GREY MATTERS: HOMELAND and the art of playing crazy

GREY MATTERS: HOMELAND and the art of playing crazy


As a certified crazy person, I’m here to tell you that either vampires burn in daylight or they don’t. I’ll accept no wiggle room on this. Anything less and you’ll quickly lose my suspension of disbelief. To get what I’m babbling about, this way, please. I’m talking about Homeland, which is, by the way, about almost nothing but crazy people.

Homeland, in case you’ve been busy catching up on something more realistic – I suggest Syfy’s zero-dollar wonder, Alphas – is about Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a C.I.A. operations officer haunted by the notion that she failed to do something that may have stopped 9/11 from happening. She was also compromised in an Iraq operation because of an American soldier who’d turned against his country.

Then a Delta Force raid uncovers Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in a compound belonging to super-terrorist Abu Nazir. Brody becomes a hero but Carrie pegs him as connected to her failed op and worse, a turned sleeper agent.

When the C.I.A. turns down Carrie’s requests for invasive surveillance because dammit, we don’t do that sort of thing in America, she does it herself with some spy pals. (Alphas, with its metaphor-fraught tales of working class, genetically “super-powered” people fighting Cheney’s still-booming and lawless torture system that Homeland needs to pretend doesn’t exist, is the more clear-eyed, adult view of post-civil liberties America.) In episodes Alfred Hitchcock would love, Carrie watches Brody eat, talk and have sex with his stunningly gorgeous wife (Morena Baccarin of Firefly fame).

The season-long hook, teased sometimes to exquisitely hair-pulling extremes, is a has-he-or-hasn’t-he game of whether or not Brody has been turned and is out for big-time trouble.

And then, for me, it all went to hell.

nullCarrie’s a character whose entire life, as the brilliant credits sequence reminds us every week, is literally defined by terrorism, fear and trying to control that fear by building a life, a personage as a person in strict control, serving her country, her profession and the one real man in her life, her mentor and father figure Saul Berenson (the mighty Mandy Patinkin).

So of course she decides to throw it all away, including, quite possibly, the security of the United States, so she can get drunk and fuck Brody.

The show recovered in fits, some so good and others so bad it was like tuning in to get whiplash, but this was the first trumpet sounding Homeland’s true nature, and televisual literature was not included in that symphony. Homeland never dived so far as The Killing. It stayed professional, keeping us interested (and glad there were no commercial breaks where we could pause to think about its manifold absurdities). Then there was last week’s finale that led to an explosive terrorist conflagration that wasn’t – because if it was, one of the players would be taken off the board, and so much for Homeland Season Two.

But what about the vampires? What about you being crazy?

Okay. What I mean is, if a show has vampires who can never walk in sunlight because they’ll burn up in flames except when the writers need them to, well, I’m not going to be watching that show, because the writers have contempt for me, or their material, or both.

On the most basic level, that’s the deal with Carrie and Brody. In order to accept Carrie and Brody, we must accept some whoppers about what we know about bipolar disorder – if only from Oprah, what millions of people know about returning Iraq vets and P.T.S.D. and what we all know about what it is to be human.

nullRight, bipolar disorder. I didn’t mention that, to add some tension spice to Carrie’s character, Homeland makes Carrie suffer really badly from bipolar disorder. Like, it’s so bad that she has to take her meds every day or else she’ll go into a manic tailspin and lose her mind. The poor thing, she can’t even go to a regular doctor for those meds because the C.I.A. would kick her out as a security risk. So, she visits her psychiatrist sister on the down-low for her weekly supply, which translates into even more suspense, and some shame and anxiety to boot; this bipolar thing is paying off big-time and all they had to do was say she has it. Poor Carrie. This is going to be one rough season.

Except, not so much, because on Homeland, vampires can walk in daylight, so to speak. After a few episodes, her bipolar kind of…goes away. Why? I would imagine because its rigors would get in the way of other plots leading to such flights of fancy as Carrie blowing off seeing her sister for meds so she can get blotto drunk for some hot Brody ooh la la. Unlike all of us, intemperance does nothing to aggravate her bipolar; hell, she doesn’t even get hangovers.

Yes, “us.” I outed myself a while ago on being bipolar. It’s no big thing – as long as you remotely behave like a grown-up about this controllable thing, i.e., not like Carrie.

nullDon't get me wrong: I don’t suggest Homeland hang itself on the horns of scientific accuracy (or a WebMD search). I just ask that it create a ‘verse where there are laws for Carrie’s condition, and then stick to those laws, like the way Vulcans can or can’t intermarry and the like. (On the other hand, absurdity met ugliness when the showrunners had Carrie, in deep depression, diagnosing herself – with her sister mutely complicit – for electroconvulsive therapy, a.k.a. shock treatment, a controversial, risky, cognition- and memory-impairing but highly photogenic treatment calling for Danes to be strapped and gagged, electrodes glued to her scalp. Then they cranked the juice as her body spasmed grotesquely. If you’re suffering from depression, there are a million other ways to get help – this is just an ignorant TV show by the guys who made the torture-happy 24.)

Danes has created a viable person built off the showrunners’ thumbnail description and her own vision of Carrie, which manifests in endlessly fascinating halting speech patterns, “talking” body language, odd glares and more. The creators of Homeland were insanely fortunate to get such an artist.

As for Brody – good grief. Here’s a man who for eight years was brutalized, beaten, locked in solitary, became a surrogate father to an adorable child who died horribly, was forced to brutalize other Americans and, for a freshet of memorable detail, was pissed on while he bled. And yet within a day or so he’s home, and aside from limited, soon-to-improve sexual dysfunctions and some behavioral dissonances, he’s on his way to a full recovery with timeouts for plot-advancing nightmares.

nullMeanwhile, in Brody’s frequent shirtless scenes we see his scars and their implied memories of unimaginable months of pain and horror, which now have no apparent effect. (Even his attempted terrorist act is based not on torture, but on love of a child.) This is Spielbergism; take a sad song and make it ludicrously better, one-upping it by saying the sad song doesn’t exist even as you’re looking at it.

As Brody breezed through photo ops, interrogations, his love affair, superior fathering, a remarkable act of remembrance in a church, the first steps towards a congressional run and the build-up to his terror attack, watching Homeland, for me, became the job of creating in my mind a less ridiculous backstory for Brody. Something Uwe Boll would not reject as failing to meet his stringent standards of realism. (I also had to ixnay the absurdity that any country would allow such damaged goods into the ‘burbs with no decompression process, where anyone could get to him, or the poor bastard could just blow his brains out in 24 minutes.)

Again, it’s entirely the actor’s art that pulls this nonsense off. It’s Lewis’ eye and neck muscle work, his oddly timed blinks, his general tightness of bearing suggesting things blowing up inside. Everything that nobody bothered to write.

But there were such great moments! Like when Brody and Carrie went to her family cabin in the woods, with its implications of a peaceful childhood she somehow missed, and his connection to a person who gets his deal. It was beautiful. And then she flat-out accuses him of being with Al Qaeda, and he’s back at her, yelling that he isn’t (which technically is true). It’s the spy scene we’ve always wanted to see: the breaking of both players’ pose.

Pure gold. But moments like this get lost in a spy show’s mechanics and, as Carrie’s mental illness makes that special guest appearance, devastating her just in time for dramatic effect, I’m just over these daywalking vampires. Next season, I’ll recalibrate my expectations of Homeland. I’ll enjoy the acting, the twists and turns. What do you want? It’s just TV.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.

6 thoughts on “GREY MATTERS: HOMELAND and the art of playing crazy”

  1. I'm in Australia and have just seen episode 11 of the 1st season where Carrie has the manic episode and is up all night trying to solve the problems of the world. I am bipolar and I believe "Homeland" and Claire Danes have done an exceptional job of portraying the symptoms of bipolar. I myself work for the government and keep my condition a closely guarded secret for fear of discrimination. The symptoms of bipolar will differ from one person to another, but "Carrie" is doing very well to show what it is like to live with this condition – particularly in a high stress environment. I applaud the series for its focus on bipolar.


  2. I don't want to tell you you're wrong, because you have more direct experience with the disorder than I do, but I have more than one family member that is affected by it and every once in awhile, under stress, they seem to make spur of the moment irrational decisions that cause problems for them. Could the terrible decision to sleep with Brody not have arisen from her disorder being aggravated by intemperance?

    I also have a friend going through ECT treatment, and I think for people who feel they have exhausted all other methods of treatment and are at the end of their rope, it's not terribly uncommon. David Foster Wallace was administered it. I believe your qualms with Brody's PTSD are far more substantial.

    Is there room for improvement? Of course, but I think the treatment of a psychological disorder on Homeland is a step above what we usually get on TV. Where it's often seen as a quirk or the character is portrayed as a savant.


  3. Got the word-count up there so that is good, but otherwise I'm not sure what was the point of this item. Thanks anyway, Dr. Ian.


  4. I actually thought Claire Danes and the writers did a pretty good job describing bipolar disorder. Everything isn't great of course, that would be impossible.

    A real goof in one of the early episodes was when Virgil found Clozapine on Carrie. That is not a common drug for bipolar disorder and has severe side-effect. In episode 11, themedication is perfect. Maggie gives bensodiazepines and increase Lithium. This treatment is quite common.

    Regarding the mood shift. Maggie attributes this to the physical and psychological stress from the bomb blast (not being off her meds a day or two!). Together with the last months of extreme preassure at work, a switch isn't too far fetched. However, in my opinion it looks like Carrie is hypomanic rather than manic. The writers are maybe streching it a bit, but I have seen far wrse.

    I live in Sweden and are currently in my last year as a med student. During my psych course I have observed patients undergoing ECT. It is the fastest way to level out a mood swing, both up and down. It is remarkable to see a patient before and after ECT. The effect is short term and treatment must be combined with medicine. From my point of view it isn't an extreme meassure to treat a bipolar depression with ECT. Maybe it's different in the US. The way ECT was portraited was, to my suprice, not all that bad. Of course, the memory risks were exaggerated to create suspense for season 2. The treatment scene had its exaggerations, big syringes, strange light, beeping machines and so on. The cramps are usually not that big, patients are given a short term muscle relaxant. Despite that, this is the most accurate depiction of ECT I have seen in a work of fiction. (Bonus innacuracy: The most common way to adminster the electricity is by holding the paddles unilaterally on the right frontal part of the brain. In the few cases this doesn't give the desired effect, you can try bilateral administration. This is seldom done in Sweden because bilateral administration has a greater risk for memory problems. Carrie gets bilateral treatment.)

    All in all, I think bipolar disorder was described pretty well, but far from perfect.


  5. Her attraction to Brody and sleeping with him are totally believable–the danger, the taboo, the reckless disregard for boundaries.


  6. I can't comment on the accuracy of the portrayals of mental disorders, but I do want to add a few quick comments:

    * I believe the reason Carrie could blow off her sister for meds is because she'd stolen extra from her in "Blind Spot."

    * I briefly wondered if Carrie might also suffer from undiagnosed borderline personality disorder, but given that my only real knowledge of it is from pop-culture sources I decided it was better not to concern myself with it.

    Great article, I really enjoyed the perspective.


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