The “Homeland” team is famous for doing their homework.
Producers and core cast members take a field trip to Washington, D.C. every year to connect with key players in the intelligence and national security community. Those meetings help set the tone and the storyline for the Showtime drama that has been remarkably — sometimes eerily — prescient about developments in the war on terror over its five seasons to date.
This year, part of “Homeland’s” fact-finding mission was a visit to the National September 11 Memorial Museum, erected on the site in lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
“Homeland” showrunner Alex Gansa, exec producer Howard Gordon and star Mandy Patinkin brought family members and a few friends along for the Oct. 5 tour led by museum president and CEO Joe Daniels. The close-up look at twisted steel girders and other artifacts from the devastation was a searing experience for the group, as were the gut-wrenching memorials to the nearly 3,000 casualties. And it came just as “Homeland” is about to pose provocative — some may say incendiary — questions about the nation’s response to the horror of 9/11.
As Gansa articulated in a panel session at the museum following the tour, the central premise of “Homeland’s” sixth season, which premieres Jan. 15, is whether the U.S. has overreacted to the threat of terrorism on the scale of 9/11 striking again.
“We went through this convulsion — understandably so — after 9/11,” Gansa said. “Here we are telling the story 15 years later. The industry we’ve built up over counterterrorism is just a self-perpetuating thing. Is it worth the cost? Is it worth the demonization of an entire community, the Muslim community? These are questions we’re going to be dealing with this year. (‘Homeland’) is going to have a very different complexion this year.”
To probe those questions, there was no doubt that season six had to be set in New York City. Gansa and the writing team have set clear boundaries for the storyline that will unfold for star Claire Danes’ intrepid ex-CIA officer Carrie Mathison and Patinkin’s Saul Berenson. Those rules mean that Carrie and Saul won’t be running around Midtown trying to thwart a dirty bomb attack.
After “Homeland’s” Berlin-set season five storyline wound up mirroring the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris that left 130 dead, Gansa acknowledged that “there was a lot of soul-searching going on.” “Homeland” shot a dramatic sequence involving a bomb plot in a busy Berlin train station, laid by radicalized German-born Muslims, just two days after French-born attackers massacred innocents in a concert hall and in other public places.
“We began to question what messages we were putting out in the world and what messages we should be putting out in the world,” Gansa said.
For season six, the writing team decided that building a season around a terrorist incident in New York would be “bad karma.” But karmic caution wasn’t the only reason that they are shifting the playbook this year.
“We really wrote in stone in the story room that we don’t want to dramatize something that actually doesn’t exist,” Gansa said. He was unequivocal in his reasoning, based on the unvarnished truth they have heard every year in the Georgetown “clubhouse” where “Homeland” holds its annual briefing sessions.
“There are no coordinated ISIS or Islamic state terrorist networks in the United States,” Gansa said. “I don’t believe at this current time there is an existential threat posed to this country, and I certainly don’t want to make that part of ‘Homeland’ (season six).”
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration was told that there were 3,000-5,000 Al Qaeda operatives in the U.S. and coordinated cells in all major cities with significant Muslim populations, Gansa said.
But by 2008, after seven years of intense law enforcement efforts to tackle the threat, “not one single terror cell” tied to Al Qaeda had been uncovered, he asserted. Meanwhile, the annual cost of counterterrorism efforts at home and abroad has topped $100 billion. “Homeland” season six aims to weigh the costs and the fallout, from the toll on individual privacy to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the effects of racial profiling among Muslims in the U.S.
Patinkin didn’t shade his feelings when discussing the upcoming season during the “Homeland: TV in the Post-9/11 World” panel moderated by Clifford Chanin, the museum’s VP of education and public programs.
“We must find a way to bring incredible dignity to the Muslim community before we’re done,” he said, referring to recent remarks from Gansa that the show may end its run after season eight.
For the upcoming season, a deep focus on the fallout from 9/11 at home seems a natural progression for “Homeland.” From its inception in the U.S. (the series was based on the Israeli drama “Prisoner of War”), the show has been rooted in the global strife and ideological warfare crystalized in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11. The premise of examining how 9/11 changed the world was built into “Homeland” from the time Gansa and Gordon first tackled the adaptation.
“9/11 was the first brick we put in Carrie’s character,” Gansa said. “She felt personally responsible for what had happened.” That reflected the sentiment of responsibility that they still hear from intelligence officials today. “The first thing we understood about Carrie Mathison was her deep-seated connection to that event,” Gansa said.
Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody character was also deeply rooted in a response to 9/11 as a Marine. “9/11 was the same event that sent Sgt. Brody on his way to war,” Gordon observed. “Brody was collateral damage in the orbit of that event.”
At the beginning, Gordon admitted they had some doubts if the subject would even be of interest to viewers — they were worried about 9/11 fatigue. “Homeland” premiered just three weeks after the 10th anniversary — enough of a distance to bring the perspective that has earned “Homeland” enormous praise, including Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody awards.
During the museum tour, the weight of all the issues the show has wrestled with (past and present) was evident on the faces of Gansa, Gordon, Patinkin and the rest of the group. Patinkin and his wife, actress Kathryn Grody, did most of the tour hand-in-hand or linked at the elbows. Gansa brought his wife, Lauren White, and brother, Charlie Gansa. Gordon was accompanied by his daughter, Arlo Gordon, a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Others in the group included Showtime COO Tom Christie, Fox 21 Television Studios president Bert Salke, Smithsonian Networks president Tom Hayden and WME/IMG TV chief Rick Rosen.
Tour guide Daniels emphasized that the 9/11 museum is the rare memorial built on the exact site of the event it commemorates. The “Homeland” group had been chatty on the way into the facility — and through the security screening and metal detectors that are a ubiquitous symbol of post-9/11 life — but their voices dropped as the group made their way through the museum’s dark wood-paneled hallways and down the escalator to the heart of collection.
The condition of the physical artifacts on display reinforce the magnitude of force brought to bear in the attacks. Daniels pointed out the dents in two orange-steel girders where the nose of Flight 11, the second plane, hit between the 94th and 99th floors of the north tower. Daniels noted that much of the construction debris recovered from the site was held in hangars at John F. Kennedy airport for months because it was crime scene evidence.
The first item to be relocated to the museum, which opened in May 2014, was the 175-ton “Survivors’ Stairs” that led out of the towers to Vesey Street below, allowing as many as 25,000 to escape that day. Once the staircase was put in place, the museum was built around it, Daniels said.
Remnants of everything from elevator motors to the base of the giant broadcast TV antenna that sat atop the north tower reflect the level of business activity that once transpired in the towers. The last large concrete column removed from the site on May 30, 2002, became a “totem of resilience” with spray paint markings reflecting the number of lives lost by various first-responders, among other messages.
But nothing in the museum has the impact of the rooms that showcase photographs of all 2,997 victims of both attacks, including passengers on the planes. Within that space is a smaller room where portraits and information about each victim is projected on the wall on a continuous loop — including audio recordings of comments from family or friends. Gordon took a moment to pull up the portraits of two brothers, Peter and Thomas Langone, friends of his from high school in Roslyn Heights on Long Island. Peter was a firefighter based in Brooklyn. Thomas was an NYPD officer in its emergency services division.
“I played lacrosse with them,” Gordon said as the tributes played.
As the tour wound down, the group began sharing stories of where they were at the time of the attacks and how the fallout had touched their lives.
Patinkin and Grody recalled the intensity of living in lower Manhattan at the time. The two took part in a volunteer effort organized by Grody to bring food and supplies to first-responders and those manning the recovery control center near 14th Street.
“I watched it from the roof of our building,” Patinkin said. “I gave blood on Amsterdam Avenue.”
But until Oct. 5, Patinkin hadn’t been back near the World Trade Center site. It wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid the area, he said, but in hindsight he realized that he stayed away in part because the area had been such a presence in his life as a New Yorker, before everything changed on that day.
“I went to bar mitzvahs in these buildings,” he said. “I loved this place.”
Patinkin was impressed at how vital the World Trade Center area is again, with new office buildings going up even against the backdrop of the most somber memorials. After the tour, Patinkin said he was “filled with memory and remembrance” and touched by the experience of “being in a place that was something once and is still here but is something so different.”
The experience brought to mind one of Patinkin’s favorite quotations, from the libretto of “Carousel” by Oscar Hammerstein II.
“As long as there is one person on this earth who remembers you — it isn’t over,” he said, with a broad smile.
(Pictured: “Homeland’s” Mandy Patinkin, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa)