Madness in the Method: On 'Homeland'
Despite its exuberant absurdity, Homeland’s plot twists resemble those of any TV show or film concerning the proverbial loose cannon who, in his persistent but effective rule-breaking and contempt for standard procedure, demonstrates his superior intelligence, creativity, strength and wiles, and inevitably outperforms his duller colleagues. But giving this mythic hero a mental disorder whose symptoms can include megalomania, paranoia, and delusions about patterns and meaning changes the equation and presents, in Homeland, a new stake in reality. Brody may or may not be a terrorist; Abu Nazir may or may not attack the United States in retaliation for Israel’s bombing of Iran; the vice president may or may not die in a bunker with a bunch of terrified pols, or by a remote control device that can stop his pacemaker—it makes no difference. The plot of Homeland is preposterous and only becomes more so throughout season one, but its increasing surreality doesn’t dampen the fun; on the contrary, it proves a fine way to watch Carrie either stay on mission or go off her rocker. In the season finale, it’s the latter: Carrie is disgraced, unemployed and convinced, as the sane people keep telling her, that she is thoroughly mad.
At the start of season two, Carrie is calmer, quieter. She has retired to the home of her psychiatrist sister, where she leads a mundane life gardening, cooking and grading papers for the ESL classes she teaches at a tenth-tier college. She looks sad but resigned, and thoroughly bored. If Homeland were a reality-based drama, this is where it might end.
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Carrie’s precipitous downfall in season one begins with a manic episode after she is nearly killed by an explosion, but the fate of this tragic heroine is left unsealed until her mentor, Saul Berenson (played by a rabbinically bearded Mandy Patinkin), visits her in the hospital and finds her on a less than even keel. The movies are full of troubled patients who refuse treatment. Carrie, however, is happy to take her medicine, but does so on the sly—her sister supplies her with contraband lithium, clozapine and clonazepam—because she believes that seeking help through the company health plan will jeopardize her job.
There’s enough evidence of Carrie’s misconduct for her boss to fire her, in the penultimate episode of season one, when he is angry and looking for a scapegoat. But it is not until he sees her—finally really looks at her, in her disheveled state, protecting a board plastered with color-coded classified documents—that whatever fears he has harbored about her are confirmed. “What is wrong with her?” he asks, as his flunkies begin tearing down her investigative masterwork.
It is here that the thriller reveals within its awesome illogic a second, truer story: that of a talented, intelligent woman with bipolar disorder making her way in a world that doesn’t much want her. Her colleagues demonstrate fear and contempt rather than sympathy or even curiosity about what has happened to her—what does happen to her, in her head. Carrie’s lot is what many people with mental illness fear most: not the illness itself, but its discovery.
The CIA’s website features a FAQ for job applicants, which includes, in response to the question “Is the CIA an Equal Opportunity Employer?” the following avowal: “The Agency does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, or sexual orientation in hiring or in granting, denying, or revoking security clearances.” I asked a press officer to clarify what the CIA meant by “disability.” Oh, we have plenty of people working here with physical disabilities, he told me on the phone. It seemed like a point of pride, for him and for the agency; I imagined little old ladies in wheelchairs and one-armed veterans filing redacted documents.
I asked him specifically about mental disability and was sent this official answer:
There is no policy against hiring individuals with a mental health illness (which is extremely broad in its definition). The Agency believes in making reasonable accommodations for qualified applicants with a variety of disabilities. CIA assesses applicants on a whole-person concept to determine, in part, whether they can protect classified information. Each assessment is done on a case-by-case basis.
In a follow-up e-mail, I asked him if he knew of people working for the CIA with a disclosed mental illness. I have not received a response.
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