SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Prisoners of War,” the series finale of “Homeland.”
Carrie’s fate wasn’t sealed on the page until 24 hours before “Homeland” shot its final scenes. Mandy broke into song on his last day of shooting. And at the last minute, Los Angeles had to double for Moscow and Washington, D.C. when the production of season 8 ran into insurmountable logistical hurdles in Morocco.
As “Homeland” prepared to bow out after eight seasons with its April 26 series finale, “Prisoners of War,” executive producers Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon and Lesli Linka Glatter spoke with Variety in detail about the making of the finale, the larger themes of season 8 and regrets and triumphs over 10 years and 96 hours of television. The trio couldn’t say enough about the talents of “Homeland” stars Claire Danes and Patinkin, who formed the durable axis of the mentor-protege relationship between intrepid spies Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson.
Gansa, who with Gordon developed the Showtime drama from an Israeli format, served as “Homeland” showrunner for all eight seasons. Linka Glatter directed the much-praised season two installment “Q&A,” and signed on as a director-producer starting in season three. Gordon came in and out over the years but was back full-time in the writers room for the final season. The 66-minute finale was penned by Gansa and Gordon and helmed by Linka Glatter.
Let’s talk about how you came up with the ending. When did you settle on the storyline for the finale?
Alex Gansa: Not until quite late. The idea that Carrie Mathison writes a book like Edward Snowden did — that idea did not reveal itself until 24 hours before we shot those scenes.
Gansa: It was a very difficult idea because if Carrie was going to be in Moscow with Yevgeny she had to have been doing something for two years that took any suspicion off her. The idea she was writing a book that was super-critical of America’s foreign policy and the CIA was just perfect. The idea did not come to me until Wednesday before we shot the scenes on Thursday. I thought about whether Carrie could have been writing a book. I told Claire I just don’t know if this is going to work. She loved it. Then get we got on the phone with her and the art department asking if can you get us a book cover photograph of Claire in the next 20 minutes.
They went to work like crazy. We had to think of a (book) title and we resurrected a conversation she’d had with Saul back in season 4 when she talked about the ‘tyranny of secrets and the tyranny of keeping them.’ We definitely went down to the wire on it. To say we weren’t all anxious would be not true.
Lesli Linka Glatter: It’s so intense ending a series. There’s so much pressure on it from the outside and there’s internal pressure. There were many, many drafts of the last 15-20 pages. There was so much discussion about the ending. When Alex finally hit on it, it was like ‘Oh my god, that’s the ending.’ It took all the permutations and rewrites to get there.
Howard Gordon: It was an elegant solution to an impossible problem. On top of the epiphany there was the emotional feeling. As grim as one of their deaths would have been, to be able to preserve the promise of the show and also to give Carrie a kind of redemption — that felt wonderful.
What was your plan for the ending if you hadn’t come up with the book idea? Surely you didn’t leave that open until 24 hours before filming?
Gansa: Saul would have received another little red book. We knew that Carrie would be in Moscow and with Yevgeny and trying to replace Anna somehow. We knew she would still be doing her work. But we couldn’t figure out how to deliver on why would (Yevgeny) go along with her, how could he include her in his life if it wasn’t clear that she had renounced her former existence. She’s a full-blown traitor to her country. She can never go back home. She sacrificed an American asset inside the Kremlin. That is a big black mark in the intelligence community.
You seem to go out of your way to highlight the differences between Carrie and Saul on spy tactics and “the cost of doing business,” as Saul and Yevgeny both observe.
Gansa: That middle scene between (Carrie and Saul) where they have that big argument (about sacrificing Anna to stop a possible war in South Asia) hopefully people fall on both sides of the question.
What else was hard about crafting the final episode?
Gordon: Building that bridge over the course of the season (between Carrie and Yevgeny) where we could credibly play on the knife’s edge of her tormentor who is now working with her and then becomes an object of an emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy. It was a very, very challenging high wire act. I think it feels credible. It reminds me a little bit of the Brody of it all. That too was this really strange knife’s-edge narrative.
How long ago did you start thinking about how to end the series?
Gordon: It was over multiple seasons. Mercifully the horizon was so distant it was something we could talk about even when we were planting a flag on quicksand. But just the exercise of thinking about how it would end was good. It was percolating actively in Alex’s mind.
What stands out in your memory about filming the final episode?
Gansa: Mandy’s face in that last shot at the kitchen table. The very first time I ever saw Mandy work was in 1982 in New York he was in ‘Sunday in the Park With George.’ By the end of the first act I was just weeping in the audience. The whole show was about making art. He played (painter) George Seurat and he had a beard. As we were thinking about how to cast Saul, I said there was only one person I wanted to play this and he had to have his beard.
On the day of Mandy’s very last take, when he opens the book at the kitchen table, he wanted one more go at it. I said ‘Mandy, we got it.’ He said ‘I just want one more take.’ And so everybody took a deep breath and I went back to video village. Mandy got up and sang ‘Finishing the Hat’ (from ‘Sunday in the Park’) as his last take. It was unbelievable. Mandy, a capella, singing the most beautiful song from that show. It’s so unbelievable. I will never forget it.
The remarkable thing about this show is everybody who worked on it wanted to make it as good as it could be. Every single day. That collective will is what bound us all together. We were all in service of the same thing.
Linka Glatter: While we were having our last concept meeting for the series we were shooting episode 11. We were near a location of a mansion we were using in Beverly Hills. So we’re all sitting out in a park in Beverly Hills, in a circle. Some guy is walking his dog and he comes up to our great producer Sunday Stevens and asks what we’re doing. She said we’re having a meeting about a TV series, in fact the end of the TV series. He goes ‘Oh really, what series?’ and she says ‘Homeland.’ He says ‘I love that show. So don’t f—- it up.’ This was before we had our last 20 pages. I looked at Alex and just saw the color drain from his face. You couldn’t make that up.
Gansa: It was crazily emotional, I have to say. All of us were just tearing up at the end. We’ve all been on this journey. For Carrie, it was nice to see her at the end of this run doing what she was meant to do.
How seriously did you consider scenarios where Carrie and/or Saul died?
Gansa: The idea that one would die was always on the table. We really tried to make it clear that Carrie was wrestling with her decision. In the season finale of lots of shows, major characters die. We knew we had that card to play if we needed it. I’m so glad, knowing where we are and the times we live in, there’s something nice about Carrie smiling at the end of the show.