Homeland’s Alex Gansa discusses rebooting the show for season three

Homeland’s Alex Gansa discusses rebooting the show for season three

When Homeland began its run in the fall of 2011, it was a little show that came out of nowhere. Airing on Showtime behind the sixth season of Dexter, the series felt like a breath of fresh air, a new look at the War On Terror and a national-security community that had become an all-encompassing behemoth of surveillance. The series swept the Emmys, winning awards for the show’s producers, its writers, and its two lead performers. Throughout all of that, writer Alex Gansa was the man who shepherded the program from little-show-that-could to national conversation piece. In the series’ second season, however, the show’s risky storytelling occasionally backfired, resulting in a final series of episodes in which some were greeted with excitement and some were regarded as the second coming of 24. Season three began last night in much more muted fashion, getting back to the intimate character drama that the show started out as. Gansa sat down with The A.V. Club a few months ago to discuss the decision to keep Brody alive, how the show approached its third season, and what the series takes from Battlestar Galactica.

The A.V. Club: What do you think you learned from season two as a storyteller that you’re applying to season three?

Alex Gansa: I think the thing I have learned above all else is that I have to let the episodes stand for themselves, and that I can’t try to defend or backfill. We did the same thing in season two that we did in season one. We felt we were on a high wire, and every time where we had a safe choice or a not-so-safe choice, we always made the not-so-safe choice. If some people didn’t dig it, so be it. I will say that we built an audience every week and that the show got 11 Emmy nominations, so we did something right. I think we came out of the box so strong. The first five episodes of the second season is when we were at the top of our game, then we took some chances, which I think all shows should do, and I think we ended very strong.

AVC: Reflecting on those chances, what’s paid off well and not so well?

AG: I think the thing I felt most shaky on was the story about Dana and Finn hitting the old woman in the crosswalk. We just never got there on it. It served a function, insofar as it tore Dana and Brody apart, but we never honored the story in as complicated or as deep a way as I wish we had.

I felt that killing the vice president via the pacemaker just paid off in spades. Mostly, because we were able to have Damian [Lewis] kill this guy without having him put a hand on the guy. I just loved that episode.

AVC: The first two episodes of season three are slower and more subdued than the first episodes of season two. Was that a conscious choice in response to how season two’s story moved?

AG: Every season of any show I’ve ever been on has it’s own identity. I think that that’s really true of season one and season two. They feel distinct from one another. And this season definitely has its own pace and its own landscape that we’re going to cover in a different way. I think that accrues to the benefit of the show. I think it certainly keeps us engaged in the story room. But I don’t think it’s a reaction to season two.

AVC: When you sat down to do season three, what were your primary concerns?

AG: The most important thing to do was to honor the magnitude of the event that occurred at the end of season two and to dramatize what actually would occur in the country and, most importantly, within the the CIA itself, after such a big attack and after such a big defeat and the most successful attack since 9/11. It’s fascinating, because when we first started talking about it, we were all, “Wouldn’t the first thing that happened be Saul and Carrie would be fired?” And we talked to all our CIA contacts [Laughs.] and the first thing they said was, “You know what? Probably not.” Certainly people at that level would not be scapegoated right away. Failures and tragedies happen, but in all likelihood, our two heroes would have emerged from that unscathed and certainly not sidelined.

AVC: How did you approach the question of Brody? He’s not in the first two episodes, but he’s still in the show in some capacit.

AG: Yeah,Brody’s whereabouts is a huge storyline in season three, and obviously, we’re trying to keep it under wraps.

AVC: What was that conversation like? Are the realities of TV production such that if you let Damian Lewis go, you’re probably never going to get him back?

AG: Right, well, that’s not the case because we own Damian Lewis in perpetuity as long as we need him. [Laughs.] But I think that all of us at the beginning of this season were trying to figure out what story to tell with him. We feel like we’ve covered a tremendous amount of emotional ground between him and Carrie. It was challenging to figure out a way that gets him in the story that feels rich and new and compelling so we spent a lot of time talking about that.

AVC: In terms of politics, of policy, those sorts of things, what were some things that you were looking at when you started this season?

AG: The very first thing that came to mind is again honoring what happened in season two. We began season two with Israel hitting Iran’s nuclear sites and we ended it with Iran, through Abu Nazir, taking revenge for that attack. We enter a new sphere that is Saul and Carrie and the CIA in an attempt to find out what happened on 12/12. We call it 12/12. It’s going to become apparent that there’s a state actor behind the attack, and that brings a whole new set of problems to bear not only on CIA, but also in the country itself. 

First, are we going to get involved in another war with another state in the Middle East? Are we going to learn from what happened before? Are we going to try to avoid it? Are we not? So there’s that, which we were talking about a lot at the beginning of the year. Now, it’s interesting. Iran has gone through an election where a moderate is going to succeed [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, so it’s interesting how world events and our storyline are diverging a little bit, but we’ll see what happens.

AVC: Obviously Langley has not been bombed in our reality, but how much does it concern you that the ÓîîÓHomeland reality is still very focused on these foreign-policy questions and our reality is a bit less so?

AG: It’s a function of a series. It’s a function of the CIA [as a setting]. Its charter forbids it from operating on United States soil. Now, I think if you look at the news lately, if you look at what’s going on with the NSA and Edward Snowden and the CIA’s liaison with NYPD, which is all interesting and fascinating, I think those lines are being blurred, and distinctions are not as sharp as they may have once been, but all that is just great for our show. Everything that’s going on, this idea of keeping us safe on the one hand and curtailing our civil liberties on the other and how those two ideas are doing battle with each other, that’s what everyone’s talking about in the halls of power right now, and that’s what we’re talking about on the show, too.

AVC: Saul says in episode one that the spygame is supposed to be rousting out targets, and getting information out of them, not killing people. And then, of course, he makes an order to do just that. How interested are you in the idea that once government entities acquire some amount of power it becomes a self-perpetuating thing that just keeps continuing down the line?

AG: Very interested in that idea. One of the controlling images of this season is this idea of an embattled Central Intelligence Agency—an agency that brought a tragedy down on its own head. Its very survival is at stake, and Saul finds himself sitting in the chair of the director, quite possibly being the îîîÓlast director of the Central Intelligence Agency. His fear is that it gets swallowed up into the bigger Homeland Security apparatus and it loses its individuality. Saul has dedicated over 30 years to this career, and now, he finds himself in the position of having to defend this place, warts and all. For Saul, being on the sidelines was very comfortable, sniping at the people that are making the decisions. Now, he finds himself in the chair himself having to make the same tough calls. It’s not as easy as he may have thought, and he struggles with those decisions.

AVC: With Brody gone you’ve reconfigured the central relationship as Saul and Carrie, and you get a lot of mileage out of “When are they going to talk to each other?” How did you make the decision to build out that relationship?

AG: It’s interesting. When Howard [Gordon] and I first started talking about this show after we wrote the pilot, we always saw it as a CIA franchise, and we saw Brody’s story as, obviously, an important part of that, but I think if you had asked us then would we be talking about Nick Brody in season three, I think we would have looked at you and thought you were crazy. It turns out that that story has longer legs than we envisioned, but really, at the heart of it is this father-and-daughter relationship. They’re obviously not blood-related, but there’s a really strong connection here. I think, again, we’re honoring last season. The final image of that was the two of them, how they’re going to proceed forward. As you’ve just seen, season three starts in a very different place than you might have expected.

AVC: Carrie is off her meds again as we start season three. How do you honor the mental-illness-aspect of her character without overdoing it?

AG: It’s something we talk about with Claire [Danes] before every scene. “Where are you on the scale here? How manic are you? How centered are you? How medicated are you?” But again, one of the other big ideas of this season is Carrie really does blame the fact that she missed things because she was taking her medication. She feels that it dulled her. She feels that she missed things, and if she hadn’t been taking her medication, she would have had access to her genius in a purer and more direct way. 

I think we have the luxury of “bipolarness,” if I can say that, because it’s a much more dramatic state to be in. You’re wildly swinging from being depressed to being manic to being somewhere in between. Hopefully, it isn’t boring. Hopefully, we’re able to dramatize her struggles with the illness in a way that feels different. 

And this year is different. She’s off her medication for a reason. She’s not nearly as manic as she was in episode 11 or whatever it was in the first season, where she completely lost her shit and was talking in alliteration and not really grounded or tethered to any kind of reality. Carrie is off her meds here, but she’s also under the supervision of a doctor, and she’s trying to medicate herself in other ways, just not with lithium.

AVC: This season, you’re showing the cost of Carrie and Brody’s relationship on the people in their lives. Where are you as writers with that relationship?

AG: I think they are both damaged by their service to this country, and they have an ineffable connection with one another. Whether they’re in love in any sort of traditional way, I would dispute, but I think they believe they are, and now they’re in an impossible circumstance yet again. 

All the stuff that happened in the finale last season, the intention was always when these two are talking about a normal life together, we intended it to feel like they were deluding themselves. That’s just not possible. These two people going to a PTA meeting? [Laughs.] That wasn’t going to happen, and we never intended it to be seriously considered. It was two people having some wine and a fantasy of having a normal life that will never be theirs.

AVC: How do you work around wanting to undercut what a character believes with what the truth is? When Claire Danes says something or Damian Lewis says something, it becomes so forceful, so believable.

AG: It’s up to people watching the show to decide whether anybody’s being on the level or not, and some people take Brody at face value. I think that’s part of the unintended genius of the show, because from the very beginning, we weren’t sure if anybody was telling the truth or anybody was reliable. It sort of opened the show up to this wonderful audience participation, as they interpreted what they were seeing, and people interpreted it in different ways. There are still people who believe that Saul Berenson is the mole. I’m not going to dissuade them from believing it.

AVC: There have been so many conspiracy theories built around the show. What were your thoughts on that? Did you enjoy reading those? Did you see any of them?

AG: I saw most of them, but I saw most of them after the fact. I just think it’s great. The most gratifying thing about this show is we engender a conversation. The people are talking about it. I think it’s fantastic. What I find interesting is that nobody was right. [Laughs.] So we were able for another season to outfox some very smart people, our audience.

AVC: Do you worry about somebody guessing what you’re going to do five or six episodes ahead of time?

AG: It’s inevitable. I honestly think those of us who live and breathe this stuff, you guys as well… The majority of people who are watching the show are just watching the show at home. They’re not dissecting this thing week to week. I think they understand we’re telling a novel for television, and each episode is a different chapter, and that yes, you can single some out as not as strong as others, but you have to take them as a whole. They’re meant to exist as a season, as a novel, in a way. I really believe that’s how most people watch. But, of course, we don’t. [Laughs]

AVC: When you came into this season you had an opportunity for a blank slate. How did you decide which characters to keep and which to bump down to recurring or not bring back?

AG: It’s interesting, we brought some new people onto the show, Barbara Hall and James Yoshimura, both first-rate writers, and they were fans of the show, without having been inside the show. Our first week or two was spent asking them what they thought: “Is there any value in continuing the Brody family story? Are you interested in watching that? What do you guys think about Carrie and Brody? Are they star-crossed lovers, or are they just so deluded that that story has lost its power? Did you understand that Abu Nazir was a suicide mission, except the suicide mission wasn’t actually the bombing, it was the thing that put everybody off their guard? Did you understand that?” 

We really took them through the third degree. It was our feeling as writers that there was value in showing this attack on America ramified on the families and what Brody’s “lie” would mean to his daughter and how that family was going to be pariahs. You look at every single tragedy, whether it’s the Sandy Hook shooting or Columbine or the Boston bombers, and there’s something fascinating about watching those families, those people trying to deal with the fact that loved ones of theirs committed these atrocities. How would that look to the Brody family, who we have come to know? That was sort of the decision. We could have done all those things you suggested. We could have moved to Istanbul and made it two years later. [Beat.] I think that’s season four. [Laugh.]

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AVC: What were some of the things that Barbara and James said to you that you were surprised by?

AG: I think I was most surprised about how deeply they were invested in Jessica, Dana, and Chris Brody. The family was always meant, from the very beginning, as something to ground the audience as all this crazy shit was going on. Here was an American family that was trying to deal with it in their own limited, but profound way. Both James and Barbara felt that there were more stories to tell there. That gave us a tremendous amount of confidence.

AVC: How do you feel about Dana, and how do you approach writing her? So many of these shows have these teenage children who hold their fathers in relief. Why do you think that is?

AG: Well, I think it’s probably because a lot of the people writing for television have teenage daughters and sons, and it’s such a singular relationship between a parent and a teenage child. We’re all just living it, so that’s what we’re writing. 

In terms of Dana, she’s the truth teller on the show. A person with whom she felt she had a real connection with profoundly betrays her. It’s had an impact on her.

AVC: Tonally, some of the storylines this season, even on the CIA side, could be out of Thirtysomething or Parenthood. What made you decide to make that choice?

AG: I don’t think it was a conscious choice to play smaller ball. We just tried to envision where everybody would be three months after the attack. We did a little back and forth about whether we should actually see Dana Brody try to kill herself or that should have played in the interim. We just felt to avoid the melodrama, better to play it after she’s recovered from it and coming home. Darrell Issa was all over the news in early January or February as he was trying to get to the bottom of the Benghazi incident in Libya, and we just thought it would be fantastic to put Carrie and Saul in front of a Senate committee. That was swirling around in our heads. It really did dovetail nicely with this idea that the agency was under attack itself—under existential attack from within.

AVC: How much do you know about the politics of the world of Homeland? Do you have the same president?

AG: I think we still have the same president.

AVC: Do you put party-affliation labels on people, or do you not care about that?

AG: We’ve been fairly agnostic about that. If you do look at the real thing, the people that are most advocating for civil liberties right now are Rand Paul, very libertarian Republicans. A lot of those people had tremendous problems with the Patriot Act. So I think these issues blur party lines a little bit. We’re not calling Andrew Lockhart a Republican or a Democrat. We’re calling him a hard-hitting senator. I thought he was amazing, Tracy Letts, in that role. I just think he did such a great job. Tracy Letts won the Tony for Virginia Woolf, then he won the Pulitzer for August: Osage County. So I said, “Tracy, if you have any notes on the script, we’re happy to listen.” [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve beefed up previously recurring characters. Why’d you bump up Dar (F. Murray Abraham) and Mira (Sarita Choudhury)?

AG: As for Mira, he called her from Ground Zero, and she dropped everything to come back and be with him. That was a relationship that we all missed in the second season because she left Saul in the first season. Sarita is just such a wonderful actor, and that relationship is so interesting especially to those of us who are in our 50s, and have been married for a long time. It’s an interesting time of life. The questions of what love is at that point. Somebody like Saul, who was so committed and dedicated and worked so hard, how could he achieve balance in his life? Now this woman is back and he loves her, but he can’t reach out to her again. There’s a tragedy in that. His inability to make a decision on that front mirrored his inability to make decisions sitting in the director’s chair. We brought her back because we love her, and because, frankly, there was not a family that was whole in the show anymore. We weren’t playing those scenes, so we had an opportunity to tell another domestic drama there. I see what you mean about the first season. It has that same feeling to it. There’s a domestic quality to that story as well. 

Oh and Fara (Nazanin Boniadi), who’s our new CIA analyst. She’s wonderful, too. We thought that as we drove a wedge between Carrie and Saul, it would be interesting to see Saul finding another protégé, as his allegiance to Carrie has frayed.

AVC: How about Dar Adal?

AG: I find Saul’s choice of Dar Adal as his second in command a very revealing one. Saul knows his strengths. Saul knows his weaknesses. Saul is very wary, if not dismissive, of Dar Adal’s portfolio. Yet Saul knows he needs a hardass on his side. He needs somebody that’s going to do the dirty work for him, and it’s part and parcel of Saul stepping into the job. He’s smart enough to know that that’s not his strength, so he’s got to bring somebody tough in. You can understand why the decision is to find a scapegoat. Find somebody to put the Senate committee off the scent here. To blame somebody for what happened. And it’s painful for Saul, but he’s trying to save the agency, and Dar Adal is the one who’s showing him how that’s going to be done.

AVC: Where did the character of Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) come from? Was he in any way a response to Claire being pregnant and not being able to do all of the big action scenes?

AG: Not at all. We were, again, looking ahead to a Homeland without Brody and wanted to bring somebody into the mix that offered Carrie some male energy to bounce off of. That was really the impetus for Quinn’s character. Also, we wanted to portray that side of the intelligence agency, because we had nobody else representing that, the people that are on the ground doing the hard shit. Not just case officers, but people who are doing the things that intelligence officers argue have to be done, however you look at it morally. You can see he too has been… everyone’s affected by what happened. I think Rupert is just doing a fantastic job.

AVC: There’s a real tenderness between that character and Carrie, closer to friendship than anything romantic.

AG: Well, I think he knows that her emotional life is elsewhere. Her romantic life is elsewhere. Again, the reason he fits into the orbit well is because he also has been affected by the work he’s been required to do. There’s a shorthand, I think, among all these people.

AVC: Obviously you had one very tragic loss in the writers room with Henry Bromell’s death, and Meredith Stiehm is working for The Bridge. What were you looking for when you went looking for writers to fill those gaps?

AG: They certainly can’t be filled, but they’ve been filled in singular ways by virtue of the fact that we have two very talented people now also working on the show. 

The first two seasons, we had a lovely thing on staff. Everybody had grown up in the show, with the show, together. We all spent every day together for almost two years, so there was an incredible trust and camaraderie, and we made something together that we were proud of. Then, when you hire incredibly talented people, they go off to do their own thing. So we were trying to find as talented people [as those we lost]. 

And frankly, Alex Cary also left at the beginning. He was off doing a pilot that Howard and I were producing called AOV [Anatomy Of Violence], which never got picked up, so he was actually gone too. Then we did really suffer the blow of Henry’s sudden and unexpected death. And we lost [director] Michael Cuesta and our D.P. because they went off to do other things, so the show has really undergone some major changes. It’s been challenging as a result, and it’s not the same. But in terms of writers, we went out to find the best people we could find. We read hundreds and hundreds of people, interviewed a bunch of people, and these are the people that we were lucky enough to attract to the show.

AVC: This happens all the time in television. People move on, and other people come in. What’s one of the best things about having those new voices involved in the show?

AG: I think the best thing about having new voices is that the show is different. I’m not like Matt [Weiner] or Aaron Sorkin, where I am writing every line of dialogue in every script. I just don’t do that. Homeland is a show in which I encourage other voices to flourish, and the best thing about it is Barbara and Yosh write the show differently, so those episodes have a different flavor to them. That’s the best thing about it. It’s great to see. And our actors are so strong that they’re able to make those voices their own. It’s good to get people with different perspectives on things. 

AVC: How involved is Howard Gordon in the show still, since it seems like he’s on every other project that gets announced nowadays?

AG: I love Howard. Howard is as involved as he’s ever been, which is Howard has never been day-to-day on Homeland from the pilot. He’s been an incredibly strong consigliere. He does read every script. He does give notes. He gives notes on cuts. But, you know, the people who are really doing the show are Chip Johannessen, Alex Cary, Meredith Stiehm, and Henry, for season two. And this year it’s Chip, Alex, Yosh, Barbara, Patrick Harbinson, and me. Those are the people doing the show. But the show would never have existed without Howard. We wrote the pilot together. He’s amazing, and he is doing about a thousand things. 

AVC: You mentioned earlier in the interview that you always saw this as a CIA franchise and Brody and his family had longer legs than you thought. Do you still primarily see it as a CIA franchise, or do you think this is a show about how all of these people are bound up by this one man’s lies?

AG: That’s certainly what season three is about. That’s what the first three seasons have been. I just don’t know where the show goes. But that’s clearly what it became for better or for worse.

AVC: In these first couple episodes, you bounce from character to character, and there’s no single unifying storyline or theme. That can feel disjointed. How do you keep that from happening as you’re moving through these different threads?

AG: I think you answered your own question. That is, I think that Brody haunts every story. His presence haunts every story, either in a direct way, for example, the Dana story, in a slightly attenuated way, with the Carrie/Saul story. But his presence is onerous. That’s why I think the show hangs together. Interestingly enough, it does so without his presence in the first two.

AVC: As you’re getting through this season, what has been the best surprise to you and what has been the biggest frustration for a show at this stage of its life?

AG: I think the surprise is how much fun it continues to be to do the show. It really is an incredibly challenging, 100-percent engaging endeavor to do and for all the reasons it was before, because of the synergy between the writing staff, our production team, and our actors. It’s so great to start with a script that you really like and then watch it get elevated every step of the way. That is the most gratifying thing on the planet. 

The hardest thing? I think the hardest thing is just managing expectations. It’s not getting constipated because we’re afraid. It’s just staying open to the creative process. Submitting to the process of doing the show and not having an eye on what Todd VanDerWerff is writing in The A.V. Club or what somebody else is thinking. It’s just really trying to understand that the only thing we have control over is the work. As long as we stay there in that pocket, I think we’ll be in good shape.

AVC: In season one, Homeland was this unexpected underdog. Then you, the cast, and the show itself won awards. How did that change the culture of the show and the reception of it?

AG: Ithink it changed it profoundly. We were this little secret pleasure for a very small audience at the beginning. We were a secret that was passed on to people, “Watch this! Like this!” And then the show exploded in a way that, honestly, we did not expect to happen. We thought we had a little show on our hands that would go for a few years. So I think we felt a tremendous amount of pressure in the second season to live up to the promise of the first year. 

Ultimately though, it didn’t really change the way we do things. We always took chances in the story room. We always tried to push things to the very edge of credulity. We tried to end episodes with cliffhangers. We took a page out of Battlestar Galactica doing that. That was always our game plan. I guess the difference was I think we were waiting to get knocked off the pedestal a little bit. That’s how it changed. It changed us because fear crept in, and we had to keep it out.

AVC: As you move forward into what’s probably the midsection of your run, how do you approach the questions of, “Can we change this? What sort of ending are we looking at?” 

AG: Right now I’m really not thinking about those things. Mostly we’re thinking about how we’re going to bring the Brody/Carrie storyline to a close. Whether it happens this year or the next year or the year after. That’s what we’re thinking of. I do look at like, Vince [Gilligan], who I love, and wonder what must be going on in that man’s soul right now after a superior piece of work over so many seasons, is effectively over. I can’t even begin to imagine how he survived this year, bringing that thing in for a landing.