Bipolar Disorder in ‘Spinning Out’

Disclaimer: As I do not have any personal experience with Bipolar Disorder, my thoughts on this show have been influenced largely by wide reading I’ve done about the condition and my knowledge of mental illness in general. Any comments made about the illness are likely to be generalisations and not applicable in all cases.

I was recently reminded of a show that came out on Netflix at the start of this year, called Spinning Out. Starring The Maze Runner’s Kaya Scodelario as Kat Baker, a young figure skater taking medication for Bipolar Disorder, and January Jones as her mother Carol—who also has the condition but, as Kat states in one of the shows earliest episodes, struggles to manage it—Spinning Out is a relatively unique take on the inheritability of mental illness. 

At the beginning of the series, when it is revealed that both Kat and Carol are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, the viewer is encouraged to see Kat as the ‘stable’ one of the pair. Whilst Carol, in a manic state, pushes her younger daughter to her physical limit in an attempt to make her a champion ice skater, Kat recognises that this behaviour is unhealthy for all concerned. Leaving her house to escape her mother’s expectations, Kat is sure to tell Carol that they might have the same condition, but that they are not the same person. She tells her mother: “I’m not going to lose three jobs in three years because I keep forgetting to take my meds. I’m not going to sleep with losers who throw me away after one night. I’m not going to train my children so hard my youngest ends up in the emergency room” (1×01). From this, one message seems clear: Kat has seen what mismanagement of a mental health condition can mean, and wants to avoid making those mistakes herself. The narrative that no two people with a particular illness are the same, even if they’re closely related, makes a welcome change from stereotypical narratives that showcase text-book symptoms and don’t seem to develop a character’s personality beyond that. This said, Kat’s dismissal of her mother’s own experiences is problematic. I’m pleased the show chose to demonstrate how one person can negatively judge another person’s symptoms of a mental health disorder because they do not match their own, but, given that Kat is the protagonist, it does encourage the audience to judge Carol and others with the same symptoms in the same way. When Carol fails to take her medication, she’s the bad guy. When Kat stops taking her medication later on in the series, the viewer roots for her, wishing her well and hoping that she’ll succeed in her pairs-skating competition. 

Whilst I didn’t like this presentation of Carol’s symptoms as villainising her at the start of the series, I was much more impressed with her overall story-arc. Unlike her daughter, Carol does not judge another person with Bipolar for their behaviour, but instead helps Kat to take her medication and cares for her until she becomes mentally well enough to resume caring for herself. A heart-to-heart between mother and daughter in the final episode is sweet and, whilst the show’s abrupt cancellation suggests a level of finality to Kat and Carol’s story which is not true of mental illness in real life, Kat’s realisation that her mother’s experience with the illness can be valuable is a positive one. Though their relationship is and probably always will be rocky, the viewer who finishes the series at least learns two important lessons: that a mental illness is just part of a person, and does not constitute a personality; and that no symptoms are ‘better’ than others. Carol might initially be presented as the villain (which is an issue for those who do not finish the series), but in the end, she gives the most valuable piece of advice. Talking to Kat about the problem with always trusting your instincts when you have a mental illness, she makes sure to let her know that it is okay to “hold onto those moments where things just suddenly feel right” (1×10). I wish Spinning Out had been given a second season order so that Kat and Carol’s journey could be explored further, but for now I’m pleased with how the season progressed. Though many will have viewed Kat and Justin’s will they-won’t they romance plot as the most intriguing pairing, the mother-daughter relationship had by far the most depth and richest potential for the future. Ultimately, Kat’s negative judgement of Carol at the start of the series, followed by Carol’s personal progression throughout reminds us that, in a world where it’s easy to check the NHS website for symptoms and think you know everything there is to know about a disorder and how a person with it ‘should’ behave, it is important to remember that there is a human behind the symptoms, and to listen to them when they talk.

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