Only one show could have ended "Mad Men"'s Emmy-winning streak and that was "Homeland." A winner in the drama categories last year for Best Series, Best Actor (Damian Lewis) and Best Actress (Claire Danes), the terrorism drama goes into tonight's ceremony with even more nominations- 11 to last year's 9-and higher stakes. If the show and its two stars repeat their wins, "Mad Men" will be an also-ran and the once-mighty HBO will look like a manufacturer of vanity projects.
For the show's much anticipated third season, the producers took a calculated risk: they left Brody (Lewis) out of the first two episodes.
"Brody's flight from America just made it impossible to include that story line in the first couple of episodes," said executive producer Alex Gansa at this summer's gathering of TV critics and reporters in Los Angeles, Calif.
It turns out, however, that Lewis is lucky to still be on the show at all. "[Killing Brody] is the conversation that we had at the end of the first year, and the conversation we had at the end of the second year," said Gansa in a post-panel interview. "But consider Damian Lewis. Are we going to get rid of this incredible presence?"
The answer, of course, is no, but what primarily saved Brody is that Showtime was determined to keep him. Where exactly he turns up in Season 3 remains a secret, but the trailer makes it appear that he's somewhere in the Middle East, where he spent eight years as a prisoner of war.
"Brody is on the lam," said Lewis, in a posh British accent that always surprises once you're used to hearing Lewis' perfect American accent on the show. "He's disappeared into a network of a tunnel system... and he's the most wanted criminal in the world, arguably, at this point.
"What will hopefully be of interest to the audience, is what state will he be in? Is he swanning around a yacht off the Côte d'Azur, surrounded by a bevy of Russian beauties - which was the pitch I plugged - or is he hidden away securely somewhere, or is he lost?"
In another controversial plot point, the writers also wanted Claire Danes' bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison to run off with Brody, her lover in Season 1. Instead, they were convinced it would be more characteristic for Carrie to stay home and help rebuild the CIA, which was bombed and eviscerated in a terrorist attack at the end of Season 2.
As Season 3 premieres, the "Homeland" characters that remain and are in the US - Carrie, her boss and mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) and Brody's wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), and children, Dana (Morgan Saylor) and Chris (Jackson Pace) - all find themselves in bleak places. Dana, polarizing character in Season 2, returns with an even bigger storyline in Season 3, serving somewhat as a replacement for her missing father.
Carrie, meanwhile, is alone and off her meds and desperately trying to convince herself that her new regime - exercise, meditation, tequila and the occasional bout of anonymous sex - can control her bipolar symptoms.
"Carrie is always sitting on her own personal ticking bomb, and it's just an impossible dilemma because she is not great on the meds and she's even worse off of them," said Danes. "But there's a really great sweet spot in the middle of those two states where she's exceptionally high-performing, and we get to enjoy her process of finding that balance."
Saul, as one of the few senior members of the CIA who is still alive, is now acting as director of the embattled agency. Saul's estranged wife, Mira (Sarita Choudhury), is back on the scene, but she doesn't seem any happier to be in the marriage and he, drinking himself to sleep every night, definitely doesn't. And Brody's family, particularly Dana, is barely keeping it together.
"The show very much lives in the collateral damage of this tragic situation, and so to play it any other way would have been emotionally counterfeit," said executive producer Howard Gordon.
According to Gansa, once Season 2 reached its explosive conclusion, the writers sat back and discussed possible paths for all of the characters until they found the ones that they thought worked best for each person. They also chose to start Season 3 about two months after the end of Season 2.
"We could have picked up the story two years later instead of two months later and just ignored the event altogether," says Gansa. "But ultimately we felt like we had to deal with those repercussions. If we picked up the very next day after the attack, we felt that everyone would be in the same emotional space with too much going on and too much overblown emotion, so we gave it a couple of months to settle."
While many critics complained that Season 2 was uneven and often inexplicable, Season 3 gets off on solid, if depressing, footing.
"We are not immune to criticism, but I think I learned my lesson and I'm not going defend this stuff," said Gansa. "The work has to speak for itself.We killed ourselves trying to make the best show we could in Seasons 1 and 2. The things we were worried about were not the things to which anyone else pointed.
"For example, we were worried about the attack in the tailor's shop in Season 2, while others were criticizing us for letting Brody walk around the Vice President's house without any Secret Service detail," Gansa explains. "It was like, really, that's what you are worried about? If you operate out of a position of fear, you are dead before you even begin. We built audience each week for this show and we got a bunch of Emmy nominations."
This year's Emmy Awards - where "Homeland" is sure to be recognized - take place on Sunday, Sept. 22, just one week before the show's third-season premiere on Sunday, September 29 on Showtime at 9 p.m. ET.