Homeland: Why Is This Night Different?
Before beginning pre-production each season on Homeland, Showtime’s gripping drama about CIA spy craft and the fight against terrorism, members of the creative team and cast spend several days in Washington, D.C. meeting with CIA officials and others to learn what issues are currently, as one producer puts it, “their worst nightmare.”
For season five, whose 12 episodes aired from October through December 2015, the storytellers also had a four-hour conversation, via Skype, with Edward Snowden, living under Russian asylum. That’s because a key concern in Washington was the former CIA employee-U.S. government contractor’s leaks of classified National Security Agency documents, and the damage inflicted by the information contained therein.
Snowden’s actions spawned a debate – traitor or hero? – in real life, and they also spawned a debate on Homeland, serving as the primary theme for the show’s fifth season, which moves the story ahead two years from season four and is set in Berlin, a magnet for those who decry their own nations’ surveillance because of Germany’s privacy laws.
Two men hack into CIA servers and leak documents to a journalist; one document reveals that despite those privacy laws, German intelligence has hired the CIA to report on jihadists living in Germany. The U.S. wants to obtain the leaked material … but so do the Russians.
The hack may have ramifications for Homeland lead character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who has left the CIA and now heads security for a Berlin-based philanthropist. She is living contentedly with her boyfriend and raising her young daughter – until there is an attempt on her employer’s life, and she discovers that she was actually the intended target and that the documents may hold the reason why.
Ex-CIA or not, the intelligence game is back on for Carrie, who finds herself at odds with her former CIA mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) as she tries to figure things out. Who wants her dead? Did Saul really order CIA black ops agent Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) to kill her? And what role does Allison Carr (Miranda Otto) – CIA Berlin station chief and Saul’s lover – play in this spy scenario?
Other up-to-the-minute plotlines include the war in Syria and the CIA’s strategy to restore order, and an attempt by Islamic State jihadists to attack the Berlin train station by releasing deadly sarin gas there.
The season’s last episode, including scenes in the station’s subway tunnels when Carrie confronts the terrorists and manages to avert the sarin attack, was being filmed when real-life terrorists bombed an airport and metro station in neighboring Brussels; earlier, series cocreator Alex Gansa had booked a flight to Berlin for what turned out to be the day after the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris.
“It was scary. It was surreal,” Gansa recalls. “World events did, crazily, catch up to the stories we were telling.”
And though the stories are fictional, he says, “We certainly try to hew towards the spirit of the truth, if not the letter of the truth.” And the truth is, there are no easy answers, which makes for complicated, incredibly layered storytelling; Gansa says the creative team tries to emulate the complexities of John le Carré’s spy novels.
Complex, and also, challenging. Carrie, who has bipolar disorder, does better at connecting the espionage dots when she is unencumbered by the control afforded by her meds, so she goes off them, becoming increasingly emotionally unhinged in the process.
The storytelling sometimes approaches issues in unpredictable ways. In addition to the extended twist-and-turns of the terrorist sarin attack, there’s a riff on female jihadists. On orders from Saul, Quinn tracks a woman who has befriended younger women – for the purpose, it turns out, of recruiting them for ISIS. Despite her plea for mercy, he kills her.
The actors playing Carrie and Quinn more than meet the challenge of their material – Danes has won two Emmy Awards for her role, and Friend was Emmy-nominated – and both focus on the personal aspects of their portrayals.
“The political design is thrilling and prescient, but it doesn’t dictate my work, which is to define who Carrie is, psychologically and emotionally,” Danes says. “It’s about her relationships, and also about her total devotion to her work, saving the day. But it’s really about her relationships to Saul, and to Quinn, and how they all connect, or don’t connect, more to the point, and how they hope to, and wish to.”
And while the topic of recruiting young girls for ISIS is fascinating, says Friend, “For me, it’s: Who is that woman? Does she go home at night and tuck her kids in bed? I play the guy who has to shoot her point-blank in the face. Does that man then worry because that was a real human being with children, maybe, or does he not worry because she’s a representative of a corrupt system? Is there a level of conscience, or not?”
Both prescient and personal, this fifth season of Homeland took an uncompromising look at the ever-evolving presence of online surveillance and data security breaches in today’s world. For its dramatic depiction of current events that can potentially affect us all, Homeland is a worthy recipient of a Television Academy Honor.
Homeland is available for viewing online with a Showtime subscription at Showtime, Amazon Video and Hulu, as well as on demand.
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