Friday, November 30, 2012

Acting Crazy

This post contains spoilers for both Homeland and Six Feet Under. Also M*A*S*H, but given that M*A*S*H ended 29 years ago I think the ship has sailed for spoiler alerts on that particular show.

A few days ago the lovely Britt beat me to the punch and posted about Carrie from Homeland and what an important character she is, not simply as a complex, interesting woman on TV but also her status as a leading lady with a mental illness. If you have a few minutes it’s worth reading, as well as the piece Britt links to as inspiration for her post.

I have mixed feelings about Homeland. Mostly I think it’s over hyped and not nearly as good as some other shows still in production. I love some of the actors involved (it’s great to see Mandy Patinkin and Damien Lewis working regularly, Talia Balsam has a small recurring role, and I’m seeing a better side to Claire Danes than just about all the work she’s done before) but mostly I find a lot of it implausible and a little silly, and I feel like the creators have played all these moves previously on other shows.  However I keep watching, because I love seeing a character with a big, lifelong mental illness being portrayed on a major TV show.  Moreover it’s written sympathetically, in a way that hasn’t been done since Hawkeye Pierce ranted and raved his way through M*A*S*H. (‘Am I ranting? I hope so. My ranting gets raves.’)

I’ve noticed some commentary that complains that Carrie isn’t written sympathetically at all. But she is – if she wasn’t, we’d be watching a show where Carrie is completely wrong about everything all the time, or at least most of the time, and as we know, she has been proven right about quite a few things along the way in almost two seasons’ worth of a cable show. Yes, she cries a lot – anyone would who sees the things and does the things that she’s done. But mostly she’s written as a strong, decisive, clever and mostly compassionate woman. This is still not a common occurrence on TV, even though things are a hell of a lot better than they were prior to The West Wing and The Sopranos.

Now there are problems with this. I think Estes is right to have thrown Carrie out on her arse when he discovered her condition, although he didn’t need to be so horrible about it. But there are very serious and legitimate reasons why people with mental illness do not work in intelligence and in the army. It’s different if it happens after they join up, but truthfully it is a completely understandable policy. It is because those of us who suffer from mental illness do not respond well to stress on a reliable basis. A very popular and much visited wedding blog ran a piece about two years ago in which a woman revealed that both she and her husband, who was suffering from serious depression, hid his condition while he was on the front line in Iraq. This is just negligent. I consulted an American friend who used to be a lawyer for the army and the guy would not have been discharged dishonourably, as his condition developed after he joined up. I understand the impulse to hide it - God, I’m not in any hurry to admit my illness to people in the department at my uni - but the difference is that the job I have chosen to do does not mean that my depressive episodes might get other people killed. I’m lucky. But even if my dream was to work in intelligence, it’s a dream I couldn’t make come true, because people who have what I have shouldn’t be in situations where people live and die by my decisions. The reason I am so hard about this is because I know what it can do.

In the article Britt links to Leila mentions that Carrie teaches us to trust our instincts. Mostly I agree, and I certainly need to trust my instincts more and I’ve been trying to do so. But you see, those of us with Bipolar also have impulses that aren’t so great, and we see that with Carrie all the time. Sex in the car with Brody in the rain? Reckless. A reckless behaviour that is classic for someone with Bipolar I or II. We have paranoias that shouldn’t be indulged, we have addictive personalities. Sounding like Carrie? I’m not saying she’s wrong all the time, but clearly these flaws can cause a lot of problems, for her and for others, under the duress of active duty.

I’m going to switch gears here and talk about another show I love, Six Feet Under.  I really do love this show and mostly think it’s a hell of a lot better than Homeland. Well written, the most perfectly cast show I have ever watched and full of interesting storylines (albeit some very melodramatic ones, Lisa anyone?), it’s not a lot like Homeland. Still I hated the portrayal of people with mental illness in this show. Billy Chenowith and George Sibley are often complete bastards without suffering from their respective illnesses, but Billy especially is just awful.* This show goes to the extreme, where people with mental illness are dangerous and annoying, all the time (even when they take their medication), and just not to be touched. So we need people like Carrie who, with all her faults, is someone who can get stuff right and is a reasonably likeable character (although some people disagree on that). I just hate that she’s in intelligence, because I really don’t think she should be and I’m willing to bet most mental health specialists agree with me.  

There has to be a middle ground, ironically enough – it’s what those of us who have Bipolar are always trying to find. We have big problems, and there are certain jobs we just can’t work, but we’re also all not dangerous when we look after ourselves and do the right thing. And yes, I can have it both ways.  We have stuff that is very serious, but it doesn’t make us all dangerous arseholes.

*In Brenda’s words: ‘They should call it Bipolar asshole disorder’. 


  1. Yeah, Billy from Six Feet Under was the only down point of that show. It totally plays to stereotypes about people with Bipolar. But, I guess they needed a reason for Brenda's brother to act in unhinged ways and provide drama, the obvious way to do that, rightly or wrongly, was to give the character a mental illness.

    I don't watch Homeland. Certainly bipolar and intelligence is not an ideal mix, but that does not mean all jobs within the intelligence field are unsuitable.. just perhaps the more exciting ones that tend to get depicted on screen.

    Instincts... my ability to trust my instincts has been completely undermined by my bipolar.

    1. I know *exactly* what you mean. What I do think Homeland does well with Carrie is this push and pull with her instincts. Some of them are spot on, uncanny, just perfect. And some of them, especially those about herself and how to take care of herself, are just way off, in a way that those of us with this illness truly understand.

      I know a lot of these things apply to everyone. But, as with everything for Bipolarists, it's all so amplified and at extremes. I am still trying to work out which of my instincts to listen to and follow and which ones are side effects of my illness.

  2. I don't know in Australia or other places, but in Spain, people look at you weird or differently if you say you have a mental illness, or even you say you're depressed or you're seeing a psycologist.
    I like Homeland, maybe not my favourite show but still, it's pretty great. I think it's good to have a main character who has a mental illness to normalize it. (Not sure if I made myself clear, I'm not good at explaining myself, let alone in other language).

    1. You expressed yourself perfectly, babe (your English is excellent!).

      I think things are better here than they were even ten years ago. I have been horribly let down by some people and wonderfully surprised by others. Then again, it's not like I flash my illness around, I am very private about it, so maybe I am not the best person to ask.

      I do sincerely doubt that I will ever be able to be honest with the average employer. I made the decision some months ago to be honest with people in the department as needed, but one of the big reasons I picked my supervisor was that I can trust him with my illness and with just about everything. The same goes with the guy who's going to be my associate supervisor for postgrad, I only really told him because I had to.


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