didn't show.
Homeland's entire second season emerged from the emotional wreckage of an unexploded bomb. Brody lived — thus guaranteeing the show at least another year of Damian Lewis — but his aborted act of terror carried with it its own dangers: Gone was the central is-he-or-isn't-he dynamic that captured hearts and minds last year (outdated spoiler: He was) and in its place were a whole lot of fractured hows. To wit: How would the show refigure itself without its central mystery? How would Carrie — last seen disgraced, unemployed, and zapping her cerebellum like an aging car battery — be brought back into the fold? And, after shooting a deer and punching his best friend, how would Brody find new ways to awkwardly disrupt social events at his house?
It turns out we were worried about the wrong things. Despite what happened in the first-season finale, Homeland is defined not by the specifics of its plot or the deviousness of its puzzles, but by the cavalier way it blows things up. Rather than being cowed by the pressures of success, co-executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon returned fully radicalized, detonating storytelling conventions and audience expectations in the process. Brody's lingering suicide tape? Discovered in Episode 2. Carrie finally snapping the cuffs on her ginger obsession? Done and dusted just two hours later. "You have to be fearless," staff writer Henry Bromell told me, as he watched a scene unfold on the monitors in Video Village. "We're not afraid to eat through story."
A voracious appetite, of course, can lead either to satisfaction or profound indigestion. And Bromell, a shaggy, sixtysomething industry veteran, has experienced both. His first script for Homeland's second year was the rapturously received "Q&A," the taut, thrilling hour in which Carrie first broke Brody then rebuilt him piece by piece, like a blonde, beardless Abu Nazir. It was Bromell's second script that brought him across the country and placed him in the director's chair next to mine. (His had his name on it. Mine was borrowed from the guy who plays Virgil.) Though neither of us was aware of it at the time, "Broken Hearts" would turn out to be Homeland's most divisive episode to date, a drastic detour into 24-ish action and questionable telephone technology that had fans either leaping off the bandwagon in droves or jumping over shark-infested waters to the show's defense. The sight of Brody arranging a remote-controlled assassination in order to rescue a hogtied Carrie pushed usually staid critics to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Said Salon's Willa Paskin: "Crazy, bananas, bonkers, idiotic, insane, stupid, contrived, deranged, are you sure this was not actually a spoof?" And The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum found herself reaching for the tackboard and yarn in order to justify her increasingly crackpot theories. "This show is turning me into Carrie Mathison," she wrote.
Which, I would argue, is sort of the point. Homeland's bipolar protagonist isn't just a remarkable character, she's also a model for the show itself. Both made dazzling first impressions with their brilliance and dedication. But the crazy was bound to leak out eventually. The audience experience this season has been breathless and jagged, more manic than Carrie off her meds as it swings from one extreme to another. "That's one of the things about the show," Morgan Saylor told me, after confessing that she and the rest of the cast gobble up new script pages as fans first, actors second. "You can't really get attached too much. It's constantly changing." It shouldn't be possible for a single series to pull off both the year's best hour of TV and one of its worst — let alone have them be scripted by the same writer. But here we are. It turns out, Homeland's brand isn't excellence so much as it is crisis. What makes it outstanding isn't the way it avoids potholes, but the reckless, borderline-foolhardy way in which it steers into them. Considered that way, the much-maligned Finn Walden car crash didn't derail the show: It is the show. One gets the sense that, like their heroine, Gansa and Gordon will either end up railroaded or in serious therapy for their hubris. But to them, disgrace is preferable to disappointment.
Of course, the raging floodwaters of Carrie Mathison's mind do have an island of calm in the stolid form of Saul Berenson. And it appears Mandy Patinkin serves that role for the show as well. Accomplished and extremely opinionated, Patinkin has a reputation for prickliness. (He abandoned his last regular TV gig, on CBS's Criminal Minds, in dramatic fashion, calling it "destructive to my soul.") But to watch him act for the small screen in person is nothing short of delightful. As the director, Guy Ferland, confers with his two cameramen, Patinkin paces slowly around the now sufficiently wrecked car, muttering to himself. Each time Ferland yells for action, Patinkin approaches his handful of lines differently: first angry at Carrie for her disappearance, then more remorseful, subtly turning the anger in on himself. The writers learned long ago that Patinkin was capable of transforming even the smallest of gestures into high art — think of his lonely peanut butter smear of a year ago (a scene also scripted by Bromell) — and here he toys with the simple repetition of two words ("might," "lucky") until they begin to sound like a mantra of frustration and regret. When some ringing church bells interrupt a take, he stands absolutely still until they stop. When the scene wraps for lunch, he leads the entire production in a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" for Cal Johnson, the show's stunt coordinator, Patinkin's perfect tenor chiming through the roped-off street.
"I spend hours and hours on this stuff," he tells me. "I'm not like these youngsters who can look at something for five seconds and know it. I go over it a thousand times, out loud, walking around. And I make notes, cross them out. Others I put hearts around or little asterisks. And then I leave them in the trailer. I know enough of it in my bones by that point so I forget about it and say, 'Let's go see what's out there today.' As Warren Beatty said to me years ago: Everything cuts. It's how you get the pressure off so you can do your best work."
After lunch, Patinkin greets me at his trailer and then decides we'd be better off speaking outside: "It's such a beautiful day, isn't it?" The beard doesn't come off between takes, of course, but nearly every other vestige of Saul Berenson vanishes. Where his character is stooped and stressed, the weight of the world pushing down on his bearish shoulders, the real-life Patinkin is spry and cheerful, his speaking voice a few octaves higher, more Broadway than Beltway. He shanghais two folding chairs from the commissary truck and sets us up off to the side of a parking lot, next to a chain-link fence.
One doesn't so much interview Mandy Patinkin as prompt him. A simple icebreaker about Saul's hirsute appeal leads to a swooping, six-minute soliloquy on "the broken family of man." The French painter Georges Seurat — whom Patinkin played, brilliantly, in Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George — is cited; a 30-year-old performance of Shakespeare in Central Park with Christopher Reeve is remembered. Both Patinkin's grandmother and e.e. cummings are quoted. But what's most striking about Patinkin's musings aren't their breadth but their generosity. "First and foremost, I'm the mailman," he says of his role on Homeland. (It's a phrase he's fond of.) "I'm not the genius, gifted guy who wrote any of it." He goes on to list every member of the show's writing staff. "Those are the gifted people, in my point of view. We deliver their words. So they get all the credit."
Where Patinkin and his character converge is in their intractable sense of self. If Homeland appears to be veering all over the road, consider Saul the designated driver. "He reminds me of Pooh Bear," Patinkin says of his alter ego. "He puts his need for honey on hold so he can help Eeyore find his tail. And I feel like I'm trying to help Carrie find her tail — her life, her love, her heart. Because, in a way, she's my kid. She's what I live for." Fine, I say. But Saul isn't a doormat. What, exactly, is his honey? Patinkin doesn't hesitate. "That honey is his love for mankind," he says. "His hope and prayer that justice, freedom, and dignity can be had for all humanity. Maybe he's an idealist, maybe he's naive and lives in a different world. But he believes." (With words like these, it's hard not to suspect that were Saul revealed to be some sort of mole — as some ardent fans believe — Patinkin would shish-kebab Alex Gansa in a manner befitting the actor's other most famous role, Inigo Montoya.)
Patinkin also believes deeply in Homeland — or, as he puts it, in prime actor-ese, "this damned interesting piece" — and if he's ruffled at all by the show's recent histrionics, he does a fine job of hiding it. "It's one of the strange things about trying to create little pieces of art," he says. "You can't control it. You don't know how it's going to be heard or edited or received. But you can play with it." Mostly, he seems grateful for the ride and all too aware of how quickly even successes can come to an end, losing himself for a moment in memories of the recent, highly emotional 25th-anniversary screening of The Princess Bride at Lincoln Center. "It's all going too fast!" he cries. "I can't believe we're at the end of our second season. There's something that happens to you, somewhere in your 50s, where you gain a real different perspective and appreciation about everything. About the sunrise and the sunset. The privilege of being with — " and here he lists every member of the Homeland cast, down to the guest stars. "This doesn't come around every day. And when it does come, it doesn't stay very long."
Sometime later I'm led into Claire Danes's trailer on the other side of the lot. It's a standard, unadorned actor's lair: faux-wood paneling, assistant scrambling about, yappy dog constantly underfoot. Danes herself is hunkered down in the corner of a couch clad in sweats, a pillow atop her pregnant belly. In person, Danes is engaging and cerebral, confessing to occasional pangs of guilt over not researching her role enough. One gets the sense that after nearly 20 years of interviews, she knows precisely how much of herself to share and how much to hold back.
"I've never done this before," she says once I'm seated beside her. "I've never worked on a series that had a second season, never returned to a character and continued to experience her in different circumstances and stages of life. I'm having a really good time with it. I'm so happy to play a person, a woman, who is not defined by her sex. Sometimes she's very sexualized — in jazz bars, mostly. But she's been on good behavior this year when she's not killing herself." She pauses. "Toward the middle of the season it suddenly becomes more Action Jackson, which is a little out of character. And of course that corresponded to my suddenly getting pregnant. But basically it's been great."
Seizing on that lingering "basically," I ask about the shocking plot reveals early in the season (at the time I had no inkling of what was to come — I had guessed that Carrie was getting kidnapped but figured it was to be the cliffhanger of "Broken Hearts," not the inciting incident for all the insanity that followed). "I think this year the writers have had more sophisticated challenges," Danes says carefully. "Last season was plenty ambitious, but they were asking a lot of questions that they now have the responsibility to answer. And that's fundamentally tougher. They've never done it effortlessly, but somehow they created that illusion last season. There was just no way for them to do that again."
I mention my own defense of the show, about how chasing "plausibility" in fiction can be a sucker's game, that what matters most is emotional truth, not factual accuracy. "It's not that our writers are capricious about facts," she says. "They don't want to suspend our disbelief too much. But the emphasis is absolutely on the emotional truth. They want to tell a story that will be exciting, engaging, and rich. And the particulars, the pedantic stuff, doesn't take priority. It's been a little jarring at times. But the final outcome is always crazy impressive."
We talk for awhile about her experiences shooting the Season 2 premiere in Israel and how she had to hide out in a bootleg denim shop between takes of the episode's titular smile. "It was just so satisfying to see Carrie thrive and enjoy herself, because there are very few opportunities for her to do that. There's not a lot of fun to be had on this show!" She laughs, then catches herself. "I mean, it's fun to watch. But it's pretty grim."
I point out that I'd yet to see the cast try an Apatow-esque "improv take." Danes guffaws. "Oh, there's no improv take! I'm friends with Lena Dunham, and during our hiatus I visited the set of Girls. And they were having so much fun! Just making shit up, and I thought: This is alien. This is so exotic! I don't begrudge my job; it's great. But I've spent my one smile for the season already. Occasionally there's a little upturn of the lips "
In fact, Danes has become infamous for doing quite the opposite with her face, spawning an Internet meme she's all too aware of. "Yeah, I've been told I give good cry for awhile. And it's very sort of 'Thank you, I think?' Because the praise seems to be, 'You look so disgusting when you cry!'" She laughs. "I can't take any credit, because it's just an involuntary thing that happens. This is just how I do. I think they even parodied it on My So-Called Life — didn't Rayanne imitate Angela's cry? So yeah. I know I've got a reputation!"
An hour later, back on the street, I'm suddenly surrounded by Carrie Mathisons. I count at least four of them swarming the entrance to the character's condo, pantsuited visions with flowing yellow hair. One is really Claire Danes, of course. The others are a cavalcade of stand-ins: the one who holds the marks while the cameras set up, the stunt double for the Action Jackson scenes to come, and a new addition this season: the belly double. Danes's pregnancy (she's due in early 2013) has been kept mostly hidden thanks to judicious directing, well-cinched blazers, and, on occasion, shooting episodes out of order. But just in case some CGI scrubbing is needed, another blonde is kept on call. (As if on cue, Ferland cries out, "We're gonna need a belly pass on that one!")
The scene I'm watching is a short one: Carrie exits her condo, speaks tenderly to Brody on the phone, then gets into her car and drives toward a violent collision with Nazir. There's no one on the other end of her cell, but you'd never know it by watching the way her eyes soften and her shoulders relax as soon as she begins speaking. I'm reminded of what Mandy Patinkin told me about his co-star: "Claire was a child actor. If you're lucky enough to be around some of these gifted actors when they're children, they're like watching a magic trick. They believe so purely, so completely. They have a natural instinct. Claire grew up to be an adult who never lost that magic."
Between takes I sit in Video Village with Danes, Ferland, and Bromell. Conversation centers on the previous night's presidential debate and the pressure brought on by Obama's fandom. (Bromell: "You don't want to disappoint the President. Especially this one! I really like this one.") Danes and Bromell rib Ferland good-naturedly about his fancy Prada iPad case and trade anecdotes about Nora Ephron. (Danes: "She wrote that no one drank wine in the '60s, no one ordered pizza. There was no pizza!") There's small talk about what, exactly, Danes should be doing behind the wheel in the instant before Abu Nazir's SUV barrels into it — an effects shot that will be added later.
"Should I pick my nose this time?" she asks Bromell. "Really commit to the choice?"
"Well," he muses. "We already did the snot."
Eventually Danes drifts back in front of the camera. Silence descends on the street and Ferland bellows for action. Again and again Danes exits her building, makes her way behind the wheel, and drives off. And every time she plays it completely straight: Carrie's in love with Brody, there's no traffic ahead. If she knows there's a world-altering crash lurking around the next corner, there's no indication of it on her face. She's alive only in the moment: totally trusting, totally vulnerable. Her fate rests in the hands of another.
With two episodes to go in a stressful second season, Homeland fans can surely relate.