Andrew Eaton-Lewis: Why can’t such women get through a plot without the mentally unstable line?

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THIS week’s burning question: if Sarah Lund from The Killing (back on TV next week, hurray) met Carrie Mathison from Homeland, would they be friends? Answer: no, obviously, they’re both such workaholics they don’t have any friends.

Shame, they’d have lots to talk about. Both have had relationships with military men burdened by dark secrets. Both have been on high-stakes missions to the Middle East. Both irritate their male bosses by relentlessly pursuing gut feelings rather than doing things by the book, but tend to be proven right. And both are famous for their taste in knitwear. No wait, that’s just Sarah Lund.

More seriously, both also battle the perception that they’re crazy. In Carrie’s case this is a major plot point. Early on in Homeland we were invited to wonder whether she was just imagining Sergeant Brody had been “turned” by Al-Qaeda; then, just as it became obvious he had, she was exposed as bipolar and her credibility was destroyed. Now we’re in series two and she’s been vindicated, it’s striking just how good Carrie is at her job – how, in fact, the intensity and conviction associated with her condition is a help more often than a hindrance.

And yet this same intensity is what allows Brody to convince her bosses she’s crazy. Why? Because she’s a woman.

Sarah Lund is not bipolar. But, like Carrie, she’s devoted to work above all else, including her partner and son, and this, to the men around her, is a sign that she’s somehow unbalanced when, actually, she’s just better at her job than they are. She is made to suffer for this too, falsely accused of panicking and shooting her partner.

Both are complex, cleverly written characters, but you can’t help wondering why, even now, such women seem unable to make it through a plot without at some point being thought of as mentally unstable. For an antidote I recommend The Bridge, another of those great recent Scandinavian TV dramas. Its Swedish cop, Saga Noren, appears to have Aspergers, and her lack of basic social skills is a source of bemusement to everyone, particularly Martin Rohde, the gregarious Danish cop she’s forced to team up with. Martin, at first, seems like an amiable antidote to everything that’s “wrong” with Saga. And yet, by the end (spoiler alert), she’s the one saving him from a full-blown emotional breakdown. 
It’s a smart twist, even if it only works because of how instantly we recognise the sexist cliche it spends ten episodes pulling apart. «