Credit: Sifeddine Elamine/SHOWTIME
Episode 601

Showtime’s Homeland returns for its eighth and final season Sunday night as the espionage thriller chronicles Carrie Mathison’s (Claire Danes) toughest assignment yet: A return to Afghanistan as the U.S. attempts to end its longest-running war.

Coming after a two-year hiatus, the final season opens with the tenacious CIA intelligence officer recovering in a treatment center after having suffered a mental breakdown during her seven months spent a Russian prison. Mathison is drafted back into action by her longtime colleague Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), now National Security Advisor to President Warner (Beau Bridges), to help close a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Naturally, the peace treaty doesn’t go according to plan and Mathison has to try and save the day while dealing with colleagues suspicious that she might have betrayed her country while in prison (and given her fragmented memory she’s not entirely sure herself).

“I loved the idea that Carrie is positioned as this suspected traitor — a Brody,” Danes says, referring to the show’s early seasons co-lead played by Damian Lewis. “That’s such a perfect parallel and fun to play; she’s struggling from PTSD and doesn’t know how to narrate her own story.”

Expect a more grounded-feeling season as the drama earnestly wrestles with the real-world complexities of having U.S. forces in the Middle East while also focusing on wrapping up the roller-coaster relationship between Saul and Carrie. Below, series showrunner Alex Gansa teases what to expect in the new season and gives some insight into the behind-the-scenes process that led to the show wading back into Middle East politics.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why the long break and what did it gain you?
ALEX GANSA: Claire had a baby, a second baby, a little boy. She really wanted some family leave and got it. We all got a chance to take some time, the writing staff and the rest of the crew. It was a very welcome break after seven hard years in which we spent a lot of time moving around the globe. It also gave us a chance to sit down and take a bit more time in the story room than usual. I remember saying that we were really hoping to wind up in Israel and ultimately had to abandon that.

What made Afghanistan right?
Carrie Mathison had been there before, so it gave us a chance to tie up a lot of loose ends that we hadn’t done at the end of season 4. It also felt more current than Israel. And it was much easier to put an American intelligence officer at the center of a story there rather than in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

You had your usual research trip to D.C. to speak to insiders there. What did you learn this time?
We talked about Donald Trump. But after two seasons in the United States, and we were ready to go off and do something else. We felt we’d commented on the deep state and an unpopular or popular administration — depending on which side of the aisle you sit. What we learned in those five days was a lot about the negotiations that were going on with the Afghan national government, the United States, and the Taliban. And that’s how our story this season begins.

So what excites you most about the new season?
Homeland was conceived as a story about a protégé and a mentor. The Saul-Carrie story has been the one constant through eight seasons. And we really get to bring that story to a close. It’s the reason that I stuck around for eight seasons. And I hope we did some justice.

This season feels more grounded than recent seasons, with a very sincere portrayal of all the characters. The usual tropes in this kind of story — the obstructive colleague, the traitorous mole, the mad terrorist — seem like they’re all played a bit more three-dimensionally this time around.
That’s our goal every season. I’m glad that you felt that way about this one too. One thing we really gleaned from all that time that we spent in Washington was that whatever you may think about the methodology of people that work at the CIA or at a number of the intelligence agencies, these are real patriots who are trying to do the right thing for the most part. They go to sleep every night concerned about the safety of the country. We are very tough on them sometimes in our storytelling and in our narrative but at their core is real patriotism and we try to honor that.

Clarie seems pretty riveting this season. What did she uniquely bring from your perspective?
Claire has come to the set every single day for eight years and delivered every single scene that we’ve put in her path. Not only that she has been incredibly generous to every other actor who’s come along, has been a leader on the set and obviously is now an executive producer on the show. If you think her performance was good in the first four episodes that you saw, sit back and watch what happens next.

I also liked what you did with Carrie and her mental health this time. When she’s had breakdowns in past seasons it can be a bit frustrating for the viewer as you’re watching this thriller and waiting for your hero to get better. Here she’s had an offscreen period before the season began where she was the worst she’s ever been, but she’s now dealing with that fallout and battling her own past. It’s a clever way of keeping her mental health struggle part of the story, but also keeping her as a very active and capable character during the season.
We spent a number of past seasons exploring her bipolar illness. We definitely wanted the final season for her to be on firm mental footing. But she’s battling with a hugely traumatic event in her life, which was her captivity in Russia. That’s the puzzle she’s trying to piece together — what happened during that period of time where she literally lost her mind — while dealing with quite serious world events.

One of the big ideas this season was Carrie would slip on Brody’s shoes. This time she’s the one whose allegiance and patriotism are being called into question and she is the one accused of having been turned in captivity. So the show comes around full circle from Carrie being the person who suspected to the person who is suspected.

You shot in Morocco for Afghanistan and I heard there was a bit of drama while filming.
There was a lot of on-the-ground drama in Morocco and it proved to be far more difficult to shoot an entire season of a series there than we had anticipated. The Moroccan government is very particular about anything that you bring into the country. Even if you bring a fake weapon into the country, it has to be registered. So imagine doing big military set pieces and having to register every bullet and account for it. Also, if you’re telling a story in Afghanistan, we want actors who could speak Pashto or Dari. But the Moroccan security services kept us completely safe and everybody got home fine.

It ended up being remarkable and rewarding. I can’t tell you how many times people would come up to me and say, “Thank you for the show, your portrayal of all sides of these issues means a lot to us.” That meant a lot especially when you consider, the criticism the show is received in the past about either being Islamophobic or soft on terrorism. It’s an interesting thing, we get hammered from both sides.

The Afghan war is the longest war that we’ve been fighting there and all sides are locked into this horrible tragedy. Nobody seems to be able to extricate themselves from it. There are just as many tragic stories on the Taliban side as there are on the American side or the Afghan side. It’s just a rat’s nest, a terrible, terrible, terrible situation there.

So after researching and shooting a season exploring the prospect of peace in Afghanistan, what did you conclude?
My prayers are with Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the U.S. envoy trying to negotiate peace. I think if there is any hope, it’s that all sides are tired of the war and maybe just that fatigue will lead to some kind of a breakthrough. But the United States pulling out of Afghanistan completely — which is what the Taliban is demanding — is fraught with all kinds of security concerns for the area. Will it become a haven for terrorism again? And what about all the women who can now go to university and can actually lead productive lives? Should you just abandon all those people? What happens to the hundreds of billions dollars spent there? All the people that die there, all the U.S. soldiers. Did they die in vain if we just pull out? All these are huge questions.

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