BEVERLY HILLS — “Homeland,” returning in January, is coming off a remarkable fifth season, when the series almost — at moments — seemed to anticipate the horrific terrorist attacks in France and Belgium. In fact, one key episode was produced the day after the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris. The season was nominated for three Emmys — outstanding drama and direction, plus another nomination for Claire Danes (Carrie Mathison), who has already twice won. “Homeland” will relocate to New York City for the sixth season. During the TV critics’ press tour in Beverly Hills, I spoke to executive producer and showrunner Alex Gansa. An edited version of our conversation follows:
Under the heading “spoiler,” I understand you can’t say too much about the new season, but what exactly can you say?
There are a couple of things and they are worth mentioning. Last season, we were telling the story in Germany and were there while all these events caught up to our story. It was a very unsettling time for everybody on the show, and I was actually in Berlin filming that last big action sequence [in the Berlin metro] the day after the Paris attacks. We were all doing a little soul-searching in those subway tunnels. And that included questions like ‘What message is it that we are putting out into the world?’ and more importantly, ‘What message should we be putting out into the world?’ I felt everybody’s fear beginning in earnest while we were there, and here we are now, coming back to beloved Manhattan. Obviously, the events of 9/11 were looming quite large in our rearview mirror, and everyone on the show said the last thing we want to do is tell the story of a big terrorist attack on New York City. We felt like that was bad karma all the way around.
You do annual research that informs your terrorism storylines. How did that inform this season?
The interesting thing from our annual field trip to D.C. [where showrunners talk to top anti-terrorism officials] is that we learned from our intelligence contacts that there really is no coordinated state terrorism network in America like there is in Europe, and we further decided that the last thing we want to do is dramatize something that doesn’t actually exist here. There’s enough fear going around with candidates telling us that we face an existential threat and with the reverberations from Europe.
Then how do you thread the needle, so to speak?
Of all the seasons we had on “24” [where Gansa was executive producer], the last two were the hardest. We were trying to figure out how to honor the thriller aspect of the show without doing the easiest thing:] “Oh my God, there’s another big attack!” So something we figured out during our field trip is that there is this very interesting period that exists between the election and the inauguration, when one president is on his way out, and one is on his or her way in, and the fact that there are these two heads of state who are here at the same time. That created an interesting tension in its own right. We also learned there’s this intense period of briefing and education that goes on with respect to the president-elect ... [who] is learning about what’s going on, what threats exist out there, and what the intelligence is and what the intelligence community is worried about. That struck us as an interesting challenge for Carrie, who is on the outside looking in, and also interesting how she might interface with that. It’s an intense 70 days.
Why is “Homeland” coming back in January rather than the fall?
We had done five seasons and kept to the same schedule [with a fall launch]. We knew we were coming back to New York and telling a story about the CIA in New York City. For the first three seasons, we had a wonderful reason for Carrie to be operating in the United States, and that was Nicholas Brody [Damian Lewis’ deceased character]. But once he’s off the table, we could take our show abroad, and have been for the last two years. Carrie has a family — and we wanted to come back for that reason — but frankly we were all tired and we were all in favor of taking a little more time to do this and having a sane production schedule.
But you could have also returned to D.C., right?
Our president-elect [played by Elizabeth Marvel, who played Heather Dunbar in “House of Cards”] is a junior senator from New York, and traditionally, the entire process for the president-elect between election and inauguration takes place in . . . [the POTUS-elect’s] hometown. Plus, we were in Washington the first three seasons and wanted to do something that felt fresh and put Carrie in a different place. She has a reason for being in New York and you’ll find out right away what that is.
Can you talk a little bit about Marvel’s character? Republican? Democrat?
She is a big central character this year, and we’ve always shied away from doing presidents before. The thing that helps us in this case is that she’s not in the Oval Office, but has taken over the top two floors of the Waldorf Astoria, where everyone comes to her while she holds court. It feels very organic to be in New York and organic to this character.
Set up the new season for me, if you would.
Just remember that at the end of last season, Saul [Mandy Patinkin] fairly begged Carrie to come back into the CIA to work for him, and she was offered all kinds of inducements, including autonomy — which really helps him set up a new paradigm to fight the war on terrorism. But that question [of Carrie’s decision] is still wide open. Also remember that Otto Düring [the German philanthropist played by Sebastian Koch] has a proposal of marriage before her. And that’s wide open. Then of course, there’s Carrie’s decision over whether or not to kill Quinn [Rupert Friend] at the end of last season. . . .
Which quite naturally leads to the question of the fate of Peter Quinn [the CIA officer played by Friend].
He’s coming back, but you will find him to be a very different person than you’ve seen before.
Where is Carrie’s head at the outset of this new season?
She began last season in a very optimistic place, having found someone she believed she could have a normal life with, and having a nice home for [daughter] Franny. She also had a job where she was perpetrating some good in the world. But she was also wrestling with the past seasons, trying to find a way to expiate the guilt. Her personal challenge was moving forward with her life knowing what she had done before, and having real qualms about what she had been asked to do. Her past caught up with her — no matter how fast she ran — which was a real lesson to Carrie about the possibility of a happy ending with a life partner. I think it’s fair to say she’s put all that behind her. Also, Otto Düring is not just a normal person — he’s something entirely different. Her decisions wouldn’t be based on a romantic decision — that he’s some sort of Prince Charming — but it would be a calculated move in order to have some sort of financial independence, and not have to worry about a weekly paycheck. So she’s exploring whether to pursue that relationship and also moving into a more proactive engagement with her former employer. She’s exploring her place in the world. She’s also intent on seeing change.
Naturally, the real world of American politics is — ahem — interesting. How will you embrace that part of the zeitgeist?
Carrie believes and always has believed the country went a little mad after 9/11 and lost its collective mind. Nobody knows that better than Carrie, and the extremes she went to, to make sure “it never happens again.” Things like the demonization of an entire culture and religion; the extrajudicial tactics, the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. She’s looking for a way to make all that right now, and asking herself, “How do I correct all that in my own small way?”
But with the current political clime, you can’t help but say reality is far stranger than any fiction we can come up with. But we are trying to hedge our bets. . . . [Marvel] won’t be Hillary Clinton or Trump — but a strange amalgam.
What’s the future of the series?
The show has officially been picked up for eight seasons, and I think we’d all love to the opportunity to tell a complete story, so at the end of the eighth season, that story has a conclusion. If all goes well, the plan is to bring the show to an end by the end of season 8.