Homeland (2011- ) returns to Showtime for its fourth season premiere tonight, and to UK screens via Channel 4 one week later. I thought it would therefore be timely to shine the spotlight once again on the series’ bipolar protagonist Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). When I considered the series’ pilot episode for this blog I hinted that I would, at a later date, write about some of the third season’s developments that came in for criticism due to their representation of Carrie’s illness, but for now I would like to focus upon one of the series’ high watermarks: the penultimate instalment of Season One, “The Vest”.
The episode follows in the wake of an operation that Carrie had been coordinating, but which went awry when a briefcase bomb was detonated in a public square. Carrie is in hospital having suffered a concussion, and in the throes of a full-blown manic episode. It is there that her Division Chief, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), finds her desperate to return to work. Confused and shocked at her (ahem) frame of mind, Saul convinces her doctor—in spite of his initial protestations—that Carrie would allow him to be present whilst he consults with her:
Back at Carrie’s place, her sister Maggie (Amy Hargreaves) arrives, and Saul finally learns the truth about Carrie’s condition—a truth she has, to this point, successfully hidden from the CIA for her entire career:
Carrie reluctantly takes the medication that her sister prescribes, but still continues to trawl through the case notes she has brought home, feverishly highlighting passages with different coloured markers. Saul is out of his depth, and impatient to have Carrie back to “normal” given that a terrorist attack related to her operation is expected imminently:
The interaction between Carrie and her sister is strained at best, and this is not helped when Carrie jumps out of her car and runs across a street—nearly getting run over in the process—in order to inspect an area of fenced-off, fallow ground. The moment somewhat obliquely provides Carrie with a breakthrough about the information she has been analysing on terrorist Abu Nazir’s activity, demonstrating that she is still high-functioning throughout her ongoing manic episode. Maggie, however, insists she takes a sedative given her dangerous behaviour.
Whilst Carrie is resting overnight, Saul pieces together her evidence on her living room wall, realising that it is a chart of Nazir’s timeline, colour-coded to describe changes in his behaviour and seeking to infer from these his state of mind. When she comes downstairs the following morning, Carrie is overwhelmed to find that Saul now finally understands her train of thought. As Danes describes this scene, “Saul is able to organise that brilliant chaos, and that wall I think represents their friendship and their camaraderie and their incredible efficiency and brilliance in working together professionally”.
Carrie also takes a moment to reassure her mentor that he is not to blame for her condition, having overheard him discussing how she was “damaged” after an operation that went awry in Iraq, and for which he takes responsibility. It’s a moment that effectively shows Carrie’s perspective upon her illness as inherent as opposed to triggered by any particularly stressful event in her chosen profession:
Throughout “The Vest”, the audience is treated to an untimely but understandable manic episode that feels utterly authentic. What interests me in particular regarding Carrie Mathison, though, is how the character came to be defined the way she is at all, and how the creative teams behind Homeland collaborated in this regard. The documentary included on the Season One box set, “Under Surveillance“, offers a number of insights and demonstrates how Carrie’s condition was incorporated into the the themes at the heart of the series.
Series creators and executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa developed the concept from Israeli writer Gideon Raff‘s series Hatufim (renamed Prisoners of War for international audiences). Carrie Mathison’s character had no equivalent in Hatufim, and moreover her illness was only added at a relatively late stage in the character’s development, once the series was destined for Showtime, who asked for her to be made “more of a cable character”, i.e. more complex, more flawed. Gansa further reveals, “Carrie was a direct response to Jack Bauer. In the mindset of, ‘We don’t want to do 24 again. How do we not do 24 but make it about the intelligence community anyway?'”
“We wanted to create a hero who on one hand was doing many of the same things that Jack was doing, but couldn’t be more different,” Gordon explains further. “Someone who, rather than being institutionally acknowledged as this great hero, was someone who had been marginalised. And we were looking for ways to dimensionalise Carrie and maybe explain some of Carrie’s obsessive behaviour, some of Carrie’s out-of-the-box thinking.” Gansa concludes, “Ultimately we settled on the bipolar illness because it turned her into somebody that had a pathology that was unreliable, and that was very interesting to us as storytellers.” Clearly Carrie’s condition adds to what Gansa describes as the “grey, ambiguous space” that Homeland inhabits.
Much of the palpable success of Carrie Mathison can be ascribed to Claire Danes’ Emmy and Golden Globe-winning performance—the former specifically awarded for her powerhouse performance in “The Vest”. Alex Gansa reveals, “Howard and I had Claire in mind from the get-go. Literally, the minute we talked about this person being a woman, and we knew roughly what age.” He goes on to reveal how that choice of age was selected to offer hope that Carrie could still manage her bipolar. “We wanted her in her early thirties because we wanted her to be at a place in her life where she was an experienced enough intelligence officer, but also young enough so that there was a possibility that she could defeat her disease and really integrate into life in a full way.” (The choice of word “defeat” is unfortunate and perhaps speaks to an underestimation of the condition, which in reality can at best only ever be managed.)
Howard Gordon describes Homeland as a “writer staff-driven show”, and Meredith Stiehm was the member of the writers’ room who was most drawn towards Carrie Mathison as a character, and who champions her. In terms of what she sought to represent through the character, Stiehm offers a more realistic yet still optimistic perspective:
“I wanted to show that you can have illnesses—physical or mental—and cope with them, and you can function with this pretty extreme disorder… Carrie is somebody who is excellent at her job, and she loves her job, and she has this illness. And she has to keep it a secret, which leads to poor treatment of the illness, and poor maintenance… [But] there’s sort of an order that she perceives that nobody else does, so what we might experience as scattered and crazy, she is seeing as lucid.”
As a cliffhanger leading into a season finale, “The Vest” ends in suitably dramatic style. Carrie makes the mistake of calling Brody (Damien Lewis) to invite him over even as—unbeknownst to her—he is preparing the very attack she is trying to stop, using the titular vest. Brody tips off CIA Deputy Director David Estes (David Harewood), who arrives unannounced at Carrie’s home to call her to account. He immediately moves to have the evidence that Carrie has illegally brought home removed, ignoring her extreme protestations, and sets the wheels in motion to have her fired.
Director Clark Johnson had Claire Danes improvise the episode’s final moments, which rawly portray both her condition and her fury at being removed from service just as she has made a pivotal breakthrough. Danes viewed YouTube videos that people had posted whilst in manic states to help her with such aspects of her role, often watching them between takes. The actress says of the final scene, “It was supposed to end where I say to Estes, ‘I’m about to solve this fucking thing,’ and it was supposed to fade to black. And Clark said, ‘I’m just gonna let you go. You just go.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, I just go?’ He said, ‘Y’know, we’ll see what happens.’ I said, ‘Stop this. Enough already. Stop pushing me.’ But he said, ‘I know you’re full of resentment right now, but you’re in the right place for this.’ It was thrilling, it was exciting, but it was a lot. They didn’t let me drive myself home that night.”
Going into the season finale, there is a stark sense of realism to the way in which Carrie Mathison loses everything as a result of her behaviour. This feels authentic for a person in her position, struggling to manage her bipolar disorder whilst holding down such a stressful job. What Homeland was to find most difficult was where to take the character next. It is here that it was to falter, seeking to rebuild her status within the CIA in order for the series’ format to be preserved. That, however, remains a topic for future posts. And as to where Season Four will take her next—both physically and emotionally—we’re about to find out.