If Showtime’s Homeland has emerged from the pack of fall debuts as the most critically acclaimed new drama, it’s in large part thanks to the talents of longtime writing partners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, the show’s co-creators. Before Homeland, both Gansa and Gordon honed their thriller writing skills keeping Jack Bauer on the run on 24 (Gordon, in particular, spent almost a decade on the show), but their combined résumés feature time on The X-Files, Entourage, Dawson’s Creek, and Buffy, offering a bit more insight into the duo’s keen feel for both character development and episode-ending cliff-hangers. After last night’s game-changing episode, Gansa and Gordon spoke on the phone with Vulture about the lessons they learned from 24, what questions Homeland will deal with going forward, and why we can all rest easy that the show will not turn into The Killing.
So can you guys just tell me first who’s who?
Alex Gansa: I’m easy to recognize: I’m the one with a sinus infection.
Howard Gordon: And I’m just the one who’s hung-over.
Gansa: Can I just ask you? We’re in the process of second-guessing ourselves now, what was your reaction with the big [SPOILER ALERT] Brody reveal?
I think I actually said out loud, “Ahhhhhh!”
Gansa: [Laughs.] Oh my God. It was not the greatest shot of all-time, the chair shot. But at least it was shocking.
That was quite an ending for an episode. It seems to really open things up in terms of taking the focus away from Brody exclusively, making it less purely about whether he’s been turned or not.
Gansa: Yeah, absolutely. The intention actually in the episode was to be able to spend time with Brody before you knew [SPOILER ALERT] he actually had been turned in captivity, and to really live in his state of mind and his relationship with his wife and family; to really settle into a character without suspicion over his head.
Gordon: And also to forward his political profile, the potential of what’s going to happen to him.
So we know now that he’s been turned — but that he’s rebelling against that.
Gansa: That’s exactly correct. In other words, since we sort of exonerated him in the episode previously — well, not entirely, but he did answer all the questions Carrie asked him on the porch truthfully, so hopefully there was a sense at the end of the weekend of, Wow, I think he’s innocent. And we did want to live with him for a little period of time in the next episode where you felt that way, and then rather than just do a big reveal at the end of the episode and just finish, Oh my God, he’s been turned, we wanted to take it one step farther: Oh my God he’s been turned, but he’s backing out of the deal. That was the intent.
It’s surprising to have something this momentous happen quite a few episodes before the end of the first season. Did you think it was important to get that big question out of the way early?
Gansa: Well, there’s value in these thrillers in compressing the story, not trying to drag it out for too long. However, when we first started thinking about the show and Brody’s character, the question became very binary: Is he or isn’t he a terrorist? Has he or has he not been turned in captivity? As we actually sat in the story room and really talked about his character and journey, we realized there were far more interesting questions to be asked. And one was: Well, if he has been turned, will he go through with what he has to do? And that is a much more rich narrative main to tap into. Now that we know he’s been turned but he’s back in the U.S. and in the bosom of his family and other pressures are exerting themselves on his will, what will he do? That’s much more interesting than just, “Is he a terrorist?”
Gordon: And back to your first point, I think you’re right that there was a point at which we said, “All right, we’re going to have to answer, we can’t just string out indefinitely without answering some satisfying questions.”
Is that a lesson you in any way learned from the example of The Killing?
Gansa: The Killing had really run its season before we got going, so we’d already determined the arc of Brody in this first season, so The Killing was a cautionary tale to us, but only after the fact. And also The Killing had a built-in problem — and it was a great show; I thought it was really evocative and well done — but it had a problem insofar as the mystery was one that had occurred in the past. Somebody had murdered somebody, so the entire series had to investigate something that happened before the series even really began. Our show has a plot against America that is up and running, so we have something to stop that is ongoing, and that really helped with our storytelling. I think it’s better to have something about to happen than something that has happened.
We really kinda liked Brody and Carrie together! Will that be a story line we see playing out for a while?
Gordon: I think that’s safe to say. I think everyone’s getting attached to both characters, and that’s part of the great tension of the series. It’s compelling when you have these competing interests; you want to stop this thing from happening and yet you really like these two together.
Gansa: The entire show really lives when those two are onscreen together, so we’ve contrived to put them together as often as we could. It’s really the collision of these two damaged people recognizing each other in these ways that’s when the series really soars.
When you started working on Homeland, how much of the story did you have planned out? Did you know for sure whether Brody had been turned or not?
Gordon: I think we understood on some level that it would be a bit of a jerk-off if there was nothing to Carrie’s suspicions. There’d really be nothing. I think the secret was the idea, as Alex said, that even though he’s turned, that’s not the endpoint of the story. The fact remains that until he does something, he’s actually not a terrorist. We knew that contextually there has to be something to what [Carrie] says, but there’s actually a lot more meat on the bone.
Gansa: And as Carrie’s mental illness blooms, what’s interesting is that the most unreliable character in the intelligence community is the one who’s correct about what’s happening — and that, we knew, was always going to be central to the story.
Gordon: Yeah, when we first started, we said, “Let’s make her Chicken Little,” basically. Like the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
In the cabin, I was so frustrated with her for not coming up with a better excuse for slipping and mentioning Yorkshire Gold.
Gordon: Maybe part of her wanted to get caught.
Gansa: There was some discussion about that, about whether it was an intentional slip. It doesn’t play like that, but we did discuss that in the story room.
Gordon: I find what’s really interesting is that there are things we can still deconstruct and debate about motivations even though we wrote it!
Gansa: Since the show is also really about people watching other people as well, it’s great that the audience becomes a Peeping Tom itself, and can watch these scenes and try to invent reasons that people do things, or try to interpret what a moment means and why it exists. That’s cool.
This week, Saul’s character gained some depth as well, particularly when he doesn’t go ballistic on Carrie when she confesses to her indiscretions with Brody.
Gansa: Obviously there’s a mentor/mentee relationship, a father/surrogate daughter relationship, and they’re also bonded by the fact of what they do for a living and the toll it exacts upon their lives. Saul’s marriage collapses in this episode, and Carrie is left knowing — I think one of the most wonderful moments in this episode is when they’re sitting across from each other and Carrie says, “I’ve had this epiphany about myself: I’m going to be alone the rest of my life.” And she’s looking across the table at Saul who’s sacrificed whatever personal connection he had in his marriage to this obsession with keeping the country safe.
How different is Homeland from Prisoners of War?
Gordon: Well, there was no terrorism aspect to it; no Carrie Mathison and no CIA. It was really about two POWs who come home and are estranged. There’s obviously an idiosyncratic cultural thing there, with Gilad Shalit and Israel’s proximity to its enemies; it’s a real world issue for them. We had to reinvent it for an audience and make it relevant. Alex and I saw it as an opportunity to tell a story about a soldier coming home from war but also to give a real present-time relevance to it. Not just a soap opera about what happened to him over there and the ramifications of his coming home, but what if it meant an actual threat to the homeland he went to war to protect?
Gansa: The premise is completely different, basically. We borrowed from Gidi [Gideon Raff, creator of the Israeli series] the idea of a soldier coming back from being in captivity, some of the dynamics among those families — we picked and chose among them to create the Brody family — but the essential premise was an invention.
Gordon: The Israeli show is really a drama about returning soldiers, and we think of our show as a psychological thriller.
Does the structure of this show — having a regular thirteen episodes to work with versus having to plan out 24 hours — make writing at all easier?
Gansa: I’m not sure it makes the writing easier, but it lightens the load and gives you the opportunity to spend more time crafting the episodes. If you do 24 episodes, it’s really difficult to do 24 really good episodes. There are periods of the season that flag and that you just have to move through to get to the good bits. With this show, you have half as much to do and twice as much time to spend on each episode, and you can also compress the story into the time frame it actually should occur in. And plus, if you’re on paid cable, you don’t have to build to ad breaks. You can have nudity and language and each episode can sort of embody its own rhythm.
Gordon: I mean, 24 was a total year-round endeavor. Which is what all network television is. But time certainly helps; things are gonna be better with more time.
Gansa: And the big difference is, we’re telling this in real time. The incredible, monumental hill to climb on 24 was that you were doing this in a 24-hour period and you had to jam all those events into that. It was the most challenging thing I’d ever been a part of. And Howard was a part of it for eight years! How you survived, I have no idea.
Gordon: I still don’t know. I’m not sure I did survive — not intact, anyway. I look like Brody on the outside, inside [laughs].
On 24, it did feel at times like you guys had kind of written yourself into a corner and had to take a few episodes to get out of it and settle back on track. Is that something you’ve learned how to avoid for Homeland, or is it still a challenge?
Gansa: I only worked on the show for the seventh and eighth seasons; Howard is really the expert. When Howard asked me to join that staff, I was really worried I didn’t know how to do this — I didn’t know how to tell those stories — and I really got a master’s degree in action thrillers by working on that show for two years. I learned a lot and have certainly brought those skills to bear on Homeland. Look, we sort of vowed to each other that Carrie was not going to pull a gun all season long. And that is a huge difference between the two shows — that’s what Jack did on a weekly basis. He was an action hero at his core, and that show was a thriller with a much more muscular, action component than Homeland. So we’re trying to do something different here, but we did understand the benefits of the thriller. If you look at the great spy novels — John LeCarre or Graham Greene — they use the tropes of the thriller to tell an intelligent, adult spy drama and that’s what we were trying to do.
Gordon: In terms of regrets or having learned stuff, I think it was an impossible task. A regret to me means, “I wish I’d done that instead,” and even in hindsight, I can’t think of a better thing [to have done], even for the things we knew were compromises or mistakes or missteps or vamps or whatever you want to call it.
Speaking of having Carrie not pull a gun, do you find yourselves consciously trying to avoid certain tropes from 24? There was talk briefly of there being a “mole” on Homeland, and there hasn’t been one so far …
Gansa: Absolutely. And the one you just mentioned has been a big source of debate over the course of the season. If we’d done this show for a broadcast network, it would go without saying that, if there was a mole, you’d have to reveal who the mole was. On our show, we have the freedom to decide: Well, do we have to reveal it? Do we have to reveal it this season? Is there a mole in the first place? All these questions get served by existing in ambiguity.
Gordon: Also, we didn’t want to differentiate it just for the sake of differentiating it. We started out with a world ten years later than 24 and also characters who were quite different. I think we’ve kind of honored and listened to those two conditions before starting to tell the story. But I don’t think we’d avoid the trope of a mole if it was really done in the Homeland way. It’s funny, because people are starting to think that even Saul is a mole. It’s like they’ve been trained to construct these things on their own. But it’s great if people are paying that much attention to it that they overlay their own paranoia and unease. Alex, are you surprised at how uneasy people are over this? I don’t think that’s an emotion we could have imagined conjuring. We wanted it to be tense, but …
Gansa: My analysis of it is really that it’s about Damian’s performance. The fact that you didn’t understand whether he’d been turned or not for those first seven episodes — Damian’s able to bring that richness to his performance, but he maintains that sort of tabula rasa so that you can project onto him. I think that performance is so spectacular, and that’s what’s engendering anxiety in people. You’re drawn to him but you’re terrified of him. Just to get back to one 24 point: We tend to like to end episodes on Homeland the way we did on 24. There’s something that makes you want to come back. There’s some revelation or some plot against America twist or some more conventional trope that makes people want to come back and answer a question. But through the course of the episode we spend a lot more time delineating character and just using a slower burn than 24 did.
So now that the central question — or the apparent central question — has ostensibly been answered, how do you approach going into season two? Do you see this season as resolving anything in particular?
Gansa: In the series going forward now, and actually starting with the next episode, it’s our task as writers to explain why he was turned, how he was turned, and what he’s planning to do about it. We’re trying to answer these questions in as psychologically true a way as we can. That goes back to the Killing question — we’re not going to leave these things hanging. This Marine has got to have a pretty compelling reason to even consider committing an act of terrorism here. It’s very hard to talk about without spoiling what happens in the last five or six episodes. But I can safely say Brody and his family will be back for the second season.
Gordon: Alex and I were saying we’re very excited by the fact that there seems to be a lot more of a story to tell.
Gansa: I think those questions will be answered. But Brody’s trajectory will be in another direction for next season. Sorry to leave it that vague!