As Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin gathered with the creators of Showtime’s “Homeland” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City Tuesday night to celebrate the premiere of their Emmy-winning show’s final season, President Trump addressed the nation. While they feted the end of their long-running drama of spies and counterterrorism — not so far away — Trump stood before the joint members of Congress, claimed ISIS’ destruction and narrated the espionage-like assassinations of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and General Qasem Soleimani. You’ve got to think the state of the Union was on their minds.
“There aren’t many shows that have been interested in mirroring political and cultural phenomenon as they’re occurring in real time,” Danes, “Homeland’s” two-time Emmy-winning star, told Variety on the red carpet. “Yes, it’s entertainment, but I’d like to think we shaped culture, too.”
“Homeland,” whose eighth and final season premieres on Showtime Feb. 9, tells the story of a bipolar CIA officer, Claire, caught (seemingly endlessly) in a stream of plots to end and avenge the War on Terror, persisting just as the show has through new administrations and changing sentiment toward the intelligence community. If ever there was a time for “Homeland” to dig in its heels, it might be now.
“America’s attitude toward the intelligence community hasn’t shifted a lot in the last 10 years, but it certainly has in the last three,” Alex Gansa, co-creator and executive producer, explained. “The President is so down on the intelligence community, and it’s reeling as a result. The public is looking at our institutions, the FBI, the CIA, in a completely skeptical way. And while I’ve always been wary of drama ever becoming didactic — we’ve always tried to present both sides of issues — I think some of us have felt strongly that one of these arguments be stronger than the other.”
At the show’s beginning in 2011, “Homeland’s” low-tech, carefully paced and well-researched narrative drew comparisons to a grown-up “24” — a thriller of thwarting terrorist plots with little stake for real-world implications. But that changed quickly.
Over its nearly ten years on television, “Homeland,” and its choice to dramatize the War on Terror as it was happening, inserted itself into the volatility of American political and foreign policy. The show was frequently criticized for depicting its Muslim characters as caricatures of Islamic extremism and for justifying American engagement in the Middle East. Yet, the creators’ insistence of pursuing lifelike plot lines — cast and crew famously attended “spy camp” before each season, an intensive debriefing with members of the intelligence community that begot the show’s plot — intuited and reflected real-world events with almost precise predictability.
“We were attacked from the left for being Islamaphobic, and we were attacked from the right for being soft on terrorism,” said Gansa. “We took it very seriously. After the attacks on Paris, we made a very strong commitment to never dramatize a threat that didn’t actually exist. We weren’t going to fear monger,” he said. “And, because we dramatize real issues, some people come away from the story feeling educated. Once, I talked to a reporter from Denmark who said, ‘This is how my mother views the world, now.’”
That’s a lot of power for one show to have “if you take advantage of it; [which] I hope we haven’t,” Gansa added. Yet, in a political climate where politicians stoke fear for their own gain, television shows that play-act a complex war on radical ideology — accurately, or not — offer an easy justification for that mongering. How the show has balanced its responsibility to make good entertainment with the cost of dealing in fear will determine its legacy, Patinkin — who plays Claire’s mentor Saul — believes.
“When you tell a story in the hands of great storytellers, you need something that goes ‘tick, tick, tick,’ especially if it’s on-the-edge-of-your-seat type storytelling,” Patinkin told Variety. “Sometimes, that can end up escalating the nature of your own fear mechanisms, your own terror. It plays on that. It uses that, without a doubt. In ‘Homeland,’ we are participants in that game. But we also try to balance that with a sense of why the intelligence community is willing to literally sacrifice their existence for this information, why we, as storytellers, are willing to go to the edge of life’s possibility for the sake of saving one human being.”
“It’s helpful for me,” Patinkin continued, “to have been so aware of the cost of participating in something that will never go away, which is fear and violence and terror. It sells tickets. It will always sell tickets. And it’s our job whenever we have the chance to speak into someone’s microphone to say that we understand it’ll never go away. It’s what the entertainment business makes its living on.”
“What we need to do is take that other narrative — of hope, optimism and kindness — and bring it to the halfway point, to tell storytellers to change the narrative whenever and wherever they can,” he concluded. “You can still tell these stories in a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat fashion that goes ‘tick, tick, tick,’ but it’s an art form that needs a little more watering.”