HitFix Interview: Showrunner Alex Gansa discusses the 'Homeland' finale
What happened? What didn't happen? And what's coming up next?
Follow HitFix: Follow @hitfix
Showtime's "Homeland" wrapped up its acclaimed first season on Sunday (December 18) night, just days after snagging a slew of Golden Globe nominations, including Best Drama Series and nods for stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis.
Of course, it's become the de rigueur rite of passage that any and all drama finales must instigate blog wars over whether or not they went far enough or delivered closure enough. You can follow that heated discussion over on Sepinwall's recap.
On Monday, I got on the phone with "Homeland" showrunner Alex Gansa, who co-created the drama (based on an Israeli format) with fellow "24" veteran Howard Gordon.
We discussed the explosive (and in some cases not-so-explosive) finale, where "Homeland" is headed in Season Two and what it means to have guts when determining the fate of characters.
Click through for the interview, which obviously includes spoilers...
HitFix: First off, have you been following the responses to the finale last night and this morning?
Alex Gansa: You know, I have a little bit. It's funny. There was a delayed response last night. I'm in New York, so I'm kinda on different time, but I have been following the response, which has been... Well, you tell me. You probably know more than I do. I tend to look at the positives of it all. People seem to like it.
HitFix: The answer I'd say is that it's polarizing. There are people who loved it and, invariably this is going to happen, there were people who... less so. Do you feel like audiences are more invested in closure and conclusion than they were maybe even a year or two ago?
Alex Gansa: I think that the opportunity for people to discuss these things in a public forum might lead to that sort of desire to take opposing opinions, or at least give into the impulse of an initial response rather than the time to think through your feelings about something. But I do think that all the discussion over the last couple of years about season finales and actually series finales -- what they mean and how they're realized up on-screen -- has made people more sophisticated about them, absolutely.
HitFix: What does that inevitable scrutiny do to you guys as the people attempting to deliver these finales and still keep the integrity of the story, while also worrying at least somewhat about how people will respond to it?
Alex Gansa: I think it probably varies from show to show how concerned people are. It depends a lot upon how the show is being received critically up to that point. If you're in trouble and people are tuning out, if people aren't watching the show anymore, then there's a tremendous amount of attention brought to bear about how to course correct, either midway through the season or towards the end of the season as a way of bringing as many people back next year as you can. But we were in the very enviable position of people liking the show and we just plowed forward with our plans. We were headed in this direction for a long time and luckily we're not forced to make a change.
HitFix: When did you know how you were ending the first season?
Alex Gansa: We always knew that Brody was going to carry out some sort of an attack against the Vice President and the people responsible for the drone strike. That was sorta in stone from quite early on. How he was going to go about doing that was a different matter. We tossed around a bunch of different ideas and we settled on the suicide vest, I would say maybe three-quarters of the way into the season as we were mapping out the finale. It seemed like the most personal and the most significant way for him to go about righting what he considered to be a wrong.
HitFix: OK. And when did you determine that he would be unable to complete the attack?
Alex Gansa: We were always looking for a way for Brody to survive the season, because we ultimately felt like the story between Brody and Carrie has not been told. The first part of that story has been told, but we knew that there was more grist for that sort of mill, dramatically. We wanted to find a way for Brody to come out of this season alive. It presented a lot of problems. If an attack actually had been carried out, it would have been very difficult for the intelligence community and Carrie to ever not realize that he'd been behind the attacks, so the suicide vest gave us a great opportunity to play all of the emotion of what the attack would mean for Brody, personally, but it also had the great advantage and benefit of allowing him to leave that area, to leave the attack without ever being suspected by anybody, so that kinda gave us the best of both worlds. We felt like it was effective both on an emotion and on a dramatic level.
HitFix: One thing that people may be feeling discomfort with is the unease that comes from a conclusion in which our hero faces consequences, but the antagonist maybe doesn't. How did you feel about making people uncomfortable with the state of consequences at the end of the first season?
Alex Gansa: It's interesting. I've spoken to a lot of women who have been watching this series and there is this profound sense that Carrie, even though she's right, doesn't know she's right. That has been the cause of a lot of frustration, but I think also of a lot of... It's helped the narrative engine of the story. That is, you're waiting for her to find out that she's right and the fact that she never does, through the course of the first season, I imagine might be a source of some frustration for some people. But what we enjoyed about it is that it's often the case, that your victories sometimes go completely unnoticed to even yourself as you move through the world. We felt like the ending of the finale was important, because it was both a personal and professional decision that she was making. The fact that it may or may not have erased her short-term memory, it just let us reset for next season and it felt like a smart narrative move.
HitFix: With a lot of recent drama finales, fans and also critics have been talking about the idea of showrunners having "the guts" to kill off characters. It seems to me like "guts" can mean other things beyond just killing off characters. What, to you, does it mean to "have guts" when it comes to being ruthless with your characters?
Alex Gansa: I think the gutsiest thing you can do is to make sure that every action that happens in a finale, or over the course of a season, is based in character and in the true way that the character would behave. I have to say, if we were gutsy about anything this season, it was being very rigorous about that. We didn't want anybody to do anything that felt out of character and sometimes that leads to a finale or to a season that may be less narratively interesting, but, again, is characterologically true and I think that those are the most rewarding pieces of television that you can see. The really good shows are always, always very true to their characters and I think that there are some shows that try too hard and that is sorta misinterpreted as guts, but ultimately those, to me, are the most unsatisfying ones. The most satisfying series are always the ones where everybody behaves, you know, when you look back on it and you go, "Well of course they would behave that way. That's exactly what they would do." And that's really, really what we tried to do all through the season. If you look at the finale, there are a couple things that we are really, really proud of in the finale and one is Dana's character and how we built that relationship with her dad so that it makes sense that she's the one who would call her father and if anyone called him, she would be the one that he would listen to. That was the first thing. And then Carrie, just her journey of her mental illness and where she would get to at the end of the season. We always knew she was going to be involved in some fairly serious psychiatric situation.
HitFix: Since you mentioned Dana... There's a long tradition on genre shows of teenage characters who fans really just wanna throttle and you guys avoided that well with her. This was a character who I don't think anybody hated or wanted to get rid of. What's the secret to crafting a character who viewers actually like in that age range?
Alex Gansa: It comes down to one aspect and that's just the casting of the role. The young woman who plays Dana, Morgan Saylor, she was able to come in and inhabit a character who could have been a cliche, the eye-rolling teenage, smarter-than-everybody-else role, which just has become such a trope of movies and television. And Morgan came in and she just has an uncanny ability to inhabit scenes and to make dialogue her own in a way that doesn't feel old or tired or the same old thing. We really just marveled at her from the beginning. So I think "casting" is the answer to your question. There was another role... Look, I don't mean to compare "Homeland" to "The Descendants," the young woman who plays George Clooney's daughter in "The Descendants" [Shailene Woodley] had the same situation, had to walk that tightrope and she did it extremely well. She was fantastic. She's like one of the only other actresses where I thought, "You know? She could have played Dana. She's good." So I think Morgan just brought her own ways to the role that really made it come alive.
HitFix: Talking about the state of affairs as we left things... When it comes to the situation Carrie is in at the end with the shock treatments and her general psychological state, how do you follow through with the consequences of that, while also leaving room to reset the action and premise for a second season?
Alex Gansa: We're really just at the beginning of talking about Season Two. There are a number of things that we can do with Carrie. I think we have to honor the fact that the ECT therapy does have some side effects -- not just memory loss, but there are some personality things that can be affected. It's a therapy treatment of last result. It does have profoundly positive effects often times on people with bipolar illness, bipolar disease, and we're going to try to be as true as we possibly can to what that choice means and meant for Carrie. I don't know, but I imagine you're going to see a slightly different Carrie Mathison next season as a result of what she's endured and what she's been through and what this therapy, what the side effects may or may not be.
HitFix: But you're going to be very aware of the position you put her in in terms of the chances of her returning to work at the CIA?
Alex Gansa: Of course. She has significantly damaged her career and unless there is some kind of extraordinary circumstance to get her back into the fold, nobody would believe that. I don't believe we're going to pick up next season with with Carrie Mathison reporting for duty at the CIA. That would be completely implausible.
HitFix: And then with Brody, he has the whole "Well, I didn't kill the VP, but now I can enact tangible change from within" conversation with Nazir and Abu Nazir seems to accept it. How much should viewers think Brody believes what he's saying there and how much should viewers believe that Nazir believes or accepts what Brody says?
Alex Gansa: Haven't those questions been the very questions that have been swirling around Brody from the very beginning? His character has always been someone on whom the audience projects their own feelings. That was very much by design. At the beginning, you were asking the question, "Well was he or wasn't he turned in captivity?" and you were looking for clues in his behavior with his family and with Carrie and in his daily life. You were looking for clues to determine whether or not he had been turned. Then when we revealed that actually he had been turned, in one way or another, then you began to look for clues about whether or not he would go through with what he had agreed to do and we built that through into the finale.
Now, I think we're in a similar position. He has made a pitch to Nazir to excuse his behavior in the bunker, because Nazir may or may not believe whether the vest malfunctioned or not. He has pitched to Nazir a sorta Plan B and I think your question is extremely well taken, which is: Well, is he serious? Is this something that he's genuinely going to try to do? And does Nazir believe him? And more importantly, does Nazir have any leverage over Brody to force him to do something he may not be willing or sanguine about doing? So those are all the questions that are going to be swirling around next season and I think in a positive way, in a way that's gonna make it feel as dramatic and as interesting as it was this season, albeit on a different stage.
HitFix: So if viewers are felt that Nazir agreed too quickly to the deal, they shouldn't think it's that simple?
Alex Gansa: No, I don't think they should be worried it's that simple. I think Nazir's got a lot of leverage. For one thing, not that I know this for a fact, but I imagine that Nazir or one of Nazir's lieutenants has a copy of that suicide tape that Brody made.
HitFix: That was going to be my next question. What's up with the tape?
Alex Gansa: The tape is out there and the tape can, at some point, certainly come to haunt Brody, especially if he's had second thoughts about what he's agreed to do.
HitFix: But we don't know who has it at this moment?
Alex Gansa: We don't.
HitFix: Also on the subject of lingering post-finale questions... There was a lot of "mole" talk this season, but no resolution. Were Saul's suspicions wrong?
Alex Gansa: Two things I'd say about that: One is that we were very conscious of... And this was before the response to the whole "mole" issue. People started suspecting Saul and Estes and "Oh my God, could it be Carrie, herself? Is she a schizophrenic?" All of this stuff. There's a lot of speculation about the mole. And as you know, revealing moles was a huge trope on "24" and Howard and I both worked on "24" -- I only worked on "24" for the last two seasons, but Howard worked on "24" from the beginning -- and we were very conscious from the beginning of the series, even when it was just an idea in our heads, that we were not going to follow in "24's" footsteps. Carrie Mathison never pulls a gun all season long. And the idea of "revealing the mole" as being one of this series, one of the "Homeland" series tropes was something we avoided. The other thing is that oftentimes, you never know who the mole is. Believe me, there are plenty of moles in the intelligence community, not just in the United States, but in all intelligence agencies, who have never been revealed and who are still in place. That struck us as a much more interesting and realistic portrayal of that idea.
HitFix: As a last question, looking out to next season, one of the interesting things about the "Homeland" writing staff was the number of established showrunners you recruited for the team. I'm curious about how closely you're going to be able to replicate that next season since I assume many of those writers and producers are going to go do their own shows next year...
Alex Gansa: I don't know the answer to that yet. People are being offered a bunch of things. Almost everybody on the staff wrote a pilot this year, so you very well may be right. However, I'm hoping to get at least four of those people back. Also, Howard was much more of a peripheral part of the series this year. He's been running "Awake," the NBC show, so we're hoping to get him fulltime next year as well, which would be fantastic. I'm quietly confident that we're going to have 80 percent of the staff back and if we do hire somebody else, it'll be somebody at a high level.