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

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

Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the show’s first season, episode by episode. This section of the interview covers episodes 10 through 12, beginning with “Representative Brody” and concluding with “Marine One.” Don’t miss part one, part two, and part three.

Representative Brody(Dec. 4, 2011)
Brody decides to run for the House of Representatives. Carrie and Saul attempt to flip the Saudi diplomat to provide intelligence on Abu Nazir’s plot.

The A.V. Club: How did you build the story of them trying to turn the diplomat?

Alex Gansa: Here’s another example of a scene that everybody’s seen a thousand times, and the question was, “What spin do you put on it? How do you make it different? How do you make it interesting?” The way we chose to make this interesting was, the very thing Saul and Carrie think that they have over this guy, and that’s going to be the trump card, doesn’t work. That’s what turned the scene on its head all of a sudden. To me, that’s the best moment in the scene, is when the diplomat says that great Henry Bromell line [“Yes, I like sucking cock… Yummy, yummy, yummy.”], which I’ll never forget, and gets up and walks out of the room. And Saul, who has been completely quiet at that point, worries that Carrie has failed and starts to talk to the diplomat himself, and Carrie shuts him down and calls the diplomat out and turns the tables on the diplomat.

If you have more than one thing going on, a scene is always better, so what’s going on in this scene is that Saul has turned over the interrogation to Carrie and trusted her to do it. Carrie fails. Saul tries to now be the big guy, to step in and take charge of the situation, but Carrie’s not done yet. So the dynamics between Carrie and Saul are just as important as the dynamics between Carrie and the diplomat, and that’s what adds the richness and the complexity to the scene, and makes it feel different and unexpected. And always, whenever you’re writing a scene, whenever you can do something that comes purely from character but that is unexpected, that’s the gold. That’s when you’ve mined something that’s really worthwhile. We set it up, of course, with Carrie and Virgil earlier in that whole scene in which they’re prepping for the interrogation, in which Carrie learns everything she can about the diplomat, so she has something up her sleeve here to pull out and to save the day at the end.

AVC: Carrie pretty openly threatens the diplomat’s daughter here. How much did you want to play around with the idea that she is willing to push some slightly unethical buttons to get what she wants?

AG: Again, to me, speaking from just my own political perspective, there’s nothing unethical about what she does in this scene. And her putting the screws down on this guy, first of all, calling him on the carpet for his homosexuality, it’s gonna exert pressure on him, in terms of his culture, and that’s legitimate. In fact, that’s what these intelligence officers are trained to do: What is a human being’s weakness, and how can we prey on that to get what we want? So that’s where she first applies the pressure. That doesn’t work. Now, she’s got to go to something closer to home, and that’s the relationship this man has with his daughter. 

She’s going to use everything she can short of putting the guy on the rack, or attaching electric currents to his testicles, or whatever we did in the past. She’s going to exert whatever pressure she can on this guy, and that’s what she chooses. Whether they would actually go through with it… I imagine they would. I imagine they would have the power to deport this guy. She’s gonna bring whatever advantage she has over this guy to bear in this scene, and that’s what she chooses to do to get what she wants. 

AVC: You don’t use torture at all on the show, but it was used often on 24. What do you lose not having that as a storytelling go-to, and what do you gain? 

AG: First of all, there was a little bit of coercion that went on in the Hamid thing, with the heavy metal and the changes in temperature, which, I understand they’re not doing that anymore. And the sleep deprivation, they’re not doing that anymore, either. So we may have crossed a line there on some level. 

But I think ultimately, what you lose is—look, those torture scenes are the equivalent of pornography. They were on 24, anyway, these scenes where [Jack] Bauer cuts off somebody’s head or finger or whatever. They were the violent pornography of that show, and we were really trying not to be exploitative in that way on this series. And so we had to do things like figure out a more clever way for Carrie to break the diplomat than strapping him to a chair. And I think you lose the immediate visual horror of what torture means, but you gain something a lot more interesting, which is you see how very smart people are able to manipulate others. 

AVC: This episode ends with the bomb going off at the fountain. This show takes place in a world where the general public has just learned that one Marine has been turned, and a bomb has gone off in downtown Washington D.C. How do you play what the people of this world who aren’t in the show are feeling in terms of paranoia, without spending too much time on it?

AG: It’s kind of interesting, because in action-thrillers, it’s all about the explosion itself. And in psychological thrillers, like Homeland hopefully was, it’s all about the anticipation and the tension and the anxiety of what happens before the bomb goes off. So truthfully, we weren’t thinking too much about how the event or the bomb going off would impact the community of Washington D.C. And maybe that was a flaw on our parts, because we kind of glossed over it afterward. It’s just Jessica watching a newscast after it. And I imagine that if a bomb did go off in Farragut Square in Washington D.C., it would be a much bigger deal than we made it out to be in our portrayal of it. But we as storytellers were much more concerned about building the anxiety and tension of the moment rather than what happened in the aftermath. Look what happened to Washington D.C., when the sniper was out there killing people. The whole community just caved in on itself. 

AVC: As the title reflects, this is an episode that hinges a lot on Brody’s run for Congress. With Manchurian Candidate, that’s something people are aware of. How do you play in that arena without inviting direct comparison? 

AG: First of all, I always thought this episode should be called, “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.” [Laughs.] And not “Representative Brody.” But it was ultimately called “Representative Brody.” 

Look, that’s where the show is going next year. Brody pitched to Nazir this idea that he’s going to be able to influence policy in a much more profound way as a Congressman, as a candidate, and we’re just going to have to deal with the fact that that’s going to be more of Brody’s trajectory. We’re never going to be able to top Brody with a suicide vest in a bunker. And I think to go that route again, to have Brody plan another violent attack against America, is just going to feel repetitive. So we’ve got to give him a new mission, and this is his new mission. 

AVC: Why would it only occur to Abu Nazir to try and do this after Brody pitches it to him in the finale? Why wouldn’t he already be moving Brody toward this in this episode? 

AG: Again, I think it speaks to what Carrie tells Saul, which is, ultimately, that’s not Nazir’s M.O. Nazir’s about explosions and big publicity moves and explosions in markets and suicide bombers and taking out a lot of lives. That’s how he’s prosecuted his war against America, and probably in Iraq, and maybe Israel. So that’s how he’s learned to prosecute the war against his enemies, and not so much in this long game. Not so much the Manchurian Candidate model. 

The Vest(Dec. 11, 2011)
Carrie suffers a breakdown in the wake of the Farragut Square explosion, and Brody takes his family on a trip to Gettysburg, a trip that results in him procuring a suicide bomb.

AG: We were looking for the most dramatic, the most personal, and the most effective way for Brody to carry out his mission. All the various possibilities: We talked about it being at one of these party conventions; we talked about some sort of Walker-Brody sniper team. Could they take out the vice president just by doing what they did in the field in Iraq? Ultimately, all those things felt kind of soulless, in a way. And the idea that Brody was so committed that he would actually kill himself in the process of this just became more and more compelling to us. 

There was a movie called Paradise Now. It’s a really wonderful film about two Palestinians who are recruited to carry out a suicide attack against Israel. The whole movie is about the buildup to the event and the martyrs’ video that they make, and the actual physicality of the bomb, and the proximity of all these explosives against your bare skin, and just the terror of it all, and the brainwashing of it all. Even though it was extreme, and even though there were some big questions in the staff about whether a Marine would actually do this and employ this technique, there were just so many things that vouched in its favor. The most important one, of course, being that the thing could malfunction. So it just put it at such a personal level, and it meant that Brody was gonna have to say goodbye to his family, which was the entire impetus of this episode, that Brody was gonna take his family on this last trip together, and in a way, explain himself, and in a way, say goodbye to each member of his family. 

AVC: Were there ever any concerns about how far you can humanize someone who is essentially an enemy of the United States? 

AG: That was our goal from the very beginning. If we could make people understand why Brody was doing this, and if we could make people like him, in spite of it. It’s remarkable how many people voice their dismay that he actually didn’t go through with it. At some level, they must have felt he was justified. I don’t think anybody wanted to see Brody die for the sake of Brody dying, because they disliked him, or weren’t intrigued by him, or didn’t want to see what happened to him next. I think that they ultimately found themselves, in a crazy way, rooting for him. It was complicated, because you were also rooting for Carrie. But this episode, “The Vest,” really tried to seal the deal, really tried to show not only the growing certainty that he was actually going to go through with this, but also to really make sure, and to portray and dramatize, that Brody wanted to make sure that his family was going to be okay in the aftermath of it. 

AVC: You mentioned that you kept pushing back Carrie’s mental breakdown. When did you finally decide, “We’re going to make it this episode, the next to last”? 

AG: Well, it was the last one. We had no choice. [Laughs.] It was this one or nothing. The reason is that the closer to the end we could incapacitate Carrie, the better. Because the more we became certain that Brody was going to go through with what he had planned to do, the better it was to have Carrie sidelined. And what better way to sideline her than to have her have this manic breakdown, and then to have her excommunicated from the CIA, so she would be no longer be able to actually stop him? So that was the impetus for the two stories. 

AVC: How much did you look into manic depression? 

AG: Oh, we did lots of research. And Claire [Danes], as she did for Temple Grandin and explored [autism], she did the same thing for bipolar [disorder] on this. She really, really did her homework on what it’s like to have a manic episode. Meredith [Stiehm], who wrote most of her stuff in this episode, also has a sister who’s bipolar, and who has experienced these manic episodes. There was a lot of verisimilitude in this. 

AVC: Especially in an episode like this, you’re really tossing a lot on the actor. How does it help to have actors who you know are going to be able to handle that sort of thing?

AG: It’s invaluable. In the hands of a lesser actor, the thing wouldn’t have worked. 

I actually think all through the course of the season, on a number of fronts. Certainly, obviously with Damian [Lewis] and Claire, they had such tricky things to pull off, and they did with such virtuosity. It’s remarkable. Claire’s performance in this episode, from the minute she steps onscreen, is so nuanced and so heartbreaking and so real. I got a letter from somebody who said she’s bipolar herself, and she said Claire’s performance was so real to her that she worries for Claire’s sanity. Claire is just so in control of her instrument, as a performer and as an artist, and she just disappeared into the character in a way not a lot of people can do. We sit in the story room and we just feel we are writing dialogue for some of the best actors of our generation. Literally, we feel that way. Now, maybe we’re wrong. [Laughs.] But watching dailies, and watching these people bring to life what we put on the page, is incredible. 

[pagebreak]

AVC: How much contact do you have with the members of the cast in the writers’ room? 

AG: It’s difficult, because they’re 3,000 miles away. But first of all, Michael Cuesta, our directing executive producer, is there. And there’s the telephone. And a writer is always on the set, or I’m always on the set, if the writer can’t be there. So there is a lot of back and forth about it, but because the time frame is so accelerated, and the amount of rehearsal is so limited, not only in the writing, but also in the performing and the directing and the editing, these things are done at such velocity and such pace that you gotta be on your game. So there’s not as much dialogue between actors and writers as you would like, but there’s enough to make the thing function.  

AVC: How much did you talk about making it Saul who figures out the method to Carrie’s rambling?

AG: Again, that’s the beauty of Saul’s character and Mandy [Patinkin]’s performance. That in spite of this woman’s clearly losing it, Saul is able to find the germ of genius in what she’s done. And actually, that assembly scene was shot after the episode was put together. We realized we needed it, so that was shot after the fact and put in. In fact, that happened a couple of times, where we just needed extra material, and it wasn’t quite working without it. So we did that whole montage of Saul putting up that thing and then seeing the thing, and it was beautiful. It’s interesting, if you watch Mandy’s performance in that, he makes all the little bits and pieces of business that could’ve been just boring so interesting; the way he rips [pieces of paper] off. It’s just remarkable to watch an actor to bring something so alive to something that really could’ve ultimately been such a cliché.

Marine One(Dec. 18, 2011)
Brody plans to carry out his attack, while Carrie works to stop the attack she knows is imminent, even though she’s no longer in the CIA.

AG: We had very little time. You have to understand that we were under the gun from the very beginning, because we recast the role of Jessica. The original woman was Laura Fraser, who was lovely. She was also English, Laura Fraser, and she played the role in a very soulful, kind of wounded way, and it was very effective, but it was very heavy. And because Brody was heavy, and Claire was heavy, and Saul was heavy, there was a sense that we needed sort of a more vibrant, sexual personality, which is why we ultimately cast the role with Morena [Baccarin]. 

So we had to re-shoot almost a third of the pilot and go into making episodes, so we were behind. This is all a way to say that by the time we got to the finale, we didn’t have much time, and we were very lucky that story elements fell into place. One of the things we always intended to do was to tell this in kind of a tripartite way, which is to tell a very quiet opening third, to tell a frenetic and anxious middle third, and then to tell a quiet ending. And actually, this was something else I learned on 24, which is that if you watch 24, there often is quite a long dénouement. Sometimes, actually, the climax would happen in the 23rd episode, or if it happened in the 24th episode, would happen in the first act, then you would play three acts or four acts of coda. So we were never afraid of that. And in fact, we talked a lot with Cuesta about this, and if you watch the way the finale is shot, the camera doesn’t move during the first day, the camera is all handheld during the second day, and the third day actually goes back to the more still camera. So it was done not only in the storytelling, but also in the way the filmmaking was accomplished.

We always knew that was going to roughly be the structure, and then pieces fell into place: The vest malfunctioning; Claire going to see the family and running into Dana. That was always a very, very big part of the story. And if you look at the season, Morgan Saylor, who plays Dana, hadn’t done a lot of stuff before this, and we knew quite early on that she was going to play a major role in the last episode. So we gave her more and more and more to do as the season went along to get her up to speed, because she was really going to have to carry that final episode and talk her father off the ledge. And that’s what I’m most proud of, how we established that relationship, so that by the time you got there, when she’s on the phone with her dad, at least I completely believe it, and thought she did a fantastic job, and really inhabited Dana’s character with such pathos and such need that was just so moving to me. 

So that was always in place. We knew that was going to happen. And then, ultimately, we knew that Claire, after her manic episode, was going to be in the down side of that particular illness, the depressive part, so she was going to be actually physically in bed, and would have to rouse herself up to save the day. And then we were put in the same position the series always put us in, which is, we wanted her to save things, but not be aware that she’d saved them. And not implicate Brody, and not make Brody guilty in everybody’s minds, so we could continue the season next year with Brody being in the clear. 

AVC: Do you think the show is over when everybody knows he’s a bad guy? 

AG: People have been saying the show’s over from the second or third episode, so no, the show’s not over. The show’s not over, because the relationship between Carrie and Brody has not been explored fully. And that’s really where, as writers, we feel the series is going to grow and blossom. That story is not done. 

AVC: The kids on the show are fairly normal, well-adjusted kids. Even Dana’s teenage struggles are typical teenage things. How did you decide to have them be so normal, and on the edge of the story? 

AG: The original conception of Dana was that she was gonna be much more troubled than she wound up being. What happened was, she was troubled until her father came home. And her father, who was clearly so troubled upon coming home, kind of straightened her out in an unexpected way. We thought she was gonna be much more of a wild card, and that there would be scenes between Brody and whatever bad guy she’d gotten involved with sexually, or whatever, drugs. That never materialized, and, I think, in a good way, because it made Dana’s character less of a cliché. 

That’s why we love Morgan—and I know some people feel differently about Morgan—but what we love about Morgan is that she makes scenes and dialogue her own in a way that isn’t a cliché and that isn’t eye-rolling. So many girls came in to audition for this role, and they played it like a sitcom. They played it with a lot of the attitude of a teenage girl that you see in movies, too smart for their own good, and overly sexualized. First of all, Morgan really is 16, so she really is a kid. She’s incredibly bright, and she just has an uncanny ability to make words feel like she’s really saying them.

AVC: That original document you talked about, where you laid out what season one was going to look like, how much of that made it into the final product?

AG: Almost all of it, but oftentimes, not in the way it’s suggested in the document. For example, the idea of Hamid, the 13th man who was discovered as the one person who survived the Delta raid, that was in it. The interrogation of Brody was in it, although it was done in a different way. The fact that Brody kills Walker was in it. All that stuff: The fact that Dana was ultimately the relationship that saves Brody was in it. Carrie’s breakdown was in it. But it’s like all these documents: They are a blueprint. And we got to add a lot and build a lot differently as we went through the season. 

AVC: What were you most surprised at adding in as you built the season?

AG: Honestly, I was surprised that so much of it worked. Honestly. And I was surprised by how much of the conversations that Howard [Gordon] and I had at the very beginning actually were realized in the course of the episodes. And I was most surprised by the quality and skill of the writing staff. I am such a superstitious guy that every draft I got, I sat down at the same time every morning, 5:30 in the morning, and I read it in my same chair in my dining room right over there, with my same pen. And I was always just giddy at the quality of scene work that all these writers brought to bear in their episodes. 

AVC: Did you ever to try to break a story where Brody was successful, where he killed himself and took out the vice president and everybody else? 

AG: Never. We thought about it, obviously. And actually, the one big debate that happened in the room was there was the feeling that when the vest malfunctioned, Carrie caught too much of a break, and that it felt contrived that the vest didn’t work, and that Brody would have to go into the stall and fix it and then try again. And there was a sense that it didn’t validate Carrie enough. That she, in other words, caught a lucky break, and that gave her time to get to Dana, to convince Dana to call her dad. That was the one big discussion that happened. But at that point, we knew we wanted Brody back for a second season. We knew that we weren’t gonna be able to fully realize that relationship. Having Brody die at that point… We had more to explore between his character and Claire’s character.

AVC: If you’re looking back, is there an episode in the season you thought worked particularly well, and is there one you’re perhaps not as happy with? 

AG: Every episode is so different. I wish we had had the opportunity to tell the Issa story in the way we had originally envisioned to tell it, which would be to have told it as a complete flashback episode. Because I think we would’ve had more time to explore the complexity of it, and maybe we just shorthanded it too much. And I know people were also concerned that the way we structured it in the editing room between the past and the present was confusing, or was odd. So maybe I have a little remorse about that. 

I’m so close to it that I can’t be objective at all. I have no idea. The episodes that I felt stood out above the others? I would point to the pilot as one. People don’t understand that writing a pilot is such a bitch, because you have these tasks you have to accomplish. First and foremost, you have to tell a compelling story. Second of all, you have to introduce characters that people are interested in watching. And third, you have to convince people that there’s a series there. And to do that in that short amount of time is really hard. So I’m proud we were able to do that. 

In terms of the actual episodes, my favorites are what everybody’s favorites are: I really thought “The Weekend” was one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever been involved in. I thought “The Vest,” the second-to-last episode, was probably my favorite of the season. I thought “Blind Spot” was really fun and showed that we could do the thriller, muscular aspect of the story, and I thought Henry’s “Representative Brody” was unusual and unexpected. Then I thought the finale—look, I’m saying them all—also delivered. I thought it delivered what a finale does. Every time I think about it, I can’t believe we did it. I can’t believe we wrote a movie in two and a half weeks. 

AVC: Do you have a set plan for the series and where it’s going? Do you have rough goalposts? 

AG: We have a very rough architecture for the second season. Beyond that, I have no idea. And we’re just beginning. I finished posting the finale on the 14th or 15th of December, so I’ve had a couple weeks off. So we haven’t really started thinking about it that much.

AVC: When will you be back in the room?

AG: Probably the last week of January. And then start shooting again sometime in May, and going back on the air in October. 

AVC: Do you think there is a way for this show to last five, six, seven years? 

AG: I hope so. I will say this: This show has a franchise. And the franchise is an intelligence officer at work, trying to keep this country safe. So, for however long Brody lasts, there’s always Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson and David Estes out there fighting the good fight. And whether we can do like Dexter does or like The Wire did and reinvent the show at some point, whether it’s season three or season four, I know we have an understandable, legitimate franchise to move forward. Whether we can make it as interesting as those shows, I don’t know, but we’re certainly going to try.


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