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'Homeland' producer on show's tragically relevant ISIS storyline

Interview: Alex Gansa on the real-life parallels of his hit show’s Europe-set season

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Jim Fiscus/Showtime

When Showtime first announced the fifth season storyline of Homeland would shift its focus from the Middle East to Europe, fans assumed the show was getting away from the Muslim terrorist threats that occupied CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) since the Emmy-winning series first launched. Yet after the terror attacks in Paris last monthHomeland has seemed increasingly and tragically prescient as the espionage thriller focused on an ISIS terror cell plotting a major attack in a European capitol (Berlin) by smuggling deadly weapons from Syria to Europe through an unsecured border while its characters heatedly debate President Obama’s ISIS strategy and the ethics of electronic surveillance.

Below, EW spoke to showrunner Alex Gansa just minutes after he finished the final edit on the show’s season finale, which will air this Sunday. The season’s last episode completed filming just after the Nov. 13 attacks, but the rest of the season was written and shot before those tragic events. “I have to preface this by saying that I just wish our fiction hadn’t hewed so closely to the fact of Paris,” Gansa said. “It was something that his us all hard at HomelandI was on my way to Berlin to film the big action sequence that will end episode 12 on the day after the Paris attacks; it was a bizarre time to be flying to Europe to film the finale of this season.”

Gansa previously spent years as a writer-producer on another terror thriller, Fox’s 24. Each episode of Jack Bauer’s ticking-clock race to stop domestic threats took place during an hour of screen time. But this year it’s Homeland that seems it’s somehow unfolding in real time. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Showtime president David Nevins said the series was pulling out of the Middle East last summer at TCA, the reaction online was that Homeland was getting away from where the most hot-button terrorism issues are. Now here we are at the end of season 5 and the show has tracked closer to real-life headlines than ever before. 

ALEX GANSA: When David made those statements he hadn’t yet heard our pitch. We had a been doing a story set in Afghanistan and Pakistan and we were looking around for another story to tell. [A story] that was maybe not so Muslim-centric was a possibility. Obviously it didn’t turn out that way.

What’s been your reaction to watching these headlines as your story has unfolded? There are so many parallels in the international conversation being echoed week by week on your show that was filmed months ago — from the Syria debate to the ISIS threat in Europe. 

They’re all very thorny issues we’re trying to address — not in a dogmatic or polemic way, but just asking the questions. It’s all about trying to keep free and democratic societies safe, and how do you go about doing that? It’s a very thorny problem that all these intelligence agencies face. Also, there are moral and ethical questions, and some pragmatic ones. We’re facing a different and new kind of threat and everybody is scrambling to figure out how do deal with it. 

You go on a fact-finding mission into D.C. and meet with intelligence experts before writing every season. Is that what inspired the Europe story line? 

It’s a seminal 4–5 days for us each year, and this year all we heard about in Georgetown is the Islamic State, Vladimir Putin, and what’s happening in Ukraine. The Charlie Hebdo attack just happened in Paris, ISIS had just burned the Jordanian pilot alive in the cage, and the news had come out about Edward Snowden — all those elements were swirling around the conversation in D.C. and you could see where it led. They were all woven together to create the fabric of season 5. 

I think the most surreal moment was two episodes back. Faced with an attack threat in Berlin from ISIS, Saul says about Syria, “Our only leverage is boots on the ground and there’s no bigger proponent of an American invasion than the Islamic State.” Then Dar adds, “It could be argued that’s what they want here, to draw us into another hot war in the Middle East.” The same night Obama was addressing the nation saying the same thing.   

Yeah. Well, I think he’s telling the truth. All we’ve heard in our research with our consultants, that’s exactly what’s being perpetrated and nothing would make [Islamic State] happier than if we committed 100,000 troops or something. Look, I’m just a layperson. I have a minor in foreign affairs. I’m reluctant to speak on these issues. Homeland tries not to do that. We try to pose questions not posit answers. But from all we’ve heard, yes, American troops could take Raqqa in a matter of months but the problem is: What then? What do we do once we’re there? We’re facing a chaotic array of enemies down there and we’re back to another Iraq situation. That doesn’t seem like the answer. Stronger, better, more intelligence minds than mine are trying to figure it out. But I don’t believe rashly rushing into that area is wise. 

At the same time, the season started with Quinn’s speech slamming our non-strategy in Syria —

— That was a rather incredible and forceful call for action that lit up the conservative blogsphere. It’s fascinating the way the show plays such different sides of the debate. 

You have to regard Quinn’s statement to that group of people in the basement at Langley as a real function of his fictional experience on the ground for the last two years. He was leading a special ops team against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. That was probably an incredibly difficult, super violent and unbelievably frustrating two years. How much progress did he make? How much killing did he have to unleash? And what does that do to a human being? That said, his statement that the United States doesn’t have a strategy, it could be argued he’s on the mark. But it’s not as if we haven’t tried to develop a strategy, it’s just a strategy against these people is difficult to construct. And most sane people would argue that putting 100,000 troops on the ground in Syria would not be the best solution. 

What was your overall reaction to Obama’s speech outlining his terror strategy

I think Obama’s speech was reasoned, measured, and exactly appropriate. 

Two weeks ago, you also looped in a reference to the Paris attack via ADR [when an actor re-records dialogue while their character is speaking off camera allowing a change in a conversation months after the scene was originally shot]. But that was also a bit jarring because you’re watching the scene wondering, wait, that attack just happened a week or so earlier, but nobody in the show was talking about it before?

The show exists in sort of the nether-future. It wasn’t meant to suggest it had just happened. It happened sometime in the past, is the idea. 

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The season has also interestingly demonstrated the importance of electronic privacy and then successfully undermines its own arguments for privacy when the urgency of a terror attack comes into play. What’s your take on the online privacy debate?

Speaking as an American citizen nad not somebody who runs Homeland: It’s what’s happened since 9/11. How do we balance this equation, how do we keep ourselves safe without negating our civil liberties? It’s a difficult question and one we try to deal with a dramatic way on Homeland. I don’t know the answer. My personal feeling is to give the government the great power to examine all our phone calls and texts and emails is not a power that you want to give to the government. We can look at Edward Snowden as a hero or a traitor, but if there’s one thing he’s done is bring this conversation to the fore and it’s a conversation that needed to be had. 

With all your research on this subject over the years, has your perspective on terrorism shifted? 

I think it has. I certainly think season 4 was a reflection of that shift. Look at what Carrie was doing in season 4: She was “The Drone Queen.” We were engaged in was some form of extra-judicial killing in those tribal areas. And yes, we were degrading al-Qaeda and the Taliban, there’s no question about it. But were we creating more terrorists than we were killing and operating outside the bounds of our moral obligation? It’s an interesting question and just the other day [there was a news article about all] these drone pilots that came forward to say what we were doing was not as carefully conceived as it might have been and we were killing a lot of innocent people.

Does everything that’s happened this year make you want to go a direction that’s potentially less on-target with real-world headlines next season, or is there a desire to stay topical?

Honestly, I have no idea. I just finished [season] 5 … We just want to facilitate a conversation about dramatic ideas and tell a story about our heroine who is right smack in the middle of it all. 

You’ve done an excellent job of that. Also, on a lighter topic, I can’t remember the last time TV viewers were so stirred up for one corrupt character to get caught so badly as how they feel about Allison. 

If everybody could just rally around Miranda Otto, who delivered a performance this season that Homeland hasn’t seen since Damian Lewis left the show. She literally took over episodes of the show like nobody we’ve seen since Damian. Her performance is so … you literally cannot take your eyes off this character you hate her so much. 

I was impressed that you knew exactly how wound up fans would be that you knew you could spend the bulk of an episode following her under surveillance. You knew we would be on the edge of our seats going, “Get her, get her, get her.” 

Well, there’s more of that coming. 

Speaking of, what can we expect in the season finale? 

I would say it’s going to get exciting …  also, watching episode 11 this weekend, one of the things about it I’m particularly proud of [is] it does dramatize the fact that all Muslims in Europe are not speaking with one voice. There are a lot of different feelings about radical Islam, the refugee crisis, and what’s happening in Europe right now. People are individuals and think for themselves and we make an effort to dramatize that in the last couple episodes. 

You’re not giving post-finale interviews [this year]. Should we be braced for something particularly dramatic? 

No, not at all. After five years, I just want the finale to speak for itself.