By James Hibberd
December 20, 2017 at 08:57 AM EST
Episode 612
Credit: JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

The writing team on Showtime’s Homeland have a tradition: Before starting to work on a new season, they take a trip to Washington, D.C., to chat candidly with intelligence agency insiders to get a sense of the real-life terror threats facing America, as well as to gather details about how the community actually operates — learning about procedures, technology, and intel that they can seed into their acclaimed espionage drama for added verisimilitude.

Only this year’s trip, prepping for their seventh and penultimate season, was different. Because this was Trump Administration Year One. And what they were hearing behind the scenes was wilder — and scarier — than anything they could credibly put into their show.

“Certainly when we began the season in May, things really did seem like things were out of control in the White House,” showrunner Alex Gansa tells EW. “Maybe we’ve gotten used to it. But at the time things seemed so not normal. There are intelligence officers we met in D.C. who say what they do every morning is wake up and check their phones to make sure Seoul, South Korea, is still there. When you’re facing that kind of uncertainty it’s difficult to parallel in our Homeland world. It felt much scarier in real life than what we were writing. It’s the situation the country finds itself in and as storytellers what we find ourselves in.”

Fortunately for the writers, the prior season (which wrapped production shortly after Trump took office) concluded with some pretty high stakes: An assassination attempt has pivoted a liberal-ish U.S. president, Elizabeth Keene (Elizabeth Marvel), into a paranoid and overreaching commander-in-chief hellbent on crushing her enemies. Her former unofficial aide, ex CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Clarie Danes), is trying to bring her down, while Carrie’s former colleague Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) is trying to course correct Keene’s instincts as a member of her inner circle. It’s arguably the show’s most high-stakes season as Carrie shifts from going after isolated terror threats to taking on the U.S. president.

“We’re telling a bit of a parallel story to what’s happening in the real world,” Gansa says. “Obviously the Trump administration is a little embattled and a little isolated and facing their own difficulties with the national security establishment and what they call ‘the deep state.’ Our administration, the Keene administration, is facing much the same issues but from the reverse — Trump is a conservative administration, Keene is more liberal administration, but a lot of the issues are the same. There’s a degree of paranoia inside the Oval Office. There’s also a great degree of truth about the forces they’re facing and the national security establishment that is committed to politics that run counter to the administration. It’s an interesting clash of forces. We spent a lot of time in D.C. talking about what that looks like and we heard a lot from all sides.”

Yet at the same time, as always, Gansa and his team hope you don’t read too much into anything in particular. There are influences all over the place, but Homeland is all still aiming to be an entertaining thriller.

“We always hope to be relevant,” Gansa says. “A lot of the issues we bring up this season hopefully have some relevance to the real world. But we’re fiction and the story we’re telling is contained within our own narrative. We’re really not trying to be prescient or comment too directly on what’s happening in the world. Frankly, some of the stuff that’s going on is quite scary — we don’t address North Korea, for example. The president and her chief of staff, what they’re up to, and Carrie’s attempts to get to the bottom of what they’re up to are really the narrative engine that takes us through the season.”

Homeland returns to Showtime on Feb. 11.

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