As "Homeland" approaches its third season (it returns Sept. 29 on Showtime), it's also reached a turning point.
The first season of any show is essentially a shakedown cruise, as writers, actors and the rest of the crew figure out what works and what doesn't. If the show is good, media buzz builds in the first and second seasons, and if the network is lucky, ratings go up too, and then everything is grand, right?
But success brings its own dangers. By the end of the first couple of years, the creative team and the network know the path of least resistance. They can follow that (and quite possibly reap the financial reward that comes from that choice) -- or they can make things harder on themselves.
The "Dexter" route, in my view, involves the credo, "Give the people what they want!" Reasonable viewers can disagree about when the show went astray creatively, but after at least two rich and thrilling seasons, it began to follow the path of least resistance. Instead of pursuing psychological complexity and moral culpability in realistic, challenging and emotionally charged ways, for the most part, "Dexter" has continued to put Dexter Morgan in increasingly ludicrous jams that he has nearly always wriggled out of. The last few seasons, despite the occasional burst of ambition or sheer awfulness, followed a predictable pattern: The show set up a Big Bad or two, delivered leaden exposition via internal monologue, and then served up big confrontations at the end of the season. Rinse and repeat.
The end result is that most TV aficionados I know are merely waiting for "Dexter" to be over, if they're still watching -- but are deeply invested in the endgame of "Breaking Bad."
"Breaking Bad" could have followed the "Dexter" path. It could have hung on to the RV, it could have kept Walt and Jesse in the Superlab, it could have turned fan-favorite characters into long-term parts of the franchise instead of killing them off, and it could have run for eight or nine seasons. But if it had, it would have turned into a pale shadow, or worse, a parody, of what it once was. "Breaking Bad's" story mechanics often supply satisfying or even flat-out thrilling twists and turns, but that's not the biggest draw. We watch to see to what fresh depths the people will sink, and how hard they'll fight to con themselves or each other. The show isn't interested in flogging the plot machinery for all its worth, it's interested in the psychological journeys of fascinating people.
"Homeland" has a lot in common with "Breaking Bad." Both are very well-acted -- "Homeland's" Claire Danes and Damian Lewis have deservedly garnered Emmys and other recognition, and they were nominated again this year, along with castmates Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin -- and both dramas are fueled by emotional bonds that can be claustrophobically close. Both shows also thrive on high stakes and jaw-dropping twists, and that's part of the reason that "Breaking Bad" will end soon, after five seasons: Such dynamics can remain credible only for so long.
Will "Homeland" choose the path of "Breaking Bad" or the path of "Dexter"? Back in the day, "Dexter" was a game-changer for Showtime, which was much less prominent when Dexter Morgan arrived on the scene. "Homeland" has been the next-generation game-changer for the network, which means it also has a choice to make: Will the goal be to help keep "Homeland" in the top tier of challenging dramas ... or to keep it around for a long time?
As executive producer Alex Gansa acknowledges in the interview below, the Carrie-Brody relationship can't stay at the same high-pitched frequency forever. Gansa previously addressed the idea that the foundation of the show would need to be reconceived in an interview conducted just after the end of Season 2; and Showtime entertainment president David Nevins recently said that killing off a main character like Nicholas Brody (Lewis) isn't necessarily out of the question.
Showtime sent the first two episodes of Season 3 to critics, and the interview below (which has been edited and slightly condensed) mostly steers clear of the plot in those episodes. It does allude slightly to a couple of very general aspects of the start of Season 3, but I don't think these passages will ruin your enjoyment of the show.
To me, this season it seems like the show's storytelling engine and emotional engine have to be different than they were in the past. That seems like a big mountain to climb. How did you approach that?
Well, it's funny, because I'm getting this sense it's going to be a mountain every season. You know, it was a mountain in Season 2, as well. We were unsure about what the landscape of this series would be. It's been our technique to get ourselves to a storytelling point where the writers have no idea what's going to happen next, and we let our characters get themselves out of the corner that we painted them into. That is especially true at the end of Season 2.
We've sent Brody away. We've perpetrated the next 9/11 on the country [in the form of the CIA car bomb]. And we have killed a significant number of, for lack of a better word, our narrative engines that have taken us through two seasons. So it was a tall order. [The writers] started early as a result. We usually start the first of February, [but] in mid-January, we started talking about all this, and I think we came up with something kind of interesting.
There are shows that can have all the detours and side trips that they want, up to a point; "Sopranos" and "Mad Men" and of course procedurals can move the characters forward very slowly. But I think what your show has in common with "Breaking Bad" is that there's a level of intensity that is harder to sustain over the long haul. Character intensity is tied to story intensity, and you're trying to always keep surprises and revelations, and also depth, coming in both of those realms.
It just seems like it's a very high degree of difficulty.
It is. I think in the first season, we were able to do it almost on a episode-by-episode basis. We were able to deliver twists and turns, even a couple of times in the same episode. I think you're going to see as we move forward that we're going to let the spaces between those story twists breathe a little bit more. Not because we think that's better, but because at some point you have to keep it credible.
You know how much I enjoy the show, but if I'm being honest, not all of the twists and turns in Season 2 worked for me. When I felt myself kind of detaching from some of the things that happened, I think it's because it felt like the twists weren't tied as strongly to the characters as had been the case in the past.
Well, then we fell down. That's an honest response to the thing. It's so funny because, you know, being in it and not being able to experience the show as it happens, I have a completely different attitude about it. We try to generate every story turn from within, that is, from our characters.
Let me just give you one example. The bombing of the tailor shop in Gettysburg seemed like a big deal when it happened, but ultimately the characters who were injured came back to work almost immediately. Ultimately it felt like it was there to be a big event at the end of an episode, but it didn't really carry any weight going forward. At times, it felt as though you were all really worried about not keeping us on the edge of our seats.
You know, it's interesting. That's the first time I've heard that one specifically addressed, and I will have to say that I agree with you. I totally agree with you. I thought that there was something gratuitous about that. But you know what, is it my job to defend these things? [Note: This was said quite affably.]
No, I'm not trying to make you do that. But as I said in one of my reviews, with this show, it's as if you all are constructing a nuclear bomb on a high wire. The show has an insane degree of difficulty.
I think the high-wire analogy is exactly right. And by the way, we were on the high wire for the first season, too. I always tell people that whenever we're confronted in the story room with a safe choice or an unsafe choice, we, 99 percent of the time, chose the unsafe choice. We say, 'Let's go for it.' It worked for us in the first season.
I think that if you look at the first five episodes of Season 2, I find those episodes are so successful for the very reason that you're talking about, which is that everything was generated out of the characters. I think you're right. I think in Episode 6, we needed the material that was in the tailor shop. And maybe we didn't have to go to the extremes to get it that we chose.
I've been thinking about the whole idea of Carrie's mental illness being tied to her gift as an analyst. There are times at the start of the season when Carrie is clear about the idea that, as far as she's concerned, this gift she has is dulled by medication. I guess my question is, in the world of "Homeland," do you think, or do the writers think, that that's true? Because I wonder if that's…
Oh, I think it is. I think you're completely right. I think you're absolutely right and I think Frank, her father, is looking at her, saying that's an extremely dangerous thought to entertain.
Yeah. I guess I know a lot of artists and writers and myself personally -- people who have struggled with some of these issues. I can't speak to Carrie's condition specifically, but I think I've done better work when I've been not in a mental state that was extreme and damaging. But there's this romantic myth that "I must be tortured for my art to thrive." And her art is espionage and intelligence.
I think you're talking about two different things, though. The tortured artist is different from the person that suffers from these wild mood swings and that suffers from manic depression or bipolar illness or whatever we choose to call it. The fact of that matter is that these people who suffer this disease or who have this illness, when they are on medication, don't feel as if they are themselves.
They miss those flights of, for lack of a better word, genius, when they are Icarus flying close to the sun. They miss those things. And it is a sacrifice to not have those heightened feelings. Of course, by taking medication, they're spared the lows, but they miss the highs.
But are the highs really necessary for Carrie to be able to do what she does?
I would just say she thinks they are. The show is agnostic about it. And the show, I think, has demonstrated that when she is off the meds, she's dangerous to herself.
Talking about Brody, as much as I love Damian's performance, I feel like at this point there's a real danger of going to that well too often.
I would say that we share that feeling. We thought that in Season 2, the idea of Carrie running Brody was going to give us a lot more juice, and it didn't bear as much fruit as we had hoped.
There is that, and then you all use the internal and external emotional dramas of these people as your rocket fuel.
And at some point, it's like, "We're just leaving them the shattered husks lying on the floor." It becomes, "How much more can you bring out?"
Completely true. I think, though, we have covered so much ground with those characters that there is a limited amount of terrain that we're going to fish.
Did it amuse you, all the rabbit holes that people went down during Season 2? All the crazy theorizing and so forth?
It's great. The fact that people are having a conversation about the show is the best testament to the show.
Is it hard sometimes? You are all under a microscope now. It's got to be difficult.
We are. Honestly, I think we were under a real microscope in Season 2. And I think that as we move into the third year of this show, I really do believe that people are going to let up a little bit. There are other shows -- let "The Americans" go under the microscope now, "House of Cards" can go under the microscope for its second year.
I think there's a general sense [of the show] now that we've got two seasons under our belt. Look, we built an audience all through the second season. We've got people that love these characters. And so I think we have a certain license to take them where we want to take them. And everyone says, "Are you nervous?"
I always ask myself, "Well, who else is going to do Season 3 of 'Homeland'?" Guess what? It's us. It's us writers; it's us actors. We're doing it, it's our show.
I do think, though, it is kind of a make-or-break season for the show. Because again, you have to reinvent yourself, as we were talking about at the beginning.
Yeah, the show is going under a major reinvention this season. And I imagine we'll be going under an even bigger one next year.
And part of that reinvention this season involves more for Rupert Friend to do, more for Morgan Saylor to do. Was that just a conscious thing, to give them more screen time? Or was it that they are some of the cast members whose characters are still alive?
We brought two [new writers on board this season]. Obviously, we lost [writer] Henry [Bromell], sadly.
Then Meredith [Stiehm] went off to go do "The Bridge," and Alex Cary was working on a CBS pilot, so we didn't have him for the beginning of the season, either. And we brought two new writers on. And one of the first things we did was talk to them about the show as people who were fans of it. One of the first questions was, "Are you interested in the Brody family dynamic without Brody being in the house? Is that something you'd be interested in watching?"
And there was a unanimous, "Yeah, that's something we're interested in watching. We're interested in those characters." Again, being so inside the show, you just don't know that.
And then the second question was, "Do you think that Brody and Carrie are in love?" It was interesting to hear those theories: Are they star-crossed lovers? What are they to each other? What do they still mean to each other? Is there the possibility of that relationship moving forward in any discernible way?
Oh, I love that. I love that.
To me that makes the most sense, because sometimes you're tethered to someone in a complex way and the word "love" doesn't quite cover all the permutations.
Yeah. I say they're bound up with each other, you know. It's a rope metaphor, tethered and bound up.
Have you written the finale yet?
No, we're shooting Episode 6 right now and writing Episode 8.
So, in my mind, a lot of "Homeland" is about -- or at least the themes that I respond to are about -- the damage done by secrets. Secret wars, secret combat between individuals, things held back between people, between families, even between nations. But that's just part of my take on it. Now that you have three seasons under your belt, what do you think the show is about? Is it about people being sacrificed on the altar of national security, and what the true human cost of that is?
I think the theme of the show is the toll that intelligence work takes on human beings, all across the globe.
There have been a bunch of shows in the last five or six years that have been about that. We're essentially just throwing people into the blast furnace that is national security, and they sacrifice themselves willingly.
And sometimes people are just chewed up by it.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent if you talk to any intelligence officer is that there is a [high] level of dedication. The incredible hours they work, the stakes that they face on a daily basis. And look, it burns people out. It's too much pressure.
I'm sure you heard of cases of intelligence workers just cracking.
Absolutely. And also the intelligence community tends to eat its own, also.
Sometimes the brightest stars are the ones that get destroyed most completely.
HuffPost TV has a recent interview with "Homeland" star Damian Lewis. The cast and producers also shared their thoughts in the show's July panel at the Television Critics Association press tour.
"Homeland" returns 9 p.m. ET Sept. 29 on Showtime.