The day after the Friday, Nov. 13, siege in Paris that killed 130 people, Alex Gansa flew from Los Angeles to Europe, where the cast and crew of “Homeland” was preparing to shoot a season finale involving a chemical weapon attack by terrorists in the subway system of Berlin.
“It was a very difficult flight,” recalled Gansa, an executive producer who has led the writing and production of all five seasons of the Showtime series. The parallels between violent reality and the plot of a fictional thriller prompted questions that the producer and his collaborators are wrestling with as the season wraps.
“What are we doing? Are we sensationalizing? Are we editorializing? Are we putting the right message out to the world? Are we helping?” Gansa said last week, shortly after completing the final edit of the finale, which airs Sunday.
“Look, we’re an entertainment show on television. I get that. But we do occupy a strange place right now as one of the few ongoing serialized dramas that are commenting on these things happening in the world. We’ve been doing some soul searching.”
With a narrative about CIA officers—Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes), Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend)—fighting terrorist threats to the United States, “Homeland” has tried to ground itself in reality. Though some plot points are fantastical (hacking a pacemaker to assassinate the vice president of the U.S., for example), many others hew closely to troubling or controversial current events, such as Carrie’s command over disastrous drone attacks last season.
Principal photography is typically completed several weeks before an episode is scheduled to premiere, then it’s edited for air. That leaves little time to react to news events in real time. On occasion, however, dialogue has been altered after the fact. For an episode that aired about three weeks after the Paris attack, producers had actress Miranda Otto record a line of dialogue—“no one wants another Paris”—for her character, a CIA station chief, to say off camera.
Seemingly prescient plot lines often spring from the “Homeland” staff’s own sort of intelligence gathering. Though the producers have always relied on intelligence consultants, their research process became more formalized after season three, which brought the end of Nicholas Brody, the soldier-turned-traitor-turned-patriot played by Damian Lewis. “Once Brody left the show, we felt like it had to go back to its roots as a very real-world spy thriller,” said Showtime Networks President David Nevins.
Since then, the “Homeland” writers have started each season with a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with sources. Last January, they holed up in a private club in Georgetown for four days of meetings organized by series consultant John MacGaffin, a former deputy director of the CIA. A parade of current and former intelligence officers, State Department staffers and White House insiders, along with journalists and other experts, provided off-the-record briefings and “a real heavy dose of people’s worst fears,” Gansa recalled.
Those sessions, which took place shortly after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris, led directly to certain story threads. Setting season five in Germany, for instance, helped capture the pressure facing the intelligence community to prevent further attacks in Europe.
Because of Germany’s strict privacy laws, placing Carrie there (a decision praised by the intelligence expert who helps recap episodes of “Homeland” for the Wall Street Journal) highlighted thorny issues surrounding intelligence gathering and citizens’ rights.
Sarah Sokolovic plays an American journalist trying to publish a trove of secret CIA files. In real life, Berlin served as an adoptive home to Laura Poitras, the American journalist who helped Edward Snowden publicize documents about National Security Agency data collection.
“We’re a very politically liberal staff, and some of us have feelings that Edward Snowden wasn’t the worst traitor America has ever seen,” Gansa said. “But when his name came up [during the ‘Homeland’ source meetings] every single intelligence officer would turn red in the face and be absolutely murderous about what he did.”
In the episodes leading up to the season finale, a group of jihadists with ties to the Islamic State take steps to unleash a sarin gas attack on Berlin. That choice of weapon was informed by the “Homeland” writers’ meeting with a member of the coalition of nations tasked with eliminating Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
Certain “Homeland” characters present a varied picture of Muslim society in Europe. In addition to the jihadist conspirators, other characters include a Hezbollah commander who has a German wife and refers to ISIS as “idiots,” a physician who helps save Quinn’s life, and a professor who aids the attackers but happens to be an atheist.
“One thing we really tried to accomplish this season was to show that Muslims in Europe are not speaking with one voice,” Gansa said.
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama delivered a speech from the Oval Office in which he warned of the consequences of deploying American forces to Iraq or Syria, saying, “That’s what groups like ISIL want.” That same night, in a “Homeland” episode titled “The New Normal,” Saul says, “there’s no bigger proponent of an American invasion than the Islamic State.”
During the first episode of the season, a character angrily laid out a different scenario. After two years of working with U.S. special forces in Syria, including in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, Quinn tells his superiors they should send in soldiers to support an equal number of Western doctors and teachers. Either that, he says, or “pound Raqqa into a parking lot.”
Of Quinn’s speech, Gansa said, “He was supremely frustrated by the pace of the fight we’re bringing against these people. I think he was voicing the frustration of all the more hawkish members of our defense establishment.”
In the wake of the Paris attack, some TV networks postponed episodes of shows dealing with urban disasters, terrorist or otherwise. Showtime didn’t delay that week’s episode of “Homeland.” Instead, the network changed its introduction message to “remind viewers that ‘Homeland’ contains content that some may find upsetting.”
Said Nevins, “People know what they’re getting with this show. And yet, to have no acknowledgement [of the terrorist attack] would have felt wrong.”
Gansa says that even if producers had felt compelled to change aspects of Sunday’s finale because of the events in Paris, it was too late—shooting on the episode was under way and there was a tight deadline to deliver it. He said, “We just had to trust that what we had planned was going to work and was going to resonate.”