It may seem inevitable that Homeland would eventually find its way to New York City but the show, which returns for its sixth season on 15 January on Showtime, initially relocated its narrative there for more practical reasons than the city’s deep history with terror threats. Each year show-runner Alex Gansa and the producers meet with a group of national security experts in Washington DC to get a sense of what’s happening in the world and where it’s taking place. This year, although that week of meetings was very useful, the story didn’t arise from those sessions. It turned out that the show’s star, Claire Danes, wanted to spend more time at home.

“It’s taken us to Pakistan in the past, as well as Berlin,” executive producer Chip Johannessen says. “It did not take us to New York. That came about in a very different way, which was that we’d all been on the road for a while. Claire had been on the road for a while and she was ready to get home, which for her was New York. So that’s how we ended up there. We had to reverse engineer the show to a location for the first time.”

The writers struggled with how they could make New York the right backdrop for the show, which has previously been centered in DC, Pakistan and Berlin. The CIA, which Danes’ protagonist Carrie Mathison is no longer part of, is less of a focal point. Instead, the team felt that the current state of affairs in America could provide the right thematic notes.

“There was this interesting idea that things are very disrupted here at home and some of that is due to things that are going on elsewhere in the world, like the terrorist threat, and some of it is about things like a new president-elect,” Johannessen says. “We found this time interesting and topical. Someone has been elected president, they haven’t yet taken office and we’ve put them at odds with the national security establishment. Which, as it turns out, was a kind of lucky guess.”

Season six opens six months on from last season’s events in Berlin. Carrie is now living and working at a law firm in Brooklyn, where much of the episodes take place. Gansa and crew weren’t that interested in showcasing New York monuments like the Empire State building or in shooting along Fifth Avenue (although the premiere does include shots in Times Square). A lot of the action is set in the outer boroughs, with the city skyline in the background, purposefully representing the potentially unreachable American Dream. The initial few episodes set up a narrative that includes an incoming female president-elect who disagrees with the CIA’s practices, and a tense dynamic between the Muslim community and the national security forces in New York.

“This is not about setting terrorism in New York,” says executive producer and director Lesli Linka Glatter, who is at the helm of four episodes this season. “One of the things Alex Gansa really didn’t want to do was make this about an attack on New York because it’s so horrifying to even think of. Carrie, again this season, is not in the CIA, which gives us the opportunity to really look at the intelligence community. We’re looking at the reactions since 9/11 and the fact that we now have $120bn a year counter-terrorism budget. There’s a lot at stake to keeping us scared. Not that there are not threats that are very real and true. We don’t want terrorism in our country, obviously, but there has to be a rational way to look at this and you can’t accuse a group of people for things they have never done and are never going to do.”

Johannessen echoes the importance of not making a New York-set season of Homeland about a terror attack on the city. Past seasons have focused a lot on terror attacks, many of which have mirrored those in the real world. But this season needed to find new ways to explore themes of national security.

“New York has a special meaning to us,” Johannessen says. “One thing we didn’t want to do is create a big terrorist incident in New York. It felt like a bad thing karmically and we just didn’t want to do it. I think that was a good thing for us, honestly, because it really meant we had to go, ‘What stuff that’s not like that could we do to make a season here?’ At some point there are there are these thriller tropes that do involve some guns, so we didn’t totally abandon that. But we definitely didn’t want to build it around a big 9/11 type incident this season.”

The significance of 9/11 does, however, lingers throughout the episodes. Bombing attacks occurred in New York in September, shortly after the new season was announced, and there is a constant sense of what the city has been through.

“It’s overwhelming and you feel a lot of responsibility to look at that in a real way,” Glatter notes. “One has to have a lot of responsibility. We’re telling a story. Yes, it’s based on research and we’re looking at different issues, but it is still in a story.” She adds, “NYC was ground zero of 9/11 and all of our reactions and horror and fear of terrorism comes from that, so basing [Homeland] here and talking about these issues and looking at some of the overreactions to 9/11 and doing it here seems to bring everything full circle.”

Much of this year is, in fact, about exploring all sides of national security. What are the pros and cons to the ongoing sense of fear regarding terrorism and the Muslim community? In the early seasons of Homeland, Carrie was gung-ho about the CIA and her role there. She viewed the agency’s work as essential, but as the show has progressed her perspective has shifted. Now she works almost in opposition to the government. In season six, Carrie’s focus is on defending a young Muslim man who has been (presumably) wrongfully accused of terrorism intent. She’s fighting to defend an entire community against a very real sense of prejudgment. The season continues her on this journey away from the CIA, which works particularly well in the New York setting.

“We had a sense that what we wanted to do this season was take her to the outermost marker of that trajectory away from the CIA,” Johannessen says. “Her business this year is very much counter to the CIA. In the CIA she thought she could make the world better and she wasn’t able to do that there. Now she’s actually turned against it, and I think that’s the dynamic of this year.”

Moving the show’s location every season, which is currently renewed through to season eight, has allowed for these big shifts in storytelling. It lets the producers and writer take on new themes each year and to build on previous narratives without repeating them, which feels important in today’s television landscape.

“Every place we set Homeland very much becomes a character in the storytelling,” Glatter says. “New York is the quintessential American city. It all mixes here. We reinvent the show every year. We’re never going back to the world and the same city. It’s almost like doing a pilot all the time. You’re not always going back to the same hospital set, so the world is constantly changing.”

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