Back at the 2012 Emmys, “Homeland” started a two-season winning streak with eight awards — and then lost all 19 of its nominations in its next five. After a powerful eighth final season, the Showtime drama series is poised to finish strong. Back in the fray is two-time Best Actress winner Claire Danes, who has taken bipolar CIA spy Carrie Mathison through a tumultuous trajectory as she ricocheted around her mentor, intelligence operative Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin).
Making this complicated woman believable is not as easy as Danes makes it look. Mathison’s a superagent operating in a naturalistic world that is grounded in real reporting. Every year, during their “Homeland” hiatus, Danes and Patinkin joined executive producers Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon and director Lesli Linka Glatter for a weeklong Washington, D.C. spy camp. Over eight seasons, they developed relationships with intelligence experts, think-tank heads on the right and left, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who filled them in on what’s going on in the government and the world. Memorably, the “Homeland” team interviewed players such as Russian president Vladimir Putin and whistleblower Edward Snowden (via closed-circuit TV in Moscow). That’s how the “Homeland” writers learned what was keeping intelligence professionals up at night, and that formed the basis of each season.
Over eight seasons, Danes is front and center, carrying us on adventures that could seem far-fetched if she didn’t make us believe them. Early on, Danes established Mathison’s athletic and intellectual prowess as well as her unwavering commitment to guarding the national interest. The CIA agent starts out falling in love with the man she’s charged with debriefing, Marine Corps Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), after he is released by al-Qaeda after eight years as a prisoner of war. Their tempestuous affair yields a daughter before Brody is abruptly killed.
Over the series, the writers kept throwing Mathison into charged moral territory, like refusing to look after her child. “Still, it’s conditional,” said Danes from upstate New York where she was in lockdown with her husband Hugh Dancy and their two young sons. “You can only forgive Carrie for abandoning Franny if she never makes that mistake again. She can’t go off and have another child, for example, but that idea came up. You just can’t make that choice. It’s all proportionate, and relative. So she can transgress and she can falter, in profound ways. If she learned from those mistakes, then we can forgive her. She does absorb her losses and her missteps.”
As far as Danes is concerned, Mathison “is kind of a James Bond. She’s like a superhero. You know she shouldn’t exist. She doesn’t exist, she’s so exaggerated. She’s suffers a lot, she’s not having the kind of great time Bond is having. She does, despite all of the pain, take deep joy from her work. She’s professional. She’s always the smartest person in the room, ultimately the most trustworthy, even though she is volatile.”
Mathison moves on to loving Brody replacement Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) as well as using other men for sex and/or information, while always staying anchored to Berenson. Her priority remains the same: saving the world, no matter the cost. But her psyche absorbs the collateral damage she racks up along the way. Mathison is vulnerable (and dangerous) when her meds fail, and tortured by abandoning her daughter, but nothing is more satisfying than watching her grab a head scarf and a motorcycle and hit the ground in Kabul.
This season, she chases down vital intel, even when the local CIA considers her unreliable and gets in her way, forcing her to get assistance from Yevgeny Gromov (Costa Ronin), the respectful Russian spy who clapped her in prison. Even though they are on opposing teams, they are equally matched and believe in the same things.
Erica Parise / Showtime
One of the most challenging scenes in the finale was the sexiest. When Mathison tracks down the flight recorder from the late president’s helicopter crash, “Yevgeny catches her,” said Danes. “She has to make an impossible pitch to him, and in her Hail Mary, starts offering him sex, finally. ‘Oh my God!’ He injects her with a needle. It’s all so preposterous! As we were filming, I’m rolling my eyes. ‘You know this is never going to be remotely plausible. That’s ridiculous!’ It works, you’re with her.”
That’s the tightrope Danes had to walk on the show. “The quality of the writing is so consistently wonderful,” she said. “Even when the scenarios were extreme and challenging, there was always cogency there. It was always thought through in the writers room and ultimately on the page. It was charted out. But it was fun to be able to take such big swings, to do something that was just so much.”
The only way through was “finding ways to make it also feel possible,” she said. “That was the trick. Somehow we were able to figure that out. We got more facile with it as we went along, we all found our rhythms.” Her scenes with Patinkin were “literally so musical. He was sonorous, reflective, sturdy and careful. She was the opposite. He was an oboe and she was this frenetic flute. We played with the musicality off the words and ideas. She was manic sometimes, I got to accentuate and lean further into that.”
Alert: Season 8 spoilers ahead.
Danes felt the challenge of winding up the series. “It’s an impossible task really,” she said. “But we came as close as we could. Did we try! We were not casual about it.” At the end of Season 7, when Berenson maneuvers to get Mathison back, her mind is so far gone that she doesn’t recognize him. Once she is recovered, he sends her back to Kabul. But is it too early? This final mission pits spy and boss against each other in a fraught moral duel as she demands that he give up a Russian asset he has been working with for decades. He refuses to betray a loyal source; she insists that the price must be paid for the greater good. Is Mathison capable of destroying her beloved Saul? And yet, the twisty plot winds up in a satisfying switch where she winds up replacing the Russian asset herself.
The actress saw the parallels between Brody and Mathison in the first and last season. “It’s kind of poetic she finds herself in this position,” she said. “But they’re both taken to the edge of their moral integrity and their patriotism, and they both ultimately do the right thing, in the same way that Brody doesn’t blow himself and everyone else up, but he comes very close. But Carrie and Brody are driven by the same motivating principle throughout: they are patriots. Brody became a perverse version of that, and the same is true of Carrie.”
And yet there are lines that Mathison cannot cross. “You know we like to thrill,” said Danes. “But we also had to protect her heroism, right? We have to be frustrated by her, in real tension about whether she’s going to do the right thing or not. But you know she can’t kill Saul, we would not be able to forgive her that. We were always probing those ideas and playing with how far we could stretch the dramatic circumstances.”
Erica Parise / Showtime
Working with writers is the best part of the process for Danes. “It’s an alive back and forth,” she said. “You really do work in tandem, like in the theatre, you’re establishing a new play with the writer in rehearsals. And you tweak things as you go along, tailored to the performers. With television, you become this one organism, you interpret their work, and then they interpret yours, and it’s like kneading bread, it goes on for so long. It got to the point where it was really clear which writer had written which episode because you get to know each writer so intimately.”
The actors could continue interacting with the writer responsible for each episode on set, “to guide the director and actors if they ever had any questions,” said Danes, who missed writer Meredith Stiehm when she left after two seasons, the only woman writer on the show. “She was the person who established the bipolar aspect of Carrie’s character. She had some personal history in her family.”
During the final season, after closing each location, from Morocco to Alabama, the cast and crew said a series of farewells. “There was not one cumulative climactic goodbye, but a few,” said Danes. “There wasn’t ever going to be a moment of epiphany when the clouds parted and I wept. It’s weird to have it be released into the world and truly, conclusively, unequivocally end, during the pandemic.”
She’s trying to process saying goodbye to the show “that dragged us all over the planet,” she said. “It’s been such a big, bold, ambitious, active, adventure, and now we’re all burrowed into our little dens, the exact opposite. We were pining for home, so looking forward to returning to a normal life, whatever that meant. But I wasn’t thinking of this!”
Up next: Danes is discussing various television and film projects in the abstract — “I don’t know when anything will happen.” Clearly, TV remains the more “fertile environment for female characters than film,” she said. “I’d love to make a movie again, it’s tough, especially right now in the corona era when people are not going to theaters and films are being streamed almost immediately to TV. That’s going to become that much more true. You always want to do something different. I won’t be playing a bipolar CIA agent anytime soon. Yeah, I’d like to play somebody who is maybe not saving the world literally every day? But she was just such a good time. I will miss her, deeply, she’ll always be in there, she’ll always be kicking around. Maybe I can bring her out to play in my own living room.”