The rival protagonists of Showtime’s hit series "Homeland" both suffer from exuberant Axis I psychopathology.
Ace Marine sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) returns from 8 years of horrific imprisonment by jihadists to a hero’s welcome. Outwardly the same stalwart patriot, he’s in fact a posttraumatic stress disorder poster boy. Ace CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) believes Brody also is a turncoat dispatched by his former captors to wreak havoc upon the Great Satan. Carrie herself is haunted by traumatic memories – of a bungled Iraq covert mission. She’s also covertly bipolar.
During Homeland’s first season Carrie and Brody briefly became lovers, Brody’s true-false colors were revealed, and Carrie’s mood swings grew as volatile as her conviction about Brody’s sinister intentions. In the penultimate episode, Brody took Carrie off the board by revealing her illness to the agency. Now he could proceed unhindered with the plan to suicide-bomb a hawkish vice president as the latter announced his presidential candidacy, together with top military and defense officials.
Homeland’s creators now faced a dilemma brought on precisely by the powerful, complex narrative so responsible for its popularity. Lame cliff-hangers are the traditional bane of a successful second season. With viewer expectations running so high, how to bring off a final episode that could somehow allow Brody to outlive impending martyrdom and enable disgraced, still-smitten Carrie to resume her dogged pursuit?
The series’ writers turned to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for a cunning, literal deus ex machina. Brody, tormented about again abandoning his wife and children – this time to their certain humiliation – opted out of martyrdom at the last moment. He chose instead to dwell in the chambers of power by running for office. Carrie, now convinced her suspicions about Brody were spinning out of paranoid despair, committed herself to a course of inpatient ECT. Hovering in anesthetized twilight on the brink of her first treatment, a memory from the affair with Brody surfaced that incontestably established his villainy. But would ECT stop her from remembering it?
The last episode’s jolting conclusion pleased viewers terrifically. Mental health professionals also praised the show for mounting a reasonable account of ECT. The treatment’s actual depiction seemed blessedly untainted by the gross shake-rattle-and-rolling so dear to the makers of mental health movies since "The Snake Pit."
However, ECT-knowledgeable psychiatrists found Homeland’s take on ECT far from balanced. They believed Carrie’s treatment was unwarranted – her depression largely reactive, symptoms not grave enough, etc. They were chiefly concerned that desperately ill patients would be frightened away from a long-established, potent, and safe remedy. Heavily emphasizing ECT’s dire threat to Carrie’s crucial recollection overrode the brief passing statement that ECT poses no danger of permanent memory loss. The stark closing shots of Carrie’s subconvulsive twitching, her jaw agonizingly clenched around a baby-blue bite plate, only served up a gentler, kinder version of Hollywood’s standard ECT epileptoid extravaganza.
Such protests ignore the central purpose of mainstream film-making, for most movie and film dramas are not crafted to educate us about anything – not ECT, or veterinary medicine, or moose stalking. They are made to garner great profits by gratifying our ancient appetite for great stories.
Not necessarily a bad thing. Should demonstrating how to stalk a moose or give ECT keep us glued to our Sixplex seats, so much the better. But if viewer pleasure commands sacrificing clinical accuracy, depend upon it, that price will be paid. Whatever its impact upon hapless Carrie’s noggin, ECT as a pure narrative device was instrumental in bringing home Homeland’s first season, leaving the viewer just unsatisfied enough to crave next season’s fix. A handsome achievement, doubtless with handsome rewards to follow.
Dr. Greenberg is clinical professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. He has written several hundred reviews and essays; two books on cinema, media, and popular culture; and numerous articles on adolescent and general psychiatry. For more information, visit http://www.doctorgreenberg.net/.