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How Accurate Is Empire’s Treatment of Bipolar Disorder?

Andre Lyon (Trai Byers) on Empire.

Photo by Chuck Hodes/Fox.

In last week’s particularly high-stakes episode of Empire, the symptoms of Andre’s bipolar disorder came to an explosive tipping point: After flushing all of his medication down the toilet out of anger toward his father, Lucious, Andre’s behavior seems more erratic than ever before. These spells culminate in his boardroom breakdown at the end of the episode, when his father summons paramedics to wrestle him into submission.

If you’ve kept up with the show, you’ll recognize that it’s been building up to this moment for some time—recall, for instance, his unsettling outburst at the news that Lucious has ALS, and his wife Rhonda’s repeated insistences that he take his meds. But does Andre’s on-screen depiction do a good job of depicting what bipolar disorder is like for many people, or are co-writers Lee Daniels and Danny Strong painting him with a broad brush, much like they have with so many other issues (colorism in the black community; Lucious’ ALS; how an IPO works)?

Well, it’s complicated. I consulted an expert on the illness, after showing her a few choice clips from the show. (She hadn’t watched beforehand.) She explained that Andre’s behavior seemed like a faithful portrayal of one of the two main poles of bipolar disorder: the manic side, in which someone can exhibit high energy and an abundance of self-confidence, which often leads to risky business decisions and an inability to sleep. On the other end of the spectrum is the depressive phase, characterized by sad moods and a loss of interest in things that the person would usually enjoy. In this state, they can be very hard on themselves and feel (unreasonably) like a failure.

(For his part, the actor who plays Andre, Trai Byers, says that he based his performance of the character’s bipolar illness on family members and online research.)

We’ve seen Andre exhibit many of these traits over the course of the season. When Andre tries to entice a potential client into joining the company, his speech-pattern is hurried and excited—distinct from the more measured way in which he usually interacts with others when discussing business. Via email, University of Southern California professor Ruth C. White, a regular Empire viewer and author of Preventing Bipolar Relapse, points out his impulse buy of a brand new Lamborghini (at the same time that Empire is in a potentially dire financial crisis) as a key instance of him in a manic state.

Andre also feels like a failure in the eyes of Lucious, despite being the overachieving son with a prestigious college degree and business savvy that has served him well thus far. “When he decides not to take his meds,” White explains to me, “it is because he feels that, despite all his success, his father, whose acknowledgment he seeks, gives him no credit … [In this latest episode], he finally cracks.”

It’s hard not to be wary of the way media overall tends to portray mental illness. Admittedly it’s a very tight rope to walk—pop culture that incorporates bipolar disorder into a plot line inevitably sparks intense debate about how it does so. In a smart piece about CIA agent Carrie Mathieson on Homeland from 2013, Bethlehem Shoals (who was himself diagnosed bipolar), criticizes Carrie’s seemingly black-and-white portrayal as being “remarkably easy.” “She’s up, she’s down. She’s right, she’s wrong. If only the world could get on her level, get in step with her rhythms.” Carrie’s illness is treated as a convenient, dramatic “goldmine,” he writes, employed to justify the all-around loopy world of the show. (Shoals, a fan of Empire, told me that unlike Homeland, which is presented as prestige television on a prestige network, he never had high expectations of nuance for the Fox drama. “Homeland seemed to want to use the condition to drive the plot,” he says, while Andre’s character feels much more “generic,” as if the writers decided that they “needed a character who behaves erratically.”)

And too often, TV shows and movies will focus heavily on the most extreme manifestations of the illness, and less on the nuances of what it’s like to live with it. As one person I’ve spoken to who works to raise awareness about mental illness tells me, one of the common misconceptions perpetuated in media about bipolar disorder is the idea that you experience rapid mood swings: While there are some people who exhibit rapid cycling—oscillating between moods within hours, for instance—this is fairly uncommon. Most people have longer periods of highs and lows. In the latest episode of Empire, Andre’s mood swings all occur in the space of a day.

But Daniels and Strong do seem to be dispelling at least one myth about mental illness: Like Carrie on Homeland, Andre’s sickness has not precluded him from professional success. As White wrote in Psychology Today last month, “Andre … is a rare TV or movie character with a chronic mental illness who is shown managing his illness by taking his medication and managing his symptoms (with the support of his wife), while functioning at a very high level.”

What seems particularly crucial in these upcoming final episodes is the way his family handles his treatment. In general, society has long stigmatized people with mental illness, and more specifically, the subject has been especially difficult to discuss within the black community. Lucious is far from the most compassionate character on Empire, and Andre’s bipolar disorder could prove to be a wedge in their relationship. But White believes that the final scene is a promising sign, because “Lucious didn’t try to hush up or hide Andre’s illness.” It may be a low bar, but in the world of network TV, it’s not nothing: Unlike with Jamal’s homosexuality, White said, “his father never used it against him.”*

Correction, March 12, 2015: This post originally quoted Ruth C. White saying “His father never used it against him the way he used Jamal’s homophobia.” White meant homosexuality, not homophobia. The quote has been removed and the sentence has been updated.