NPR logo The Third Wire-Walker Of 'Homeland': You Win, Morena Baccarin


The Third Wire-Walker Of 'Homeland': You Win, Morena Baccarin

Morena Baccarin plays a critical and complex role as Jessica Brody in Showtime's Homeland. Kent Smith/Showtime hide caption

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Kent Smith/Showtime

Morena Baccarin plays a critical and complex role as Jessica Brody in Showtime's Homeland.

Kent Smith/Showtime

In the spirit of this week's Pop Culture Happy Hour and its discussion of the people we overlook initially and only come to appreciate later, I would like to get something off my chest.

For nine years, I considered Morena Baccarin a lightweight when I considered her at all. As one of the 86 people who watched the Joss Whedon space western Firefly when it originally aired, I considered her Inara to be the show's most underdeveloped character, an intriguing concept — a "companion," a sort of interstellar courtesan with a standing much like a modern-day ambassador —that never quite worked. I chalked it up to Baccarin being the least interesting of the ensemble's actors, and when her highest-profile post-Firefly role was as the hard-to-read alien queen in the short-lived (and never-watched-by-me) reboot of the extraterrestrial-lizard-person drama V, it fed my suspicions that she was a blank slate, so I continued to pay her no mind.

I was wrong.

I know this thanks to Homeland, the excellent new CIA drama that airs Sundays on Showtime. Most of the attention has been sucked up by the two leads, both of whom are delivering deft, wire-walking performances: Damian Lewis as a rescued POW Marine who may or may not have turned terrorist during his lengthy capture and Claire Danes as an agent whose pursuit of him could be a manifestation of mental illness.

But Baccarin has been a revelation as Jessica, the wife of Lewis' Sgt. Brody. In addition to the everyday stresses and responsibilities of being a military spouse, there's also the matter of her (and the world's) assumption when the Homeland story began that her husband had died in combat. As a de facto widow, she went through the process of mourning, raised an increasingly distant teenaged daughter and a pre-teen son who never knew his father. And eight long years after Brody vanished, she began seeing another man. It was into this life that Jessica's husband effectively returned from the dead.

The acting required to pull off Jessica's story requires Baccarin to walk a wire of her own, one different from that of Danes or Lewis. Where those two have to pitch their performances to accommodate two separate interpretations of their actions, Baccarin has to register countless and often contradictory things simultaneously: relief, dread, split loyalties (both romantic and otherwise), warmth, caginess, disappointment, humiliation and, above all, uncertainty about a life that's just been fundamentally upended. (Those are not the only ones, either. Again — countless.)

Faced with an incredibly difficult set of acting challenges, Baccarin has not stepped wrongly yet. Jess has possibly the most complex internal life of any of the characters — Danes' Carrie might be delusional, but she is steadfast in what she believes to be true, and Brody is certainly either a terrorist or not a terrorist, though the audience doesn't know which yet. And she's emerged as possibly the most sympathetic character as well. That's largely due to excellent writing, but it would be entirely undone if Baccarin blinked for even a second.

And so, almost a decade after she first graced my television (not to mention at least two actual televisions ago), Baccarin has emphatically demonstrated that she's no lightweight. That might be a long time to wait for someone to develop their craft (or, looked at another way, to earn someone else's respect). But sometimes it's nice to be surprised, not only by a performance but by the actor it comes from.