'Homeland' Showrunner Talks Post-Election Adjustments and Writing the President as a Foil

"My first reaction [to Donald Trump's win] was, 'Oh my god, we are now counterfactual to the point of being irrelevant.'"
Jo Jo Whilden/Showtime; Getty Images
'Homeland'; Alex Gansa (inset)

For anybody still holding out hope for a female U.S. president in 2017, at least there's Homeland. The Showtime drama returned for its sixth season Sunday night — and while the timely narrative focuses on a presidential transition, those who tuned in found out the person in question is neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump.

[Spoilers below from the Homeland season-six premiere, "Fair Game"]

Homeland showrunner and co-creator Alex Gansa seems well aware of the unique path his series is on this season. The surprising results of the 2016 election happened months into filming, long after the drama added Elizabeth Marvel as its president-elect and moved production to New York following several years shooting abroad. Gansa, who recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter, has maintained since last summer that Marvel was not cast to play a Clinton proxy. But he also says that Trump's win has influenced the course of this 13-episode run.

Exactly how much that influence will be felt remains to be seen. But, in the meantime, Gansa sounds off below about the season premiere, his still-daily dialogue with intelligence and government sources, the decision to keep Rupert Friend on the show and how the writers are already planning for the next two (and likely final) seasons.

Having already filmed a few episodes by Nov. 8, how did you react to the results of the election?

I think the election result was as much of a shock to us as it was the rest of the country. To say that we took it calmly would be a complete lie. My first reaction was, "Oh my god, we are now counterfactual to the point of being irrelevant." It took a while to dig ourselves out of that feeling. We just came back to the fact that Homeland, after all, is fiction. And in the past, it's been world events that have caught up with the show. So we just stuck to our guns. We didn't take a break — we couldn't afford to, for one thing — so we just looked at our story, which is strong. It's always been a parallel reality. But it comments, in an interesting way, on current events. And we have to trust that our audience is hip to that fact, because they have been for all of these years. Let's hope it continues.

You always begin prep for a season with a research trip to Washington, D.C. How quickly did you land on the transition as a timely frame for the story?

The way these things work is kind of ass-backwards. Claire [Danes] really wanted to come back home after so many years in Charlotte, South Africa, Berlin, Morocco and Israel. We had to find a way to devise a narrative around that desire. We did our usual field trip down to D.C. in February and talked to people for a long time. We met with, not just our intelligent consults, but House staffers and journalists. We just cast a really wide net about how we could plausibly set a story in New York about an ex intelligence officer. And how do we get Saul Berenson [Mandy Patinkin] and Dar Adal [F. Murray Abraham] into that story? It proved pretty problematic for a while, until we started to hear discussions about the presidential transition period. Since that was right around the time Homeland would start airing season six, a lot of people we were consulting thought that would be an interesting time to dramatize. It made even more sense if the president-elect was a native New Yorker, and there was a logical reason for her to be in New York during that transition period. These president-elects tend to base their teams in their hometowns.

How has it been being so steeped in this subject while reading the incessant coverage of the real-life transition?

We spoke a long time to [former NSA director] Mike Hayden who actually did the transition briefing for Barack Obama. We got to hear firsthand how a new president-elect gets educated and persuaded, or not, in terms of these intelligence briefings. Now that we're in that period, and we watch President-elect Donald Trump dealing with his intelligence agencies and the difficult relationship that's already been established between those two, it's become that much more fascinating.

Have you spoken much with those contacts since the election?

A couple of times a day we get them on the phone, trying to figure out what's going on. [Laughs.] We do still have the opportunity here. In November, we were shooting episode four or five, so we did have some time as we were writing contemporaneously to real events to adjust a little bit and sharpen the relationship in ways that felt more relevant.

Regardless of who was elected, the character of the president-elect was going to be a big conversation point this season. How did you go about writing her?

The new president-elect had to be coming into office with some ideas that were anathema to the intelligence community, because that would immediately set up some conflict between her and our main characters and put Carrie right in the middle of that relationship. Whether it was going to be a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton, that was almost besides the point. We were going to create our own maverick president-elect with some very strong ideas about where she wants to take the country and how intelligence agencies go about gathering their intelligence — what their actual charter and purpose is. We wanted to put those forces against each other and have Carrie squarely in the middle.

Do you have any evidence, even anecdotally, about the partisan makeup of your audience?

Our major audiences are in Los Angeles and New York, so I think that speaks for itself. But we try incredibly hard in the story room to be politically agnostic. I'm sure people, this season, are going to say, "What is Carrie Mathison doing defending a Muslim teenager accused of material support for a foreign terrorist organization?" That's what the character is doing. That's not what the writers are doing. And we felt it was a logical jump for her, especially after what she went through last year. We really try to show both sides of every issue and do it as rigorously as we can. We get flack from both liberals and conservatives. And when that happens, you know you're in the sweet spot.

What made you want to go in this direction with Rupert Friend's character, who you revisit sneaking out of a V.A. hospital to do drugs in a brothel? 

I've said this before, but one of the very first impulses that Howard [Gordon] and I had when we sat down to write the Homeland pilot was to tell a story we weren't seeing on television — and that was about the return of our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. That was a motivating factor in even the motivation to do Homeland. Here we are, six seasons later, with an opportunity to show a before and after of someone who has served on the frontline of the war on terror. Here's this guy we've known all along, this pillar of strength, this laconic action hero. And now we get to depict him as a casualty of that war. We're hoping that has some resonance and reality for our audience.

How sure were you writing the last season finale that Quinn would even be back?

I'm aware that people are somewhat upset with us for what we put Quinn through last year. I think what he's gone through is behind him, but he's now suffering the effects of that. The question is if he is going to be able to survive and regain a more positive outlook on the world. It's shaken up the character dynamics quite a bit, because we've essentially thrown a new character into the mix.

Can you give me an idea about the discussions that led to you all committing to doing another two seasons after this one?

We all sat down — not just the writers, but Claire and Mandy — to talk about the appetite to tell more stories. And the appetite was strong. What's positive about Homeland is that in the franchise itself, there are stories to tell and there's a way to bring this thing in for a landing. Now we have an opportunity to look ahead and plan for it. We knew, coming back to the U.S. this season, that we felt there would be a two-season arc to get back oversees during seasons seven and eight. Obviously, that's contingent on what happens in the world in the next year or so. But the plan is to get the story back oversees and to get Carrie back into the intelligence agency.

And, in the meantime, she's running an Airbnb in Brooklyn.

She's trying to make a go of it on her own. Carrie's story has been about trying to find her place in the world. Once you've put your career behind you, it's hard. And if it includes renting out her garden apartment, so be it.

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