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. It’s hopeful.
Did you consider any other finale story options for Carrie and Franny?
Linka Glatter: At one point there was a scene that we never shot where she went to a school music recital and watched Franny because she needed to see her. It got changed to the scene where (Carrie) went to the house and saw the photo and felt the pain of that. She couldn’t dip into her daughter’s life and dip right back out. In Carrie Mathison’s mind not seeing Franny was more compassionate.
Did you consider revisiting any of the Brody family members in the final season?
Gansa: Everybody on staff wanted to revisit something with that family. We talked about it and talked about it. We couldn’t find the right story to tell that felt organic. If all of us had one regret about the stories we told, I think we didn’t really honor the effect on a family like the Brodys of what (Nicholas) Brody was accused of at the end of season 2. That’s the one story that we all felt we dropped the ball on a little bit. It didn’t have the weight that it should have.
You faced some unexpected production delays on Season 8 when you had trouble getting certain kinds of equipment into Morocco. Did the last-minute shift to doing some location work in the L.A. area change the finale at all?
Linka Glatter: Part of doing this job and being a storyteller is figuring out how do you solve problems you never knew you were going to have. We had thought we would shoot our last two episodes on the East coast. Then when we realized we had to do all the military stuff (in the U.S.) we knew it had to all be done in one place and that place was L.A. because you could make Santa Clarita look like Afghanistan. It was a challenge trying to figure out shoot Moscow in L.A.
Where did you shoot the final Carrie scene? It’s a great ornate theater.
Gansa: The Los Angeles Theatre in downtown L.A. It is ornate and also falling apart. Our production people made it look gorgeous.
Who was the jazz artist on stage in Carrie’s final scenes?
Gansa: Kamasi Washington. … Beyond the fact that I love Kamasi Washington — I think he’s the best jazz musician writing music right now — the song that plays at the end is called “Truth.” His music was also playing at the beginning of season 7 when Carrie was on the treadmill running full-out and listening to a wailing saxophone.
How did you settle on the fade-to-white ending?
Linka Glatter: We played with fade to white, fade to black. The big idea for when we were filming (the final scenes) both for Carrie and Saul was that there were these amazing flares of light in the background of Saul’s shot and in the background of Carrie’s shot. It’s another chapter opening up. It came out of incredible discussions since it is the last image. I love that there’s just something about the incredible, ecstatic look on both of their faces for very different reasons.
What are your thoughts about where Carrie is now?
Gansa: That’s up to you. It’s out of my hands now.
Linka Glatter: I think she actually loves Yevgeny. She might be the happiest we’ve ever seen her although she’s living a lie — that’s the irony of it. But she’s actually with someone who does the same job. They both tried to recruit each other. He did horrible things to her and she did to him. The irony of that is just huge when she’s sitting there listening to music and knows that she can’t come back to her country where she’s seen as a pariah and a traitor.
Is there a sliver of a chance that Carrie and Saul set the Russian-exile-spy plot up together in advance?
Gansa: Absolutely not. He was furious at the lengths to which she went to get him to reveal the name of his asset. He was absolutely crushed and devastated that Carrie’s actions lead to Anna’s death. He believed the relationship was severed forever. The book is the very first piece of intelligence Carrie sends, thereby taking Anna’s place. It’s Carrie trying to re-establish the relationship. It’s her saying ‘I know what I did in your eyes was horrible. You thought we couldn’t rebuild the network? I’m going to rebuild it for us.’
What was the significance of the young CIA agent Jenna Bragg, played by Andrea Deck, in season 8?
Gansa: She illuminated the idea that some people are well equipped to do the job that Carrie does and other people aren’t. Jenna was clearly somebody who was capable intellectually but incapable emotionally to do what was required. She couldn’t embrace the ambiguity of the job and the sacrifices that have to be made and the tradeoffs that have to be reconciled.
We had for eight seasons wanted to mirror the mentor-protege relationship of Saul and Carrie with Carrie and a younger officer. It felt like a good opportunity to do it. I thought Jenna existed in a wobbly way in the first half of the season. She was very much a greenhorn but she came to the decision that this line of work was not for her. That flies in the face of what Carrie was about to do — the ultimate betrayal of her country for the greater purpose of stopping a war.
How did you cast the role of Anna (Tatyana Mukha) in the last two episodes? She was a key player in the last laps.
Gansa: Judy Henderson, our wonderful casting director. She deserves the highest accolades for the quality of the actors she brought to the show. (Mukha) was astonishing in these last two episodes, to carry the weight of that role and make her into somebody that you cared about at the end of an eight-season run.
Have you thought about the larger significance of Carrie Mathison in the history of TV characters and female protagonists?
Gansa: I think that’s for other people to determine the legacy of that character and the show itself.
Linka Glatter: She is a game-changing female character. She’s as complicated as any man and as flawed but you still care about her. You find her compelling. She’s layered and complicated and passionate. Being able to look at things like her not being a good mother. That is like TV’s first and biggest taboo. She’s not a good mother but she loves her child. The biggest act of generosity was giving her child up to her sister for primary care. Most people wouldn’t be able to do that. The fact that she realized that about herself was kind of an amazing thing. We’ve had such incredible iconic male characters both film and TV. Women have to be in some way above reproach. Now the world has changed. Women can be more complicated.
Gordon: I have heard from so many people, anecdotally, from friends and family about the importance of Carrie. Hearing it often enough and passionately enough about how vexing how interesting and compelling, it did dawn on us. We understood the weight of that. We all saw this deep commitment on everybody’s part, led by Alex and Claire, to make sure this character fulfilled her promise and the important place that she held in a lot of people’s lives.
Claire and Mandy by all accounts had nearly instant chemistry in their roles. How much of a gift was that to you as writers and directors?
Gordon: I remember Mandy saying to me how preternaturally gifted Claire was and how intimidating it was for him. He works very, very hard to get to where he needs to get to. Claire could be in an intense scene and then go talk to her son’s caretaker about what he ate for lunch and then would be called from her chair and get back into a place that Mandy had to occupy, exhaustingly, the entire day. The admiration they had for each other and the respect became a self-supporting system for them. There was a tremendous amount of generosity between them. Whenever I have been in public with Mandy I have never seen him refuse a selfie or an autograph. He just couldn’t be kinder.
Linka Glatter: (Danes) is the real deal on every level. She is fearless and will go to any depth and of course she’s nothing like this character. She is an extraordinary actress and an extraordinary human being. She’s got the whole thing. She was a child actress and then went and educated herself. She’s a big reader, a thinker. She really researches in depth. Playing someone with a disease (of being bipolar), that was a very serious undertaking for her.
What did all of your globe-trotting for production do for the show? Over eight seasons you filmed all over the world, including extended stays on location in Germany, South Africa, New York, Israel, Morocco, Venezuela and Virginia.
Linka Glatter: I think it made it really feel real. To move the production to another country every season after Brody died (in season 3), it was always such a reset for the series. It felt like what it would be like to be a CIA officer in the field.
Gordon: (Producer) Michael Klick did the full eight seasons. He is incredible. Michael would go to these foreign countries and establish a network, building soundstages and hiring key personnel. He created things on the fly — he should have gotten hazard pay. Michael, with Lesli as his co-captain, really is someone who deserves credit for always taking on those challenges in ways that felt masochistic but he could always pull it off. He did the same thing on “24.”
You clearly made the decision from the start to reference real country names and the real monikers of foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies? Why did you do that rather that making up country names to avoid potential headaches?
Gansa: On “24” we made up names. On “West Wing” they made up names. It it always felt so fake. We really decided to hew as close to the truth as we could. Calling countries by their real names and intelligence services and dramatizing the facts on the ground in those places as closely as we could to the truth and putting our fictional characters into that world it was a high- wire act, no question. One of the things we were always afraid of was the real world would make our fiction counterfactual and therefore irrelevant. That didn’t happen until this season when COVID-19 took over.
Did you take anything from the set as a memento?
Linka Glatter: I have one of Carrie’s cross-body bags. That is her only friend. That is her bestie. I have a photograph from Carrie’s apartment in New York that was on the wall. But the cross-body bag has its own sense of meaning to me.