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We Need to Talk About Spinning Out's Depiction of Bipolar Disorder

Netflix's soapy ice skating drama has good intentions, but fails to stick the landing.
  • Kaya Scodelario plays Kat Baker  in Spinning Out (Netflix)
    Kaya Scodelario plays Kat Baker in Spinning Out (Netflix)

    Mental illness is hard to get right. Depictions across both film and television have ranged from painfully accurate (a rare occurrence) to downright offensive (a depressing majority). Spinning Out, Netflix's soapy ice skating drama, lands somewhere in the middle. Created by Samantha Stratton, the series tells the story of skaters Kat Baker (Kaya Scodelario), her younger sister Serena (Willow Shields) and their mother, former skater Carol (January Jones). Both Kat and Carol suffer from bipolar disorder, and the series does its best to portray this illness with compassion and nuance. Despite its best efforts, however, Spinning Out often falls victim to many of the tropes we see over and over again when it comes to the on-screen depiction of bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

    In the pilot, we learn that Kat had a devastating fall that left her with scars both physical and psychological, and that it continues to prevent her from resuming her career. Spinning Out's first hint at Kat's illness sees her biting her arm in the locker room following a failure on the ice, and it's explicitly stated later when Serena asks Kat for help during one of Carol's manic episodes. (She's gone off her lithium, something we see repeated over the course of the season's ten episodes). While the noble intention of demonstrating how two women can manage the illness differently is clear, the show's presentation of this revelation in the form of a plot twist undermines its larger message.

    A lot of the clunkiness in the reveal is due to necessary plot exposition and the resulting awkward dialogue, and one can't help but feel that the storylines that follow would be more effective if they followed the adage "show, don't tell." Kat and Carol have conversations about eachother's respective episodes triggering the other's. And they discuss lithium a lot (apparently this is the only drug TV writers think bipolar individuals take). They also tell each other that people will undoubtedly walk away if they ever find out about their bipolar disorder. This theme — the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness — is certainly real, but Spinning Out often leans into it for its own dramatic purposes. Serena intentionally reveals Carol's bipolar disorder to her coach/Carol's prospective boyfriend Mitch in an attempt to scare him away, and Carol frequently warns Kat that she'll lose everything if anyone discovers the truth about her.

    The show's team reportedly consulted with doctors and psychiatric groups in order to get things right, and to their credit, there are no outward inaccuracies. In fact, there's a lot in the show that's very real  — in particular the self-harm, mania, depression and difficulty regulating medication. Carol turning on a dime and knowing exactly what to say to hurt Kat is spot on, as are several of the show's instances of psychosis, including Carol scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush and Kat throwing a rager during a manic episode and subsequently chanting in the bathtub during her comedown. But the very black-and-white notion that bipolar people wear two faces and that their disorder is all about episodes just doesn't cut it. The series goes to great lengths to drive home just how committed Kat is to managing her illness, but in the same breath it  shows her self-medicating with alcohol. (Booze is a big recurring theme  in the series — almost every character turns to drinking for comfort, and it often ends badly). In short, Spinning Out seems to pick and choose what makes sense for the story to the point where it can feel a little paint-by-numbers.

    By the end of the show's first season, there have certainly been some strides made, but none completely hit the target. At one point, Serena's coach Mitch (Matt Kemp) claims the public perception of mental illness is changing, although Carol argues that doesn't apply to figure skating. Kat comes clean about her condition to the people she's hurt, and most are receptive and forgiving, although her friend Jenn (played by Amanda Zhou) immediately turns on her and calls her crazy when the truth is inconvenient, which feels like both lazy writing and a bit of a step backwards. Stratton has said she "didn't want to write a show that was going to be about mental illness that was depressing," but she chose to depict a mental illness marked by its depressive lows, which feels contradictory. While well-intentioned, the series' portrayal of bipolar disorder is often sloppily executed and hindered by its tendency to lean into melodrama. For all these flaws, however, Spinning Out has still done something important: it has allowed mental illness to be named and claimed, to see the light of day and to be humanized — something many series won't even touch. That's a serious step forward.

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    Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. She was previously a reporter/producer at Decider and is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.

    TOPICS: Spinning Out, Netflix, Amanda Zhou, January Jones, Kaya Scodelario, Samantha Stratton, Willow Shields