When a television show reboots itself as dramatically as Homeland has in its fifth season, the tweaks communicate what the storytellers believe are the most important components of the show. What are the essential parts of Homeland, the ones without which the show wouldn’t be itself anymore? It seemed like the move to Berlin might take the show too far outside the Middle Eastern hornet’s nest that fuels so many of its storylines. In just two episodes, Homeland feels like itself again, but getting there required a hasty trip to the Lebanon-Syria border, so clearly the writers of Homeland believe the show has to have some element of Middle Eastern geopolitics. “Super Powers” communicates that they also believe Homeland isn’t Homeland unless Carrie Mathison has a manic episode, and while that isn’t immediately a problem, it suggests a potential problem down the line.
“Super Powers” is a good episode of Homeland, but it feels very tiresome to someone who has been watching this show for four years now. Carrie’s bipolar disorder has been a major component of the show from the beginning, and the show will always be, on some level, about with a woman’s struggle with her psychiatric condition. That’s fine, but what’s not fine is shoehorning a mania-depression cycle into every season of the show. Yes, Claire Danes does magnificent things with the material, but there’s only so many ways to tell the story, and this isn’t nearly as much of a twist as it’s intended to be. After putting Frannie on a flight back to the States, Carrie is irritable with Jonas, but not for the reasons he thinks. She’s not only emotional about separating from her daughter due to the looming threat against her, she hasn’t been taking her medication for three days, unbeknownst to Jonas, who knows Carrie is bipolar. Carrie explains that she has a brief moment of heightened clarity when she goes off her meds, and he agrees to stay with her while she compiles a list of potential suspects for the attempted hit. Carrie and Jonas hole up in a secluded villa, and he promises to force her to take her pills when she starts spiraling out of control.
On an emotional level, this makes a certain amount of sense, in theory. Carrie has all the reason in the world to want to come unhinged in front of Jonas, who appears to be the perfect guy, the type of guy a girl like Carrie doesn’t expect to end up with. She’s terrified of chasing him away with the “real” her, and if he’s going to run away, she wants to find that out on her own terms rather than be abandoned. Going off her meds is an efficient way of showing Jonas the ugliest side of her to see if he can handle it. It also makes sense that Carrie might believe she has a short window of concentrated efficacy when she goes off her meds. Most people who use mood-altering substances, whether therapeutically or recreationally, have a self-improvement narrative around their substance use. Whether it’s “I’m more fun when I’m drunk,” “I think more clearly after smoking a bowl,” or some other variation on the theme, it’s common to believe that using a substance has measurable benefits besides just being fun. Carrie’s decision to stop taking drugs is fueled by the same narrative that makes people take them: She thinks doing so will reveal “the real her,” who is more capable and interesting than the everyday version of herself.
An argument can also be made that this is utter bullshit on par with the baby drowning scene from season four. There’s been almost no indication that Carrie does better work off her meds. The sole exception would be the Abu Nazir timeline from season one, but even that seemed like a crock because ginning up a timeline of a fearsome terrorist’s activities doesn’t seem like the stroke of mad genius someone comes up with in the grips of a manic flight. It seems like the kind of elementary counterterrorism work that people do on a daily basis, so it’s not a breakthrough on which to base the belief that going off the meds is worth the trouble. What Carrie believes about how her medication affects her doesn’t have to be rational or make sense, because no one has that level of objectivity about their own lives. But season one ended with Carrie voluntarily undergoing cranial electrotherapy, which is not a procedure someone undergoes lightly, or because they have a love-hate relationship with their condition. In the following season, she was sharp enough to outsmart Brody, and she was doing excellent work in season four before her medication was withheld from her and replaced with a hallucinogen. Carrie is supposed to be great at her job despite her condition, and the writers are playing dangerously loose with the idea of Carrie’s professional competence and whether medicating helps or hinders her.
Beyond the narrative concerns, Carrie’s voluntary breakdown is not that interesting to watch if you’ve seen some form of it in nearly every season. There’s some novelty in Carrie getting a new sparring partner in Jonas, and Alexander Fehling performs admirably against the ever ferocious Danes. It’s also nice to see that after years of being psychically tormented by Brody, Carrie has traded him in for Aayan as her hallucination of choice. That’s progress, kind of. But this is ultimately a quarter-twist on a story Homeland has been telling since it began. The cynic in me can’t help but think it’s just part of the annual campaign to get Danes another Emmy nomination.
All that said, this is probably the earliest in any season we’ve seen Carrie in her unmedicated state, which means it won’t bog down the later part of the season. It also bodes well that after revealing Carrie’s name as his latest target, Quinn is already at her place by the end of the episode. Another foundational aspect of Homeland is its brisk pacing, and it definitely feels like classic Homeland to have pieces of the story fitting together long before you expect them to. But when David Nevins spoke about Homeland at this summer’s TCA Press Tour, he said he expects Homeland to be on the air for “many seasons to come.” If that’s the case, there are some components of the show that will have to be turned down, and Carrie’s struggle with bipolar disorder is chief among them.
- This one was written by Alex Gansa along with Meredith Steihm, whose sister suffers from bipolar disorder, and who works on most of the episodes that deal directly with Carrie’s condition. Notice how carefully they parsed each word of the lunch scene between Carrie and Jonas, lest they be guilty of propagating the idea that psych medication is holding people back from being their best.
- Laura gets her hands on the rest of the stolen documents, or so she thinks. The graphic that pops up when she inserts the thumb drive is still pretty representative of how I feel about her, but the character is becoming a bit more sympathetic.
- I loved the dynamic between Carrie and Jonas after he finds out his son has been arrested. Carrie knows exactly what’s happening and is completely right about why they’re in more danger than Jonas’ son is, but she’s behaving so erratically, she sounds like she’s being paranoid.
- I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the reveal of Saul’s romantic relationship with Allison. It wasn’t the gut punch it was intended to be. If it becomes interesting later, great, but I’m sort of indifferent to it now.
- Carrie to Jonas: “You’re a lousy lay.” Some things you can’t take back, Carr-Bear, even when you have “I was off my meds” to fall back on.