Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon move beyond 24’s Jack Bauer with their new Showtime hit Homeland, a psychological thriller that questions if, 10 years after 9/11, terrorism can still be viewed through a prism of good vs. evil.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
A decade after 9/11 and the black and white era of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, Americans have arrived at an evermore complex, nuanced understanding of the battle lines in the war on terror. It’s a war where allies and enemies can be as hopelessly mingled as cause and effect.
Homeland, the new Showtime series starring Claire Danes, is a psychological thriller that taps into the uncertain charge of that ambiguity.
The show, which has enjoyed a very strong ratings start, is inspired by an Israeli series about prisoners of war returning home from a 17-year captivity in Lebanon to reintegrate into Israeli society. With Homeland the focus is Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody, who returns Stateside after having gone missing in Iraq for eight years.
Homeland’s first question: Has POW hero Brody been turned by Al Qaeda? Showrunner Alex Gansa and EP Howard Gordon – both came from 24, which Gordon ran – further torque the narrative by calling into question the judgment of the heroine, loner CIA agent Carrie Mathison played by Danes. While Mathison obsessively pursues Brody, certain he’s gone rotten, she appears unstable at times, afflicted by bipolar disorder.
“Jack Bauer worked immediately after post-9/11; he was a muscular response,” Gansa says. Homeland, on the other hand, is reflective of, “10 years later, and it takes into consideration what has happened. It’s a much more complicated, nuanced picture.”
© 2011 Showtime
Claire Danes in Homeland.
Gansa and Gordon spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the risks of taking on a terrorism-based plot and the thrill of writing a show where the ostensible hero’s reliability dances in and out of the shadows as much as the villain’s.
Explain for readers who haven’t yet seen this show yet why it’s worth tuning in for, what makes it special?
Alex Gansa: There’s always value in a good thriller, be it a psychological thriller or an action thriller. That kind of storytelling has a narrative engine that can’t be beat. If you can do the thing with that kind of energy and also create characters that are worth watching, then you have a winner.
Howard Gordon: Alex and I had the fear that the opposite would be true. We just didn’t know if this was going to connect with viewers. We set out to make a thriller in the post-24, 10-years-after-9/11 environment. We didn’t know if the audience would be interested in this idea or had they had enough terrorism – you know, red-orange-and-amber-alert fatigue.
Obviously, we felt a compelling story with compelling characters would attract viewers. It’s also an immersive story, you know, that question of, “Is he or isn’t he and how is that going to be revealed?”
And to that point, you guys have said that you’ll reveal Brody’s agenda by midseason?
Alex Gansa: The story will unfold [slowly]. We have a lot of backstory to reveal, and we have a lot of story in the present that bears examination. The story isn’t going to just continue on the question of, “Is he or isn’t he a terrorist?” If he is a terrorist, for example, there are a lot of interesting questions to answer, one of the main ones being [the idea] that you’re not really a terrorist until you commit an act of terror. So even if he is proved to be somebody who’s been turned by Al Qaeda, he still has to go through the process of deciding whether or not he’s going to go through with it.
And if he’s not a terrorist, we have the entire history of his return and what it means to reconnect to his family and become part of society again.
So, yes, you’re going to reveal this by midseason, and you’ve got a lot to work with if you do?
Alex Gansa: That’s correct.
Do you feel from a writing standpoint it’s one of those cases where the “reveal” gives you even more to work with?
Alex Gansa: It’s funny, when we finished the pilot, the question [was] very simple: Is he or isn’t he a terrorist? That was the question we posed at the end of pilot. As we began to understand what sort of stories we could tell, it became much more complicated than that.
Even if we reveal one way or another what he is, there’s still a tremendous amount of room to move in terms his character and Carrie’s character as well.
What does this show aim to do narratively as far as the idea of black and white, good and evil?
Howard Gordon: By taking characters whose circumstances are extraordinary; in Brody’s case, the fact that he’s a soldier who’s been held in captivity and traumatized, who’s been away from his home. In the case of Carrie you have someone who is extraordinarily dedicated, even obsessed and obviously has her pathology. You take two characters who are very clearly extraordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances and the notions of good and bad and hero and traitor become very interesting. Part of what we tried to do was ask questions more than answer them. Obviously, if there is a terror strike happening, Carrie is the one that’s the hero and the ones behind the strike are the bad guys, but at the same time we’re filling in holes that answer questions about what might have motivated the attack. It becomes a little less clear. You start identifying with the people who are doing… Well, I’m digging myself a hole here…
Alex Gansa: One of the central conceits of the show is voyeurism, in a way. It’s people watching other people and trying to discern what their motives are. If you put a person like Carrie, for example, in the audience’s point of view and you make that person unreliable, it calls into question everybody’s perception about everybody else. That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish. So rather than definitively coming down and saying black or white, we’re saying look at this person through this prism and try to make a determination about what you think.