‘Homeland’ Creator Talks Season 4’s ‘Reboot,’ Life After Brody, and How ISIS Will Affect the Show
Showrunner Alex Gansa opens up about rebounding from Season 3 and the Showtime series’ new direction this time around—starting with that thrilling 2-hour season premiere. [Warning: spoilers.]
“It’s going to be a different series,” Homeland co-creator and showrunner Alex Gansa told us following last season’s finale. “We are going to reinvent.”
And that’s exactly what the Showtime series has done in its fourth season. Following a polarizing third season that saw many fans jump off the bandwagon, and the death of Brody, played with dazzling conviction by Damian Lewis, in the finale episode, the show needed to chart a new course—one less reliant on melodrama (the Carrie/Brody affair, the emo eye-roller Dana)—and more about what made the show so damn thrilling in the first place: edge-of-your-seat tension, CIA wheeling-and-dealing, and shrewd spycraft.
Season 4 of Homeland, which bowed with a special two-hour premiere episode on Oct. 5, is a leaner and meaner narrative—one that sees our favorite bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) kick things off with a startling error. As CIA Chief of Station in Kabul, she’s delivered faulty intelligence by mysterious CIA agent Sandy Bachmann (Corey Stoll), and ends up ordering a drone strike on a farmhouse in North Waziristan that takes out a high-value target in Taliban leader Haissam Haqqani, as well as the rest of his wedding party, consisting of 40 civilians. The lone survivor is Aayan Ibrahim (Suraj Sharma), a mild-mannered, apolitical Pakistani medical student who finds himself being courted both by the Taliban, as well as the very agency that murdered his entire family.
As for Carrie, when Bachmann’s photo is somehow leaked to the press and he winds up dead, she uncovers a trail of corruption leading back to CIA Director Lockhart (Tracy Letts), and blackmails him into assigning her as CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad so she can investigate how Bachmann was compromised, and why his previously reliable asset went rogue and supplied him—and the CIA—with faulty intel. Meanwhile, Saul is working for a defense contracting firm and itching to get back in on the action; Quinn is shell-shocked from the Bachmann death at the hands of a brutal mob; and Carrie’s baby is left in the hands of her concerned sister.
The Daily Beast spoke at length with Homeland co-creator and showrunner Alex Gansa about moving on from the show’s third season and why Brody had to die for the show to thrive once more.
I saw this season as a “reboot.” Did you see it that way, as the showrunner?
Oh, completely. Completely. I think that with “reboot” or “reset” there’s a pejorative quality to it, which is a way I didn’t look at it. The Brody story had come to a close and the story had to set off in a new direction, which we felt was a positive thing. We had to put Carrie in a different environment, give her a new set of problems, and see how she’d cope with them. We viewed it as liberating.
How did the death of Brody impact the series? Did you feel like a weight, in a way, had been lifted off your shoulders? I know that the writers had been trying to off him for some time.
Right. Well, we kept him around because we felt that there was still story to tell there, and because we just loved Damian. Damian is such a phenomenal actor, and the people on the creative side of things felt like the two of them together were electric, and great. But you’re right: Howard [Gordon] and I felt like we’d kill him at the end of the first season, then we felt like we’d kill him at Episode 8 of the second season, but his longevity and shelf-life took him through the third season. But there was never a feeling of, “Oh, we’re happy to not tell this story anymore,” and more of a sense of deep melancholy that our time with Damian and with Nicholas Brody were over. It was only when we started to sit down in the story room this year that we started to think, “There’s a real opportunity here.”
So did you then feel seduced by the fact that Damian was so good as Brody and had such fantastic chemistry with Claire that you kept him around for too long, and perhaps deviated from the show’s overall narrative arc?
You know, I think you might have a point. You might have a point that we were seduced by Brody and Carrie's time together onscreen. But you’re doing these shows and doing them at such velocity and pace, and so many decisions are made every day—every one of which can screw you. And a lot of these decisions are made quickly, and made with as much thought as you can bring to bear on the problem. For someone behind the show, it yielded some episodes that I’m really glad we did. And honestly, I miss the character and I miss working with Damian on a daily basis.
Season 4, like the beginning of the series, is centered on another failed drone strike. There are major echoes of Abu Nazir here. The show is, in many ways, a commentary on drone warfare.
Drones were the first things on our minds when we were conceiving of the series. It was in all of the news stories, all over the press, what people were talking about in the halls of power, and what our CIA consultants were talking about. It was at the time when these enhanced interrogation techniques were being outlawed by President Obama, but at the same time, he was allowing these extrajudicial killings from the sky. There was a fundamental moral ambiguity in saying, “You can’t torture people, but you can kill them.” And of course the larger question was, “Are we making the world safer, or are we radicalizing people on the ground?” As we moved into this season, one of the things that really bugged us during the first season was that we never really got to tell that story. We had one little episode in the first season where you see some flashbacks of the Abu Nazir house, you see the drone strike, and then you see Brody picking up the body of that little boy. So we thought, “Let’s go back to that well and really tell the story from the other side—not just from Carrie’s side.” So we created this point-of-view character, Aayan Ibrahim, who occupies and holds the frame of the story for a long time before he even meets Carrie Mathison.
The Aayan character, a meek, apolitical Pakistani medical student who loses everything in a U.S. drone strike, is the embodiment of that question: “Are we making the world safer, or are we radicalizing people on the ground?”
Right. The whole idea arose out of how everybody on the planet is using social media now—and bad guys are using social media. Look at what’s happening with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We wanted the story to feel modern, and how this unsuspecting lone survivor of an airstrike would be thrust into the international spotlight, and how it would affect a kid.
So I’m assuming that much—if not all—of the fourth season will be following whether or not Aayan will become a CIA informant or a terrorist.
Right. What excited us about the season was that we got to take Carrie Mathison out of Washington D.C., where the CIA doesn’t really have charter to operate, and put her overseas where she does, and where she can do what she was trained to do: be a case officer and recruit assets in foreign countries to get secrets. So Aayan becomes that recruitable or unrecruitable asset that is vulnerable to being radicalized, and also vulnerable to being recruited.
The interesting thing I’ve always found about Homeland is that the show explores the psychology of the terrorist, and what America is doing to radicalize these people.
That was really the objective of the first season, especially. We were trying to be subversive and hoping that, by the end of the year when Brody was wearing that suicide vest, some people would be saying, “Flip the goddamn switch! Those people deserve to die.” If we could put the audience inside that character and actually will him to go through with it, then we’d be successful in being subversive in that way. We’re a lot less in that storytelling situation this year. We’re really trying to identify this kid as a legitimate victim of a mistake, how he deals with that, and where his life takes him as a result.
Homeland really was one of the first TV shows or films to be very critical of drone strikes. Now, you’ve got all these films and TV shows—X-Men, Robocop, Captain America, etc.—taking the drone system to task.
Opening the dialogue was the important thing. We try not to be polemic and try not to take sides. We’d rather ask the question, “What are the pros and cons of this strategy?” “How is America projecting its power overseas?” “Are we being effective?” As a citizen of the United States, I just don’t think you can look at what’s happening in the world right now—in Iraq, Syria, and possibly Afghanistan and Pakistan—and say, “We’ve done a great job over there.” There needs to be a process of reevaluation and learning from one’s mistakes. It’s a real question about all the blood and treasure we’ve spent, and has it amounted to anything.
And ISIS is a crazy symptom, to a degree, of what we’ve done in that region.
Absolutely. Not only in terms of the politics on the ground, but in terms of material and hardware. A lot of those ISIS people are running around with American armaments, and that’s totally scary.
How much of the show plays off the news, and will future seasons of the show be influenced by what’s going on with ISIS?
They can’t help but be influenced by stuff like that. We try not to rip things straight from the headlines, but every year before we start working on the season, the entire writing staff takes a trip to Washington D.C. where we spend four days talking to anyone who is willing to talk to us—former and current intelligence officers, people in the White House, members of the press. We got a minor masters degree in what people were talking about in Washington with regard to terrorism. That’s where we take the bulk of our inspiration, from the human beings who live and breathe this stuff on the ground in D.C. For example—and this is before ISIS—everyone told us, “What the hell are we going to do in Afghanistan now?” “Are we going to draw down, or are we going to keep a force there?” “And what happens if we do, and what happens if we don’t?” Most interestingly to us was: If the U.S. does withdraw somewhat or completely, the people left behind on the ground are case officers like Carrie Mathison trying to hold things together. That felt very pregnant to us with possibility.
The D.C. contacts mentioned Afghanistan, but the show’s fourth season will primarily be set in Pakistan, right?
Those two countries are so intimately tied together because of the border region, and because the CIA Station Chief in Islamabad and the CIA Station Chief in Kabul are very closely tied. What happens mostly is that the station chief in Pakistan targets the people in the border region that the station chief in Afghanistan then targets with drones and airstrikes. Also, the fates of those two countries are very tied. There are a bunch of Taliban people on the border who Pakistan are very concerned about, and want to direct their energies away from Pakistan and towards Afghanistan, which puts them in direct conflict with the United States. At some level, in a very duplicitous way, Pakistan is providing arms and intelligence to the Afghans on the border who attack American soldiers in Afghanistan, and America has a very strong military and diplomatic relationship with Pakistan. The contradictions with the relationship are legion, and it felt like a great place for someone to put Carrie Mathison—someone able to embrace contradiction like only she can.
This season seems to explore Pakistan and the ISI. Was it influenced by the story of Daniel Pearl?
The ISI is the CIA’s counterpart on the ground in Pakistan and the relationship between those two institutions is a fascinating one. There are pro-American factions inside the ISI and anti-American factions inside the ISI, and the ISI has many different wings, some of whom are in conflict with one-another. There are these conflicting agendas, and all this room for murkiness. We’re not going A Mighty Heart and doing a Daniel Pearl story, but we’re living in the same hostile environment.
The Sandy Bachmann character was a nice touch, and a fun card to play. People see Corey Stoll on a show and they think it’ll be a nice 3-4 episode arc, but you offed him during the premiere.
Look, we would’ve taken Corey for the full season if we could have him, but he’s got another show on the air. We begged and bartered to get him for one episode, but he really embodied that character so it makes that final sequence with him really terrifying. But Sandy’s dead. If you want to watch more of him, go to The Strain.
It must have also been tough to factor in Carrie’s love child with Brody into the story.
We spent a lot of time, and last season there was outright revolt in the story room of people who thought we should get Carrie pregnant with Brody’s child, and people who thought it was a tragic mistake. We came down on the side that she should have Brody’s child, and what’s significant about it this season is that that child is really an emotional marker for Carrie. Because of what happened last season, arguably that Carrie sent the man that she loved to his death, it’s a fact that Carrie hasn’t come to terms with, and that kid is the physical representation of everything she doesn’t want to face. When and if she decides to raise that child herself, it will be an indication that she’s made a journey of sorts. And if she doesn’t, we’ll be on the road with Carrie Mathison waiting for the moment where she understands where her responsibilities are, and facing what she did.
How difficult was it this season to manage Carrie and Saul’s relationship? He really is a surrogate father to her—and must be even more so with the unfortunate passing of James Rebhorn, who played Carrie’s father.
The Saul story was in some ways the trickiest story for us this season. We had booted him out of the CIA last year, so how we were going to reintroduce him into Carrie’s life was difficult. We put him in the employ of a private military contractor, and I think it’s interesting how these private military contractors provide security for embassies and military bases all around the world, so it would naturally put him in front of Carrie in a way that will have profound consequences as the episodes go along.
How “Serenity Now” is Carrie? She’s largely kept her emotions in check through the first few episodes.
I think you’ll have to keep watching. By the end of the third episode, you’ll get the sense that the pressure is building, there’s a lot going on, and she’s doing everything she can to hold it together and be an effective station chief. It’s a very high-stress job, and one that she’s incredibly well-suited for on the one hand, because she’s brilliant, and ill-suited for on the other, because she’s emotional, mercurial, is a risk-taker, and not a great team player.
There’s major sexual chemistry between Carrie and Quinn. Are we going to see them knock boots soon? Their chemistry is pretty off the charts.
I’m glad you say that, because there are many people who don’t think that. We like to think that there is clearly some energy between them. I would argue that Carrie is in no emotional place to even entertain any kind of relationship with anyone right now; she’s just trying to manage her own life solo. And I think Quinn realizes that she’s emotionally unavailable, which is why he’s tried to step away from her life a bit and didn’t go with her to Kabul. But when you put these two people together, they share a lot in common: They do similar dangerous work, and Quinn has been where Carrie is now. He’s been the guy doing mission-after-mission, targeted assassination-after-targeted assassination, and he understands how you can go down that rabbit hole, and is very concerned for her.
What was the rationale behind Quinn’s budding relationship with his landlord? Was it to give him a romantic interest so as to not force the inevitable Quinn/Carrie affair?
When Quinn gets back in the second episode from Islamabad after losing his station chief on the ground, killing people on the ground, and not wanting to do that again in his life, he’s brought back into this swirl of emotions and the conflict between he and Carrie is vibrating, and he finds himself drunk, and he finds himself taken advantage of by his landlord, essentially, and decides that he needs some comfort, and decides that she’s a good person. So, this very unlikely couple gets together.
But the rationale must have been to highlight the fact that Quinn is a decent guy—especially when he stands up for her in the diner. Because some people still didn’t entirely know what to make of Quinn.
You’re completely right. There is something sweet about that relationship, and he’s a stand-up guy, Peter Quinn. He’s made the choice to be with this woman and he’s going to honor it, and not be judgmental.
Why did you decide to abandon the Javadi storyline? It seemed so central to the end of last season.
The Javadi story was just intimately bound up with the Saul story. These were two intelligence officers who knew each other from way back when they were full of idealism and ways of changing the world, and reality got in the way of that in a very dark way. So the story was about those two characters reuniting and, in the most improbable circumstances, changing the world. We weren’t dealing with Iran anymore this year, too, and when we went to talk to our consultants at the beginning of the third season, they all said, “We’re interested in Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” so that’s how Season 3’s story developed. It’s not to say that Javadi might not appear again at some time, but he won’t be a central player this season.
Writer Meredith Stiehm was involved in so many choice episodes during the first two seasons of Homeland before leaving and creating FX’s The Bridge. What did her departure—and return—mean for the show?
Meredith has always been the primary voice of Carrie Mathison. In the writer’s room, she’s the shepherd and caretaker of that character, and really looks after her well-being in the face of a lot of men who want to take her to a lot of places where Meredith doesn’t think she should go. We really missed her in the third season, and we’re so happy to have her back and the show is better for it. Although Meredith and I did write the finale episode of Season 3.
What can we expect going forward in Season 4?
I think the answer is to watch the episodes and project how you’d go about things from the perspectives of these characters. And I guarantee we’ll be going about things differently.