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Alex Gansa walks us through Homeland’s first season (Part 2 of 4)

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 four through six, beginning with “Semper I” and concluding with “The Good Soldier.” Part one can be found here.


Semper I(Oct. 23, 2011)
After Carrie’s FISA warrant runs out, she is forced to pull the surveillance on Brody and pursue her own methods of keeping tabs on him.

Alex Gansa: The time-jump is another source of big debate. [A monthlong time jump opens the episode. —ed.] Could we do this? And would the audience follow if we did it? And we had to do it all through dialogue: “It’s been three weeks, the warrant is about to run out.” I think that there were certain episodes in which we really swung for the fences, and this was one of them because of the time jump, because we were pulling the plug on one of our most dramatically effective narrative techniques.

Carrie watching Brody was riveting. Every time we got into those scenes, with Carrie behind her monitor, and Brody doing something, whether it was sexual, whether it was violent, or damaged, there was electricity. We just didn’t want to overplay our hand. If you remember how “Semper I” opens, it’s with Carrie watching Brody the last day of the surveillance, and she’s sort of narrating his morning: “Get dressed, put this on, smile for the cameras.” All this stuff, which we hopefully thought would convey the idea that she’d been watching for a long time and knew everything about him and was intimate with him in a way. I give credit for the staff’s willingness, and everyone’s willingness, to pull the plug on the surveillance. And it also led to their second cross in the show, and it was a cross that was really, really important. It was one we all held our breaths for when we were watching dailies, because this was a meeting outside a support group, outside a church. This was really the first time that they’d met personally, and not in a professional setting, and we just hoped there was going to be some chemistry between these two.

AVC: Had you read the actors in auditions opposite each other?

AG: No, we had not. It’s so funny. In television you’re talking about writers all the time, “the writers,” “my writers,” but you just cannot overestimate the importance of our directors, especially Michael Cuesta, who worked with Claire [Danes] and Damian [Lewis] a lot in the pilot establishing what that connection is, talking about what each character’s motivation is. We sat in [the writers’ room], overdid it, ad nauseam, talking about that stuff. And that scene outside the church in the rain was really the culmination of all those discussions, and all the cat-and-mouse that was going on between these two characters. And Michael’s idea was not to do a lot of rehearsal, just to throw them into the situation and see what happened. Michael didn’t direct that particular episode, but he was there, and we talked a lot about it with Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who did direct the episode. And we all just crossed our fingers in hope that something magic would happen, and I think it did.


AVC: Carrie doesn’t learn anything through surveillance that implicates Brody, so you don’t get a lot out of it on a plot level. It does get you a long way on a character level. Where did you make that call?

AG: That’s why we decided Virgil fucked up and didn’t put any cameras in the garage, because that way, we were able to have it both ways. Yes, Carrie watches Brody. Yes, she becomes personally involved in his life. Yes, she knows things about him, but nothing definitive that says, “Yes or no, he’s a terrorist.” And it also opened the possibility that the audience wasn’t seeing what was going on in the garage as well, so we could keep that question open. And that was just a narrative strategy.


But you’re exactly right. The surveillance was designed to establish a connection without actually having to have them meet. And in the fourth episode, “Semper I,” we shut off the surveillance, which forced Carrie into her next move, which was just as radical, in our opinion, as surveilling him with cameras and microphones, and that is to insert herself into his life. And it really started the second movement of the season.

AVC: How do you decide when too much ambiguity is too much ambiguity?

AG: I think it’s two things. One, it’s trial and error. That’s the first thing. You kind of know when you read drafts of scripts if it feels like the energy is going out or we get flaccid in a way. But the other thing is that you never do know; you can only go on your instincts. You can only think that you’re telling the right story. You’re often wrong. Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. But I don’t think you can ever know.


One of the great things to come out of this season was how much our audience embraced the ambiguity. It was almost our biggest virtue. It’s so funny, because when you look at people who were so vocal about The Killing, for example, and the fact that no questions were answered, and it was left in this ambiguous morass—what was our most criticized episode? Our most criticized episode was one where we answered questions. The episode where we talk about the kid, Issa. People were like, “Wait a minute, that’s too much information! It’s not ambiguous enough!” You do your best, you juggle, you try to reveal as much information as you can. Sometimes you get it right; sometimes you get it wrong.

AVC: Do you think that’s the difference between the smaller, self-selecting cable audience and the larger network audience? Could network audiences embrace that level of ambiguity?


AG: I don’t know the answer to it. All I can tell you is that, for the most part, successful shows on television, unless they’re written by flat-out geniuses like David Milch, tend to succeed in a much more black-and-white universe. That’s why you see doctors, lawyers, cops. People, on a large scale, tend to want to tune into things that make sense, answer questions. It’s the same way for people that love mysteries. The universe gets organized in a way that’s comforting. For some reason, on cable in the niche audiences, there’s more of an appetite to be a little bit more vague about these things. There have been some great, great shows on broadcast networks that have maintained that ambiguity, but they’re few and far between.

AVC: You worked on The X-Files, a network show that had some level of ambiguity for its first two seasons. And so many people from The X-Files, like you and Howard Gordon, Vince Gilligan, and John Shiban, moved into this cable area. What do you think that show taught you guys?


AG: I worked on The X-Files on staff for the first year. That’s actually when Howard and I broke up as partners, after that first year. I wrote some episodes in the second year with Howard. I knew Glen Morgan and Jim Wong really well. I knew Chris [Carter] really well, obviously. But I did not know Shiban; I did not know Vince, I did not know Darin Morgan. I don’t know John’s work as well as I know Vince’s and Darin’s, but I view those guys as outright geniuses. I won’t speak for Howard, but I struggled to write coherent, compelling episodes of television on The X-Files. And I like some of the episodes we did.

But Darin and Vince took it to a whole other level. Darin was able to make fun of the show while telling a compelling episode of television, which was outrageous. And Vince was in some other world. He was in some other zone. So I would just watch those episodes with my jaw in my lap. I think that Chris Carter had an incredible knack for picking writers, and I think that show afforded me a room to move as a writer. And the very nature, the very absurd nature, of Mulder and Scully’s investigative quest was so ridiculous that it just gave everybody freedom. But there was still a mystery to solve. I felt that the mythology episodes were always the weakest. It was always the standalone episodes that riveted me. The mythology episodes were always more ambiguous.


Blind Spot(Oct. 30, 2011)
One of Brody’s former captors is captured and brought to the U.S., where he is interrogated… and Brody wants to speak with him personally.


AVC: Did you intend for the audience to suspect Saul might be a mole? Because this is the episode where that started.

AG: Completely not. Again, this is one of the unintended consequences—actually an unintended consequence of improvisation on set. The Kaddish that Saul says for Hamid after Hamid slits his wrists was completely improvised by Mandy [Patinkin] on set. He sat down and said it. A lot of people interpreted it as Arabic. It’s actually Aramaic, and it’s actually a prayer you say for anyone who’s died. It’s a life-affirming prayer, but it was misinterpreted as some sort of Arabic prayer. Once we decided to put it in the episode, we were all aware that it might be misinterpreted that way, but there was never any moment where we intended to make Saul an outright suspect as a mole. We played a little with that in the very next episode with the lie detector, and the fact that Saul was unable to pass it. We tipped our hat to the fact that people started to suspect it, but not at first at all.


AVC: The mole is such a staple of 24, and toward the end of the season you did confirm there was a mole somewhere, but you never revealed who it was. How did you come to the decision to reuse that story device?

AG: Well, we had some narrative holes that we had to fill. There obviously is this trope that goes back to John le Carré, and probably before that. I guess there’s some Graham Greene novel there was also a mole in place. And certainly that whole Guy Burgess stuff that happened in real life in England. This is a trope of the intelligence thriller.


Now, 24 did it to death. It became something of a joke on staff: “Okay, who’s going to be the mole? Is it this?” And, truthfully, we didn’t know a lot of the time on 24 who the mole was until we came to an episode where we had to reveal it, or something had to happen, so we would pick the person and would wonder, “Well, did all the things that he or she has done up until this point make sense if she’s the mole, or he’s the mole?” I’m thinking of the character that Katee Sackhoff played in the last season of 24. So we knew that there would be a mole, but we always knew we weren’t going to reveal who the mole was, for the very reason that we were not 24. It was an anti-24 choice. And truthfully, the majority of moles, from our research, tend not to be revealed ever. They hang out, they do their business, and they retire. There’s a certain verisimilitude to the fact that some moles are never uncovered.

AVC: How much research had you done into the intelligence world?

AG: Lots of research, although Howard jokes that he never reads a book. I guess I did the research, and then passed it along. There’s a couple of great books, but the best one of all is this Tim Weiner book called Legacy Of Ashes about the CIA and the history of the CIA, which is really just a fascinating book for anyone who’s interested in this history to sit down and read. And then we had an active CIA consultant, who recommended a lot of stuff to us. And we all have friends in the State Department, who’ve talked to us about what it means to work overseas. And we invented a lot of it, too.


AVC: The writers’ room was filled with people who had previously been showrunners on other shows, like Henry Bromell on Rubicon or Meredith Stiehm on Cold Case. Much of the time that doesn’t work, but it did here. How did you work in that situation with people who had previously been running shows?

AG: 24 was like that, too. A lot of showrunners in that room.

I have to say, I had run shows before, but I learned a lot from Howard about what it was to run a show when I watched him on 24. I think you can pretty much divide any leader of an organization into two types. One is the person who wants to hire the very best people that he can find. The other is the type of leader who wants to subordinate everybody. What I learned from Howard is, our philosophy is to hire the best people you can possibly find, and then keep your ears and mind open to their ideas. And to create a real democracy in the room, so everybody checks their title when they go in. And often, when you get a sympathetic group of people together, and choose wisely, a consensus forms in the room around ideas and around ways to tell a story, and that’s when it’s functioning well. Now, there’s always going to be disagreements, and that’s when it’s my job to say, “You know what? We’re not going to do that. We’re going to do this.” It’s about keeping yourself open. It’s about letting the best idea win. It’s about trying not to have an ego about anything. Ultimately, it all accrues to your benefit anyway, if it all turns out well.



AVC: How did that staff come together? Did you know any of them previously?

AG: I knew Chip [Johannessen] previously. I knew of Henry previously, and I had tried to hire Meredith Stiehm on Maximum Bob. I did not know Alex Cary. Alex Cary came from the studio, who had a deal with him. He was a former Special Forces guy. He served in Operation Desert Storm, and he served in Northern Ireland. So he was really very important to us as a touchstone for Brody’s character. Chip, I worked with on 24. Chip is an astonishingly good writer, amazing in the room. Henry’s a legend. Meredith Stiehm, when she turned in her first script, “The Weekend,” we all came into the office the next day and thought we should just turn in our WGA cards. That is just the most amazing piece of writing.


It was people who all had a reputation and were extremely committed to trying to tell a good season of television. And who were also, I think, if you talked to them, grateful that they weren’t running the show, because it’s the worst job in the world. It’s the worst job on the show. To be able to sit and write episodes is so much more fun than the knocking your head against whatever wall you happen to be knocking your head against that week.

AVC: It seems that the character that’s hardest to keep from being a cliché is David Estes, who has to be the hard-assed supervisor. How did you balance keeping him within his role without making him a total cliché?


AG: Well, I’d say two things about that. One, I don’t think we were entirely successful. And “Semper I” helped that a little bit, I thought, in which we got into his previous relationship with Carrie, helped humanize him a little bit. Also the actor himself, David Harewood—who was just made a member of the British Empire by the Queen, which is one step below a Knighthood—he was just getting his legs under him, too, in terms of his accent, and in terms of his character. Because he was much more of a device at the beginning than the other characters, he struggled a little bit with finding his groove. So I think as the season went on, he got better and better and better, and we were able to dimensionalize his character some.

And I really think in the finale, he stepped to the fore. That scene that he has with Saul at the end in which he tells Saul what the real deal is, wasn’t a black-and-white moment. It was a complex moment. It was a moment where, this is the grey area in which the intelligence community operates. And I thought he did it with gravitas and subtlety, and I just thought he played that scene so beautifully, and really, really held the screen with Mandy, which is always hard to do.


AVC: This is something that has a lot in common with Breaking Bad

AG: First of all, just you saying that, I cannot tell you. My son: “Dad, I think your show is great, but Breaking Bad is off the charts.” [Laughs.]


AVC: One of the things you have in common is when the story needs to progress, it progresses. I did not expect the CIA to catch up to Faisel in this episode, and yet they did. How did you decide to have things move so quickly?

AG: One of the things you learn very early in writing for television, especially, is that compressing the story is always a good idea. When we first talked about the season with Showtime, their feeling was that the end of the first year was the revelation that Tom Walker was alive, and that the end of the second year was the actual suicide vest. Their initial impulse was to stretch that out over two seasons. And we were open to that at the beginning, but as we started to tell the story, we realized in order to push the story forward, we were going to have to compress. And what we realized we had to do was, whenever we could, swing for the fences and not save story, but put the cards down.


And that’s an example of one where we put the cards down. We were going to catch up with Faisel, we were going to kill him, we were going to push that story more quickly than you might have expected. And I think it put the audience off balance. That was the part of the season where people were like, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen next? What are the writers going to do next? I’m worried. Can they sustain the show? Are they telling the story too fast? How are they going to keep this going?” And, interestingly enough, that’s what people are saying at the end of the first season, too: “Well, where can they go from here? How can they move on from here?” One of the things that I learned from Howard on 24 in terms of plotting out these thrillers is that if you sit in a room long enough with smart people, there is a way the story can be told compellingly.


The Good Soldier(Nov. 6, 2011)
After Hamid’s death, everyone who was given access to him has to take a lie-detector test. Meanwhile, Carrie and Brody have sex.

AG: We were looking ahead to the next episode, which was going to be one of two things. “The Weekend” was either going to be an idyll up in a cabin, or it was going to be a situation in which Carrie was forced to take Brody prisoner and interrogate him. We knew that that’s what episode seven was going to be, so it became our task in six to set that story up one way or the other. That was our conundrum, and the way it played out was, we had them sleep together, and we had Brody pull up and Carrie get in the car with him. It was a bridge episode leading to “The Weekend,” and Henry was able, in a very deft way, to make that episode compelling. And those bridge episodes are always the most difficult ones to do. We also finally made the Brody/Mike/Jessica story come out into the open, and also set the stage for Tom Walker to step back into the world. It was a building-block episode.


Again, having them sleep together so soon took people by surprise. I think people expected that to happen, but that it would happen so quickly unsettled people. I think about this time, in episode four or five, you could feel anxiety building in the audience. People started to get worried and get invested in Brody, and start to think, “Oh my God, I’m beginning to sympathize with somebody who might actually be a bad guy.” And that was the greatest thing that could happen in this part of the season, and that was the thing we were going for. And if we succeeded, I think we did a really cool thing.

AVC: Were there any doubts about making him side with Abu Nazir?

AG: That was pretty much in stone, that he had been turned in captivity, but it wasn’t in stone that he’d go through with what he’d agreed to do. That was the open question, still. But I think everyone would have felt it was a big jerk-off if he hadn’t been.


AVC: How much of that was you needing Carrie to be right on some level?

AG: For exactly that reason. You’re right. I think for her to have instigated and done so many rash and impulsive and reckless things, to not be proven right at that point would have compromised her character beyond repair.


AVC: This episode also has the “on the run with Aileen and Faisel” adventure. These are two characters we’ve just met, and we’re being asked to be engaged in their relationship. How do you approach that problem as TV writers?

AG: Honestly, we really struggled with this. And we struggled with it in “Semper I,” too. We just never really nailed that relationship in a satisfying way, to us in the room. In my opinion, it felt like the most 24-like story that we told all season long. It just didn’t have the depth and complexity—and we tried. It wasn’t for lack of effort. We just couldn’t find the scene that brought those two characters, in this episode and the episode previous, into some kind of three-dimensionality. And it wasn’t until “The Weekend,” when we got Aileen in the car with Saul, that one of those two characters came alive.


AVC: It turns out Abu Nazir is behind Faisel’s death. How did you keep him from becoming a Lex Luthor-like supervillain, where he always knows what’s going on?

AG: Well, it’s really quite remarkable how little screen time he has, all season long. You have to go look at the little bits where he’s actually in the show. I think one of the most profound parts was in the pilot, after Brody beats Walker to death, or thinks he’s beaten Walker to death. Nazir takes Brody into his arms and comforts him. And in the scene in “The Weekend” where Brody’s talking to Carrie and says, “A man was kind to me, and I loved him.” Look, Nazir is a human being, and it was our intention from the very beginning to make everybody’s motivation in the show understandable. Not right, not something that we endorse, but an understandable idea. Why is he like this? Why is he propagating this violence against Americans? We wanted to make that clear and understandable, and not two-dimensional. And I think Navid [Negahban], who played Nazir, was able to bring an intelligence and a sort of scholarly quality to that character that really wasn’t a cliché.


AVC: Do you have future plans for that character?

AG: Absolutely.

AVC: How did you go about developing the four main characters’ lie-detector scenes, where we learn new things about them, and not one of them is the same. How did you build essentially the same scene in four different ways?


AG: I have to throw it into Henry’s court, Henry who wrote the episode. I believe he had written a Rubicon episode that was a lie detector. I never saw that episode.

Intelligence officers are boxed all the time, and it can be randomly done, and there is a wonderful bartender/therapist quality to [the process]. The guy, James Urbaniak, who played the lie-detector guy, was just so wonderful and understated and quirky. And the fact that all our main characters are allowed to reveal themselves to this guy in a way they can’t to other people was just a great runner through the show. It lightened and leavened the heaviness of the rest of it. We talked about a lie-detector runner, and Henry did it all. We didn’t pitch much on it in the room. We wanted all these people to be in there, to have their moments, and I just think it played well. I thought that especially Saul and Carrie, Mandy and Claire, were especially coy and sly with him in a way that was wonderful to watch.


AVC: This is the episode where Brody finds out about his wife’s infidelity. It’s something that he sort of gradually figures out over the course of a few episodes. How do you play those moments where a character gradually learns something and the audience is shown them learning that?

AG: Well, in this case, the audience knew right from the get-go that Mike and Jessica were involved in a relationship. It wasn’t just a relationship; it was a serious thing. They planned to move in together. They were actually in love, and the kids were on the verge of being told all this before Brody ends up being rescued.


My own feeling was that Brody knew from the very beginning. He sensed it, and because he knew he had so many secrets himself that he didn’t want to share, he wasn’t going to make it incumbent on Mike and Jessica to share their secrets as well. Speak no evil, hear no evil. Brody was at a point where there was so much he was holding in that he didn’t want that information. He wasn’t ready to face it until this particular episode.

AVC: Why would you say he snaps in this episode and has the fight with Mike?

AG: It’s the truth-teller. It’s the character of Lauder. It’s the wounded warrior who comes back and tells Brody the truth. And needles him, and gets under his skin, and tells him about how he’s changed and what he’s doing, and points out the current hypocrisy in his posture toward the Marine Corps and toward the world. And then comes out and announces to everybody that indeed this relationship is going on, at which point he can no longer ignore. Frankly, it just comes out. It gets spurted out in the open, and Brody can’t control himself any longer. All that stuff he’s been holding in comes out. And that allows him, interestingly enough, to hook up with Carrie. The idea was that once he had learned, and faced the fact that Jessica and Mike were still probably in love with each other, it opened up the possibility that he could open up to this other woman, to Carrie Mathison, with whom he has a connection.


AVC: When exactly did you make the decision that it wasn’t going to be the kidnapping situation in the next episode?

AG: We were struggling with a couple of issues. One of the iterations of this was that Brody found some evidence of the surveillance in the house, and then Max and Virgil were forced to put the clamps down on him and drag him off to some safehouse somewhere, and Carrie would come out to confront him. The problem with that was everything was out in the open at that point. The moment Carrie would interrogate him in any capacity would, by its very nature, have to bring Estes into the equation, and we didn’t want to bring Estes into the equation.


So the idea of this romantic idyll out in the words preserved all that. It could be kept a secret, and the merits and virtues of that were so far superior to the other idea, that the moment we started talking about “The Weekend” we realized it would be better to do it in a less hostile and confrontational way. We could achieve the same ends as a more traditional interrogation thing. We always knew that at the end, Carrie would be convinced that Brody was guilty. But then the Walker piece of information would come in. She would learn that Walker was still alive, and go, “Holy shit. I’ve been interrogating the wrong man. I’ve been suspecting the wrong guy.” We always knew that twist was going to come, but if you add that romantic part, the fact that Brody actually made a connection with Carrie, the fact that Carrie found herself emotionally attached to this man, and that was all spoiled and ruined by the fact that she falsely suspected him, it was just richer.

Tomorrow: “The Weekend,” “Achilles Heel,” and “Crossfire.”

Part one


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