July 11, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Homeland is preparing for its most impossible mission yet: executing a total creative overhaul for its upcoming fourth season. You already know (SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched season 3, stop reading) that Damian Lewis exited Showtime’s espionage thriller when his traitor-ish character Nicholas Brody was hanged in the season 3 finale. Coping with the loss of the show’s leading man is difficult enough, but Homeland will use Brody’s departure to radically shake things up in other ways, too, with a new setting (Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison is working in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and several cast additions (including Corey Stoll, Suraj Sharma, Laila Robins, and Michael O’Keefe). ”There’s so many new roles to be cast, it’s like doing another pilot — which is exciting and terrifying at the same time,” says showrunner Alex Gansa, who, in his first in-depth interview about the new season, answers all of EW’s burning questions. No waterboarding needed.

Big picture first: What is season 4 about?
It’s about seeing Carrie Mathison for the first time doing the job she was trained to do — being a case officer in a foreign capital. We’re going to see what an intelligence officer does on the ground. How she recruits assets, how she deals with the foreign government, [how she interacts with] her country team — the people she works with in the embassy — and the host country’s intelligence services. That is a complicated and murky world, one that we hope is filled with intrigue and drama and adventure.

Are there real-life incidents you’re drawing from?
The whole reason we chose this part of the world is that American forces are drawing down in Afghanistan. So the question is: What were we doing there for 14 years? When we leave, is the Taliban just going to swoop back in and take the country over? And when the military does draw down, who’s left behind? People like Carrie Mathison and Martha Boyd [played by Robins] — the CIA and the State Department people — are the ones left on the ground when the military leaves, and it’s up to them to try and keep that country intact. Carrie’s on the ground in a dangerous place trying to break the law, which puts her in a very charged situation.

How much time has passed? Carrie’s not visibly pregnant in this photo…
About six months. She has given birth to the child. I’d rather not give away where the kid is, but I will say probably one of the reasons she’s found herself in Afghanistan and Pakistan is it’s a place where you’re disallowed from bringing a dependent.

Scale of 1 to 10, how emotionally stable is Carrie this season?
On managing her mental illness, she’s quite stable. Where she is managing her grief about her loss of Brody is a different question.

So is Carrie on a romantic break? What about Quinn [Rupert Friend]?
Everybody is clamoring for a relationship between [Quinn and Carrie]. And it is certainly something we’re toying with…. The question is whether Carrie is in any kind of emotional state to be open to a romance.

Is Saul [Mandy Patinkin] playing a lesser role now that he’s left the CIA?
Saul plays a central role this season, albeit a reversed role. Saul in the past was Carrie’s boss. Now that he’s in the private sector he finds himself working underneath her and at her behest.

And what about Brody — might he still return in flashbacks?
I would always hold out the possibility that something like that could happen. He was such a significant part of Carrie’s life that just to drop him completely would feel wrong.

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