Just Because Carrie Mathison’s Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not After Her

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Oct. 6 2013 10:00 PM

Carrie’s Going Off the Rails. She’s Also Right.

Just because Carrie’s paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after her.

HOMELAND (Season 3)
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson in Homeland.

Photo courtesy of Kent Smith/Showtime

A classic paranoid delusion is to believe that someone is watching you. Mentally ill people with grandiose fantasies imagine that they are being followed by the CIA, or, increasingly, that they are the subject of a never-ending reality show. (Homeland from its beginning, when Carrie set up illegal cameras capturing Brody’s every move, has inadvertently outlined the similarities between being under surveillance by the CIA and on a reality show: The difference is the size of the audience, not the existence of one.) But what happens if you are going crazy, but you are also being watched? What does it mean to be crazy when your craziness is an accurate reflection of some, if not all, of the stimuli around you?

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Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Carrie Mathison is being scapegoated by the CIA, but also, undeniably, she is going crazy. She’s manic, irrational, paranoid, but she has something to be paranoid about: a government agency hell-bent on keeping her from opening her mouth. Her latest manic episode is another blossoming of Carrie’s gift, another moment when she sees a conspiracy laid out before her—a conspiracy to discredit her—that no one else in a position to help does. This is what makes this episode so painful to watch: Carrie’s clear enough to see what is happening to her but not clear enough to stop it from happening. She’s sentient but powerless. She can thrash around, but the needle is still going in her arm.

“Uh … Oo … Aw” picks up where last week’s episode left off, right after Saul has sold Carrie “down the river” to the Senate Select Committee, with Carrie tearing into his house to confront him but finding only Mira to tangle with. Danes’ skills as an actress have been praised ad infinitum, but when she does work like she does in this episode, I want to tack more compliments on to infinity. Carrie was high-strung at the start of last week’s episode, and by now she might as well be strung between space stations. She’s coming apart in fast-forward, failing to notice as pieces of her mental health go flying off. You can see it in the way she briefly pauses after Mira mentions her storming into Saul’s lunch: Carrie barely remembers it. She breached decorum and protocol, threatened the head of the CIA and his attack dog, turned Saul against her, and it’s as if it didn’t happen. She barely understands how that scene impacted what came next. All she can comprehend is what is happening to her right now.

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Carrie has claimed she went off her meds to be able to “see” more clearly, but I think we have to consider the possibility that, subconsciously, she is doing the opposite. Off her meds, maybe she can see conspiracies better, but her self, her mind are becoming impossible to pin down. Her brain starts working so frenetically and passionately that Carrie doesn’t have to sit with her own despondence and guilt and failure. She can single-mindedly obsess on cracking the case, fixating on “seeing” one thing, and letting everything else get blurry. When Carrie says that the drugs blunt her mental acuity, all that means is that she doesn’t like downers: Her natural biochemistry is stronger than any upper, until it crashes.

Carrie’s meeting with the reporter gets her hauled into the hospital, where a doctor, and we, get to see exactly how she presents: She’s a bipolar woman off her meds who is extremely worked up about an all-powerful “them” keeping her from revealing a “grand conspiracy.” But of course, Carrie is telling the truth. This is what makes all of what follows so painful and Kafkaesque.

When Quinn comes to see her, he really is trying to help. (Quinn, hands down, wins this week’s episode for trying to look out for Carrie, having a moral center, and really enunciating the phrase “venal shithead.”) He skirts up against divulging classified information: “Things happened before you’re not aware of. People targeted,” he says, trying to say, “Hey! David Estes brought me here so I could cap Brody!” without actually saying it. (I do wonder: How does Quinn feel about defying that order now?) But all Carrie can hear and see is the threat, not the kindness. She’s too paranoid. This, when you’re a CIA agent, is the difference between being crazy and sane: If you’re sane, you’re only being overly paranoid about the right things.

But it’s hard to blame her when Saul is behaving as he is. As played by Mandy Patinkin, Saul always, even when he is inappropriately ripping into new employee Fara for wearing a headscarf, has a bit of tender righteousness about him. He hates that headscarf but he enunciates her “right” to wear it. (The actress who plays Fara, Nazanin Boniadi, was once groomed by Scientology to be Tom Cruise’s wife.) Patinkin’s performance reminds me, at times, of Bryan Cranston’s in Breaking Bad: The actor’s essential decency and his conviction that his character is a good man obscures how horrible his character is being. So when Saul shows up at Carrie’s house and exhaustedly tells her father and sister that Carrie is “making herself a target,” you have to think about it to realize what a snaky use of the passive voice that is: Saul is in charge of the CIA. He is the one who makes her a target.

Paralleling Carrie and the question of crazy is Dana, who all episode behaves in infuriating, but also totally normal, teenage ways. Dana is stifled and claustrophobic at home, where her mother is, understandably, scared and hovering. Dana hates the feeling of being constantly watched, and so she runs off to see Leo. (The weather cooperates: Being shivering and soaking wet while waiting for a boy to kick open a door and take your virginity is the perfect teen-angst tableau, exactly the sort of performance of being young that is a real desire of the young.) When she returns home, she gives the episode its mission statement. “I am not crazy, and in case you’re wondering, neither are you,” she tells her mom. “Dad is crazy. He did nothing but lie the moment he set foot in this house, and he ruined our lives.”

Dana tried to kill herself; this was not the best response to her overwhelmingly terrible circumstance, but it was not really a crazy one. Something went horribly, horribly wrong, and she, Jessica, Saul, and Carrie have to figure out how to deal with it, to piece back together what Brody destroyed. Dana, unlucky as she is, is lucky enough to be sane and a teenager, where her release can be running off and having sex with a boy she likes very much (who’s not going to release her topless photos to the tabloids, for another few episodes anyway). Carrie is not so lucky. Spilling state secrets is more serious than breaking curfew. The episode ends on probably Homeland’s saddest scene: Carrie in that arm chair, forcibly overmedicated, her mind and speech slowed down like a record playing at the wrong speed, cursing out the man who used to be her mentor. And next week: Brody.

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