Madness in the Method: On 'Homeland'
At this moment, when the rhetoric and public understanding of mental illness is changing so quickly and so radically, movies like Silver Linings Playbook are a mixed blessing. If they have succeeded, in some part, in de-stigmatizing mental illness, it is at the price of denaturing it as well. It becomes, in their scripts, funny and poignant—a sad and sweet metaphor for the human condition. Madness is just a matter of too little therapy or mis-medication, an untamed heart or wild imagination. We’re all crazy in some way, right?
Stigmas originate in fear of the unknown; when they are abandoned, it is because a quorum of right-thinkers recognizes that the libels against the feared population are false. To be racially black is not to create or inhabit darkness; Jews don’t drink the blood of Christian babies; gay teachers won’t change the sexual orientation of your child.
But in a way that is profoundly different from race, sexual orientation, gender or creed, the stigma surrounding mental illness contains a dark unknown that is real rather than socially constructed. Some (and by no means all) mental disorders, no matter how much light they may generate, contain voids darker than a terrorist’s hidey-hole. Manic flights, voices, paranoia, suicide—these are not just the outside pressures of a treacherous social landscape. They are contained within the self, and the traditional rhetoric of diversity and inclusion cannot accommodate them. The minds of people with mental disorders are not just like ours, especially, as Carrie can see even from the depths of her self-estrangement, when we are the ones who are ill.
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One television trick that drives fans crazy is when a series ends and we discover that none of it was real all along (recall St. Elsewhere and Lost). It’s a gimmick and an easy out, a way to leave loose threads untied and dangling, forever, in the mind of the viewer.
I don’t think, nor do I hope, that this is how Homeland will end, but there is a way in which, if it did, it could be the only logical conclusion. Perhaps the “real” action stopped when Carrie first started showing signs of unraveling or, at the end of season one, after her electroshock treatment. In my mind, however, the moment of transition comes at the start of season two, when Carrie has been subdued and reduced to domestic captivity. In her trauma or boredom, Carrie might begin to weave a separate tale. It is the fantasy of a slightly parallel world, and it makes perfect sense when viewed askew, as the product of a bipolar mind on the fritz.
It is easy for me to believe that Carrie might suffer a psychotic break and lose everything—her job, her mission, her faith in her own mind—and retire to the loving, smothering custody of her family while she tries to recover; this is the reality of the lives of many bipolar people, geniuses or otherwise. I am completely convinced as I watch Carrie pick vegetables, correct grammar and try not to grimace when she catches sight of a poster that instructs her, in a child’s hand, to breathe.
What I cannot believe is that her quiet despair will be interrupted by a summons from the CIA asking her for help, just this once; that she will prove herself so daring and able that the agency will have no choice but to reinstate her; that she will catch both the baddie and her beloved; that she will finally earn a promotion, and a pat on the back. To me, this world lies beyond the realm of possibility, even on television.
Last year, Leslie Savan wrote about Homeland's anti-drone message, and how President Barack Obama, a fan of the series and drone strikes alike, must have reacted to it.