The New Normal: Actress Claire Danes, Homeland and Hollywood's New Take on Mental Illness

MAR. 06, 2012

GlobalClaire Danes - Stuart Crawford

Showtime’s original series Homeland is one of the first TV shows to feature a female protagonist living with bipolar disorder—and one many say isn’t wholly defined by her illness.

Golden Globe winner Claire Danes (My So-Called Life, Temple Grandin, Romeo + Juliet) plays CIA officer Carrie Mathison in Showtime’s thriller-drama series based around homeland security, terrorism and politics. The first season, which premiered in 2011, follows Carrie’s efforts to uncover a U.S. Marine who is thought to have been turned while trying to target an Al-Qaeda kingpin while she struggles with (and hides) her mental illness from everyone but her sister.

The juxtaposition between Carrie’s determination to do her job well and sacrifice everything—including her own mental health—while unraveling a mystery reels the viewer in. As Carrie begins to uncover the truth, she forgoes taking her medication and enters a severe manic episode followed by a severe depression that costs her not only her romantic relationship, but also her job, which, in turn, almost ends in international devastation.

“I was enticed by [the role] because I'd not played anyone like her in any medium,” Danes told the Sunday Telegraph in February. “She's full of contradictions. She's so capable in so many ways and in others she's so ultimately unreliable.”

As Carrie’s authority is undermined by the discovery of her illness by coworkers, her mania also serves as a useful tool and helps her begin to solve the case. While even close allies turn on her, other central characters begin to realize she is hot on their trail as she pieces together the conspiracy—and they use her illness against her to throw her off the scent.

Homeland realistically shows the ups and downs, the perks and flaws, of living with mental illness. Additionally, it reveals the stigma surrounding mental illness in a job that requires a cool head and a sharp mind—her validity instantly goes out the window. In the end, Carrie’s bipolar depression is so severe and unresponsive that she elects to undergo ECT… just as she remembers a key element to the plot.

What’s crucial about this television series is its realistic portrayal of mental illness as well as real life—how in a matter of days mental illness can turn a life upside down, how peers, loved ones and coworkers can turn on you. How you start to doubt your own reality, and even how people can manipulate that reality. What’s really key, though, is that Carrie as a person, her work and her passion come first: Her mental illness is simply another hurdle she must overcome. Her illness is seen on the same playing field as countless other hurdles in her life, from political schemers to master plots of terrorism and deception to a strained family life.

"Playing someone with bipolar and taking the mystery out of that is a responsibility I don't take lightly," Danes said. “I really spent a lot of time doing my research to make it a specific portrayal and not just a generalized portrait of ‘being crazy.’ I didn't want to play crazy—that’s not bipolar disorder."

Watch the first episode of Homeland online for free, even if you don’t subscribe to Showtime. The second season of Homeland airs this fall.

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