The season finale Sunday of Homeland marks the climax of a trifecta of sorts. The Showtime spy thriller is joined by a nearly surefire Oscar nominee for Best Picture (Silver Linings Playbook) and one of the best-reviewed Broadway musicals of recent years (Next to Normal) – completing a trio of powerful genre-busting works of art in which bipolar disorder drives the plot and is at the heart of the main character’s identity.
So what does this mean for the rest of us – specifically, those in the audience who have been grappling with what used to be called manic-depressive disorder for years?
First, there’s a kind of pride – the characters here are in this crucial way just like us and we are like them. From Claire Danes’ cashiered CIA agent Carrie Mathison to the incurably romantic Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings – to the Mom living in the shadow of family tragedy in Normal – we recognize these people. We cheer as, despite their trials, they generally triumph. Of course, Carrie will end the Homeland season tied to the tracks with a new crisis oncoming, in the way of all continuing TV dramas, but we feel each week that she’s our best hope for saving the world.
Although these characters are defined by their illness, they also transcend it. The mom in Normal makes great strides in finding herself and casting off the ghost of her dead son; the hero of Playbook – spoiler alert – gets the girl – and as Maureen Dowd recently said of Carrie, she is “incandescently crazy and brilliant.”
The lesson is that we, too, can triumph within lives that sometimes seem circumscribed by our limits; we too can overcome an illness that we’re told is incurable if treatable. And we, like Carrie, may even be amplified and empowered by our difference – sometimes seeing things that are hidden from others because in our manic states we have insights that others can’t touch. For Carrie, as she tracks down and helps kill Abu Nazir, her illness is not a disability; it’s a superpower.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine that others not similarly afflicted would want to pay the price we pay in stigma, strained relationships or the side effects of under- or over-medication.
So – what do we gain from the elevation of our suddenly popular illness? I guess we can use this as a teaching moment – to remind the world that although we sometimes falter, and have a genetic marker for this serious illness, most of us don’t define ourselves day to day as sick. I think we owe thanks to the creators of these entertainments for helping us tell that story.