8 September 2012

The garage is surprisingly small, dark and cluttered. It’s like any other suburban American garage — only it’s not. It’s part of a vast film set in Charlotte, North Carolina, where season two of the counterterrorism thriller Homeland is being shot in secrecy. This garage is where Sergeant Nick Brody disappeared at dawn to recite his Muslim prayers while his family slept. Every time Brody headed here in season one, viewers prepared to be perplexed: had this returned prisoner of war been turned by the enemy? If this all-American hero had converted to Islam did that automatically make him a jihadist?

Homeland is more than appointment television; it’s utterly addictive. Waiting for its Sunday night showing was torture. The DVD of season one is about to be released: it’s the kind of boxed set that, despite running for more than ten hours, will barely last a weekend. It was a phenomenal breakout hit in both here and in the States, where it is Barack Obama’s favourite show.

Much has been made of Damian Lewis, who plays Brody, attending the White House State Dinner in March this year. But when I meet Mandy Patinkin, who plays the CIA’s Middle East Division Chief Saul Berenson — he tells me about his meeting with not one, but two Presidents. “I was at a Broadway fundraiser for the Democrats about a month ago. Afterwards I had a moment with Obama and Clinton. Clinton, whom I’d met a few times at fundraisers, said: ‘Mandy, they sent Homeland to me and I watched the whole thing in two days. I never saw anything like it!’ ”

According to Patinkin, a veteran of musical theatre, TV and film (he was Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride), Obama’s staff were giving him their business cards, urging him to bring the other actors on a field trip to the White House. It was something of a surreal moment. “Especially at the end, when I was leaving, and both Clinton and Obama were shouting out to me, ‘Keep that Homeland going!’ ”

Clinton and Obama were not the only fanatics. Each episode of season one earned forensic examination in The New York Times and The Huffington Post; the latter even ran a weekly Brody-o-Meter with the needle swinging towards Brody the marine hero or Brody the terrorist threat, depending on the shiftiness of his behaviour.

Initially the tension was created by the cat-and-mouse relationship between Brody, played with appropriate stiffness by Old Etonian Lewis, and Carrie Mathison, played with instinctive brilliance by Claire Danes, a CIA operative dealing with bipolar disorder. She is determined to uncover Brody as a threat to Homeland Security but then falls for him hard; by the end of season one her paranoia leads to a devastating bipolar breakdown and hospitalisation. But Homeland isn’t simply a rollicking character-driven thriller with an impossible love story as a sub-plot. It’s a profoundly humane piece of television exploring the strange new post-9/11 world we find ourselves living in. As Hollywood prepares to release its first major feature films about the killing of Osama bin Laden — Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and John Stockwell’s Code Name: GeronimoHomeland’s serial format gives it the ability to delve much deeper. It has, so far, offered the most nuanced exploration of the war on terror.

Alex Gansa, who co-created and co-wrote Homeland with Howard Gordon, explains how, after finishing work on their previous creation 24, they were impressed by the Israeli show Hatufim (Prisoners of War) and decided to adapt it for the US. “How does this man find his way home? Is that even possible? What is his place in the world, in terms of his family, his sense of purpose? That premise felt like a fresh way to explore how the US projects its power abroad. What is the human cost of keeping us safe? How has the national psyche shifted ten years after 9/11? Now that Osama bin Laden’s dead, whom should we be afraid of? Who are our real enemies?”

Standing in the dark, cool garage built into one corner of the old factory used to shoot interior scenes for Homeland, I find my eyes darting around for clues about season two, which is filming here until late October. At the end of season one Brody was revealed as desperate to avenge a drone strike that had killed dozens of children, including the son of his captor, Abu Nazir. He got as far as inveigling himself into a bunker with the Vice President, with a suicide bomber vest strapped to his chest. “And yet, in his mind, Brody is still a patriot,” adds Gordon. “He’s reclaiming what he thinks is best about being American.”

On the sink is the small red cloth he uses to wash his hands before praying. I wander around the Brody master bedroom. On the bedside table (his side, I think) is a book of Cranium Crackers crosswords. Carrie’s house, an antidote to her furious, fractured mind, is tidy to the point of being OCD. The cork wall, which she maniacally covered with proof that Brody had an ongoing relationship with Abu Nazir, is now blank. On her coffee table lies a pile of books: Islam, Politics and Social Movements; The Search for al-Qaeda; a book on teaching Arabic.

In her bedroom I suddenly get a flashback to the scene in which Saul Berenson sits quietly at the end of her bed as she sleeps through her breakdown. Saul is the ultimate father figure and his scenes with Carrie are among the most poignant in season one. “The hope and optimism that Carrie holds as a character move me,” says Patinkin during a break in filming. “Saul would give his life for Carrie. He’s the guardian of her soul. He manipulates the world around her to make sure she’s free to give the world her gift. There’s no one that Saul doesn’t have information on. He’s the most connected person in the universe.”

The expectation for season two is as high as for any drama in recent television history. The furtiveness around the storyline almost mirrors the secrecy of the CIA. David Harewood, the British actor who plays David Estes, director of the CIA, recently took an Instagram photo on set, tweeted it and then withdrew it in a panic. “I realised that if you’re really beady-eyed you could probably see what’s happening. I won’t even tell my mother anything about season two.”

Carrie’s paranoia is, it seems, contagious. I am followed by the publicist each time I visit the toilet in case I wander off and sneak onto the closed set. When I take too much interest in Carrie’s coffee table books, I am moved on. Even the cast don’t know what’s going to happen until they receive a script the night before shooting. The core writing team of six, who sit together in a windowless office, work just two or three episoides ahead of the shooting schedule, drawing on their experience (one of them has a military background, another has a father who was a CIA lifer, another has family experience with bipolar disorder) to keep the show within the bounds of reality.

On a tour around the wardrobe department the costume designer Katina Le Kerr asks if I know of any diapers that don’t have cartoon characters on them. I suggest eco-friendly nappies; she is thrilled. Clearly someone has a baby in season two; I guess Jessica, Brody’s wife, and Le Kerr suddenly stops talking. The prop master who lets me lift Brody’s incredibly heavy suicide bomber vest jokes about being on watch lists after Googling “how to make a suicide bomber’s vest” and, for this second series, “how to make a mobile phone bomb”. Wandering around the set I see that Brody, who was being courted by the Vice President in season one, is now a congressman.

Even Howard Gordon gives away some of the storyline in the process of telling me that, after Brody failed to blow himself up at the end of season one, jumping straight into season two was never going to be easy. “We realised that many things were oblique: where is Brody in terms of his faith? How has Carrie convalesced? We had to get the story going in a provocative way. At the start of season two Carrie is no longer in the intelligence service, but is re-enlisted on a provisional basis by Saul. The first few episodes show them in Beirut … OK, I’m going to stop now.”

As with any good thriller, we want to know what happens in Homeland — and we don’t. 24 initally worked, and then failed, because of its relentless, repetitive edge-of-the-seat episodes; the audience eventually grew weary of the constant countdown. Homeland is already more thoughtful and engaging, and could last the seven seasons that actors traditionally sign up for on American television shows.

Gideon Raff, creator of Hatufim, says both his series and Homeland are human stories rather than bold political statements, despite his show taking an Israeli soldier — a mythically strong Zionist soldier — and put him in captivity, where he converted to Islam. “It was very controversial for an Israeli audience. They loved this character and through his eyes you learn to love his new community in Syria.” Gordon echoes Raff. “Homeland is about showing the human consequences of the war on terror. It has no agenda other than trying to make sense of our increasingly complex world and the unintended consequences of war.”

It would be foolish to pretend that Homeland isn’t left-leaning but it’s not didactic. David Harewood tells the story of his American Muslim stepbrother being upset by the first episode. “He stopped watching it. He felt it was painting Islam in a bad light. I called him up a few weeks later after he’d been encouraged to give it another go. He saw how well Damian has mastered Arabic and how much respect Brody has for Islam. He was still surprised that an American show would make the white protagonist a Muslim.”

Like 24 before it, Homeland has built up a relationship with a military audience. “One of our writers attended the Aspen Security Forum this summer and discovered we have fans high up in the intelligence and military community,” reveals Gansa. “One storyline mentioned over and over is Brody’s relationship with Issa, Abu Nazir’s son. These guys who plan and implement US strategy admitted to having some sympathy for Brody — then realised they were empathising with a would-be terrorist. [The Iranian-American actor] Navid Negahban, who plays Abu Nazir, told us that Homeland was all the rage in Iran. People were watching to see how we portrayed insurgents.”

During my set visit last month, eight of 12 episodes of season two had been shot. Lewis and Danes were off with the film crew in a local motel, perhaps as part of Brody and Carrie’s ongoing love affair. There would be one more day of filming and then an enforced break because Charlotte was gearing up for this week’s Democratic National Convention and the arrival of Homeland’s biggest fan. I ask Gordon if he thinks they’ll make seven seasons. Gansa bursts out laughing and says he’ll be dead after season two. Gordon shrugs. “So long as these characters have a place to go and a story to tell then I hope so, yes. But no one wants us to outstay our welcome.”

I mention the irony of the President himself forcing them to stop work and Gordon grins. “Finding out that Obama was a fan was so goddam gratifying. Not just because he’s the most powerful man in the world, but also because we’re writing about something he deals with at work every day. I guess it means we must be doing something right.”