"Homeland" is back for a new season, and I have a review of the premiere — plus a few thoughts from producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon — coming up just as soon as I love Julia Roberts...

"Just like old times." -Carrie

One week ago tonight, "Homeland" won most of the big Emmys it was up for, including awards for Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and the show itself. It is, for the moment, the big dog in TV drama, and "The Smile" was a good reminder of how it attained that status.

I might quibble a bit with how quickly Carrie returns to action (more on that below from Gansa and Gordon), but there was no attempt to gloss over the damage done to her career and mental health last season. Carrie blew up her life, and the only people who know she was right to do it are Nicolas Brody and the people in the audience. So even though the writers have already concocted an excuse for Carrie to be put into the field (in the same way that CTU always needed Jack Bauer to shave his beard and come out of retirement), she's not Carrie Mathison, bad-ass secret agent. She's jittery at the mere sight of Galvez, is terrified to talk to Saul or see Estes, and even struggles to remember numbers the way she used to. She's able to get it together enough to evade and then take out a single pursuer (leading to the smile that gives the episode its name), but that's practically muscle memory. Carrie was damaged when the series started, and she's even more damaged now.

Great as Danes continues to be, the star of this one for me was Lewis. About six months have passed since Brody elected not to blow himself up real good, and he still seems to want to avoid having to pick a side until absolutely forced to. But he breaks into Estes' safe for Nazir, and — in the hour's best scene — he freaks the hell out when Jess throws his Koran to the ground. (What's great is how quickly Jess recognizes that he cares more about that book than he does about her or her concerns; this is the most passion she's seen out of her husband since he came back from the dead.) He may want to fight the idea that his loyalty is more with his captors than with his country at this point, but his instincts don't lie.

"The Smile" has to lay a lot of groundwork for the new season, including establishing the (timely but fictional) tensions between Israel and Iran, having Walden float the idea of Brody as his running mate(*) and putting the Brody family into a much higher social circle (including the private school where Dana causes trouble at Quaker Meeting). And it does all that ably. But these two scarred human beings are the heart of the show, and "The Smile" was first and foremost about seeing how they're doing after all they went through a season ago. And on that level, it was terrific.

(*) When I posted the first 20 minutes of the premiere a few weeks ago, there was some debate over whether someone with Brody's qualifications (not only his limited time in politics, but presumed lack of higher education) would make him a viable candidate. But we don't even yet know if Walden is seriously considering him, or just using Brody as a prop in the early stages of his campaign.

Finally, I interviewed Gansa and Gordon a few weeks ago — including discussion of jobs they considered putting Carrie in before landing on her as an ESL teacher to Middle Eastern immigrants — and withheld this one exchange because I didn't want to give away that Carrie is already helping out the CIA by the end of the premiere. Here we go:

Did you discuss the idea of keeping her on the sidelines for a while longer, or did you always know you wanted her back right away?

Alex Gansa:    On of the strategies last year, which worked and which we're going to emulate again this year, is having things happen before people expect them to happen.  We wanted to find the most plausible way to get her back into the intelligence community. We really took a chapter from John le Carré.  Smiley was out of the circus and a former agent of his appeared on the scene and said, "I only want to talk to George Smiley." It felt like a really good way to bring Carrie back.  She was a case officer.  She was a case officer overseas.  What if one of her old assets came back and said she'd only talk to Carrie? 

Howard Gordon:    But we're also pretty specific about this — she's not back-back. We do play that out, so it's a two-tier process.

Alex Gansa:    Yeah, she's not welcome back with open arms.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com