‘Homeland’ Showrunner: ‘We Knew We Had to Plot a New Course’
Showrunner Alex Gansa tells Andrew Romano how he and his team saved the series—and hints at what’s next.
The stakes were high Sunday night when Season 3 of Homeland premiered on Showtime. The first season of the hourlong spy thriller about bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison and POW turned terrorist Sgt. Nicholas Brody, two damaged souls on opposing sides of the war on terrorism, earned a whopping 91 percent approval rating on Metacritic, the critical review aggregator. “I can’t recommend the series highly enough,” wrote Time’s James Poniewozik.
Then came Season 2. It started, and ended, well enough. But in between—about two thirds of the way through—something went wrong. Perhaps it was the time Brody killed his presidential running mate, Vice President William Walden, by feeding the serial number of Walden’s pacemaker to a team of al Qaeda henchmen who proceeded to stop Walden’s heart by remote control (because that’s how pacemakers work). Or maybe it was the time terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir sneaked into the United States and chased Carrie around a shadowy underground maze, Freddy Krueger style.
Either way, the reviews were not good. “Increasingly erratic and outlandish,” wrote Scott Collura at IGN. “Giv[es] even devoted viewers reason to feel cheated,” added Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times. “Such a mess,” concluded Alan Sepinwall at HitFix.
And so, as an admirer of Homeland, it is with pleasure that I announce that Sunday’s Season 3 premiere was not a mess at all, and that it gave devoted viewers no reason to feel cheated. Quite the opposite.
At the end of Season 2, an al Qaeda car bomb had just blown up the CIA’s Langley headquarters, killing hundreds. Brody was on the run, having been framed, or so it seemed, for the attack. And Carrie was the only person who believed he was innocent.
To be honest, not much happened Sunday night to advance the plot. Instead, the Homeland crew decided to start the season by taking viewers inside its characters’ heads. Inside Carrie’s guilt over missing the bomb plot (she blames her bipolar meds). Inside Saul’s struggle to lead the CIA out of the darkest chapter in its history (he’s gripped by indecision). Inside Peter Quinn’s agony over shooting an innocent child during an otherwise successful operation. And inside the conflict between all three spooks as they each attempt, in their own way, to do what’s right. Only Brody remains opaque, offstage, still in hiding.
Was this shift in emphasis—from plot to character, from action to psychology—intentional? Was it a response to the criticism of Season 2? I put the question to Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa, and his answer was surprisingly frank.
“I think it’s fair to say that we wanted to start off slower,” Gansa told me. “I think we were smarting a bit at the criticism ... We knew we had to plot a new course for the show.”
In an interview, Gansa reveals how the Homeland writers “rearranged the furniture” to save the series; how the love affair between Brody and Carrie isn’t necessarily over; how real internal CIA conflicts seeped into the latest plotlines; and how this might be the season Brody dies.
Excerpts from our conversation:
Season 2 of Homeland was all about the “doomed love affair,” as you’ve put it, between Brody and Carrie. What is Season 3 about?
I really think this season is about the toll that is exacted on intelligence officers doing their work. On Saul, on Carrie, and on Peter Quinn.
We see that very much in the first episode. All three of them are present and damaged. Is that renewed focus on character and psychology a response to what critics said about last season? Here’s a quote from the New York Review of Books about Season 2: “The carnage is preposterous, and getting the show back on more convincing psychological territory will be the task of Season Three.”
It’s so hard to address these questions without being defensive, but I will say this: my feeling about the criticism of Season 2 … I have a very similar response to the acclaim of Season 1, and that is that some of it was deserved and some of it wasn’t. On both fronts. To answer the question about whether we sat down in the writer’s room and made a conscious decision to make the show less preposterous—well, of course we didn’t want to make it preposterous, but to make it less plot driven? I think it’s fair to say that we wanted to start off slower. I think we were smarting a bit at the criticism. So I think that’s a fair assessment.
Did you know where you wanted Season 3 to go at the end of Season 2? Or did you have to come back to the writer’s room and figure it all out?
Completely the latter. Completely the latter. I think at some level toward the end of Season 2 we were flying by the seat of our pants a little bit, and we just wanted to deliver a successful finale. Which I honestly in my heart believe we did. But then we just had to pick up the pieces and say: “What are we going to next? What’s the next iteration of the show?” And for that very reason, we started back in the story room much earlier than we usually do, just because we knew we had to plot a new course for the show.
There was some shakeup in the writing staff as well.
There was. Meredith Stiehm, she left to go do her own show, The Bridge. Alex Cary was gone because he was doing a pilot for CBS, so we lost him. And then of course we lost Henry Bromell to a heart attack. So it was quite a substantial change in the story room. Especially the loss of Henry—it really did infuse the story room, and by extension the show, with a degree of sadness.
You pick that up in the premiere—it has a posttraumatic feel to it. As writers, how difficult was it this time to move all those puzzle pieces around and settle on the right permutation—the right plot—for Season 3?
It’s always difficult in the beginning. It really is. It was difficult at the beginning of Season 2. It was difficult with the pilot. Anytime you’re launching a show, either at the beginning or in a new direction, you are faced with myriad decisions to make. Where do you begin? Do you pick up a day later? Do you pick up four months later? Do you pick up four years later? What characters are still around?
We always have this metaphor where we’re sitting around and we are just rearranging the furniture every possible way. You know? The chair there, the couch there, the lamps there. And then we see how the room looks best. That is a painstaking process, and it’s the most terrifying part of this job, because you’re just hoping that you find the right arrangement, the right interior design.
And then you have to live with it for an entire season. The original arrangement influences everything that happens in the show—two weeks from now and two months from now.
That’s exactly right. You hope it appeals to you halfway through the season as well, because you’re stuck with it.
Did you consider killing off Nicholas Brody in Season 3?
We’ve considered it in every season, and I imagine we’ll consider it in every season we do. Which is not to say that we’re not going to do it this year. That piece is always on the board. That move—sacrificing that piece.
You’ve said before that you and the writers know whether Brody had any involvement in the Langley bombing. There was a little ambiguity left at the end of Season 2. Are we going to find out the answer to the question soon?
Here’s something you once said of Carrie and Brody: “We always come back to the fact that whenever those two characters are on screen with each other, the show elevates.” But we don’t see Brody at all in the Season 3 premiere. Why not?
It was just one of those … that particular piece of furniture did not feel like it belonged in the room. I cannot believe we are flogging this metaphor to death.
Now we have to start talking about flower arrangements.
[Laughs] You know, he was actually in a version of the first couple of scripts, and we just came to the conclusion that it was better to introduce him when we finally decided to introduce him. Just clean.
So originally you were considering to cutting away to Brody on the run—tracing his narrative along with Carrie’s narrative and Saul’s narrative.
Right. It’s so funny. I read Alessandra Stanley’s piece in The New York Times on Saturday, and she was also bemoaning the Carrie-Brody relationship. I don’t think she called it preposterous, but she intimated that it didn’t have legs. But then she berated the show for not having him in the first episode. I was like, “Alessandra, which one is it, exactly?” [Laughs] “Is it that they don’t belong together or that you’re missing it?” This is the box you find yourself in. It’s so crazy. But what are you going to do?
You’ve said yourself that “a lot of the Brody-Carrie story has been told.” Was it difficult to figure out how Brody and Carrie would relate now? They’ve already been lovers, then enemies, then lovers again. Where can the relationship possibly go next?
That is the germane question. That is the challenge of a third season. How do we intersect these two lives in a way that doesn’t feel like the same old stuff?
Is the love affair element over?
I wouldn’t say it’s safe to guess that. No.
The end of the premiere, when Saul throws Carrie under the bus, suggests a new focus on the dynamic between the two of them. Was that relationship heightened because Brody is offstage?
I think that’s accurate. It wasn’t necessarily that quid pro quo. We weren’t necessarily exchanging one for the other. What we were again thinking was here again are two characters who have for the most part been in lockstep for two years. You have to throw a new wrench into that relationship.
And for us it grew out of character. Here is Saul, who has probably been passed over for the job of director for the last 15 years. One political appointee comes along after another, and he is always the deputy, one rung behind, and never gets to sit in the chair. So he’s become quite familiar and quite comfortable with sniping from the sidelines. And then because of this horrible attack, all of a sudden he finds himself in the position where he’s the one making the decisions, and he begins to find that it’s a lot more difficult than he thought. That perhaps he’s not temperamentally suited to it.
That’s where we started Saul. And you can see in the first couple of episodes he is challenged to make some decisions that are surprising.
Throughout the season premiere, Saul is gripped by indecision—with his wife, with the operation in Caracas. He says he’s “not temperamentally suited” to leading the CIA. But then he very skillfully and decisively throws Carrie overboard to protect the agency. What changed? Is that paradoxically the moment where Saul becomes a leader—at the expense of his protégée?
If we accomplish that—if the audience comes away feeling what you’ve just said—we’ve been successful in the first episode. That’s really the idea: the difficult calls that you have to make and the people you have to sacrifice.
Truthfully, what’s interesting about the intelligence community is that when you speak to intelligence officers, both active and retired, the appetite of these agencies to eat their own is enormous. People get sacrificed. The institution is always put in front of everything else.
That felt very realistic to me. What didn’t feel quite as realistic was all the talk of “putting the CIA out of business” or “revoking its character” because of the Sgt. Brody–Abu Nazir errors. Am I wrong to think that? Did you discuss that with your intelligence sources?
It’s interesting. During the Church hearings in the 1970s, there was a serious movement around—like, “we have to scrap this place and start again.” When we spoke to our consultants, they said that if the CIA itself suffered an attack of this magnitude, there would be a serious reevaluation of the agency. Now whether they would actually be put out of business, we may have taken some dramatic license with that. But we really spent a lot of time talking to our consultants about what actually would happen. Would Saul be fired, for example? These were all things we posited to our people. Either way, just the idea that the institution itself is in some kind of existential crisis is really what we were going for.
At one point in the premiere, Saul says of the CIA, “We’re not assassins. We’re spies. We don’t kill our targets if we don’t have to.” That sounded to me like a criticism of the increasingly large role the CIA has been playing under President Obama in these sorts of paramilitary targeted killings. Was that the intention?
I don’t think it’s any secret that some people view the CIA right now as a second-echelon Pentagon. There is a paramilitary aspect to the agency these days. And I know that inside that building there is some tension between human operations and electronic operations. I don’t think we’re trying to criticize the Obama administration, though. I think we’re saying Saul Berenson, who is an old cold warrior, believes that human intelligence is the function of the CIA, and there are newer people, or political people, who believe that the less risky electronic intelligence gathering is the more reliable and the less risky.
And that’s a real dynamic that exists in the CIA.
This is kind of hard to get from our intelligence people. [Laughs] This is a touchy subject. But it was interesting. We were at the CIA recently, and I broached this question because it was front and center in our make-believe intelligence agency. And though they denied it at the beginning of the conversation, by the end the two factions in the room were bickering with each other. [Laughs] So it was evident that there is some conflict. Whether it is as heightened as we portrayed it, who knows? They want to present a united front. But any bureaucracy is going to have twists and tensions in it, and this is clearly one of them.
It’s great how those real tensions inform the “make-believe” world of the show. They give it a sense of verisimilitude.
Similarly, at the beginning of the series, when we talked to our CIA consultants … this was just after Obama had come into office and outlawed harsh interrogation techniques, and yet he was flying drones over Pakistan and in an extrajudicial way, killing people. And there were some people in the agency who were going: “Well, there’s a moral equivocation here. We can’t torture these people, but we can blow them up out of the sky.” That felt odd to people there. So we ran with it that first season.
We haven’t talked about Carrie yet. She’s in a pretty bad place at the beginning of Season 3. She’s being interrogated by Senator Lockhart and the select committee. She can’t forgive herself for the Langley attack. The CIA is against her. She’s off her meds. She’s making maps with strings.
When the strings come out, you know things aren’t good. Why pile it on like this?
We were looking for a new dynamic with Carrie. We had seen her sort of forced off her meds in Season 1. And we’d seen her be rigorous about taking her meds in Season 2, after her stint in the psychiatric hospital. So we wanted to give her a new place to start, and the place we settled on was this: She was on her meds when the attack on the CIA happened, and Carrie Mathison being Carrie Mathison, she blamed herself. And one of the things she is questioning is, did the meds dull her genius? Was being on the lithium responsible in some way for her being blinded to what was right in front of her eyes?
And that feels new to us as writers. That feels like an interesting place to put Carrie—and frankly a truthful place to put someone with bipolar disease. The manic side of the illness can be a very addictive condition. It’s when people feel they’re flying near the sun. It’s when people feel most in touch with their genius. There’s a very heightened, alive quality to that state. Now, it’s got its dangerous side, of course. But people with the disease miss that state when they’re leveled out on their medication.
It seems to me as if Carrie may be blaming the meds when actually the thing that was blinding her was her feelings for Brody.
Again, if you’re picking that up, then you’re right exactly in our narrative flow. That’s the question we would like people to be asking.
And can we expect that tension to be explored further this season?
I also think Carrie is being set up for some sort of redemption. It’s that familiar Carrie dynamic where she’s right about something and no one believes her. That’s been an important element of her character from the very beginning.
If you look at the first season, it ended with Carrie believing Brody was guilty when everyone else thought he was innocent. Then the second season ended with Carrie believing he’s innocent when everyone else thought he was guilty. So we reversed the dynamic 180 degrees. But you will find a different dynamic in Season 3, which I really can’t share with you.
Why can’t Saul pass a polygraph test?
[Laughs] Because he’s a nervous Nellie.
But how did he become CIA director without being able to pass?
That was a long time ago, the polygraph test.
Maybe he’s gotten better at it?
Maybe he’s gotten better at it.
And I assume you have seen the SNL parody of Homeland. What was your reaction to it?
Oh, my God. We just laughed and laughed and laughed, to tell you the truth. And I understand that they have another Homeland sketch in one of their first episodes this season. And I understand that The Simpsons’ premiere episode is titled “Homerland.”
Well, you know you’ve made it when The Simpsons starts making fun of you.