Madness in the Method: On 'Homeland'
Enter into this mental miasma the brightly bug-eyed Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland, a show that is as arresting and truthful a depiction of mental illness as I’ve ever seen. In the opening minutes of season one, episode one, we learn of Carrie’s dual identity as a CIA agent and an unstable person through an iconic image of the psychopharmacological era: a little pill, the color of green hospital scrubs, secreted away in a bottle of aspirin. The man who finds it is an aspiring felon, but that makes him no less nervous. What kind of woman is he dealing with here? A woman who takes a drug that she hides, clearly for dark and dangerous reasons. Neither he nor his mentor in malfeasance can immediately identify the pill, but by now the viewer suspects what’s at stake: a woman’s sanity, or lack thereof. (Carrie’s name recalls Stephen King’s telekinetic mass murderer and possibly Cassandra, the prophet who speaks the truth but is believed by none.)
Homeland is based on the Israeli television series Hatufim, which has been aired in the United States under the title Prisoners of War in the original Hebrew (with English subtitles) on Hulu. In Hebrew, hatufim means “abductees,” and the names of the American and Israeli series reflect their radically different perspectives. In Israel, PTSD has become a national epidemic, plaguing not just soldiers but Arab and Jewish civilians, especially children. Hatufim focuses on the lives of two Israeli soldiers released from captivity after seventeen years. It chronicles their struggles to reintegrate with their families and civilian life while recovering from their trauma and the loss of a third prisoner. While there are elements of mystery—discrepancies in the POWs’ stories lead to a military investigation—the show is an ensemble drama centered on the emotional life of the families, including the dead soldier’s grieving sister.
Homeland’s title points to a very different set of issues—patriotism, Islamism, terrorism, jingoism—but these themes are the backdrop for the real drama, which lies with and within Carrie. She is young and gifted, but also troubled and troublingly obsessed with the capture of Abu Nazir, a high-ranking Al Qaeda terrorist mastermind. While on a mission in Baghdad, Carrie learns from an informant that an American prisoner has been “turned” by the enemy. When Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is discovered in a hidey-hole (where he has apparently been imprisoned for the last eight years) some months later, she is sure he is the traitor, returned to execute a plot devised by Nazir.
Carrie is modeled very loosely on a minor character in Hatufim, an investigator who does not have a psychological disorder. That particular innovation is the work of the creators of the American series, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who previously collaborated on 24, also a thriller about intelligence and counterterrorism. In an e-mail, Gansa explained to me their decision to make Carrie mentally ill:
Homeland is a psychological thriller: we wanted a cat-and-mouse game where both parties weren’t completely reliable. Brody is a Marine who may or may not want to betray his country. Carrie is a CIA officer seeking the truth, but her illness can drive her to misinterpret what she sees. On a certain level, Carrie’s instability mirrors the nature of her profession. Spying requires you to read people. Sometimes you get it wrong….
Making Carrie bipolar allowed us to ask whether it’s better to fly too close to the sun, experiencing intense highs and lows, or to live a more grounded, connected life. I think everyone has to make those choices at some point in their lives.
Carrie, however, isn’t everyone. She must make this choice over and over, every day, and her choice is always the same: to fly, because her mind is wider than the sky. She experiences spectacular victories and abysmal failures, but by the end of the second season she gets almost everything right, despite the obstacle she faces in her by-the-book superiors at the CIA.