Our introduction to Homeland's C.I.A. officer protagonist Carrie Mathison was raw, almost punk: less than five minutes into the show's series premiere, we saw her wipe her crotch while scrambling to prepare for a meeting. With that moment, Homeland presented a portrait of Carrie's womanhood and sexuality that was nearly as unapologetic as the character itself.

Later in that same episode, we learned that Carrie (Claire Danes) had had an affair with her then-future boss (the C.I.A.'s Director of Counterterrorism David Estes, portrayed by David Harewood), that she enjoys casual sex so much she wears a wedding ring to weed out guys looking for relationships when she's on the prowl, and that she will attempt to seduce even her father-figure mentor Saul Berenson ("Mandy Patinkin, holla") when her back is against the wall.

"Jack Bauer is an action hero. And that is not Carrie Mathison," Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa recently told the New York Times Magazine. "Her intelligence work, her defense of the country, is from the neck up." Gansa was contrasting Homeland's principal character with the hero of 24, the other show he wrote for with Howard Gordon. Danes' character is indeed as brilliant as Danes' Emmy-winning performance, but it is what she does with the rest of her body that makes Carrie so complicated - and it is her complications that make Homeland among the best of TV's New Golden Age. Carrie's depth makes for a character study in a spy thriller that didn't necessarily need to be a character study, but is nobler and richer for it.

Carrie may not behave like an action hero, but she has the recklessness of one. In her own way, she's doing extreme, unlikely things with her body. Were she resting on her sexuality and advancing solely through manipulation or just fucking for status, her character might be despicable, but the intricate plotting of Homeland has her behavior yield serendipity that her brilliant mind then decodes. While cruising at a swank restaurant, she watches a band play and is reminded of the odd pattern she watched former POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) make with his fingers. From there, she is able to convince Saul that something's up with Brody, whom she suspects has turned terrorist, thus salvaging her job after almost being fired for bugging Brody's house without a warrant.

We repeatedly see Carrie knotting up her life and then untangling it, flirting with ruin and then scoring success (even if she is unaware of its extent). Later in the first season, she drunkenly bungles Brody's imminent polygraph by letting him know he'd be asked about his involvement in the suicide of a former guard. He passes that question, but he also passes the one about cheating on his wife, which lets Carrie know how calculated he really is: she'd sex with him in a car the night before. With this, she's uncovered more about his character than she would have had she not almost sidelined the polygraph test with her reveal. A drunken stagger becomes a step forward.

Complicating the complications is Carrie's struggle with bipolar disorder, which she keeps from her job until a hospitalization separates her from her illegally-obtained meds long enough to make it impossible. The first season saw Carrie on a slow crawl to crazed; in season two, which premiered last night, she's on hair-trigger springs, leaping at a moment's notice. Danes telegraphs her fragility with precision. Having been fired from the C.I.A., having undergone electroconvulsive therapy, having no clue that she was right about Brody and that she saved the U.S. from another terrorist attack, there is a disconnect between Carrie and reality, and she's on edge constantly. When Estes requests her presence after a contact she'd made is ready to talk (but only to Carrie), she turns anxious about deviating from her schedule and rejoining forces with the C.I.A.: "I'm making vegetable lasagna with vegetables I picked from the garden this morning," she explains, as if she's describing a truck loaded with explosives that's headed straight toward her.

The season two premiere of Homeland establishes Carrie's new place in the world. She's teaching English, away from the C.I.A., attempting domestic normalcy. It feels not so much like a continuation but a sequel, a deliberate restart after what could have been a finite story. The shading of the characters is elevated, as it should be if this story is going to progress while remaining elevated above its ostensible action genre. Carrie's contrast to Brody has never been clearer – her career is in the gutter, his is ascending rapidly. He's a congressman who's being tapped as the next vice presidential candidate. When he's vetted for the slot, he comes up flawless, whereas Carrie's deep flaws are evident or would require minimal excavation. Having been seemingly proven wrong about Brody's allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and struggling with the memory loss resulting from her ECT, Carrie can't even trust herself. With that, she's lost her only remaining ally.

Homeland, though, remains thrilling without the damper of bleakness. As always, the show promotes the hope that good will prevail, that tangles will eventually straighten themselves out. Led by Carrie's nose, Homeland is about hunches and the power of luck in addition to intelligence and skill. Now more than ever, the show is suggesting that a winning hand is impossible without wild cards.

[Photo: Ronen Akerman/SHOWTIME]