Warning – Spoiler Alert.
If you haven’t finished watching the first season of Showtime’s Homeland, be forewarned. There be spoilers here.

OK, I’m the first to admit when I heard there was a show on the air about a Bipolar CIA agent, I completely dismissed it.

Last week an article in the LA Times Health section caught my eye.  The unreal world: ‘Homeland’ and bipolar disorder asked a question: Claire Danes’ character hides her condition from her CIA co-workers and is medically treated by her psychiatrist sister. Is this legit?

Now, I was intrigued.  What great fodder for a blog!  But, before I could give writing the piece a go, I really had to do the right thing and watch at least the episode to which the LA Times was referring in their article.  I started up the episode, was impressed with the show’s high production value and wound up watching the entire series.  Yes, it’s that good.

For those who don’t get Showtime here’s the premise:  Sgt. Nicholas Brody returns as a hero to the U.S. after spending eight years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. Carrie Mathison is a bipolar  CIA officer who is convinced that Brody is an agent of Al Qaeda. Carrie correctly fears she will lose her job if anyone at the agency discovers her mental illness, so instead of seeking help through the proper channels, she relies on her psychiatrist sister to supply her with  antipsychotics and lithium to keep her condition under control.

The first thing that came to mind after I read a premise blurb similar to the one above was a question even more broad than the one the LA Times asked: “Is this really a responsible portrayal of bipolar disorder?”  On the surface, it doesn’t seem like it, does it.  Bipolar is a serious mental illness that requires more stringent intervention than having your sister hand you a bottle of ill-gotten pills every once in a while. Also, with the media circus that’s been going on around bipolar this last year, it was easy to assume the show would center around and exploit Carrie’s bipolar condition.

Surprisingly, that’s just not the case.  And, as far as how Homeland treats the whole question of Bipolar, here’s where the show got it right.

Homeland does not advertize itself as being a series about being bipolar.  One of the main characters is an agent who happens to be bipolar.  Carrie is not a superwoman.  She is highly intelligent.  She is very good at her job.  She pulls some highly questionable stunts because she cares deeply about her work and her country.  The audience does not sit there hour after hour, watching a woman deal with being bipolar.  Her bipolar is not the focus, but it does complicate matters.

A lot of people are pretty rankled over the whole psychiatrist-treating-sister-under-the-table premise.  But, is it so far fetched?  I can tell you there’s been more than one time in my life when I have known people in sensitive positions to do some interesting things to keep their conditions from their employers.  Having your Dr/sister treat you off the record really isn’t that far fetched.  Another reason this part of the series doesn’t make me angry is because the writers are neither advocating it or preaching against it – this dramatic device is presented in a very matter-of-fact way.  Carrie is a woman doing whatever it takes to keep a job she’s not only passionate about, but who is damn good at what she does.

When I first read the article in the LA Times I was prepared to watch one episode of Homeland and then write a blog completely condemning the show.  After watching the entire first season, however, I can’t.  No one is more shocked than I am to see that Carrie Mathison is not a bipolar martyr, but is portrayed intelligently and without sentimentality by both the writers and the actress who plays her.

Is the way she’s receiving treatment responsible?  Absolutely not.

However, by the end of the season, there is some redemption to be had.  What the LA Times article fails to mention is during the last minutes of the final episode, you see Carrie voluntarily admitted to the hospital, having requested to undergo ECT.  She goes on the grid, gets a team of professionals involved and chooses to treat her illness above-board because she can’t handle her life anymore as it is.  As a BP person myself I have to say that whatever side of the ECT argument you’re on, a sufferer taking charge of their own treatment is always a responsible portrayal of bipolar disorder.

So, for those of you who have seen the show, what do you think?  Is there any good in the way Homeland portrays bipolar disorder?

(Update – the link to the original LA Times article has been fixed.  Please post a comment if anyone finds it has broken again.)