‘Homeland’ Showrunner Declassifies the Series Finale
‘Homeland’ Showrunner Declassifies the Series Finale
This interview includes spoilers for the series finale of “Homeland.”
When Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon learned after Season 5 that their political thriller, “Homeland,” would end after eight seasons, they choose not to shape the remaining installments into one long and complex arc. Instead, they would continue planning it one season at a time.
The show would keep them guessing, just as it did for viewers — right up through the series finale, which aired Sunday on Showtime.
When it came time to plan Season 8, much about the fate of the show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), remained uncertain. But Gansa and Gordon, who created and oversaw the series, had a few definite ideas. One brought the story full circle, in a way, to its beginnings, which centered on a returning prisoner from the Iraq War, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis).
“We had decided that we wanted to tell the last story in Afghanistan, and we already knew two big things,” Gansa said. “We knew that a president’s helicopter was going to go down in a war zone, and we knew that we wanted to put Carrie Mathison in Nicholas Brody’s shoes.”
In other words, they wanted her to be suspected of being a traitor.
As for revealing that the C.I.A. super spy Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) had been running a highly placed Russian mole — the translator Anna (Tatyana Mukha) — that idea arose about midway through plotting out the season. And the decision to turn Carrie into a whistle-blower had been a last-minute stroke of inspiration.
The tricky part, Gansa said, had been figuring out how to get the Russian officer Yevgeny (Costa Ronin) to trust Carrie enough to allow her to start spying in Moscow. After rejecting a number of possible solutions — such as having Carrie become pregnant with Yevgeny’s child — the writers were stumped. Then, on the day before the final shoot, Gansa woke up thinking about Edward Snowden’s book, “Permanent Record.”
“I was like, ‘Whoa!’ What if Carrie has been spending the last two years writing an expose of the C.I.A.?” he said. Everything fell into place, and the series’s production designer quickly mocked up a jacket for Carrie’s book “Tyranny of Secrets.”
During a recent phone interview, Gansa discussed bringing the show across the finish line, the impact of Snowden and his regrets about a mishandled story line. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
That’s quite a fake-out when Carrie tries to convince Saul that his life is on the line. Did you ever consider a scenario in which Carrie actually kills Saul?
Carrie would never go that dark. There would always be a third way. We did try to make the scene in which she was telling Saul’s sister that he’s dead as uncomfortable as the moment where it looked like she might kill Saul. We wanted those scenes to demonstrate just how far this person was willing to go to get what she thought was right. Look, Carrie is responsible for the death of an important asset, but ultimately, Carrie is able to take that person’s place in Russia and deliver intelligence back to Saul. She is exactly in the position that she most enjoys, which is a duplicitous relationship where she’s doing the work she was meant to do.
Is it a happy ending? I think Carrie is happy. We wanted the show to end in a bittersweet way, not in a grim way. And in this uncertain time, I’m relieved that there’s some redemption here. Anything that ends with a little good cheer, I’m weeping, like, “Thank God.”
Having Carrie write a book gives you a chance for one last “crazy wall” when we see her office.
Although it’s much more ordered! Carrie’s got it together a bit. It was patterned after my office. Most of the books were my books — all the C.I.A. source material, the spy literature, the whole nine yards. And there is just a litany of our overreaction to 9/11 on the wall. It ain’t a pretty picture. Speaking of books, all the red Tauchnitz books used for tradecraft in Saul Berenson’s library are from my father’s collection. They were just a source of aggravation because whatever city we were in, we would always stop at these antiquarian bookstores so he could look for editions he didn’t have. They finally got put to good use.
Carrie’s book is dedicated to Franny. What happens to her?
Well, Franny got sacrificed. Not only has Franny been abandoned by her mother, but her mother is now like Edward Snowden and is considered a traitor. That’s going to be a very hard thing for that young girl — and, eventually, that young woman — to accept and understand.
How did the endgame evolve or change as the world changed?
We filmed in South Africa for Season 4 and Berlin for Season 5, and Claire and Mandy wanted to come home to the United States. Even though we might have kept the story abroad, our actors were tired of being overseas. And so we were put in the position of, “OK, how are we going to fashion a narrative back in New York City?” That was tough. Luckily, at Spy Camp, [a series of brainstorming sessions the cast and creative staff did each season with intelligence and national security experts], as we were writing Season 6, Mike Hayden, [the former C.I.A. director], told us about the very interesting process of presidential transitions and what that period between Election Day and Inauguration Day looks like — how uncertain it is, and what a new president’s education would look like after two and a half, three months. [Season 6 debuted in January 2017; Spy Camp was in February 2016.] Just listening to him talk, the idea for that season evolved.
For this season, we wanted to consider how America had reacted to 9/11 and how would we react to the next 9/11. Would we have learned anything? We wanted to create an event that was akin to 9/11, but not a mass-casualty attack. So we went back to Afghanistan, where we would have license to tell a more explosive story, for lack of a better word.
“Homeland” was highly praised, but also highly criticized. Did criticism of the show ever affect the story?
Oh, the criticism affected it enormously. First and foremost, I think both the praise and the criticism were overblown. We were taking shots from the left for being Islamophobic and shots from the right for being soft on terrorism. At the beginning of Season 5, Peter Quinn is sitting in a C.I.A. briefing room and telling people what it looks like on the ground in Syria. Our intention in that scene was to portray Quinn as somebody who had seen too much battle and whose judgment was impaired. And yet Fox News and the right wing ran with what Quinn said as: “My God, ‘Homeland’ is getting it right! You have to take a harder line with all these factions in Syria.” That’s inevitable.
There was a moment toward the end of Season 5 where we all just looked at ourselves in the mirror. We were telling a story about an impending attack in Berlin, and four days before we shot the scene, the Paris attacks happened. We found ourselves on the set saying, “What are we doing?” It was truly a “come to Jesus” or “come to Allah” moment: What is the value of telling these stories in a world that felt like it had gone a little crazy? That definitely affected “Homeland” in Seasons 6, 7 and 8.
We made a vow to ourselves that we were not going to dramatize any threats in “Homeland” that didn’t actually exist. From our consultants in D.C., we learned that there were no organized Al Qaeda or Islamic State terrorist cells in the U.S. There were lone wolves acting on their own, but no terror cells here. This was when both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were making it seem like we were going to face another 9/11 attack, and it was only a matter of time. So we were very careful in these remaining seasons that we were not going to be sensational. We were trying to not make it worse.
Edward Snowden was one of your spy camp consultants. What did he contribute?
That’s why Season 5 was all about the surveillance state, hacking and civil liberties. Bart Gellman, a former Washington Post reporter, told me he was bringing a special guest to Spy Camp, and the next thing you know, we’re Skyping with Snowden in Moscow. This was about six months before Snowden was Skyping with other people, so all of the intelligence consultants we had in the room sat up in their seats, like, “Oh my God!”
We had a two- or three-hour conversation with him. He was an interesting cat, for sure. When somebody constantly refers to themselves in the third person, it’s always odd. But he made a compelling case that if he had gone through the normal channels, none of this would have become public.
Did your Spy Camp consultants ever warn that opposing world powers might seek to take advantage of a crisis in which actually no one was to blame — just to consolidate their power? In “Homeland,” that happens after a helicopter goes down. In the real world, it might be the politicization of the coronavirus.
Right? That’s an interesting analogy. I mean, a virus truly is nobody’s fault, and the political ramifications on all sides — the finger-pointing, the blaming, the conspiracy theories that grow up around these things — is remarkable. We did hear a lot about that in Spy Camp, just in terms of how events can be twisted for political gain in ways that we haven’t yet begun to imagine. And now we’re witnessing it in full bloom.
One of the things I remember hearing very early on was how Al Qaeda began to spin events on the ground. Special Ops would go in and kill a terrorist cell, and then Al Qaeda would come in and spread Qurans all over the floor to make it look like they had massacred a prayer circle. How events are open to interpretation is profoundly unsettling. There is no one source that you can look to and say, “Well, I believe that” — some Walter Cronkite who you can look at as an arbiter of what’s real. It makes the world a scarier and more uncertain place.
Don DeLillo said in “White Noise,” “In a crisis, the true facts are what other people say they are. No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.” The time we’re living in right now, I certainly feel that way. I don’t know about you, but I just cannot put my finger on what to believe. Do I wear a mask? Not wear a mask? Do we need ventilators? Do we not need ventilators? The whole thing is just so confusing. “Homeland” has always tried to live dramatically in that ambiguous space. You see that between Saul and Carrie in the last couple of episodes, how to deal with a crisis that’s unfolding in front of their eyes.
Any regrets? Any stories you wish you had told differently?
After Brody was falsely implicated in the C.I.A. bombing, I wish that we had found a better way to dramatize the impact of that upon his family in Season 3. I just think that if we had been thinking more clearly, we could have devised a better story around how that affected and impacted their lives.
That goes back to Franny. What happens when Franny and Dana meet?
That would be a great story. Save it for the movie! [Laughs.]