“Homeland” hit the gas in Sunday’s episode, which marks the halfway point of the Showtime drama’s fourth season.
SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you haven’t seen the Nov. 2 episode, “From A to B and Back Again.”
The sixth installment ratcheted the tension for main characters as a key plot twist became twisty-er and Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison went deeper down the path of earning her moniker “The Drone Queen,” (which was also the name of the season premiere seg).
The episode, written by Chip Johannessen and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, spurred social media chatter that it marked “Homeland’s” return to form as a deft mix of action, suspense and emotional moments that explore the decidedly gray areas of America’s covert war on terror. Danes’ performance ran the gamut of love scenes, physical fight scenes, an epic verbal showdown with co-star Nazanin Boniadi’s character and the emotional intensity of Carrie’s eleventh-hour realization of how inured she has become to the human costs of drone warfare.
The basic plot followed the youthful Aayan, played tenderly by Suraj Sharma, as the tracking device Carrie slipped onto him leads the CIA to the mountain hideout of his high-ranking terrorist uncle, Hassam Haqqani. Working on the episode was a big jigsaw puzzle for director Glatter, who pieced together the powerful final act from three distinct perspectives: Carrie and crew in the conference room as they prepared for a drone strike, Aayan’s path on the ground as he heads to the meeting and the grainy overhead viewpoint of the drone camera as projected on the conference room’s giant screens.
“Homeland” fans were quick to praise Danes’ work in those final scenes as her emotional turmoil registers wordlessly across her face. It’s even more impressive after learning that those scenes were shot with Danes looking at a screen with a big X on it. Members of Glatter’s team read aloud the description of what she was supposed to be seeing, but the footage of Aayan’s trek through the mountains was shot afterward.
“That should tell you something about her level of ability — where she can go in her mind with this character,” Glatter told Variety in a telephone interview from Cape Town, South Africa, where “Homeland” is shooting. Johannessen’s script, Glatter said, was so strong from the get-go that it inspired everyone to “take it to the razor’s edge.”
The editing process on “From A to B” was more involved than other episodes because of the three distinct POVs that went into the final moments. There was one version that focused much more on the operatives in the conference room. But Glatter and the team ultimately decided it needed the contrast of Aayan trekking through a beautiful remote area where the audience realizes that he spent time as a kid.
The tension “came from the important balance between the two worlds. I wanted people to feel the visceral part of Aayan’s journey,” Glatter said. And then back in the conference room, as Carrie cooly (at first) aims to orchestrate the killing, “we needed to see that she is so emotionally disconnected this season, but we see this young guy who has gotten to her. She is using him and playing him, but she also has feelings about him too.”
The scenes with Aayan and his uncle were shot outside Cape Town in an area that looks remarkably like the rocky terrains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Glatter said. Those scenes were shot with helicopters or with hand-held cameras because it was too hard to bring a crane and other heavy equipment to the site.
“I wanted it to feel very rugged, very remote,” Glatter said. “Everything is shot hand-held so you feel this underlying tension. This world is never safe, there’s always that sense of a little bit of movement. Things are never quite stable in our particular world of the psychological thriller.”
Another scene that set tongues wagging was the face-off between Carrie and her underling operative Fara played by Boniadi. The two actresses nailed the intensity of the fight between teacher and student pretty naturally, Glatter said. “It was great to have a really meaty scene for Fara to play. It shows that she’s learned a lot and she’s able to stand up for herself,” Glatter said. “We saw that even Carrie realized by the end that she might have gone one step too far.”
Glatter has been working in Cape Town with the “Homeland” team since May. The company is gearing up to shoot the last two episodes of the season and hopes to be home by Thanksgiving. The experience of working so far from home has been source of bonding for a team that was already tight-knit.
Last week, Danes threw a big Halloween party that brought out the best in the expats. Glatter came as Haqqani, complete with beard and prop AK-47. Danes went as a barnacle attached to a whale that was her young son, Cyrus.
“I could not believe the level of commitment that people made to their costumes,” Glatter said. “It was unbelievably fun.”