Alex Gansa walks us through Homeland’s first season (Part 3 of 4)
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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 seven through nine, beginning with “The Weekend” and concluding with “Crossfire.” Part one is here, and part two is here.
“The Weekend” (Nov. 13, 2011)
Carrie and Brody head to the Mathison family lake house for a weekend together, one that ends in Carrie confirming her suspicions about her new lover to his face. Meanwhile, Saul escorts Aileen back to protective custody in Washington.
The A.V. Club: You film in North Carolina, right? What does that add to the show?
Alex Gansa: It adds a location, like Lake Norman, where we shot this cabin that I think was built in the early 1900s. It’s all beautiful wood. It’s right around this gorgeous manmade lake. It gave us the opportunity to shoot a sequence that’s supposedly on the Eastern seaboard in an area that looks like the Eastern seaboard—that looks like an old cabin on a lake. Shooting on the East Coast afforded us the ability to show streets that looked like Georgetown, to show streets that looked like D.C., [and] gave us the weather. If you look at the pilot and then you look at where the episodes began, the pilot, because we shot it in the winter, had this wonderful sort of grayness and this stolidity in the landscape. There was something very John le Carré about it, something very English about it, something moody with the low clouds that really added to the sense of portent and onerous heavy quality. Then, obviously, we started shooting this series in the middle of summer, so that went away. [Laughs.] But it gave us seasons. At the end of the year, we could see the leaves changing. It makes the landscape and the environment so much more interesting.
AVC: Did you do any shooting in Washington D.C.?
AG: We did, but very little. It’s impossible to shoot in D.C. Getting permits there is just hell. Once you have a permit, if Obama decides to move that day, your permit doesn’t mean anything. On a really tight television schedule, to be at the mercy of the government, it doesn’t work. So you gotta go in there and just get bits and pieces, but it’s really hard to shoot a scene there. It’s all just establishing shots. Hopefully, we’ll be able to go back and go do some stuff in Washington [in season two], but it’s really difficult to do.
AVC: It sounds like the Tom Walker reveal was in the works from the start. How did you come up with that idea?
AG: Credit where credit’s due: The third prisoner of war in Hatufim, the Israeli series, was presumed dead and then found to be alive at the end of the first year. So we did very much borrow that from Gideon Raff’s storytelling, although in a very different way. Certainly in the Israeli series, the prisoner of war who was left behind who was then found to be alive is not a terrorist.
AVC: Tom Walker is very important to the season, but we don’t get a lot of his backstory. How much had you guys figured out on your own about his story?
AG: Not to spill too many secrets, but this is, in my opinion, the second big flaw of the season—that we had two American Marines who were turned. We really struggled with a way to avoid this, because it was difficult enough to provide rationale and motivation for Brody, and now we had another character, Tom Walker. It was either going to be repetitive, or we were going to run into the same problem we ran into with Issa, which is to make it literal as to how and why he was turned. Even though I know and I’ve read enough blogs of people that were interested to find out why and how, we felt we just weren’t going to come up with anything convincing and real that matched Brody’s motivation. So he turned into more of a psychopath at some level. He clearly turned quicker than Brody. He clearly gave up information. He clearly went to the dark side a lot quicker than Brody did. But above and beyond that, he was more a device than a character. I think it’s to Chris Chalk’s credit, the actor who plays Walker. He brought a lot of color to the role that wasn’t on the page. He did an amazing job, I thought. But it was a conscious decision at that point to keep him more of a mystery.
AVC: We get confirmation in the last couple of episodes that Carrie is really in love with Brody, but what do you feel his feelings toward her are?
AG: I definitely think there’s a certain reciprocated, requited affection or love or whatever. I think the reason for that is that Brody has a secret nobody else knows, except for this woman. He knows that she knows. There’s an aspect of liberation, in other words. He gets to sit opposite somebody, to make love to somebody who knows his deepest, darkest secret, and that is powerful for a man who’s carrying the weight of that. There’s a catharsis in being with that person, even though he has to deny it to her. The very fact that she recognizes him in a way nobody else does and suspects him in a way nobody else does allows for a real connection to develop.
AVC: At the end of this episode, you imply that Carrie falsely accused Brody. Was there a thought about stringing out that reversal a little longer?
AG: There was. In the nature of compressing the story, especially as we were into the next episode, “Achilles Heel,” it seemed to us that, again, the more interesting question was not whether Brody had been turned in captivity, but whether he would go through with what he agreed to go through with Nazir. We felt that it was enough to play one episode where you believed that indeed he was innocent.
Actually, if you look at the “Achilles Heel” episode, what really sells that, to me, anyway, was Morena Baccarin’s performance. She sold, to me, the idea that her husband was actually not a bad guy. In her reaccepting him back into her life and then having that moment at the party, and [with] the family sitting around, and the reconnection between husband and wife there… For me, that was enough, and really allowed us, at the end of that episode, to pull the rug out from under the audience. Again, it’s in the nature of compressing the story and advancing the plot in a way that we got to the more interesting question. The more interesting question to us was, “Is he going to go through with this?” The less interesting question was just the binary one of “Is he or isn’t he guilty?”
AVC: You plant the Issa idea in this episode when Brody wakes up screaming Issa’s name. How do you drop clues like that without giving away the game?
AG: Well, the interesting thing about that is that, again, it’s a sleight of hand. In that conversation between Brody and Carrie on the screened-in porch in “The Weekend,” Brody answers every question Carrie poses completely truthfully. The one thing he lies about is the Issa thing. But the audience doesn’t know that at that point. As far as the audience knows, Issa was a guard. (That’s when Brody says he was a guard that treated him well.) So it’s planted there to be revealed for what it really is in episode nine, with Issa and Nazir. It’s just a little bit of the weave; it’s a little bit of the story that we planted there to set up later that came back at the very last scene of the show for the season.
AVC: Was that something you had always been planning, that it would reverberate that far along?
AG: No. I wish. I wish we were that smart. When we started doing research into EST therapy and realized that short-term-memory loss was a component of that therapy, and was a side-effect of that therapy, then it became clear to us that she should have a revelation at that moment and then be put under, and then have the electroshock stuff done and forget it. That’s how that came about, but that was after the fact. The Issa thing was really to set up the Issa episode.
AVC: This episode gets a lot of acclaim for the last reveal and also the scenes between Brody and Carrie. There’s also a wonderful B-story about Saul and Aileen driving back across country, with their relationships essentially having ended for different reasons. How did you go about that story?
AG: That story went through a lot of talk. Obviously, the big idea there was that Saul was going to take this woman on a cross-country interrogation. That is a direct answer to, again getting back to 24, which is the Jack Bauer course of interrogation techniques and, you know, torturing people. Here was our opportunity to show how Saul does it, which is to establish a personal connection and to really get to know somebody and establish trust. That leads to information.
That was very much the sort of political intention of that story, which is—look, it’s another way to interrogate people. If you talk to most military interrogators, they will say that if you have the time, this is the way to do it. Your information and your intelligence is going to be much more credible. People will say anything for whatever reasons in the middle of being tortured, so this was our attempt to show how that actually might be constructed. We wanted to reveal as much about Saul as we could, too. It’s not a one-way street. Saul is going to be very revealing of his own personal story as a way of drawing Aileen into a relationship with him. We talked about a lot of things, and we settled on this idea that Saul takes her back to his hometown and shows her where he grew up, and the forces that influenced his life and shaped who he is as a person.
AVC: You bring up Saul’s Judaism in the background a lot. How do you work religious themes like that and Brody’s Islamic beliefs into the show?
AG: It all grew out of trying to make Saul an outsider at the CIA, and traditionally, the CIA has been a more sort of WASP-y institution. Saul was less put-together; he never worked [high-profile cases], or very rarely; he had a beard. He had been passed over for a job; Estes got the job instead of him. He was able to embrace an outsider role. We used his faith as a way to differentiate, not only in the institution in the CIA, but also in the way he conducted his personal life. Where he grew up and how he was treated as a boy certainly influenced that, and his posture in the world.
“Achilles Heel” (Nov. 20, 2011)
Carrie and Saul work frantically to track down Tom Walker, while Brody’s true allegiance to Nazir is revealed.
AG: There were a few times where we were concerned about how an audience was going to react. Since we pretty much exonerated Brody in “The Weekend,” to implicate him here, we knew was going to be a controversial move. A lot of people, we knew, were going to feel that it came too quick, and that it was cheap, and that we were jerking our audience around.
The way we convinced ourselves to proceed was that, yes, he was admitting that he had been turned in captivity, but he was deciding he was not going to do it. When he reveals himself to be in Abu Nazir’s employ, what he’s saying is, “I’m done—I’m not doing this anymore.” So it wasn’t just this great reveal where he was twirling his mustache and saying, “I’m a bad guy.” He was saying, “I’m done with this. I’m washing my hands of this.” I think we did this when the series was at its best. We didn’t just do the reveal, but the reveal had another implicit message in it, and the message in it now was, “I’m not going through with this.”
So it set up the next episodes of “Well, is he going to go through with it? Is he going to decide?” And in fact, the very next episode sort of becomes the choice about whether he’s going to stay the course or back out. So we were building to this moment. We knew we were compressing the story in a way that might be viewed as too quick. But you know, we were at the stage [that] we felt that we’d hit our stride; we felt that we’d earned it; we felt that because we knew Brody was guilty, the more quickly we admitted it to the audience and put the cards face up, then we were going to be able to tell what was the more interesting part of the story to us, which is the battle that was going on in Brody’s soul at this point.
AVC: This is an episode that has a lot of interagency squabbling, especially between the CIA and the FBI, which is rarely interesting. How did you guys go about making that interesting to the audience?
AG: I think it really strictly comes from the actors. I think Saul’s pleasure at fucking with the FBI was a tremendous source of amusement to people, and certainly to us. These interagency squabbles are true; they really do exist. I know that bridges are trying to be built among all of these agencies, them all put under an umbrella and sharing information, but there are turf battles. Any time you can introduce conflict into these situations, so much the better. You just try to do it in a slightly new way.
I know it’s done to death. I think we did it in a very shorthanded way. We tried to create characters, in terms of our FBI people, but also in terms of our regulars, to show that intelligence work is so painstaking and so frustrating sometimes, and it can be dramatized in a way that is unreal a lot of the time. That’s why I thought that British show MI-5, the reason why a show like that struggled, in my opinion, is because they had to tell these closed-in stories, and intelligence work rarely operates that way. It’s a slow, painstaking process, and one of the painstaking parts of it is these interagency dealings, when you have to ferret information out of another organization that may not be willing to share with you. When you put these people together in a work environment in which real stakes are at hand, it can get ugly, and it can get complicated.
AVC: What were some ways you dealt with the slowness of the intelligence world?
AG: We tried to embrace it. That’s something we tried to do, and we tried to tell character stories. If you just go back to “The Good Soldier,” for example, Carrie and Saul were trying to piece together Aileen and Faisel’s story. That’s just exposition, which is why the lie-detector stuff helped so well, because we were able to intersperse the mass of exposition with a more lighthearted… We made it economical; we told a comic thread through it to help that. But, more or less, we embraced it.
AVC: Were you playing around with the idea, on some level, that writers, and even TV viewers, are trying to piece together this story that makes sense based on what they can observe?
AG: Right. I think we were just trying to make sense of it for ourselves. And, again, so that if somebody watched an episode twice, you could learn something every time you watched the episode—and also, more importantly, that everything felt consistent, and that we weren’t cheating.
You know, there was another trope in this episode: the whole getting the woman on the phone and keeping her on the phone long enough to trace the call. You know, Columbo did that. We felt that the way to make it fresh and real was to really surprise the audience with the connection Helen felt for her husband, so that had some emotional impact as well, and reflected on Carrie’s own struggles with Brody in the fact that she made this connection with this man, which she then had to completely abandon.
AVC: Can it be frustrating to bump up against those stories that have been told time and time again but you almost have to do as a part of the genre?
AG: Absolutely, and a lot of the time spent in the story room was trying to figure out how to do it. And sometimes, you’re just at the mercy of time. That was the quickest, most efficient, most economical way to tell the story. And because it resonated thematically with different characters, it felt like it was worth telling.
AVC: The credits are probably the most criticized element of the show. They feature jazz music prominently. What did you see in that motif of jazz and that sort of jumbled storytelling?
AG: The jazz, the music, the improvisational nature of it, the not knowing what the next note is, the sometimes discordant quality of the music, the off-puttingness of it sometimes: It was a metaphor for Carrie, what was going on in her mind. That’s how we viewed the main title, too. The main title for us was visual jazz. It was images; it was sounds; it was phrases. It was bizarre images. It was Obama upside-down. It was unexpected images put together to convey an idea of what it might be like to grow up a bipolar child in this age of terror. And what watching television to a person like this might have engendered in her character.
AVC: Were you surprised at the criticism of the main titles?
AG: I was. It wasn’t my idea, and it wasn’t anyone’s idea except for the people who came in and did the main titles: Thomas Cobb and his group, who did the main titles for the show I’d done before this, Wolf Lake, which was nominated for an Emmy for those main titles. They came in with the idea of a little girl sitting in front of the television and being bombarded by these images, and what that might mean to somebody with bipolar illness. And we just felt that that was so brilliant, and the jazz on top of it and this discordance felt exactly right to us.
Again, you never know what to expect. But I will say, people came around by the end of the season. Although at the beginning, they were like, “Those are the worst main titles I’ve ever seen in my life,” at the end of the season, people were saying, “I’m beginning to understand them a little bit more.” And I think especially after that episode, where she has her manic breakdown, that penultimate episode, “The Vest,” I think then people finally got them. Then, of course, we chose not to use them for the finale.
AVC: The credits also seem to establish that we’re in this universe, with Bush and Obama, but the show is obviously set in a different universe, with different presidents. How much did you worry about which reality this takes place in?
AG: It’s all about suspension of disbelief, and rather than make it consistent, we chose to make it inconsistent. And maybe that’s what rubbed people the wrong way, too. “Who’s president? Is Obama President? Where’s Biden? Is it Hillary?” 24 straddled this line as well. We mentioned things in 24 like the towers coming down, but it’s President Palmer sitting in the Oval Office. I think the audience is extremely intelligent. They can live with these inconsistencies. I think everybody realizes why we don’t portray the real people, because we can’t put them onscreen, we can’t put them in scenes. So in a way, you have it both ways, but we wanted to feel immediate and current. We wanted the show to feel as real as possible, and this was a way to do it. This was a way to say, “No, we’re in this world; we’re in our world. Okay. Now we’re going to tell the fictional side of it, but it doesn’t make it any less real.”
“Crossfire” (Nov. 27, 2011)
Brody is kidnapped by Abu Nazir’s men and relives his time living with Abu Nazir’s son, Issa. Carrie and Saul close in on a Saudi diplomat involved in the terrorist plot.
AG: There’s a document, an eight- or nine- or 10-page document that I wrote over Christmas  before we shot the pilot, in which the arc of the season was laid out, and which was the fruit of a lot of walks that Howard [Gordon] and I took early on, as we just finished the pilot. And Issa figured prominently in this, and we always knew this human relationship that developed between Issa and Brody in Iraq or Syria, wherever the hell it happened, was ultimately going to be his motivation for his plot against the vice president. So it was there from the very beginning.
Our initial idea about this episode was that it was going to be a flashback episode from beginning to end, and it was going to be framed by Carrie. We were going to have a Carrie story on either side of it. But there was going to be 45, 50 minutes of Brody being introduced to Issa, Nazir bringing him in, and really telling the story of the family, and Nazir, and this boy, and ultimately ending up with the tragedy of this drone strike. It was the one episode where we couldn’t sell it to the network. I can’t remember whether it was the studio or the network, but there was just this sense that we couldn’t go into the past. They just didn’t buy it. And it led to this kind of fractured storytelling, that some people loved, and some people gave us a B. [Laughs.]
AVC: How are we supposed to read the vice-president figure in this show, who has a lot of similarities to Dick Cheney?
AG: I think there is some truth to that. I think you could clearly interpret it that way. And certainly the vice president, Cheney, his group, [David] Addington, [Donald] Rumsfeld, everybody around him, I think there was a sense that these guys, there was something rogue happening at the time of deciding whether we were going to go into Iraq. And complicit with the intelligence community. Look, it’s all politics. We felt that we didn’t want to make it the president. We wanted to make it the vice president, because it felt realer to us.
We did feel that there was a huge moral question to be asked about these drone strikes. And that wasn’t a Cheney thing, necessarily, that’s really an Obama thing. Obama’s stepped up those strikes more than anybody else. So it was partly Cheney; it was partly William Walden, our character. It was all wrapped up in the same thing. We can’t use coercive interrogation techniques anymore, but we can fly a drone over people and kill them, without any real judicial process being conducted. These are interesting moral questions that are being asked at the highest levels of the intelligence community, and the government. And so our desire was not to paint Dick Cheney, but to ask the questions about the way we’re prosecuting the war.
And I think that our character had a good point where he pointed at that screen and said, “Abu Nazir, it’s his fault. If he’s taking refuge amongst children, he’s responsible, not us.” That’s a legitimate argument, so we didn’t want to paint [the vice president] completely evil either. He had his own methodology, he had his own rationale, and the truth is, we have degraded al-Qaeda.
AVC: When you do stories like this, they automatically open themselves up to political questions. Is that something you relish?
AG: Well, if you can make people discuss and talk about it, fantastic. At some level, completely unexpectedly, this show captured the attention of the American public for a couple of months. You don’t often have that opportunity in your life, and to pose and ask these questions to get people thinking about them is fantastic. Once you cross the line into being didactic or polemic, then you lose everybody’s attention. So the goal is to pose the question and have the conversation take place among an audience. And if we do accomplish that, that’s fantastic. We do take tremendous pleasure in that.
AVC: This section of the season is kind of a dead spot for Carrie and the CIA. They don’t have a lot to do. They’re just sort of on the tail of Walker, and we in the audience know they probably won’t catch up with him for a while. How do you write having the main character be stymied at every turn?
AG: Again, since the initial conception of the episode was to make it a very Brody-centric episode, that was where we started. We really wanted Brody and Nazir and Issa to get to know Nazir’s family. To see a terrorist making jokes and laughing in the bosom of his family felt like a really interesting arena to play in. We didn’t get to play in that, ultimately, so we had to sort of put Carrie back in the story, which is what you’re responding to. The story with the imam, which I thought played very well, did feel peripheral to the story a little bit, and wasn’t as, in our minds, electric. It’s just one of those things.
Since our series was really a two-hander, and some episodes featured Brody more than Carrie, and some episodes featured Carrie more than Brody, I think it was just natural that sometimes you were going to be drawn to the Brody story more than the Carrie story. But it also did give you a great do-si-do in the storyline. Where it worked really well was in “The Vest,” where you were telling two stories that really played off each other in a way. That was what we tried to do here, maybe not as successfully.
AVC: We also see Walker off on his own this episode. How did you play around with building this guy who doesn’t really have any dialogue throughout the season?
AG: It goes back to what I was saying about the two marines turned. We wanted to make this guy much more laconic, much more mysterious, much more of a loner. Someone, although he had a connection to his family, had divorced that family from the actions he was about to take. And we chose to play him very, very quiet, in counterpoint to Brody.
AVC: Another thing that garnered some criticism was the idea that Abu Nazir knows Brody is going to be approached to run for Congress. How did you make that all work out when you were talking it out in the writers’ room?
AG: I think that Nazir and Brody always knew Walden and the group that authorized the drone strike on the school that killed Issa were going to be the targets of Brody’s attack. But I don’t think they knew how they were going to do it, and I think Nazir, as you said, is able to improvise. He’s got a mole inside the government. And it wasn’t until Brody establishes this connection with the vice president, becomes a celebrity in his own right, that Nazir knows, at that point, that he is going to be approached. He probably didn’t know before. It was something he learned in the process of Brody’s reintegration back into society. So I don’t think he’s making the biggest call in the world; he has the information that Brody’s going to be approached. I don’t think he’s superhuman in his perception at this point. I think he gets told that this is going to happen, and passes it on to Brody.
Tomorrow: The final three episodes of season one.