What the 'Homeland' Creator Learned on His First Trip to Trump's Washington

Alex Gansa describes his 2017 field trip to a very different U.S. capital and how he came to make the drama's fictional president its primary foe.
Antony Platt/SHOWTIME; Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Since Homeland came to Showtime in 2011, showrunner and co-creator Alex Gansa has annually touched base with the U.S. intelligence community to ensure his national security drama was never too far afield. So when time came to prep the series' seventh season, which premiered on Sunday night, he headed back to Washington, D.C., and found things quite different than in previous years. 
 
Gansa recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter, and said that intelligence officers and journalists were uncharacteristically chummy when he spent time inside the beltway in 2017. He also discussed the decision to make the show's fictional president (played by Elizabeth Marvel) the latest opponent to Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison and confirmed that the show's coming eighth season is indeed its last — at least for him.  

What was going on in the world when you started prepping this season?

We took our annual field trip to Washington in late April and early May [of 2017]. President Trump had been in office for about three months. At that time, there was a lot of concern and saber-rattling over North Korea. Our time in D.C. was filled with a lot of anxiety and talk about whether a strike on Pyongyang was imminent.

And every previous research trip had been during the Obama administration.

Everyone was trying to orient themselves around a very different kind of president. There was a lot of concern about how many military people were surrounding him, and whether or not they could disobey a direct order. Chain of command is so important in the military structure. But what was most remarkable was the differences from previous years. When we'd gone to D.C., there were two very different kinds of people we'd meet: people in the intelligence community and journalists. As you might imagine, we'd hear two very different interpretations of the same reality in the two different groups — so much so that there were times when we'd have somebody sitting in the room, talking, and we had to devise a way to get them out one exit so we could bring another person in from somewhere else. They couldn't meet. We'd have a former directors of the CIA there, and an investigative reporter from The Washington Post coming in, and they just did not want to be in each other's company.

And now they do?

This past year was completely different. There was clearly an administration in the White House that was not a fact-based organization. The two fact-based organizations, the intelligence community and the fourth estate, were essentially on the other side of that divide. There was this kind of collaboration going on between journalists and Intelligence officers. It was fascinating to witness.

How much have you been able to keep up with current events during production? On the FBI front, alone, news comes very quickly.

We have not had to course-correct this season in relation to what is actually happening in the world, only because events are happening so very quickly that it's impossible. It's also impossible to predict what's going to happen tomorrow. We're just telling our own story and not commenting on the day-to-day world.

Is it a break to not take so many real-world cues, given how fatiguing the news cycle can be?

I hesitate to predict what an audience wants to watch, but I don't think they want to watch a mirroring of what's happening in the world right now. We're telling our story of where Carrie Mathison is at this point in the trajectory of her life and honoring what we did last season. It's been a relief, a little, sure. But at the same time, Homeland does always try to be relevant. So there are issues we are commenting on — the FBI, or questions like, "How do you remove a president from office?" These are ideas being discussed on a daily basis in the real world, and we're also discussing them on the show.

You'd said the plan was to get the character of Carrie back in the CIA and stationed abroad in the seventh and eighth seasons. What changed?

I'll just ay that if Hillary Clinton had won the election, I don't think we'd be setting our story in Washington, D.C., this season. We're probably be abroad again. And we will be abroad for our final year.

Are you comfortable referring to season eight as the last?

It's definitely going to be my last year. I can't speak for Claire or Mandy, but it will be my final year and it will be designed to be the end of an eight-season story. If Showtime, Fox, Claire and Mandy want to take the show further that's their decision, and we would leave some room for that to happen — if there's an appetite.

Ignoring the Hillary variable, how has Elizabeth Marvel's character evolved from its inception and when did you know you were going to transition her to the series' primary foil?

That was always the strategy. How exactly it happened changed a little bit as we went through the season. But from the very get-go, and this was before Trump was elected, we created a president who was at odds with the international security establishment. That was the premise of the sixth season. We watched that relationship deteriorate, and by the end she was a victim of an assassination attempt. That spiraled her into a state — whether it's PTSD or paranoia. It put her in a vindictive place.

What are some of the themes you wanted to explore this season?

We are definitely exploring Carrie's bipolar disorder. One of the big themes of the year is that the divisions in her own mind are mirroring the divisions in our society. While she's coming apart, so's the country. Episode by episode, that's what we are trying to articulate.

Some viewers were bound to be upset when Rupert Friend left the show, but did you expect an ad campaign to bring him back?

I think we were all aware that a part of our fan base was not going to be happy, but there are so many factors that go into these things. It's so complicated. We felt that Peter Quinn's tenure on the planet was over, and he was done being part of Carrie's story. But, yes, we were expecting a backlash of some kind. People are always upset when a beloved character dies.