By James Hibberd
January 15, 2017 at 10:54 PM EST
Jo Jo Whilden/SHOWTIME
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Homeland returned to the U.S. for its season 6 premiere Sunday night, introducing a very different Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) devoting herself to a new cause, and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) wrangling with a new president-elect (Elizabeth Marvel). Below showrunner Alex Gansa takes our burning questions about the first episode. Also be sure to check out our Q&A with Friend that’s all about Quinn’s heartbreaking new situation. (Note: Some of Gansa’s answers were previously published in a preview story.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you always plan on Quinn surviving that gas chamber? 
Alex Gansa: There was a moment toward the end of last season where I let [Friend] know there was a fairly decent chance he wasn’t going to survive. We probably thought he was going to die in the gas chamber. But as these things morph and change, as we got closer to that moment, we found a more interesting way to end it. We began filling in the blanks, and there was a need for a character for Quinn to interact with while he’s captured by the bad guys. And as that relationship between them developed, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if this guy saved Quinn’s life?’ And that led to the whole idea of him not dying in that environment.

So was the internal logic of last season’s final scene? Carrie seemed like she was going to smother Quinn to put him out of his misery. 
The season began with Carrie Mathison taking communion in a Roman Catholic church in Germany. It ended with her having to make the decision about whether to take a life or not. Was she going to be true to that newfound religiosity? Or was she going to grant Quinn’s wish to put an end to him? And we were left with that moment, a moment of grace when the sun comes from behind the cloud’s and illuminates Quinn’s face. And what was Carrie going to do? … I was surprised watching the response that people assumed she was going to go through with it. Our intention in the filmmaking was to leave it ambiguous.

What was the thought behind having him so radically changed?
One of the very first ideas [executive producer Howard Gordon] and I had when we talked about Homeland was there was no show on television dramatizing the return of our soldiers from Iraq and Afganistan. So now we really get to watch a true causality of the war on terror.

For this season, you picked a president that had some elements of both candidates who ran: a smart D.C. veteran who is a woman, but at the same time she might have the point of view that we need to get out of the Middle East — like Donald Trump has at times expressed.
Absolutely. Elizabeth Keene, played amazingly by Elizabeth Marvel, is coming into the office with a set of ideas and reforms and policy adjustments, especially as it relates to the Middle East and intelligence community and she’s going to run into the likes of Dar Adal and Saul Berenson who are trying to educate her otherwise. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of conflict that develops.

Still, when we see her all engaged in that intelligence briefing, it’s hard not to think of Hillary Clinton. 
This season is counter-factual, but it might wind up being a virtue. There’s an element of wish fulfillment for some people that this is a thoughtful, well-intentioned president-elect. She’s somebody people can relate to, somebody who is very knowledgeable about this stuff. She’s somebody from the system who’s familiar with it and trying to navigate it. It will provide comfort to some. She will be will be too liberal and too weak for others. I am very curious to see how this season will be received.

There’s also a burgeoning thread there with the Muslim kid who’s seemingly innocent yet being harassed by the FBI. 
That’s the choice we avoided. It would be convenient and easy to tell the story of a young Muslim male who is falsely accused of terrorism and rail-roaded and essentially framed. We have a different tact. This is a guy who’s been vocal online about his opposition to American policies, who’s putting videos up, who is linking to suicide bombers. He’s really testing the boundaries of the First Amendment. And the question for law enforcement becomes: At what point do you consider him a dangerous threat? And do the things he’s saying warrant imprisonment for 15 years? At what point are we preempting terror, or are talking to people who have never committed a terrorist act?

You’ve also added an alt-right character this season. Is that a post-election choice? 
It’s less an alt-right character than a fake news character. It’s become so difficult in the modern news environment to ascertain what facts are. This is a character who takes advantage of that confusion to further his own agenda and to line his pocketbook. He’s not an alt-right guy so much as intent on sowing confusion and misinformation in the news realm to further his dislike for the new president-elect. He is not a reaction to the election. His first scenes were originally in episode 8 but we’ve now peppered him into earlier scenes because it’s been so in the news lately. All this news that comes up that you can’t verify one way or another is a real problem, and it’s a real problem for the fourth estate, the journalists. How do you inform an electorate that doesn’t trust anybody?

There isn’t an overall threat in the first episode and you haven’t mentioned one. Is there an overall threat this year?
Last season, world events tragically caught up to the story we were telling. We knew we were going to New York and back to the United States. And didn’t want to dramatize any threats to the United States — and to New York specifically — that don’t actually exist. That was our first karmic principle this year. We’re not going to posit that there are vast ISIS or Al Qaeda cells or networks in the United States like there are in Europe, because according to all our intelligence officers, there aren’t any. The threat we’re facing right now are these do-it-yourself self-radicalized individuals — and that’s a very different risk than another plot like 9/11. So we made a very conscious choice to not tell a “New York threatened by suitcase nuclear bomb” story. We just weren’t going to do that. The thriller exists in a much more psychological way this year, and we’re curious to see how people respond to it.

For Carrie, there’s a sense after last season that a normal life with a normal husband is beyond anything she can hope for at this point.
She’s really devoted herself to put any idea of a normal romance behind her. She’s focused on Quinn’s rehabilitation, raising her daughter and also working on a micro level on the ground in Brooklyn servicing the Muslim community there and trying to protect them from the assaults they suffer from the FBI and NYPD. That community is infiltrated with informers and there’s a lot of suspicions that arises around it and Carrie is determined to right that wrong in direct response to what the rest of her career has been about since 9/11.

Next: Rupert Friend talks Peter Quinn’s premiere performance

Homeland airs Sundays on Showtime.

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