When Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa set out in early 2010 to adapt the hit Israeli drama Hatufim for American audiences, they knew they’d preserve the original premise of the series: a POW comes home after years in terrorist captivity. But Gordon and Gansa wanted to amp up the suspense as well, and they needed a character—a CIA operative—who would suspect the returning Marine of having been turned, by his captors, into a terrorist himself.
In Hatufim, the closest parallel was an Israel Defense Forces psychologist named Haim Cohen—a man. But Gordon and Gansa chose, from the start, to make their hero a woman. “A gender switch was the first thing on the agenda,” Gordon tells Newsweek. “Alex and I reverse-engineered someone who was carrying with them the fear of another terrorist strike. We said, ‘Who’s a character no one believes, like Chicken Little?’ And because the CIA has been a boys’ club for such a long time, part of that was her gender. We exploited the sexism.”
And so Carrie Mathison was born, and Homeland took off. Ever since the show’s first season aired last year on Showtime, most of the commentary from fans and critics has centered on Claire Danes’s haunted, high-wire performance; the messy bipolar disorder Gordon and Gansa chose to saddle her with; and the twists and turns of a story that combines Manchurian Candidate intrigue with the kind of patient, probing character studies usually reserved for shows called The Wire or The Sopranos.
But now that Homeland’s second season is set to start on Sept. 30—and now that Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen, has revealed that it was a real-life Carrie Mathison who led him and his colleagues to Osama bin Laden in the first place—it’s worth revisiting Gordon and Gansa’s initial “gender switch.” Because Homeland isn’t just a remarkable drama about post-9/11 paranoia. It’s also a remarkable drama, in its own subtle, sophisticated way, about being a young professional woman in 2012.
The fact that no one ever obsesses over Carrie Mathison’s gender is precisely the point. Almost every television show with a strong female protagonist derives a lot of its drama from the tension between motherhood, wifedom, and work. But Homeland doesn’t put Carrie in that box. She isn’t a mother. She isn’t a wife. And she’s no more concerned with “having it all” than a guy her age would be. When Carrie goes out at night, she wears a wedding ring to signal that she wants a one-night stand (and nothing more); when she comes home, the only food in the fridge is expired yogurt. On TV, male characters are rarely defined by their maleness. Boardwalk Empire doesn’t depict Nucky Thompson as a gangster with a penis; it depicts him as a gangster, period. Homeland is one of the only shows that treats its female star the same way.
None of which is to say that Carrie’s character is genderless. As Gansa explains, “There’s a fragility about her that is more sympathetic in a woman’s skin,” and it makes her a more effective operative. Carrie’s most valuable “assets,” for instance, are all women: in Season 1, she convinces a Saudi prince’s favorite prostitute to assist the CIA, and she is drawn out of medicated retirement at the start of Season 2 because one of her old informants, the wife of an abusive Hezbullah leader, won’t trust anyone else with important intel. Carrie’s sexuality is a factor as well: early on, she attempts to get her way by seducing her mentor Saul Berenson, played by the masterful Mandy Patinkin, and she later winds up sleeping with Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), the potential terrorist, as much out of personal loneliness as professional curiosity. It’s a facet of the show that Gordon and Gansa plan to develop in Season 2. “Their relationship will really deepen,” Gansa reveals. “Where they get to by the end is, we hope, pretty compelling and profound.”
Still, being a woman is just another tool in Carrie’s arsenal—rather than the all-consuming Subject of Her Life (and therefore the show). If that’s revolutionary, it’s only because it’s real. From the beginning an actual female CIA case officer has served as a consultant on Homeland. She told Gansa “how she has to be extremely careful not to cross any lines while still using her sexuality to recruit agents.” She showed Danes around Langley, becoming, in the actor’s words, the “loose model” for her character. Maybe she’s the “wicked-smart, kind of feisty” agent that Bissonnette writes about. Maybe not. But like so many of her 21st-century peers, she doesn’t seem to define herself as a woman with a high-octane job so much as a person with one. “Frankly,” Gordon admits, “I don’t think she’s talked to any of us that much about gender.” Carrie Mathison wouldn’t either. It’s one of the many reasons she’s worth watching.