The hugely popular and critically acclaimed psychological thriller Homeland (2011 – ) prominently features mental health issues from the very outset at the core of each of its two lead characters. Brilliant CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) struggles to hide her bipolar diagnosis from her employers, whilst returning and conflicted war hero Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) is suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his eight year imprisonment in Iraq.
We first meet Carrie on the streets of Baghdad, putting herself in severe danger as she bribes her way into an Iraqi prison so as to learn vital intelligence from an informant who is about to be executed. Such risk-taking is soon evident to be quite the norm for Carrie, as she seeks to confirm her suspicions about Brody’s loyalties in the wake of the intelligence she receives. Even as he returns home to a hero’s welcome, she enlists fellow operative Virgil (David Marciano) to illegally bug Brody’s home, and later pursues an aggressive line of questioning during his initial debrief.
Whilst such scenes highlight the difficulties that being bipolar can represent in the workplace, perhaps one of the challenges to the believability of Homeland‘s premise is the fact that Carrie Mathison has been able to gain and retain such a demanding position in the CIA at all. Following feedback from a focus group to an early version of the episode, the scene in which Carrie questions Brody was re-shot so that her mania was not so evident, and a subsequent meltdown that she suffered immediately afterwards was edited out completely (although the footage survives as a single deleted scene on the DVD release). The concern was that, in order to retain her credibility at work, her most vulnerable moments should only be witnessed in her private realm. This topic is also addressed head-on by a conversation between her Division Chief Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Director David Estes (David Harewood) in which they discuss Carrie in the wake of Brody’s debrief:
As well as highlighting the tensions Carrie’s behaviour causes with her employers due to her unpredictable behaviour (not to mention her habitual lateness), this scene is punctuated with the implication that she once had a sexual indiscretion with the now Director of the CIA. Another key moment towards the end of the episode sees Carrie make a pass at Saul in a misguided attempt to smooth things over after he finds out about her illegal surveillance on Brody and threatens her with disciplinary action; the scene establishes Saul as a man of integrity as he immediately and vehemently rebuffs her approach.
Both an increased sex drive and risk-taking are behaviours associated with the manic episodes of bipolar disorder, although their prominence in this episode probably owes more to how they serve the plot and to deliver heightened drama than it does to offering a fully-rounded portrayal of Carrie’s illness. Looking back, the writers question their own creative decisions with this scene given how the relationship between Carrie and Saul evolves, although perhaps moments such as this contribute to the true (and non-sexual) intimacy that the pair develop.
Immediately after this confrontation Carrie suffers something of a meltdown, drawing upon elements of the scene originally written and filmed to follow Brody’s debriefing. Agitated, she lies down and listens to some chaotic jazz (carefully chosen by the writers to contrast with the smoother tastes of Saul) before determining to go out with the express intention of meeting someone for sex. In a scene set in her closet—tellingly so, as Claire Danes points out in the DVD commentary, given Carrie’s secretiveness about her condition at this point in the series—she rapidly goes through a number of choices of outfit. Again, the soundtrack—trumpeter Tomasz Stanko‘s “Terminal 7“—perfectly fits the scene’s frenetic mood. Reflecting a scene towards the start of the episode, wherein she returns home from a night out just long enough to have a “whore’s bath” and change clothes before heading straight to work, she dons an engagement ring as a cover in order to deter men seeking anything other than a casual encounter.
Another telling strand to Homeland‘s “Pilot” is the way in which Carrie self-medicates. She hides clozapine capsules in an aspirin bottle in her bathroom, with their “off-label” use in the treatment of bipolar disorder offering a further hint that the drug has not been formally prescribed to her by a medical professional. Virgil’s brother and co-conspirator finds the drug whilst seeking out something for a headache at Carrie’s house, which leads to another seminal scene in which Virgil confronts Carrie even as they are engaged in further unofficial surveillance of Brody from the back of his van:
Danes’ performance in this scene is electric, and her aggressive response is also typical of a manic episode. She feels guilt over her situation, too, later referencing that she has played her “only true friend” for a fool.
If Brody’s own conflicted nature takes a back seat in this episode, then nevertheless we witness some of the difficulties that his PTSD will inflict upon him as he is reunited with his family and subsequently tries to return to at least the appearance of a normal life. A particularly harrowing scene sees him have an aggressive sexual reunion with his shocked wife; the unease with which Carrie looks on as she continues her invasive surveillance acts to reinforce the discomfort of the audience experiencing this most private and unsettling of moments. Perhaps the need to play the dual realities of Brody’s character in order to sustain the season’s central mystery as to his true allegiance takes precedence overall in the drama, but nevertheless such unflinching moments are powerful and unusual portrayals of a debilitating condition.
Homeland has earned many accolades for both its stars and its writing, and not insignificant amongst these is the 2012 Mind Media Award for Drama, recognising those who have “abandoned stereotypes in favour of accurate portrayals of mental health”. Nevertheless, the series has gone on to attract subsequent criticism, too, for some of its later representations of Carrie’s bipolar disorder, and for at times implying a straightforward and direct link between the analyst’s supreme talents and her manic highs. These are topics to which this blog intends to return, in the context of some of Homeland‘s later instalments.
The mental health issues suffered by both Carrie and Brody are complex and multi-faceted, such that a single hour of drama also tasked with setting up the season’s complex plot and ambiguous loyalties could never hope to represent them fully. In the context of Homeland‘s accomplished and fully-formed “Pilot”, though, it is clear that nuanced writing and superb performances combine to bring these subjects to greater prominence and encourage their widespread discussion, and that in itself is no bad thing.