By Shirley Li
February 22, 2019 at 09:30 AM EST

After years of playing law enforcement officers on the small screen (Dexter; Limitless), Jennifer Carpenter is finally breaking bad. In NBC’s new thriller The Enemy Within, she stars as former CIA operative Erica Shepherd, who’s serving multiple life sentences for betraying her country. When FBI agent Will Keaton (Morris Chestnut) needs her help tracking down an even more dangerous villain, she gets a chance at redemption — and a chance to prove, perhaps, that her case wasn’t so black and white. “I just thought, ‘What an interesting character,'” says creator Ken Woodruff (The Mentalist). “I’ve always been a huge fan of the spy genre, and I love it when the criminals are really smart.”

After all, spying’s no fun without intelligence. In the exclusive clip above from the premiere, Erica certainly relishes in knowing something Will doesn’t — which is that she knows he’s trying to play her by asking her to help prevent an attack when an attack has already happened. “Liar,” she says. “You have no idea what people are capable of.” The assessment is too much for Will, who angrily lashes out at Erica.

That tension between the two — and their respective agencies — drives the series’ core conflict, Woodruff says. “One of the themes of the show is this huge divide between the CIA and the FBI,” he explains. “That’s really personified with these two characters.” Below, Woodruff teases what’s to come in the series.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to concentrate on a villain — or possible villain — in Erica?
KEN WOODRUFF: It’s something I learned on Gotham, that the villains can be really interesting as well. What I wanted to do was, I thought, “I want to make a show about the people who hunt spies.” If you have really smart criminals you’re going to need to have really, really smart detectives go after them. That’s the engine [of the story]. In my research [into spies], what jumped out at me was there’d always be these really devastating stories about the family of the person who was a spy. There’s an actual personal, emotional cost to this world, and that’s just something that I never really have seen exploited.

I saw it from the other point of view on The Americans, which is just so good, but I hadn’t seen it from this point of view. So as soon as I found that out, I was like, “That’s the show.” It’s, do you trust your best friend? Do you trust your coworkers? Do you trust the person you’re sharing a bed with at night?

It sounds like you wanted to explore Stan‘s (Noah Emmerich) perspective, to go off of The Americans analogy there.
Yeah, absolutely. I thought this was really interesting. I like catching people, I want to live in that world, and that’s really where I came at it from. If these people are that gifted and that talented, how do you catch them? If they’re able to operate on this high level, how are you able to stop them? And then when I was reading about this counterintelligence division at the FBI, which is very real, they’re incredibly secretive, and it’s a real all-star team of the agency. I just wanted to know, what goes on in that room?

Speaking of your research, Jennifer and Morris mentioned at SCAD aTVfest that they had a consultant they could talk to about working in the CIA and FBI, respectively.
Yeah, so they worked with a consultant who did both. It’s not just letters on a badge, it’s completely cultural, the difference between those two agencies and between Shepherd and Keaton. So for example, the FBI, they’re very by the book, they’re law enforcement, they follow the rules, and their notes are used in court as records, as fact. The CIA, on the other hand, have a completely different agenda, so [the consultant] told Morris a bunch of stuff, but then when he talked to Jennifer about what it’s like to be a CIA agent, he said, “If you really want to know, go home tonight and lie to your husband.” Because Shepherd is embodying the very shifty, manipulative, disingenuous [side of the CIA], whereas Keaton is much more straightforward.

How would you describe the structure of the show overall? Jennifer had described it as a cable-like show on a network, so I’m wondering how serialized it is going forward.
The way we talk about it internally is it’s a hybrid. That’s one of the gifts of doing 13 episodes: You can tell one story over the course of the season and not get too bogged down in the serialization. So it’s one story, and each of the episodes are chapters of a bigger novel. You’ll have different counterintelligence investigations from episode to episode, but there’s a much bigger storyline we’re following in terms of [the terrorist] Tal, what he’s planning, and his relationship with Shepherd and Keaton. The serialized part of the show is the emotion; it’s what we really focus on. Episode to episode you don’t have to focus on, “Oh that guy worked at the CIA,” that kind of minutiae, but what you want to remember is, Shepherd hasn’t seen her daughter in three years. The case is all part of a mosaic that’s part of a bigger picture.

The Enemy Within debuts Monday, Feb. 25 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

Related links: