After being nearly shut out in last year’s Primetime Emmy Awards with only two nominations, Showtime’s Homeland bounced back this year, righting the ship with a critically well-received fourth season that changed locations and even the majority of the main cast. The result? Nominations for Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Directing, Outstanding Lead Actor for Claire Danes, and Outstanding Guest Actor for F. Murray Abraham. Showrunner Alex Gansa sat down recently to talk about that success, about the challenges of what amounts to a soft reboot of a hit series, how star Danes carried the most recent season on her back, and how Homeland manages to pull off the trick of making it look like the headlines are ripped from the series.
You killed off Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody at the end of Season 3, which had large implications for Season 4. How did that affect your approach to this season?
The show really did change dramatically with Brody’s death; we knew that it would. I will say that one of the things that mitigated the anxiety was that (executive producer) Howard (Gordon) and I, when we first created Homeland, envisioned that Brody would die at the end of Season 1. So we always believed that going into Season 2 we would be telling a more conventional show about an intelligence officer, albeit a bipolar intelligence officer, but we always imagined that the show would revert to a more traditional franchise. Because Damian was so amazing, and because the chemistry between Claire was so amazing, that storyline arced out over three seasons instead of just one. So by the time we got to Season 4, all of us knew that the show could exist because we were dealing with an intelligence agent who was trying to stop terrorist events.
That’s a strong premise on its own, so we were confident about it. But again, we were now dealing with unknowns and all the ineffables, which is, “What story are we going to tell? Who are our new cast of characters? How are we going to deal with the fact that we just lost our other lead?” Those were the things that caused the most anxiety and fear. All the choices that you have to make—I mean, really, the first episode of Season 4 was kind of another pilot. We pulled out of Charlotte, North Carolina, where we’d been shooting, and traveled to Cape Town, South Africa. There was a completely different crew there, we hired an entirely new cast of characters for the most part. And we picked an area to tell the story in—Pakistan—that obviously isn’t Cape Town, so we had to create Pakistan on the ground in South Africa. All of those were huge, huge obstacles that we were staring at. You never know how it’s going to go. We were very anxious and concerned.
Honestly, we got lucky again. The cast was uniformly strong, the narrative held up, and the crews in Cape Town were fantastic. And the situation on the ground, both in life—the American draw-down in Afghanistan and the very strange relationship we have with the Pakistani government and the Pakistani intelligence service—all served our story incredibly well. And Claire, clearly, was able to carry the show all on her own shoulders.
The risk you took in rebooting the show clearly paid off with viewers and critics. Are there any specific moments in Season 4 that are your favorite?
I think you have to start with Claire. The problem with starting with Claire is that her performance is just universally awesome. It’s almost impossible to watch a take or performance in the editing room that you don’t want to use in the show. I think the audience has come to expect that her performance is stellar every time. So I think I have to say that before going on.
I think Mandy Patinkin had an incredible season. The things that we put the character of Saul Berenson through—I’m thinking of the scenes on the tarmac, the scenes where he’s trying to escape a village and he’s got a gun to his head—his performance was so powerful and strong. And the kid, Suraj Sharma—who played Aayan, the boy that gets killed at the end of Episode 6—was a revelation. The way that relationship played out between Claire and Suraj, that carried the first half of the season and his death energized the second half.
Finally, I would point to Laila Robins, who played the ambassador. From the minute she stepped in front of the camera she became Martha Boyd, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. If I look at the entire season, my favorite scene is that scene between Martha and Dennis Boyd—husband and wife—with a belt, in Episode 10. And it was two guest stars, which was really surprising.
In the time since you went into production on Season 4, the situation in Syria has become much more terrible and complicated. Do you have any plans to bring the ISIS problem into the series for Season 5?
Well, before we start in the writing room, all the writers, and Claire and Mandy, go to Washington, D.C., and we hole up in a little old CIA club there. We entertain a parade of intelligence officers—current and former—State Department people, White House staffers, and we get a real sense of what people are talking about in Washington. Those meetings taking place over a week so heavily influence the show so that some people think, “Oh my god, you guys are so prescient, things that appear on Homeland the next week will appear in the newspaper.” It’s largely because we’ve heard about them before everybody else has when we’re sitting in D.C. And you’re right, a lot of the conversation when we were there this past January had to do with the Islamic state, the deteriorating condition in Syria and Iraq. It also had a lot to do with Russia and Vladimir Putin. And the season this year will reflect both those problem areas. And if you notice, (Season 5 location) Berlin is kind of right between both those places.