Homeland’s Season 3 premieres today in the USA and on our friendly neighbourhood TV streaming websites. In celebration, we post this essay on Homeland’s treatment of bipolar “disorder”.
by Isaac Skibinski
I’ve given up editing this. Writing demands that you believe in something which is ultimately flawed. This is a problem of time, of stretching the moment of first draft before it gives way to editing. But it is also a problem of reconciling mania and depression.
Ideas only sound like good ideas to someone who is out of touch with their own limitations and the limitations of the world. To write I need to believe in the communicative possibility of writing. I write this because I think a someone might read it and understand. It’s a gambit for recognition.
Which surely is not always a delusional wish? It’s hard to judge. The labeling of mental illnesses gives the appearance that distinctions between sanity and insanity can be clearly drawn — that one can judge. But if the afflicted’s problem is conceived as one of judgement, only semantic hocus-pocus can be offered. As advice from one bipolar person to another, “there’s good gut and there’s bad gut; sometimes I really have to clean out the fridge and set it on fire — that’s bad gut” is perfectly opaque. This is what Carrie’s father tells her in Homeland when she’s in the middle of a manic episode and she tells him something she really has to do. His advice suggests she can see herself from outside herself. Something that really can’t be asked of anyone.
She spends the worst of her mania holed up in her sister’s house under constant supervision, away from messy stimuli and eyes who would see her craziness. While she’s being reigned in, the boundaries blur. Her “condition” gets her fired; her employment depended upon the relative control medication offered her. Yet her brilliance as an intelligence operative is clearly related to her bipolarity.
While she’s manic she does some of her best work, albeit in a nearly incomprehensible manner. She becomes a kind of Cassandra, subject to bursts of insight that nobody believes. Her friend and father figure, Saul, though, is able to put it all together, to provide the translation. She idealizes their relationship as one might a family in an earlier era: a refuge of love in an unforgiving world (Langley, in this case). His complaint is that he does most of the forgiving.
She is in general someone who lets her burdens fall on others. She uses her sister to provide her with the experimental drugs that allow her to function at her job, and falls back on her sister’s care whenever she immediately needs it. There is therefore a perverse moralism in others’ burdens being displaced onto her.
Depression doesn’t mean insight isn’t possible, but that it always sounds like “bad gut.” While my upswings are nowhere near Carrie’s, they are productive to the same degree that they are foolish. While my decisions are less drastic than setting the fridge on fire or accusing someone of planning to blow up the vice president, they do nonetheless seem very wrong in retrospect. Which sounds, if you ask me, like the structure of consciousness, rather than a bipolar pathology.
When her dad tut-tuts her for staying up late working, she retorts “I feel pretty great.” “Wired. There’s a difference.” It’s hard to deny the distinction–there are different kinds of happiness — however, he’s not distinguishing among a field, but putting one above the rest. The calm, enduring, enlightened happiness waiting at the end of therapeutic narratives. It’s that much touted and aestheticized in-the-momentness.
At the very least, this ideal state does not characterize American nationalism, whose Homeland Security overcompensates for the wrongness of 9/11. Carrie along with it, as we are reminded every episode by her saying “I missed something ten years ago, I can’t let that happen again.”
Where is the wrongness in the right and the rightness in the wrong? This is what Homeland is concerned with, and how interiority is so obsessively cultivated as a mystery between contradictions.
The supreme contradiction is of course Brodie, the American soldier who is an impassioned anti-American terrorist. When he finally gets caught by the CIA, Carrie calls the eight years of torture and intimacy that created his passion “brainwashing,” which means, as far as I can tell, “brainwashing that isn’t ours.” She uses this term despite knowing that the boy Brodie babysat for three years died in an American drone strike.
At the end of the first season of Homeland I wanted Brodie to blow up the vice president (who ordered said drone strike). This isn’t just out of a need for violence, or even just a need for a break in the binds that Carrie and Brodie increasingly inhabit. The show puts us in this position because if Brodie suicide bombs himself, he vindicates Carrie’s reasoning, which we know to be sound. If he doesn’t go through with it, nobody will know that she’s right. That he ultimately thinks better of it is crueler (and therefore more pleasurable) to the viewer than if he had gone through with it.
Life, it turns out, is more demanding and more brutal than death. Its reproduction requires the repression of truth. For life to go on, Carrie and everyone else must believe that she’s insane. In lieu of others’ deaths, Carrie can only go on by consenting to electroshock therapy, which she admits will potentially cause some amnesia. “I can’t go on like this,” she says to Saul, “after all that’s happened, it’s probably better that I forget.” And really this is what the vice president and Carrie’s boss are asking of the world — to forget. “It’s just a turd, leave it alone,” says the VP. This puts the viewer in an excruciating position: she’s atoning for something that we know wasn’t wrong. Yes, she may be “a little intense,” and “off,” but her analysis is spot on.
The CIA in this show operates under the assumption that all policing does: that bad things are ultimately caused by bad people, and that bad things can be stopped by stopping bad people. Not to say there’s really much of another option. To admit that the very life it’s their job to protect is violent in its repression, and that the excesses of this repression have fallouts such as terrorism would be more or less to give up on this life.
Part of protecting life, or at least national life, is to protect the illusion that others threaten it, rather than itself. When Carrie and Saul’s investigation threatens to uncover the nation’s (and the CIA’s) complicity in an act of terrorism against it, this must be repressed. It is a threat not just to the CIA’s ideology, but as Carrie’s boss points out, to the nation itself. “You’d be handing the enemy the best recruitment tool since Abu Ghraib.”
But uncover that aptly labelled “turd” she did, and so she must bear its burden. By the end of the first season — which comes to a close with her running around making what sound like insane accusations — she is the mad woman in the attic. Her work doesn’t save the world from itself, but becomes internalized as the sign of her madness. Her relationship to the world is not to be trusted.
Writing ultimately fails, in part because there is no Saul to translate the intimate workings of our minds to the world. More to the point, because neither the world nor the mind is fully equipped or inclined to articulate its own undoing. That’s why writing, in the peculiar and irritating sense I have meant it here, is work — because inhabiting the negligible space between living and dying is an effort. One buries the death drive so far one becomes its rushing expression, or one lets it seep into consciousness and slows nearly to a halt. Between these is not stability or sanity, but normality. There’s a difference.
Isaac Skibinski blogs here.