Madness in the Method: On ‘Homeland’

Madness in the Method: On ‘Homeland’

Madness in the Method: On ‘Homeland’

Afflicted with a mental disorder, Carrie Mathison is an unlikely American hero, and seems a bad bet besides.


Is it fair to criticize an absurdist television drama as riveting as Homeland for its tenuous relationship to reality? There are reasons to demur. Even the crudest précis of the show’s premise and plot is enough to reveal that its creators do not mean to venture, for the most part, into the realm of the real. The series’ first and most obvious flight of fantasy—the existence and transformation of an American marine turned jihadi terrorist turned congressman turned penitent—is outlandish, but typical of television. But it is the story’s second thread, the travails and eventual triumph of the beautiful and brilliant CIA agent Carrie Mathison, which gives pause. Afflicted with a mental disorder that affects every aspect of her life—her powers of perception and persuasion; the details of her obsessions; her loneliness, her instability, her hotness and her coldness; and, finally, her paranoia, which may be a preternatural gift, or simply paranoia—Carrie is an unlikely American hero, and a bad bet besides. Yet in December, after a tumultuous two seasons of on-and-off employment with the CIA, Carrie rose from the ashes of her career vindicated, not only in her questionable quest and more questionable methods, but also, and far more important, in the question that had dogged her and her more unimaginative colleagues throughout their mission: that of her sanity.

The porous nature of sanity has always been a rich thematic source for film and television, but as a new set of menaces of the mind—autism, bipolar disorder and the pathology of mass shootings, among others—have risen to the surface of public consciousness, insanity’s medical attendant, mental illness, has been renewed and reshaped in those mediums. Glenn Close appears in television spots urging viewers to accept and support bipolar (formerly manic-depressive) people like her sister. The New York Times publishes reports on how to make autistic children employable, as well as expert opinions about the treatment of and recovery from schizophrenia. (One recent enlightened discovery: “Some people with severe mental illness are capable of high levels of achievement.”) And no matter where one turns, the pundits endlessly ponder the neurological ailments presumed to have impelled the shooters in Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Newtown, Connecticut.

The theme of the second season of the television show American Horror Story—created by Ryan Murphy, whose previous projects include Nip/Tuck, about plastic surgeons in Miami, and Glee, about, well, glee—is sanity, and its setting is an asylum supervised by a nun more deranged than Nurse Ratched. Here the well undergo the same inhumane treatments as the ill; in what seems to be a political statement, Murphy has one patient imprisoned for lesbianism, which, in the mind of Sister Jude, is nearly as wicked as killing women, skinning them and wearing their faces as masks.

But American Horror Story is the exception to the rule. Screen renderings of insanity and its discontents have strayed from their traditional genres—horror and tragedy, thrillers and cop shows—and, in the process, become both more comic and more clinical. In Silver Linings Playbook, the bipolar main character, played by Bradley Cooper, lists his meds by neologisms recognizable from TV commercials. He’s tried and abandoned a cocktail of Seroquel, Abilify and lithium (this last, an element of nature, is unpatented and unadvertised). His love interest (Jennifer Lawrence, who won an Oscar for her performance) is a distressed widow who appears to have some unspecified disorder herself; she’s dabbled in Xanax and Effexor, but they made her feel foggy. And they’re not the only ones: nearly everyone else in the cast is clinically diagnosable, with the notable exceptions of the protagonist’s mother and his friend’s bossy wife, presumably because moms are too busy to go crazy crazy.

Robert De Niro, as Cooper’s father, is the only character to play his ailment persuasively, perhaps because the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder are better known and more distinct than those of other psychiatric maladies, whose fits and rages are portrayed as generic (but always psychotic) fits and rages. De Niro begging Cooper, his lucky charm, to watch the Philadelphia Eagles play on game day; his need to set the television remotes on the table just so—these are identifiable as rituals typical of OCD to anyone who knows anyone with the disorder. In this happy-go-lucky romantic comedy, mental illness isn’t so scary after all; it could be a proxy for any emotional baggage that might delay two lovers in the discovery of their love, and it can apparently be cured, for at least a little while, by entering a dance contest.

For those in the community of mental illness awareness and advocacy, this kind of movie might seem a sign of progress, even if it does little more than spruce up hoary old tropes with medical jargon. Perhaps, one hopes, someone will think a little more gently about her friend’s bipolar son when her heart is warmed by Silver Linings Playbook, or, if she is Canadian, after watching the CBC’s new police procedural Cracked, which partners cops with mental health professionals in a psych-crimes unit. “It felt like a unique partnership in caring and very relevant,” the screenwriter, a former police officer, told CBC News. Presumably, this show will help to humanize mental illness while also dramatizing “the issue of mental health and criminality,” which, the CBC editorializes, “is very much in the news in the real world, from incidents in which police confront psychiatric survivors, to cases where people who are mentally ill commit bizarre crimes.”

I hope the show is indeed caring, and certainly it is relevant. But I am also pretty sure that watching insane people commit bizarre crimes in the wake of Aurora, Oak Creek and Newtown will elicit more fear than sympathy in all but the most caring viewers.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Three years ago, Danes starred, to great acclaim, as the autistic genius Temple Grandin in an HBO biopic of the same name. She is a formidable actress, and in Homeland she once again seems to have done her research, perhaps too well: The producers have received letters from bipolar people expressing concern that Danes truly suffers from mental illness and is teetering on the brink. Most of her fans, however—the masses who help her boost ratings and win awards—are probably not bipolar or severely ill with another mental disorder.

There is a real tension here. Carrie Mathison may be America’s Sweetheart—and why not, in this age of collusion, occlusion, banal evil and grave doubt? But how many of the viewers who root for her each week would choose Carrie, among her CIA cohort, as their handler? How many of them believe that people like her should be allowed to work for the CIA at all?

In the bluest states of America, there are few remaining stigmas whose disclosure can kill a career. The law precludes in word if not in deed discrimination against women, people of color, gay people, disabled people, old people, religious people, atheists, heterosexuals, white people and male people—everyone from the traditionally oppressed to their perceived oppressors and back again. The item in the CIA’s employment FAQ that follows its boilerplate nondiscrimination clause concerns, of all things, tattoos. (No worries on that count: “Tattoos will not disqualify you from gaining employment at the CIA, and all professionally-qualified persons are encouraged to apply.”)

In theory, disability rights law applies to those with mental illness, but its scope is limited and enforcement rare. The Americans With Disabilities Act protects the mentally ill from discrimination by employers, but there’s a catch: disclosure. This seems reasonable; if an employer doesn’t know about a disability, how can he be guilty of discriminating against it? But this is also the logic of nondisclosure: if my employer doesn’t know I am mentally ill, he won’t treat me like a crazy person. Given the fear and discrimination that people with mental illness face all the time, in all aspects of life, there is little incentive for the undiscovered to trade the one protection they do have—invisibility—for some theoretical rights to be enforced in a future that seems far less likely to occur if no one knows they are mentally ill. Unemployment rates among people with mental illness are estimated to be 60 to 80 percent, and as high as 90 percent for people with the “most severe” mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

These numbers are—or should be—appalling. They do not reflect the necessity, ability and desire to work among the mentally ill, or the ease with which employers could make accommodations for those who require them. They do not reflect how few of the mentally ill are violent or criminal. What they do reflect are social neglect, feeble support systems and, most of all, fear. We cannot calculate how many thousands of people with truly unusual minds labor, hidden, within the workforce, precisely because they wish to remain unseen. And why wouldn’t they? Why would those who can fly under the radar, who can pass as neurotypical at work and at large, not continue to do so indefinitely, like Carrie, for as long as they can pull it off?

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.

* * *

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.

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