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Homeland: An Upfront Look at Bipolar Disorder

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland (Season 1)
Photo: Kent Smith / Showtime

By Courtney Reyers, NAMI Publications Manager

What happens when a leading character of a hit show is caught in a world of deception, high stakes and mental illness? Showtime network’s Homeland is the best example we’ve seen to date in its female protagonist, Carrie Mathison (played by actress Claire Danes). Season two of Homeland premiers this Sunday. Building off season one’s cliffhanger finale where Carrie voluntarily undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to manage her major depressive episode (which was preceded by a manic episode that unraveled a case, but also cost Carrie her job at the CIA).

Recently, Homeland nabbed a SAHMSA Voice Award as well as six Emmy Awards just last week—including a best actress score for Danes as well as an award for best series writing. What’s so great about Homeland is its sensitive portrayal of bipolar disorder—the perks and the downfalls—as well as the stigma that goes along with mental illness. Carrie hides her disorder to keep her job, receiving meds in secret from her nurse sister, who is pretty much her sole source of support. When Carrie takes off for a long weekend without her medication, a manic-depressive episode follows as the storyline unfolds, much to Carrie’s credit.

Carrie figures out the twisted plot of terrorism and treason, but unfortunately has lost credibility among her peers because of her illness. The lines between reality and hallucination, lie and truth, “crazy” and “normal,” shift all over the place and have viewers questioning who the bad guys really are. The sympathy Danes’ acting prowess invokes, along with other cast members', does one of the best jobs of portraying mental illness in modern television today with compassion, clarity and responsibility attached.

NAMI spoke to one of Homeland’s lead writers, Meredith Stiehm, who has also written and produced for hit shows such as Cold Case, NYPD Blue and ER.

NAMI: Claire Danes does such a good job portraying bipolar disorder. Has personal experience with mental illness touched anyone on the writing team?

MS: We ‘ve all had some experience with it. We’ve all swapped stories, because mental illness is not so rare. When you look back on things, you can identify them as symptoms as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Mental illness is really prevalent in our world and our society. We’ve all experienced it. [As writers on the show], we made it a real point to educate ourselves about bipolar disorder, and Claire did as well.

NAMI: Carrie’s decision to undergo ECT in the final episode is both fascinating and disturbing. Did the team worry about any backlash from viewers on this?

MS: I had some concern. It’s an extreme measure. A lot of people who aren’t familiar with modern treatment associate ECT with the “lobotomies” and treatment in the 1950s. ECT can be really helpful for depression. You don’t turn into a zombie. There is a lot of fear about it. During our research and from talking to people, we found that it’s really an effective treatment. It doesn’t hurt you and it’s a measured experienced.  We address the ECT right away those in the first episode of season two.

NAMI: Anything you can give us on season two?

MS: I’m not really sure how much I can reveal here. It’s fair to say that Carrie has this existing illness, and she manages it. I always feel that my responsibility, for her character, is to show somebody who is diagnosed with mental illness but is living with it. She can be an effective person in her professional and personal life, it’s not a wall that stops her from functioning.  It’s something you can treat and live with.

NAMI: What’s one of your greatest challenges as a writer, and what’s one of your biggest joys?

MS: What I like to write about is strong women in male environments, and that’s clearly Carrie Mathison. She’s in the world of the CIA and terrorism and spies, which is more commonly a man’s world. I love writing about women who manage that world who can figure out how to partner with the guys and be as essential as anyone else.

NAMI: When you’re creating something that can greatly affect popular culture, where do you draw the lines between social awareness, entertainment and art?

There are certain things I know I would chafe at presenting for socially responsible reasons. But different artists have different feelings about it. It’s important to have female characters that are strong, effective, smart and uncompromised. In Cold Case, the lead was Lilly Rush who was a homicide detective and it was important to me that she be a respectable character. But this not my show, this is Alex [Gansa] and Howard [Gordon]’s show, so I don’t assert myself that way about these characters.

NAMI: Do you feel like you know more about mental illness since working on Homeland?

I’ve made it my business to learn more. I wrote Carrie’s psychotic break in the second-to-last episode. So I went to Princeton and attended a class of Leon Rosenberg's, who has written about his own bipolar illness publicly. His guest speaker was Kay Jamison, who did a symposium. I got to spend some time with her and read her book, and really was able to make sure that we were being accurate, fair and honest about Carrie’s character. I have to give a lot of credit to Claire. She studied, very hard, it was important for her to portray Carrie’s illness responsibly and accurately.  After every take, she would come to me and ask me what do you think? She really cared about getting it right.