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A version of this story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Homeland pulled an unlikely feat when it returned to the list of nominees in Emmy’s best drama race this year. The show had dropped out of the race for the top prize in 2014 — despite winning the category just two years earlier. Homeland‘s TV Academy resurgence, like the elements of the Showtime drama’s fourth season that clicked most with viewers, caught showrunner Alex Gansa by surprise.
Speaking with THR as production is now well underway on the upcoming fifth season (Oct. 4), Gansa speaks out about the past season’s riskiest movies, trickier scenes and the twist he once thought was going to blow viewers minds.
What do you consider to be the biggest misconception about Homeland?
That we’re glorifying the way America projects power overseas or we’re portraying intelligence officers as knights in shining armor. What we’re really trying to do is portray the complexities of that effort to influence world events and the deep personal costs that are exacted upon the individuals who are intelligence officers
Was there a particularly stressful showrunner moment you had in the fourth season?
All of the internal controversy about the scene where Carrie [Claire Danes] thinks about drowning her baby in the bathtub. There was so much disagreement about whether the character could come back from that event, how to portray it, how to write it, how to film it and how to edit it. There was a terror that we were making a big mistake. It was less about how the audience would think and more about how we were all reacting to that incident.
Which scene was the most challenging to write?
The one in which Brody [Damian Lewis] appears to Carrie in her hallucinogenic state, because everything that came out of Brody’s mouth had to feasibly come out of Aasar Khan’s [Raza Jaffrey] mouth. You didn’t want him to say anything Aasar Khan wouldn’t have said to Carrie. You also wanted it to resonate between those two characters. There was some slight of hand going on there.
What’s the most difficult part of shooting entirely abroad in the fourth and now fifth season?
The most difficult challenge of last season, and any season, is making the decision on which way to to set sail. Those early choices that you make have such serious consequences down the line. The anxiety attendant upon the story you’re going to tell, where you’re setting that story, the issues you’re dealing with and, most importantly, where your lead characters are emotionally located… those are the most crucial decisions.
What was the most unexpected fan reaction during season 4?
[Executive producer] Meredith Stiehm was going through a receiving line with President Obama, and he said, “Would you please take it easy on Carrie this season?”
The episode “13 Hours in Islamabad” seemed to turn fans and critics back on to the show last season. Did you think it was going to have that effect when you were working on it?
Not at all. It was fairly far from our minds. We were just trying to get through it and make it work. On the set, watching that episode be filmed… at the bottom line you have a member of the Afghani Taliban in a Pakol, with a beard and an AK-47, running around the American Embassy. Part of you is thinking, “Is this the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen in my life? Is anybody going to believe this?” You really are skirting the line and asking people to suspend their disbelief. And you’re terrified you’re going to cross the line and they’re not. You’re so far from thinking, “This is going to blow people’s minds.” The last time I thought that was episode four of season three, when it’s revealed that Carrie and Saul [Mandy Patinkin] had been working with each other all along. The universal derision after that got me thinking I should reevaluate my opinion.
How has your approach to storytelling chanced since the series started?
I have a little more faith in myself. That first season, Howard [Gordon] and I had a vague idea of what we were going to do, but we didn’t know how those big ideas were going to surface and how we were going to dramatize them. There was a lot of terror of the unknown. Having faced that now, season after season, you develop a faith that if you sit in the room long enough, an answer will present itself. And if you just submit to that process, a kind of magic will happen.
What’s the weirdest thing you need to do when you write?
I am completely and utterly obsessive-compulsive, and I have a serious case of attention deficit disorder, so I have a big, thick belt on my chair that I literally tie myself into when I sit down to write at my office at home.
If you could go out for a drink with any character from the show, who would it be?
Carrie — I love her. Followed closely by Saul, who shares my distinct ambivalence about being in a supervisor role of any kind.
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Robert De Niro