Homeland: The Case Against Calling Carrie a Bipolar 'Superhero'

Sunday's episode challenged the idea that the CIA agent's disorder is the source of her talents.
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Homeland's Carrie Mathison is misunderstood. To her colleagues, she’s an erratic, unstable liability to the agency—but she’s often smarter than them. To the congressman investigating the second-season finale’s deadly Langley bombing, she’s a liar and a threat to America—but she’s actually the closest to knowing the truth. And to viewers, she’s something of a superhero, whose greatest power also happens to be her kryptonite: her bipolar disorder.

Claire Danes has repeatedly called her character a superhero for the way Carrie is “always fucking right” despite how often her rash, insubordinate stubbornness impedes the mission she’s determined to accomplish. Other viewers and writers have used similar language—a superhero, a savant—to the describe the way she can hunt down terrorists and turn double-agents as a highly functioning bipolar person. In other words, Carrie’s talents and shortcomings have become inseparable in peoples’ minds from the disorder with which she’s struggled for two-plus seasons.

Carrie believes this about herself, too. That’s why, in the aftermath of the attack on the CIA headquarters, she swore off her medications, claiming they clouded her thoughts and caused her to miss clues about the bombing. This rightly earns skepticism from her father, also bipolar, and her sister, a psychiatrist who provided under-the-table lithium while Carrie tried to conceal her disorder. But it’s also not surprising. Carrie blamed herself for not preventing 9/11, after all. It’s also not unheard of for bipolar people, who can experience heightened focus, productivity, and creativity during their hypomanic states, to resist medication. “It’s not a strictly unpleasant phenomenon,” Danes told NPR last year. “A lot of people are reluctant to treat themselves because they're so protective of those manic highs."

But the idea that Carrie’s bipolar disorder is her superpower, that it is the source of her gift—or her gift itself—is a flawed one that both Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa and real-life bipolar Homeland fans have tried to correct. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Gansa called the notion that Carrie talents stem from her illness is “dangerous.” “The show is agnostic about [whether that’s true],” he said. “And the show, I think, has demonstrated that when she is off the meds, she's dangerous to herself.” No part of Homeland has made that more clear than the beginnings of the third season, which seem designed to dispel any romanticizing about Carrie’s condition.

Last night’s episode, “"Uh... Oo... Aw...," portrayed Carrie at her most self-destructive; there was no upside to her issues. Feeling betrayed by Saul and the CIA after his televised testimony, Carrie furiously and paranoidly lashes out at colleagues, which will make it difficult for her to get back to work. She seems mentally disturbed to the journalist and health professionals she encounters, even if fans know her theories are often worth taking seriously. She risks criminal indictment by blabbing about agency secrets. She pushes away everyone who seems to have her best interests in mind: her family, Peter Quinn, and even Saul. And she can’t even project composure at her own psychiatric hearing; instead of being released into the care of her family, she freaks out and tries to flee before ending up back in detention. As Saul says before the hearing, “She’s her own worst enemy,” and never has that been more true. Here, her illness is pure kryptonite.

None of this is fun to watch, but it feels like the show is making an important point. Then again, the superheroic perception of Carrie has already been proven wrong before in ways that debunk any myths about Carrie’s bipolar disorder.

It’s true that Carrie has had many an a-ha moment in her most manic states—she pieced together Brody’s and Abu Nazir’s motivations for the failed suicide bombing when she was most unhinged in Season One—but she has also found success in a more leveled states. Her early suspicions and breakthroughs about Brody happened while she was taking medication. She was stable when she brought Brody into custody and turned him into a double agent following her interrogation. And she was right about going back inside the abandoned mill to find Abu Nazir. (She’s also been wrong while stable, like the brief moment she thought Danny Galvez was a double agent for Nazir). So while she has an unmatched ability to figure out what’s really going on, that ability is merely enhanced or exacerbated by her disorder, not caused by it.

Homeland’s cast and creators have always tried to ground the show in accuracy, so any impulse to de-romanticize her bipolar condition may come from their commitment to getting it right: In interviews, Danes has referenced reading a number of books about the disorder and has said she studies YouTube videos of bipolar people who have recorded their manic highs. Gansa and the writing staff have drawn heavily from the book An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison, a psychologist who, like Carrie, had to hide her illness from her colleagues, and also the writings of Leon Rosenberg, a doctor who wrote about his positive experience with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which Carrie underwent at the end of the first season. One of the show’s writers has a bipolar sister, who wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about the accuracy of Danes’s portrayal and what it’s like to watching your life be retold on screen.

It should be pointed out, though, that some viewers might find Carrie’s latest manic state to be more about advancing the plot than about accurately portraying the disorder. They wouldn’t be the first. Earlier this year, one bipolar writer accused the show of exaggerating the highs and lows of what is, for many, quite a manageable condition. In advance of the third season premiere, GQ contributor Bethlehem Shoals, argued the series’ simplistic portrayal of Carrie’s condition served the drama of show’s storylines more than it depicted the people who actually live with—and have more varied experiences with—bipolar disorder in real life. And for every story praising Homeland’s portrayal, there are commenters who find some aspect of that portrayal objectionable. All of this might say more about the diversity of experience of living with bipolar than about any particular negligence by Homeland.

Last night’s episode did end on a particularly dramatized note: When we left Carrie, she was back in the dim and sterile halls of psychiatric detention, slumped over, sedated, and barely able to speak. So far this season, her treatment and encounters with mental professionals have been more about the CIA trying to silence her and than about her actually receiving individualized help. But the scene also made it clear that the fastest way for Carrie to return to the impulsive, terrorist-fighting, pantsuit-wearing patriot we’ve come to root for—to return to anything resembling a superhero—is for her to get better.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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