'Homeland' Showrunner Alex Gansa Talks Intense Season 4 Turn, Blocking Out Critics

A bold reboot after a key character's death (and that Emmy snub) puts the terrorism drama on a ratings and reviews roll
David Bloomer/SHOWTIME
Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes in 'Homeland'

A version of story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As Homeland nears its fourth season finale Dec. 21, and Monday's Golden Globes ballot deadline, the Showtime stalwart has pulled off a task as difficult as a drone strike: It's generating some of its best reviews and ratings, despite the loss of lead actor Damian Lewis and a notable Emmy snub. Just back from wrapping the finale in South Africa, showrunner Alex Gansa speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about building tension and blocking out the pundits.

Read more 'Homeland' Season 4: TV Review

How long did it take to set the course of season four?

Not very quickly. We knew we were going through a reset, and we knew we were taking Carrie [Claire Danes] overseas. The journey really began on the writers' annual field trip to Washington to sit down with former and current intelligence officers. That's where we began to think about what the season was going to be about and, more basically than that, where to set the damn thing.

What was your top priority?

We wanted to tap into a rich storytelling vein and to get people invested in Carrie Mathison overseas. That included putting her in an interesting political situation and populating her new world. We were all a little terrified about it. There were so many voices to find and casting decisions to make. 

After killing of Brody [Lewis], how fast and loose do you feel you can play with the lives of other series regulars?

It's difficult. You have to listen to some inner voice and the opinions of everyone in the story room. We had those conversations for two seasons, almost ever day, about the lifespan of Brody. This season we're having that conversation about our remaining characters. When they outlive their shelf life, that's a problem. It's a day-to-day thing, waiting for a consensus to build.

The tenuous fate of several other characters has created a lot of pressure during recent episodes.

What I've heard has been from people I know who watch the show. I've completely tuned out reading stuff, but the response that I've heard has been really positive. That level of anxiety and tension the episodes have generated — that's what we're going for.

How did the cast feel about moving to South Africa?

It was a negotiation with the regulars. Mandy Patinkin was much more game to go in the beginning and ready for the adventure. That was what was on everybody's mind and that telling a story about Pakistan would be done better in Cape Town than Artesia. Seven months later, everybody is part of the culture there. I think Mandy is buying an apartment.

What was your discussion with Lewis like to reprise Brody for a cameo?

"Damian, do you want to come back?" "Sure." (Laughs.) We have a very tight-knit family, and all of us would do just about anything for each other. We all knew it would be a surprise and a big moment. The secrecy was helped by us being in such a distant location, but the real secret was last year when he was hanging in a square with 400 extras.

The season seems to have been escalating toward the seizure of the Islamabad embassy. Was that always the endgame?

I would say that once we settled on the location and cast a set of characters, figured out our antagonists, we knew we were going to require a major set piece at the end of the story. The embassy attack became that. I don't think it was in stone early on, but it was something we were building toward. You point the ship in a direction and hope you get there in the end. In this case, we did get there. 

Read more 'Homeland' Takes Baby Steps Toward a Creative Comeback 

ISIS, as an international threat, became a huge part of the news cycle during production. Did that influence your storytelling at all?

When we met with our intelligence people in Washington, that wasn't even on their radar. Everybody was talking about the drawdown in Afghanistan and our fairly tenuous relationship with Pakistan. At some level, I wonder what would have happened if it had come on to the scene earlier. On the other hand, what’s going on there is so grim and bleak. It would have been very difficult to posit a character like Haissam Haqqani [Numan Acar] who could actually have a legitimate point of view. The ISIS people on the ground right now just seem like pure evil. We have a character you can understand, somebody who's trying to win back his homeland, interestingly enough. He's a villain in the classic sense, but he's also someone whose point of view you can understand. This is all serendipity. If you look at the news now, a former ambassador to Pakistan is being accused of selling secrets to the Pakistanis. It's uncanny and bizarre sometimes.

Does criticism and praise affect the writers room?

Pretty much the same team that did season one has done two, three and four. Our job is to put our heads down and work. That's not to say not getting an Emmy nomination didn't hurt -- it did. But you can never predict how people are going to respond to something. People seem to like this season more than last season. It's not something you can plan for. It's hard to believe that we were idiots last year and geniuses this year.

You're renewed for next season. What's next?

We have some options, and we're discussing them, but we probably won't make any decisions until March.

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