Alex Gansa walks us through Homeland’s first season (Part 1 of 4)

Alex Gansa walks us through Homeland’s first season (Part 1 of 4)

Showtime’s Homeland came out of nowhere to have one of the best first seasons for a TV series in recent memory. The twisty thriller looked at first blush like a typical season of 24, centered as it was on a CIA agent who suspected a U.S. Marine who’d been held in captivity by terrorists for eight years had been turned and was actively working against the United States. But the story earned its many plot twists by keeping an almost ruthless focus on character, from tortured CIA agent Carrie Mathison to conflicted P.O.W. returned home Nicholas Brody, from Carrie’s soft-spoken mentor Saul Berenson to Brody’s earthy, sensual wife, Jessica, who strayed while he was gone. The series hails from two 24 producers—Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa—who previously worked together as a writing team, in particular on the first two seasons of The X-Files. Gansa recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about the course of the series’ first 12 episodes. 

This section covers episodes one through three, beginning with the pilot and concluding with “Clean Skin.”

Pilot(Oct. 2, 2011)
Troubled CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) reacts with horror when Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is rescued in Afghanistan, because one of her Middle East sources told her that a U.S. Marine had been turned in captivity.

The A.V. Club: Here’s the obvious question: How much of what was going to happen going forward did you know when you did the pilot?

Alex Gansa: Well, when we first started writing the pilot, and actually read the Israeli series [Prisoners Of War, the rough template for Homeland —ed.], we had no idea where we were going to go. You know how these things work when you’re trying to sell a series: You’re completely and utterly focused on trying to produce 60-odd pages of work that is going to set up characters, tell a great story, and convince people that you actually have a series idea here, so that was our primary focus. Once we could finish the pilot and got some good response on it, that’s when we began to sit down and really start discussing where a first or second season might go.

AVC: What had you decided at this point, especially about Brody’s true allegiances? 

AG: Well there was a lot of argument at the beginning between Howard and me, frankly, about—first of all, whether you could be ambiguous about Brody’s allegiance at all, whether you had to know from the very beginning whether he had been turned in captivity or not. We had a lot of discussion about, if you decided not to reveal his allegiance at that point and keep the question open, how long can you sustain that over a series? So that kind of became the real big point of argument between us at the beginning of the show. As we discussed and talked our way through that, it became clear that at a certain point—midway, three-quarters of the way, a quarter of the way—through the season, we would have to come down one way or another. That’s how we made the compromise. My feeling was that you could keep the ambiguity going for a lot longer. Howard, schooled in 24 and in a very black-and-white universe, felt that we had to reveal in the pilot that he had been turned in captivity. And so, the compromise really came that we were going to keep it going as long as we felt it was feasible dramatically, and then reveal in a series of turns and twists where he stood exactly.

AVC: You also keep quite a few secrets about Carrie. She’s much more clear to us than Brody, but at the same time, we don’t entirely know the nature of her mental illness. How did you decide what to keep mysterious about her?

AG: She was a work in progress as well. When the series was originally conceived, although we always wanted to take it to paid cable, we had some masters to serve first. So we did write the thing on spec. [In television terms, a pilot written on spec is a script written without a guaranteed sale. —ed.] It was always done on spec for 20th Century Fox television. So, we had to shop it around to the networks first, and especially we had to shop it around to Fox first. 

We knew that if we did it for a network, there was no way we’d be able to have two ambiguous protagonists. There’s no way we’d be able to have an unreliable Carrie Mathison, and there’s very little chance that we would have been able to have a gray Nick Brody. So, in the first incarnation of this, Carrie was more or less a straight-ahead intelligence officer. It was only when Fox decided that a serialized show was not what they wanted to do, and we were able to take it to Showtime, that’s when we started to get a lot more interesting with the characters. Carrie’s mental instability, her condition, her illness, however you want to put it, that’s when we really started to discuss and explore that part of her character. We did always know that at some point in the season she was going to suffer a manic breakdown. It’s funny because every episode, we said it. After the pilot, we said, “You know, she should have her manic breakdown in episode two,” but after episode two we said “episode three.” [Laughs.] And we kept putting it off and putting it off because it didn’t feel right. Of course, the more we backed it into the last couple of episodes, the more charged it became. 

AVC: What were the primary takeaways from the Israeli series? 

AG: [Prisoners Of War] is different tonally. It’s different in terms of the characters, it’s different in terms of the thriller aspect and the psychological-thriller aspect. But we share some similarities. I mean obviously, the returned POWs, the sort of seminal family dynamics. In the Israeli series, two prisoners of war come back, and one is left behind. In ours, obviously only one prisoner of war comes back because we had to make room for a Carrie Mathison character who doesn’t really exist in the Israeli show. The Israeli show is much more of a family drama about the reintegration of the Israeli soldiers back into their lives. There is some question about whether or not they gave up information, but it’s information that was given up 17 years ago, so it doesn’t have the currency and immediacy of a man who comes back who may actually be plotting something against the country of his origin. So, clearly, we owe a lot to the Israeli series, but we really took it in a different direction.

AVC: You and Howard Gordon both worked on 24, which was very restrictive in its structure in a lot of ways. What did you find most freeing about breaking away from that model?

AG: The obvious things. What I mentioned earlier in terms of the reliability of the protagonist, in terms of the guilt or innocence of her quarry—we were able to really let episodes breathe and have a rhythm all their own. We weren’t building to artificial act breaks. We could do nudity and language. All that stuff was incredibly liberating. 

With regard to 24 specifically… Look, Howard worked on 24 from the very beginning, and he was very schooled in how to tell a good, cracking thriller and I knew nothing about that when I came on to 24 [in the show’s seventh season]. I learned a lot on that show just in terms of straight plotting, but we were very, very adamant at the beginning of Homeland that Carrie wasn’t going to pick up a gun, and that we were going to tell a much slower-paced psychological story, rather than an action story. That was a big difference. Actually, if you talk to Howard, he’ll tell you. I mean, he really had to be weaned off the formula, and it led to a lot of arguments and disagreements at the beginning about how much of the thriller aspect we had to put into the show.

AVC: What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of cable versus network? 

AG: Well, I’ve developed a couple of shows for HBO but none for Showtime, so I’ve had limited experience developing for paid cable, or for cable in general. But it’s hard to think of a positive on the broadcast network side. It is so restrictive, and the various networks have such preconceived ideas about what their kinds of shows are, so you’re constantly feeling like you’re snuggling and squeezing into their box. It does close off your mind a little bit. 

Whereas in paid cable, you’re really allowed to spread your wings. They encourage you to push the envelope; they encourage you to think outside of the box. Obviously, as a writer, that’s just the most liberating, great thing. Now, it can lead to complete disaster, I feel. [Laughs.] It’s like they say. In some ways, writing free verse is the hardest thing to do. Writing a sonnet is easy, because it’s got to be iambic pentameter, it’s got to be 16 lines, it’s got to have this rhyming scheme. So, there’s a sense that it’s almost easier to do the network thing, but it’s much more rewarding to do the paid-cable thing if you hit it, if you nail it.

AVC: In the pilot, Saul’s the one guy we’ve seen a lot of times before: the grizzled mentor who helps out the hero. How did you set about making him his own guy?

AG: Saul’s character is a direct descendent of a couple John le Carré characters: George Smiley [of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy] and Gunther Bachmann, if you’ve read A Most Wanted Man. He is very much in the Cold War-era mode: an old-school CIA operative who trained and learned his craft overseas, and married his wife overseas. So, he became our father figure. He became the paternal, grounding moral center of the intelligence universe for us. 

Mandy [Patinkin] was always our first choice. I was in college, and I had a girlfriend who was a huge musical theater fan, and she always wanted me to come into New York to go see some show. And I was always, like, “I’m not going to go see any musical theater; I’m not a musical theater guy.” And finally, she said, “Look, I’m breaking up with you if you don’t come to this show.” So I got on the train, and I met her in New York, and we went to go see Mandy and Bernadette Peters in Sunday In The Park With George. It’s all about making art: “Finishing the Hat,” “Move On,” all these songs. And I remember at the end of the first act, I had tears streaming down my face. I was just so moved by the performance, and I turned to this girl who I was with and said, “That is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” and she looked at me and said, “Yeah, that was okay.” [Laughs.]  

Anyway, ever since then, Mandy has been on my mind, and I’ve always wanted to work with him. He had such a profound effect on my life at that point. Interestingly enough, he also wore a beard in that show, in Sunday In The Park With George. So, the first thing we did after he read the pilot, I said, “Man, you gotta do me one favor: You gotta grow the beard back.” So he grew the beard back, and I think in a way it makes him more approachable and more appealing, and certainly in this role I think it really helped. There’s something about the beard that softens him. 

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AVC: Did you write a lot of these parts with actors in mind? In another interview you said you wrote Carrie vaguely with Claire Danes in mind.

AG: Oh, not vaguely at all. These things are all serendipity. Obviously, having been huge fans of Claire since My So-Called Life. It’s interesting, because Chip Johannessen, one of the writers on the show, was working on [Beverly Hills,] 90210 when My So-Called Life was on, and apparently the staff of 90210 would watch My So-Called Life and say, “Now, that’s how we should have done the story.” We were all huge Claire Danes fans forever, but certainly, mostly because of that show. Then, as we were developing this, Temple Grandin aired on HBO, and she came back on our radar. We started calling the character Claire from the get-go, thinking there’s no chance in hell we’re going to get her. Will she come to television? Probably not, she’s got a feature career. So the casting of that role and the Saul role were our wish list: Mandy and Claire, and we were lucky to get both of them.

AVC: How about Damian Lewis and Morena Baccarin? 

AG: I’ve seen Damian on the West End in a couple of plays, some Noël Coward plays, and I knew of him also from Band Of Brothers and I knew of him from that short-lived show on NBC, Life. Once you have a failed series on the air, like Life, it was hard to get Damian approved. There were some ultimatums that were laid down whether or not we could cast him. Somebody said at some point, “Over my dead body, Damian Lewis.” We found this little independent movie by Lodge Kerrigan called Keane. I remember it was like 6:30 or 7:00 one night in my office, and I had just heard this “Over my dead body” comment. So I was about ready to move on. We were just not going to push for Damian. I was on Netflix, and I said, “People have been mentioning this move Keane over and over to me. I’m going to see if I can instantly stream it.” So, luckily, it was stream-able. I watched the first 45 minutes of the film. Damian just holds the frame pretty much himself for the first 45 minutes of the film. He is so compelling to watch and so ambiguous in his performance. He plays, I guess, a paranoid-schizophrenic father who lost his daughter. Now, it’s 10 years later and he’s still laying around, and it’s really just an amazingly powerful performance.

So I called the network and the studio and said, “You know, you guys have to watch this.” To their credit, they watched the film, and the next morning, we were making an offer to Damian Lewis. Now that role, in a way, is the toughest role in the show. Claire’s role is obviously difficult too, but Damian, certainly through the course of the first number of episodes, has to play this strange combination of a Norman Rockwell-like soldier returning from war, but at the same time somebody that is hiding something and that may either be suffering from this PTSD thing or damaged somehow by his captivity, or, you know, with a big secret. That was really hard. It was very difficult to find somebody that we were confidant could play that complexity.

Grace(Oct. 9, 2011)
Carrie’s surveillance of Brody steps up, but she’s stymied by her team’s failure to get a camera in the garage—where Brody spends a surprising amount of time.

AVC: One of the big things that was fraught around 24 or any thriller in the last 10 years is this question of how to deal with Muslim terrorists. With Brody being Muslim, how did you guys feel your way around that?

AG: These were issues that we had dealt with on 24, as you might imagine. I can’t remember whether it was the seventh or eighth season of 24, but there was a character, an imam. I think it was one of two brothers, and they were Muslim immigrants in this country, and Jack Bauer was convinced that one of them was a terrorist. It turned out that he was wrong and that they were both actually completely innocent. I remember calls coming in from people saying, “That is so dangerous—to portray an innocent Muslim on television. That’s a dangerous message to be sending out to the world.” Now on the flipside of it there were people who were like, “Of course, you know, it’s crazy [to think all Muslims are terrorists].” Howard has had much interface with the Muslim community in the United States, and particularly with Muslim actors, so we were very sensitive to all these questions. 

That said, we were dealing with a suspected terrorist, and we were about to reveal the fact that he had been converted in captivity. We did the obvious things. We did a lot of research about the religion. We did a lot of research about what a POW who had suffered extreme isolation and torture might need to reach out to in that circumstance to keep himself sane. And we played on people’s fears. We wanted to challenge people’s assumption that if he had indeed been converted to Islam, did that necessarily make him a terrorist? That was the primary question in that episode that we were building to. You see a man who is struggling with the reintegration back into his life. There are clues that are dropped that indeed he may have been turned in captivity, and when we reveal at the end that he had been converted to Islam, what does the confluence of all those narrative strands mean? How can we test an audience to really question their own preconceptions about this? So that was sort of the thematic course of that episode. That’s what we were building to. That’s the question we were trying to pose.

AVC: These episodes deal with Carrie’s surveillance of Brody. At the time, a lot of people worried you guys were endorsing the surveillance state. How did you deal with depicting that without necessarily coming out and saying, “This is just great?”

AG: You never know how people are going to respond to these things. We thought that we laid the pipe in the pilot and in the episode of “Grace.” The huge complexity of Carrie’s decision to put cameras and microphones in this guy’s house and that it was really an invasion of his civil liberties and that it was morally questionable—I don’t know how anybody can come away from those episodes thinking that we were endorsing that—which is not to say that we weren’t endorsing it! We were saying, “Look, here’s a woman with a strong suspicion. She’s a little nuts; she went to an extreme measure to prove her point; she went against her mentor; she’s breaking the law; she’s risking federal prison.” All these things—we felt we were very rigorous about showing that she wasn’t doing it just for the hell of it. She understood what she was doing. She understood that there was a moral question about it. We were not endorsing it in any way, shape, or form. We had seen movies like The Conversation and The Lives Of Others, which were huge influences on Homeland. There’s something incredibly powerful about one human being listening in and watching the private life of another. 

AVC: One other thing you do that’s really interesting with the surveillance is build this chemistry between two people who never meet. How did you deal with building that central relationship when you couldn’t have the two actors on screen together?

AG: Your previous question answers that. Before we were able to intersect their lives, we did that by Carrie’s watching. We’re jumping ahead a couple of episodes, but in the break between the third and fourth episodes, we did a time jump. There was this sense that Carrie had been watching Brody and had started really to get to know him quite well, to know where he kept his tie, where he kept his clothes, what his habits were. It was by using her surveillance of him that from her side, it became more a personal thing than a professional thing, and that line was blurring, too. That’s how we solved the problem that intersecting their lives was going to feel forced too soon. Honestly, it’s one of the things we’re most proud of—that we were able, over the course of the entire season, to create a bond between two people who really didn’t spend that much time together.

AVC: You also introduce the character of Lynne Reed, who is a window into the world of the terrorist Abu Nazir. How did you build his plot when he was never onscreen? 

AG: At some level, one of the things we tried to do during the episodes was in large part a response to the idea that we were telling a thriller. We had to make sure that we paid homage to the genre. That required us, usually toward the end of episodes, to reveal something or to make it clear that there actually was a viable and real plot against America that was going on and that Nazir was behind this, so that even though Carrie may be wrong about Brody, there was something really going on. That was important to push the story forward episode after episode after episode. I think that’s what built the anxiety in the audience that, whether it was Brody or not, something was going on. 

The first character that made this clear to the audience was Lynne Reed. The actress who played the part [Brianna Brown], I thought did a fantastic job, again in a very abbreviated amount of time. She was able to really make you care about her and was ultimately a patriot in a way. Though what she was doing with the Saudi prince you can look at again and disagree with her moral choice. It was the first validation of Carrie’s thesis, and so she became a very, very central figure in the story and as it relates to Abu Nazir.

AVC: At this point, you were plotting out the whole season, instead of just the pilot. How much did you know about Brody’s motivations at this point? Did you know he was a terrorist?

AG: Yes, we did. We knew that Brody had been turned. 

When we first finished the pilot, it was a very binary question. Has he or hasn’t he been turned? As we moved through the season, we realized that, well actually, that’s not the most interesting question. Once we answer that question, the far more interesting question is, will he go through with it? So if you look at the season that way, you can really break it down into two parts. The first one is really asking that first binary question, and the second one is asking what we thought was a more interesting question which was, when he’s integrated back into his family, when he’s back in America, will he go through with what he’s agreed to go through? However, we didn’t know what he was going to do exactly. We knew he’d had this relationship with Issa. That was a part of our original conception of the character. We knew he’d established this bond. We knew Issa was dead. We knew the drone program was going to be the target of his attack, but we didn’t know how it was going to happen. At one point we thought, well, maybe he gets into the drone center and has some homing device and is able to send some guided missile into the drone center. We talked for a while about the drone pilot who actually pushed the button. We didn’t really know how he was going to perpetrate his attack, and it wasn’t until midway through the season that we settled on the suicide vest, which I’m sure we’ll talk about later. 

Clean Skin(Oct. 16, 2011)

The Brody family prepares to go on national television, as Carrie searches desperately for proof that she’s right.

AG: We were very much at this stage of the season in the writer’s room all just getting to know each other. There were a couple of writers, Moira Walley-Beckett, who writes on Breaking Bad, and Rolin Jones, who worked on Friday Night Lights, who were still a part of the staff at that time. They were really part of these first two episodes, and they were writers who were much more interested in the family dynamics of the Brody family than, for example, Howard, who was much more suspicious of whether or not an audience would be at all interested in the fact that, for example, Dana and Jessica had not been connecting in their lives and Brody being re-insinuated into the family was going to affect the dynamic of that relationship. There was a lot of concern about whether anyone would give a shit about that. Chip [Johannessen], who wrote the episode, and Moira, and Alexander [Cary], and Rolin, and frankly me, as well, we were all convinced that that was going to be an interesting part of the show. But, we didn’t know. We had no idea. 

So we sat down and we started to plant the seeds of what happened in the finale, and that is that, of all the people in Brody’s immediate family, it was Dana with whom he was able to reconnect immediately. So what we tried to do in the episode was to show that re-acquaintance between father and daughter and how that would threaten the mom. That was really the thrust of the family story in that episode. I think we were successful largely because it led to something perverse and profound, and that is the masturbation scene between Brody and Jessica. In other words, Jessica, who is unable to connect with him sexually after the pilot, sees this relationship happening between father and daughter, between her daughter and her husband, and in an attempt to connect with Brody himself, reaches out to him sexually, and it turns into a humiliating experience. So we were planting the seeds of this family that was just trying to get to know each other again. That was the impetus for the episode. We tried to spend as much time on that story as we could as kind of a test case as to whether anybody would be interested in exploring these kind of ideas in the context of Brody’s return.

AVC: Even the most lenient networks get a little nervous about this sort of family drama. Did you have any pushback on that level?

AG: We had no pushback. I have to say that there was only one big area of pushback that the network had all season long. Honestly, everybody in that room, Chip, Meredith [Stiehm], Alex, and Henry [Bromell], these are all just the best writers I’ve ever worked with. The scripts, for the most part were so beautifully wrought and written. First-year president at Showtime, first-year president at Fox 21 [the show’s production studio]—if you think that was easy, then you know, there was a lot of second-guessing and a lot of, “Is this going to work? Are we doing the right thing?  Should this be a psychological thriller? Is anybody going to care about the family?” All these questions were swirling around, so there was a lot of anxiety, but when the scripts were delivered, they were at such a high level that everybody thought it was worth a shot. I guess the answer is, at the story stage, yes, but once the scripts started coming in, we realized that we were firing on all cylinders.

AVC: The relationship between Jessica and Mike is vital to the season, but it’s a relationship that the viewer never really gets to see the bulk of it. How did you go about building that relationship?

AG: The germ of the relationship, the germ of the idea of the relationship came from the Israeli series, in which one of the prisoners of war comes back and finds that his wife has married his brother. So that was the starting point for the Mike and Jessica relationship, although we made it Brody’s best friend rather than his brother, because it just felt way too incestuous, and it felt too important in a way. It would have been too much of a betrayal on Mike’s part if he had been Brody’s brother, so we made it a friend. 

Ultimately, it grew out of those scenes in the pilot where our goal was to create a situation where nobody was to blame. In other words, for all intents and purposes, Jessica thought Brody was dead. She waited a long time. She and Mike both loved Brody in their own ways, and it was just natural that they would come together. So we chose to make the Mike and Jessica relationship an impediment to Brody’s reintegrating back into the family. Initially, in the first draft of the finale, it was actually Mike who appeared at the house when Dana and Carrie were having their confrontation about whether or not Dana was going to call the dad in the bunker. It was actually Mike who showed up, and it turned physical between Mike and Carrie. It became more emotionally true to have Jessica show up instead, but Mike was originally meant to come back in the finale, and he got written out. 

AVC: The character of Virgil is almost a comic-relief character. There’s a lot of dark and brooding drama in the show. How did you come to the decision to have this very funny guy hanging around the edges?

AG: In some ways, it was another reaction to 24, which was so relentlessly un-ironic and so earnest all of the time. We felt that it would be great to get somebody who humanized Carrie at some level and made her laugh—someone with whom she was easier, someone outside of the intelligence community, someone who wasn’t a family member, someone with whom she connected in a way that wasn’t sexual. All those things we felt were important because—look, we were all concerned that Carrie was going to be just relentlessly unlikable. So we wanted to populate her life with people who loved her. Virgil was one of those people, and we wanted to differentiate him from her sister, her father, Saul, and Estes, and make it someone with whom she was extremely comfortable, who was a bit of a character himself. That was the genesis. As often happens in these things, it’s the first scene with characters that are really important, and if you remember in the pilot, the first scene is with Virgil. Carrie comes into the Brody house, and Virgil is there with his nutty brother, and so we were able to establish a little bit of offbeat comedy. The last series I created that was on the air, that I was credited with creating, was Maximum Bob, which was full of these whacked-out characters, and so we tried to get a little bit of that in here as well.

AVC: The terrorist plot, looking at the season as a whole, moves in pods. You have the Lynne Reed episodes, and then you have the Aileen and Faisel episodes, and then you have the “what’s Brody going to do” episodes. How did you come to that way of structuring the story, and how did you decide to kill off Lynne Reed so quickly?

AG: Frankly, that was story-room stuff. I have a couple of things about the season that I’m not particularly happy with. One of those things is, we would create a character and kill ’em; we’d create another character and kill that person; we’d create another character, and you know. [Laughs.] It was Faisel, and it was Lynn Reed. It was the Saudi diplomat; it was Tom Walker. I think we got into a little bit of a repetitive narrative strategy in that. 

Interestingly enough, by doing it as you said, in these pods, it sort of let the story breathe in a way that the Brody-Carrie stuff was not breathing, because that was so intense that we were able to introduce these other characters. For example, I would not say that the Aileen/Faisel relationship, as portrayed in script and on camera, was entirely successful. I didn’t really feel that I understood that relationship in a way that I wish we had. However, where it got to with Saul and Aileen in the car on that cross-country interrogation was worth the fact that we didn’t nail the previous relationship as well as we might have.

Look for part two, covering episode four, “Semper I,” through episode six, “The Good Soldier,” tomorrow.

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