There's a great moment early in the new season of Homeland: Claire Danes as ex-CIA agent Carrie Mathison, back on the team for this one last mission, stalks the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. She spots a shady guy trailing her, hangs up on her boss, tosses the cellphone and executes a clever knee-to-groin takedown of her adversary. Then she breaks into a furtively girlish goofball smile, the first moment of happiness she's had in a long time. For once, she was scared of something that turned out to be real. Just because she's paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get her.
Created by a couple of 24 vets, Homeland might have seemed just like an old-fashioned story: the rogue American superspy who plays by her own rules to save the world from the latest Dr. Evil. She follows her hunches, defies her superiors, ignores the protocols. It might seem a little implausible that she's always right. But it works because it comes down to the story of this woman and her struggle with her sanity.
Danes makes it compelling all by turning on the crazy, with her quivering voice and flinching face muscles. Her main grip on stability is her relationship with her mentor Saul (Mandy Patinkin), playing the Peggy Olson to his Don Draper, the Liz Lemon to his Jack Donaghy. On Homeland, the geopolitical hot-button issues don't always come across as credible, but the psychological and emotional issues do. Here, the terrorist conspiracy is embedded so deeply in the U.S. that only the crazy Americans are patriots. Danes' wild-eyed fragility is the proof that she's for real. She's the only character we can trust because she's constantly about to flip the fuck out.
At the end of the bang-up first season, you could be forgiven for worrying that Homeland had used up all its narrative ammunition. Where are they supposed to go from here? We found out the big mystery when we learned that Carrie's hunch was right – Nicholas Brody, the returned POW and new congressman, is a terrorist, turned by Al Qaeda. Then Carrie got axed from the CIA after a complete mental flameout. But Homeland doesn't waste any time dragging Carrie out of exile and back into the CIA fold, although this time she's strictly a freelancer. Nobody knows she was on the right trail, not even her; she follows her hunches because she can't control herself. There's an element of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in all her lonely struggle. Buffy's epitaph read, "She Saved the World. A Lot." Carrie's in the same business. Homeland is a paranoid drama for a paranoid nation, one where the threat of terrorism is constant, yet inert.
Morally and politically, it's not all that far removed from 24. The good guys may have their flaws, but Homeland doesn't question that they're doing what has to be done. And while the bad guys have their reasons, the good guys/bad guys line remains suspiciously tidy. As Carrie, Danes is the element that messes up all this tidiness; she's scary, unstable, out of control. She panics over actual threats as well as things that are merely in her head. In other words, she's human. And ultimately, her humanity is what keeps Homeland fascinating.
This story is from the October 25th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.