Portraying mental illness on television and in movies is a fraught task. How do you do it without sensationalising such a sensitive topic? How do you present mental illness authentically? How can it feel organic to the plot without being exploitative? These are all questions the showrunners of Homeland, the seventh season of which is currently airing on SBS, would likely have asked themselves.
When Homeland first aired in 2011, it received plaudits from US mental health bodies, the media and bipolar sufferers for its realistic portrayal of CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), whose career and personal life are sporadically thrown into turmoil by her bipolar disorder.
Homeland was a key pioneer in placing an exceptionally capable character, despite their mental illness, front and centre of a popular TV show. The National Alliance on Mental Illness praised the series as “one of the first TV shows to feature a female protagonist living with bipolar disorder – and one many say isn’t wholly defined by her illness. What’s crucial about this television series is its realistic portrayal of mental illness as well as real life – how in a matter of days mental illness can turn a life upside down.”
The Guardian journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson, who has bipolar disorder, wrote in 2014 that she found Danes’ performance “accurate and refreshing”.
“That the lead protagonist of one of the most popular global television shows – watched by the president of the United States, no less – is intelligent, charming, attractive and just happens to have a serious mental illness is nothing short of a triumph.”
But not everyone has embraced Homeland’s handling of bipolar disorder. The central criticism from several quarters – bipolar disorder sufferers among them – is that the show furthers the “super power” trope. Essentially, that those with bipolar and other mental illnesses have a super sense or a heightened genius that – in the case of bipolar – is only at its maximum acuity off medication.
Dr Rebecca Beirne of the University of Newcastle has studied the portrayal of mental illness in English language television shows airing between 2006 and 2016. She praises Homeland’s empathetic approach to its protagonist, but is troubled by how the show imbues Carrie Mathison with a “supernatural intuition”.
“I think Homeland gets it right in having a complex character that people can empathise with, who just happens to have bipolar disorder. That’s not the only storyline she has,” Dr Beirne tells SBS Guide. “What I think it does get wrong is when it represents mental health as offering a sort of supernatural intuition that’s sort of aligned with terrorism or used to catch terrorists.
“I think it’s also common on TV, because it’s useful as a narrative device, basically when you’ve got an investigator who has to make some leaps in logic to solve a very tricky puzzle or case,” she continues. “In one episode, Carrie withdraws from her medication so she deliberately becomes manic, so that she has enhanced skills and enhanced knowledge.”
On the Breaking Bipolar blog, Natasha Tracy, author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar, writes that people with bipolar are well… pretty ordinary.
“The show perpetrates the myth that, with bipolar disorder, you get some kind of talent as a ‘parting gift’ when, really, we’re just like everyone else, with and without special talents.”
Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa has said Carrie’s belief that her abilities are significantly impaired by her medication – the character has stopped taking medication for this reason on at least a few occasions over the series – is a “dangerous” notion.
“The show, I think, has demonstrated that when she is off the meds, she's dangerous to herself,” he told HuffPost.
Homeland has represented the gamut of symptoms associated with bipolar disorder, including increased risk taking, heightened creativity, sleep disturbance, alcohol abuse and delusions. It’s also tackled the shame and secrecy of mental illness, especially when it comes to potentially jeopardising careers; treatment (medication, electroconvulsive therapy, natural therapies); and the recuperation process after a manic episode. (In addition, Homeland extended its scope of mental health exploration with CIA agent Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) suffering from post traumatic stress disorder in season six.)
According to Gansa, Danes had bipolar viewers of Homeland concerned early on that the actress had the disorder herself, such was the authenticity of her performance. For her part, Danes – who has won two Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes for her powerhouse portrayal of the psychologically tortured CIA agent – used YouTube as one avenue of research.
“There was a lot of footage of people who recorded themselves when they were in manic states,” she told NPR. “I think they were probably up in the middle of the night and lonely and, you know, needed to talk.”
She told The Sunday Telegraph: "Playing someone with bipolar and taking the mystery out of that is a responsibility I don't take lightly. I didn't want to play crazy. That's not bipolar, and it's not Carrie. I wanted to play 'Carrie who occasionally becomes unhinged'."
(Danes has said Homeland will explore a confronting new tangent in her character’s bipolar disorder in season seven.)
The Homeland writers’ room looked to An Unquiet Mind, the esteemed book by mood disorders expert and bipolar disorder sufferer Dr Kay Redfield Jamison as “their bipolar-illness bible,” Gansa has said. “Kay Jamison is a mental health professional with a mental illness. There was a real parallel, we felt, between a woman in the CIA who had to keep her illness a secret and Kay Jamison, who had to keep her illness a secret from the people that she was practising with because there was this stigma involved.”
Homeland writer and consulting producer Meredith Stiehm, who wrote many of the episodes dealing with bipolar disorder, mined the experiences of her sister, journalist Jamie Stiehm, with bipolar disorder to inform the portrayal.
“It was a painful testament to my sister’s skill that scenes that might have been of just passing interest to other viewers pushed me to tears, because in a real way they carried an uncanny emotional resonance,” wrote Stiehm in The New York Times.
Dr Beirne contends that positive representation in the media of those with mental health conditions is vital, with research confirming it influences audience attitudes towards mental illness.
“I think it’s always a good thing to have more diversity in representation, and when you’ve got someone like Carrie who’s a lead character, there’s so much more opportunity to identify with her, empathise with her, and that means you’re more likely to see her in a positive light, or at least a light where you can understand her actions,” she says.
“They’ve actually done quite a lot of studies that have found that there’s definitely a link between what people see in the media and how they feel about individuals with mental health conditions. So I think then it becomes extremely important for it to be positive representation, but also for people who don’t always see experiences like their [own] experiences on television reflected.”
Homeland continues to play a major role in an ever-growing vanguard of TV shows featuring major characters with mental illness as just one element of their complexity. Among the productions acclaimed for their portrayal of mental health: BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (depression); Mr. Robot (dissociative identity disorder); Girls (obsessive-compulsive disorder); Lady Dynamite (bipolar disorder); The Good Doctor and Atypical (autism); and Jessica Jones and SBS’s Rectify (post-traumatic stress disorder).
“I think it’s been part of an overall new wave of these kinds of representations over the last 10 years,” Dr Beirne says of Homeland. “Collectively, those representations will have an impact going forward.”
Watch Homeland on Fridays at 8:30pm on SBS. Missed the first episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand: