“Homeland” was the best new show of 2011, and one of the best shows on TV, period, that year. (And was named the best drama on television by Emmy voters on Sunday night.) Now the show’s lead producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon have to follow up on that high-wire act. I’ll have a review of the start of the season later today or tomorrow (hint: I was pleased), but I spoke with Gansa and Gordon last month about the transition from one season to the next, and how they intend to deal with what happened at the end of last year. Note that I cut a few spoiler-y passages out of the interview and will run them after the season premiere airs on Sunday night.
I know you guys have said that you at least considered the idea of Brody blowing himself up last season. Did you have discussions about, ‘Okay, then what is season two?’ Or were you too in the weeds to even think about that?
Alex Gansa: I think at the beginning of the year, we talked a lot about Brody expiring by the end of the season. But as the season progressed, and as we saw Damian’s performance, and as we saw the chemistry between Damian and Claire, we realized that we would be sacrificing a huge part of the show by having that vest work at the end of season. I would say I think we knew by the third or fourth episode that Brody probably would survive the season at that point just because that doomed romance was so charged.
So you hadn’t had any time to even consider whether a second season would have Carrie going after different terrorists?
Alex Gansa: Right.
“24” got to reset itself every year and start over, even for the same characters. Here, you have to build on everything that has now come before. How challenging was that as you started breaking season two?
Howard Gordon: It was challenging as far as we knew that there was so much story left to tell between Brody and Carrie. The real question was not so much about season two, but what about season three? The two are connected, so that’s what we talked about.
Alex Gansa: It’s interesting. A lot of talk went into it, I think, is the truth in there, like where this season was going to go and how it was going to be different from last season. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves, obviously. We felt that it would be impossible to start at that exact place where we left off season one, so the decision was really made to throttle back at the beginning of this season and to start off again slowly and in a different place than we had been before. All the conversation of the story was, ‘What’s the best way to tell chapter two of this story between these two characters?’
And have you significantly diverged from the Israeli show by this point?
Howard Gordon: Yeah, very much so. Whatever we culled from the Israeli show we sort of put into season one and now the stories have diverged so much that I think it’s-
Alex Gansa: If there was little similarity last year there is almost none, I think, this year.
You got a lot mileage last year out of the question of, ‘Where do Brody’s loyalties lie?’ We didn’t know. We thought we knew at the end of ‘The Weekend,’ but we were wrong. We find out later on and then he makes his decision at the end. That’s not the case here. Obviously we don’t know what he’s going to do ultimately, but at least all the cards are on the table in terms of his back story. How does that change the storytelling for the second season?
Alex Gansa: It significantly changes the storytelling. I think Howard has a great way of putting it, which is like we got to ask a lot of questions last year and we have to answer a lot of questions this year. And that’s just a dramatically different proposition entirely. Having said that, Brody has to define for himself and for the audience what exactly his deal with Nazir was. The deal was, ‘I’m not going to be a terrorist; I’m going to influence policy from within,’ and there was a lot of debate even in the story room about what exactly that agreement was. Was Brody just stalling for time? Did he really mean that? Is he putting Nazir off? Does Nazir trust Brody? Does Nazir think Brody is actually going to go through with this? How does that all fall into place? How are we going to choreograph that sort of agreement between these two people? You will see over the course of the first four of five episodes that being negotiated. What are Brody’s responsibilities to this terrorist? What are they?
Was the finale specifically written in mind that, ‘All right, we’re probably going to get a second season, here are some sort of balls we can put in the air that we can then catch if and when we come back’?
Alex Gansa: Absolutely.
What are examples?
Alex Gansa: Well what does Carrie remember? She does have a revelation, where finally figures out who Isa was and it’s zapped out of her memory. So does she or does she not remember that? We talked about Nazir’s and Brody’s bargain. What is the nature? How does that play out in the next season? What happened to the suicide vest? Who is the mole?
Howard Gordon: Brody’s political ascent?
Alex Gansa: Yeah, those are all the sort of the operative questions and in the second season, obviously all done with a heightened world tension of Israel just having bombed Iranian nuclear sites.
I want to ask about Dana. With “24,” some people liked Kim. Some people, Kim drove nuts. There is this epidemic in general on TV right now: these irritating teenage characters who exist just as obstacles. I found for the most part people who watch “Homeland” really like her and she was fundamental to how you paid off the season. What did you do with her and that character to make her fit into this adult world?
Howard Gordon: It’s what she did, really. Morgan Saylor is just electric and other actors would even say, ‘Wow, who is that girl?’ So we knew that she was very strong actor, and then connected to Brody, and in a strange way was even more of a counterbalance of Abu Nazir and of Isa than Jessica was, because his relationship with Jessica is different.
Alex Gansa: But it was very carefully laid. If you remember the pilot, when Brody comes back into that waiting room and sees his family for the first time, his embrace with his wife is very tentative and awkward and uncomfortable, but his daughter is somebody with whom he – that’s when he first smiles. That’s when he first really fully takes one of his family back into his arms, and you get a sense that there is a very strong and natural and easy connection between these two people. So we built that all the way through the season so that if there is one person that could talk him off the ledge at the end, it would be that girl with whom he has a connection, and a connection that Nazir could never have planned against. There is nothing Nazir could have done to anticipate that or to actually protect the plot against.
We saw what Claire (Danes) got to do last season. What does having a Carrie who has been through ECT, who is now out of her profession, who is taking these meds do for both Carrie as a character and for Claire’s performance?
Alex Gansa: One of the things that we’re exploring this season, obviously, is in a state of mental health, quote, unquote, does she feel the lack of her own genius? In other words, if she isn”t experiencing the highs and lows of her bipolar condition, does she feel somehow diminished as an intelligence officer? It might have been in those manic states, in those manic periods where she is most brilliant and here she has been therapized [and psychoanalyzed and electro shocked into some sort of equanimity. Is she the same Carrie Mathison as she was before?
Howard Gordon: The pathology has to be there, but at the same time, you can’t just go to that well willy-nilly.
We came into last season and Carrie is our central character, our point of view character, and we find out very quickly that she is an unreliable point of view character because of her mental illness. Now she seems to be at the center of the story again, but she doesn’t have the same position of power she does before. Saul is the actual CIA operative in the field. Does that change the narrative structure or the audience’s point of view?
Alex Gansa: I think it did for the first couple of episodes in the second season, but again, an event will occur down the line that will shift the dynamic back to make it more between Brody and Carrie directly.
Will Mandy sing?
Howard Gordon: Hopefully.
Alex Gansa: At my 20th anniversary.
David Marciano, he’s a regular this year. What did you see out of him last year that made you think you needed him around more?
Alex Gansa: Well Howard has been always in the story room saying Carrie cannot be such an isolated character; she has to have a friend in the world; she has to have somebody she can talk to besides her sister who is-
Howard Gordon: A nag.
Alex Gansa: Yeah.
Howard Gordon: Not really a nag, but – in a way, I was most concerned about Marciano, because initially that character was supposed to be a much younger character. So there was some concern as to whether he would overlap with Saul, but David Marciano made that role into something that felt three dimensional. So we just knew. It’s a serviceable part in that he’s an independent contractor who we knew we would probably be able to roll into the action at some point and who has this loyalty and love for Carrie.
Some of the critics were joking today after we had seen the premier, “I would have liked to see Carrie and Virgil in the van solving mysteries for half a season.” When you drummed her out of the CIA at the end of last year, did you guys brainstorm a lot of different potential ideas for what she would be up to when we came back before landing on what’s in the premiere?
Alex Gansa: Yeah.
So what were some of those?
Alex Gansa: There was a thought that she went into private intelligence work, which is a hugely profitable and hugely burgeoning kind of industry nowadays. So there was a thought that she went into private practice and that she did in fact work with Virgil and stuff on corporate espionage, and it just felt like we wanted to keep Brody and Carrie linked, and Brody was on the national stage and so it just felt more organic to bring Carrie back onto the national stage too.
And you devised so many different ways to get Jack Bauer out of retirement for one last case.
Howard Gordon: We sort of knew that that was a trope we had to fill and it was this question of how do you fill it.
I really liked the finale. A lot of my readers did. Some didn’t. Some felt that in some ways Dana making the phone call and the vest malfunctioning were a copout and they”re basically just a way to extend the lifespan of a show that maybe should have been one season. What would you say to them in terms of why they would want to watch a season 2?
Alex Gansa: Don’t you think that there is more to tell in that doomed romance between these two characters? That’s ultimately what convinced us is that yes, but by Brody blowing himself up in the last episode of the first season it would have brought that particular story to a close, but ultimately Brody would be dead, Carrie would have known she was right and that would have been the end of that. Now you still have this whole sequence to play in which Carrie is going to come to understand that she was actually correct about this guy. And what does that mean for her emotional connection to him and how is that going to play out? It felt like a very natural chapter two to that story.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com