The Powerful Portrayal of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison

Mary Hartnett argues that Claire Dane’s character is restoring faith in female leads.


Homeland is an American crime thriller television series, which came to my attention through the power of my Netflix subscription. As a latecomer to the series, having only started two months or so ago, I have watched two dozen episodes and have reached the end of the second series. While I am an avid television watcher, I was never the person who watched endless episodes of the same series; I simply didn’t have the patience required. However, this all changed upon my discovery of Homeland.

The series is not without its cracks and flaws, at times feeling unrealistic and even downright far-fetched. Nonetheless, I am constantly drawn to opening up Netflix at 2a.m. and watching episode after episode; a strange magnetic force drawing me in. Why have I not cancelled my Netflix subscription and spent my time on wiser pursuits?

The answer, for me, is Carrie Mathison. Portrayed by Claire Danes, the brilliant and ballsy Central Intelligence Agency officer is the protagonist of this series and undoubtedly the star of the show. Danes has won numerous awards for her role as the CIA agent – including two Emmys and two Golden Globe awards – and after watching two series with her on screen I am not the least surprised.

Unlike the typical female lead, Mathison’s character is not based around a love interest, or portrayed as the ideal woman. Mathison is multi-faceted, flawed and real. She is intense, secretive, and promiscuous, and lives with bipolar disorder. I dislike her at times; her actions and mannerisms often frustrating me. However I also respect her, empathise with her and relate to her. Carrie Mathison is what sets Homeland apart from numerous other television programmes for me. What exactly about this woman draws me, and so many others, in?

Television has tackled mental health before, but often in an ambiguous manner. Individual struggles with anxiety, depression or OCD are often hinted at, but not presented as diagnosed issues. Homeland goes against the grain in this respect, and actually gives the condition a name, confronting the subject head-on. Carrie’s bipolar disorder is addressed throughout the series, and is an influential factor in many of her behaviours and decisions. It is so inextricable from the various aspects of her character that to label it a “weakness” would be too limiting.

Homeland does not shy away from the harsh realities of mental illness; there is no glamour or sugar-coating here. While a crime programme clearly cannot present a realistic blueprint of the experience of those with bipolar, it is commendable that it at least attempts to tackle the issue in an integrated and complex way, rather than merely gesturing at it. At the end of the first series I witnessed a physical, mental and emotional breakdown unfold on screen as Carrie is admitted to a psychiatric hospital following a period off medication. Here she undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in a bid to treat her condition. This ordeal is portrayed in a focused and unrelenting manner, not merely used as a quick, sensationalist plot-point.

The beginning of the second series continues with a strong emphasis Carrie’s recovery, which is tedious and extremely draining on her. An air of unease and stigma is surrounds Carrie’s experiences, reflecting the societal discomfort that is often evident when discussing mental health problems and their concrete effects: missed exams, inability to work, social anxiety. While often uncomfortable to watch, these episodes deepen Claire Dane’s convincing portrayal of a real woman dealing with a serious illness.

Carrie and Brody

While Carrie’s bipolar disorder is a strong vein that runs throughout the series, it is by no means the defining aspect of her character. She also displays considerable strength and will in her relationships. Her romantic relationship with ex-Marine Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) is another dominant topic. Carrie is the central force in this affair; initiating it and often dictating and controlling it. Again, this is not an idealised situation. Carrie’s life would be simpler and easier without Brody’s presence – as is so often the case. Yet the relationship develops and grows, despite complicating factors, such as Brody’s marriage.

Their dynamic is confusing and, honestly, annoying; for the audience, its toxicity is blatantly obvious. Despite my personal feelings towards the relationship, I can commend the fact that it is not purely based around the male character and his desires. Carrie is not overtly sexualised or presented as a sex symbol whose behaviour is controlled by Brody. Carrie’s own physical, emotional and sexual needs are presented as being of equal, if not more importance to those of Brody’s. This is a welcome change to the sexualisation of women in television, where female characters are often portrayed only in relation to male protagonists, either as fulfillers or frustrators of male desire.

Carrie Mathison is one of the most significant television characters of the 2010’s. While the fact that she is a woman does not determine her significance, as a character in a major television series I believe she is the perfect example of a strong female lead. Carrie is an intriguing character who balances complex relationships and a highly stressful career with the everyday struggles of a chronic mental illness. She is not an instantly loveable character, but I have to come recognise her as a role model, and a realistic one at that.

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