Analyzing the complicated depiction of bipolar disorder on ‘Homeland’

Carrie Mathison: crazy or brilliant? Or both?

Almost every thinkpiece on the Showtime hit Homeland seems to lead with speculation about the lead character’s mental health—and almost no one can agree on whether the show’s spin on mental health conditions is positive or negative. In an era when mental health typically only hits the news in the wake of mass shootings, treatment of mental illness in pop culture matters as an important point of contact for mental health awareness, not just as character development.

The Internet—including mental health organizations, mentally ill commentators, viewers of the show, and mental health professionals—can’t seem to make up its mind on whether Homeland’s version of bipolar disorder is sensitive, self-aware, and accurate, or dangerously stereotyped. Perhaps the dichotomous viewing of bipolar disorder on Homeland mirrors poor social perceptions of mental illness in general, but perhaps it also illustrates the eager desire to have ideas about mental illness affirmed through the sane lens. A significant majority of viewers have limited experience with mental health conditions, and Claire Danes’ depiction is comfortingly familiar, because it matches what pop culture has already told them about people with bipolar disorder.

Carrie Mathison’s illness is an evident part of her character arc from the very first episode, where viewers learn she’s concealing her illness from the CIA for fear of being fired. From there, the depiction whipsaws: Sometimes she’s off her medication and experiencing mania and psychotic episodes; sometimes she has her mental health condition well controlled with medication and a strong safety net. Most recently, the show has swung to the negative end of the spectrum, with Mathison deciding to go off her medication because she decides it interferes with her work, in an episode titled “Super Powers.” It was a very literal nod to the popular and mistaken belief that mental illness, particularly symptoms like mania, confers some sort of superpower.

With depictions of mental illness extremely rare in pop culture, Mathison’s bipolar disorder matters on both an artistic and social level.

Those weighing in on the side of good have included the National Institutes of Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health providers, viewers, and mentally ill people themselves—who are the most obvious choice of experts on their own experience of mental illness. Perhaps most notably, Jamie Stiehm, the woman who provided the research basis for Mathison’s illness, believes her experiences are portrayed accurately. “How rare to see a sparkling and spirited representation of what it’s actually like to walk through life with bipolar disorder,” Stiehm wrote for the New York Times. “So let a thousand conversations bloom.”

The common pop culture depiction of mental illness is something very much mirrored in Homeland.

NAMI similarly believes the show provides an accurate look at mental illness, specifically suggesting that it works to take on stigma and misinformation about bipolar disorder. One of the issues the organization cites is Mathison’s attempt to hide her illness for fear of losing her job, a common experience for many bipolar people. This is a particularly extreme problem for members of the intelligence community, who typically lose their clearance if they are diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Hannah Jane Parkinson, also bipolar, similarly believes the show is an accurate and affirming depiction of her mental health condition. She was particularly pleased by the show’s depiction of the struggle to balance changes in mental health status, from well-managed mental illness to spinning off base with mania or depression to the slow struggle to refocus and gain control again. Describing the show as a “triumph,” she clearly feels that it offers a fresh and important take on mental illness.

Psychiatrist Jeffrey A. Lieberman, writing for Psychology Today, praised the show as well, claiming that it was a dead ringer for the symptoms and actual experience of bipolar disorder. He cited the fact that Mathison’s story revolves around herself, rather than her disease, as a compelling argument for supporting this depiction of bipolar disorder—mirroring one of the most common critiques from disability rights activists when it comes to pop culture, in which disabled people are typically portrayed as disabilities, rather than human beings.

However, the very things he identifies as positives were cited as negatives by other critics. He associates bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses with unusual creativity, for example, writing: “She is in, perhaps, the highest stress job there is, yet she carries it off (no pun intended), brilliantly, either in spite of, or because of, her mental illness.” Such characterizations of mental illness as a predictor of creativity are an issue that mental health advocates have long taken exception to. Moreover, he plays upon common stereotypes about bipolar disorder, including the notion that bipolar women are sexually promiscuous, unable to control themselves, and dangerous. The Mathison he describes is narcissistic, edgy, unreliable, and frenetic—all accurate characterizations—but he implies that these traits are the result of her mental illness, rather than more complicated factors.

For all that the show is cited by a number of authorities as a striking depiction of mental illness, there’s a considerable portion of the Internet that begs to disagree. Unfortunately, as is commonly the case with critiques of depictions of disability, their voices are often drowned out by those seeking to shower the show with accolades. Troublingly, characters like Carrie Mathison are charged with a particularly heavy burden, speaking for a huge and diverse population with many different experiences of mental illness. Many mentally ill people and advocates think that Homeland is getting it gravely wrong, and dangerously so, perpetuating the stereotypes that keep mental health conditions in the shadows and force people to be afraid of being open about their mental illnesses.

There are a considerable number of problems with Homeland—the stereotyping of mentally ill people, the inaccurate depictions of the security services, the racism, the Islamophobia—and they’re often glossed over in critical discussion. Some of those problems, moreover, are the very same things that critics are praising, like her out-of-control behavior, the depiction of unmedicated mania as a form of brilliance and creative inspiration, and Carrie’s frequent self-destructive spirals. The situation is particularly fraught because it involves not just the extremely common case of disabled critics versus nondisabled fans but also mentally ill people themselves debating whether Homeland is fair to bipolar disorder.

Writing for the Conversation, commentator Meron Wondemaghen had a great deal to say in her detailed analysis of the show’s handling of bipolar disorder in the first three seasons, and much of it was unflattering. She speaks particularly strongly about the emphasis on dysfunction, isolation, and rebellion, noting that these are common stereotypes about mentally ill people, along with the notion that mental illness is a predictor of dangerousness and irrational decisions. The common pop culture depiction—and accompanying social attitude—of mental illness rendering conditions like bipolar disorder as something that fundamentally ruins the ability to function in society is something very much mirrored in Homeland.

Bethlehem Shoals, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over a decade ago, isn’t very impressed with the use of bipolar disorder as a simplistic plot device in the show, as explained in an essay at GQ. Like many disabled critics of this and other depictions of bipolar disorder, Shoals expresses frustration with the very binaristic handling of the condition, and the common trope that audiences see into Carrie’s world and understand she’s not “crazy” for seeing things that others don’t, but don’t see the more complicated nuances of mental illness. Shoals suggests that Carrie’s mental health condition serves only to parallel the “topsy-turvy structure of Homeland,” rather than acting as something that might complicate and enrich her character.

These sharp critiques of the show underscore completely bizarre and troubling storylines. In a recent dramatic storyline, Carrie goes off her meds because she feels stalled out on a case, but she tells her boyfriend to stand by with a sedative just in case she gets out of control—a painfully stereotyped depiction of mania that strikes at the core of social attitudes about bipolar disorder. Mentally ill people, in this framework, are wild and dangerous, and need to be subdued with psychiatric medication for the good of people around them.

Critics concerned about mental health in television and film charge that the bipolar disorder of Homeland is simplistic, lazy, and frustrating, but more than that, it’s dangerous. They’re not wrong. It’s hard to imagine a world in which people would want to be open about their mental illness only to be confronted with the attitude that they must be “just like Carrie”—wild, out of control, narcissistic, dangerous, at times threatening and scary. When the only version of mental illness that people know is promiscuous, self-harming, and deeply pathological, it creates a hostile atmosphere for mentally ill people—including those who are trying to explore treatment options and want to reach out for help from those around them. 

Screengrab via Showtime

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.