What Empire Gets Wrong (and Right) About Bipolar Disorder

Why this Andre storyline seems a little off-key.

Trai Byers as Andre Lyon in Empire
Trai Byers as Andre Lyon in Empire Fox

Much of the early buzz around Empire was focused on Lucious Lyon’s ALS diagnosis. With the series’ skyrocketing ratings, there’s an opportunity to shed light on that fatal illness. When the show first addressed son Andre’s bipolar disorder, I was surprised and oddly delighted. Last year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I thought bipolar disorder meant that people act just like Andre. However, I don’t act just like Andre.

I was disappointed by Black Box, a blessedly short-lived series about a brilliant woman with bipolar disorder. When Andre’s story debuted, I figured TV had another chance to get it right. I was all “This is our moment! Bipolar represent!” The illness often goes undiagnosed or untreated in the black community, so this is a big deal. But the way the show is telling Andre’s story is making me, well, crazy.

There are different categories of the condition. To simplify things, bipolar manifests itself with extreme mood swings; the highs and lows can keep you off-balance. Just a few of the many symptoms can include irritability, impulsiveness and overconfidence. None of those things sound that bad, right? Yet depending on the situation, it can be extremely disruptive. Empire mostly gets it wrong, but every now and then it does right by the bipolar community.

The storyline got off to a good start. Andre’s wife, Rhonda, reminded him that he needs to take his medication and make regular doctor visits. Those are important points.

With all the corporate shenanigans that pit the Lyon brothers against one another for control of the company, Andre is under a great deal of stress. The fact that he’s a power-hungry jerk doesn’t help. Andre doesn’t get to have fun and jam in the studio with the rest of his family, and he has a high-pressure job. If the Empire writers want to make the story better, they should explore what triggers one of his episodes, aside from when he goes off his meds.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, but Andre seems to get triggered by everything. I find that to be confusing and annoying. In my case, a bout of insomnia can be a trigger. I absolutely have to get a good night’s sleep or things go sideways. You would think that I’d be lethargic, but if I’m up all night, it actually makes me kind of manic, and then I try to run around doing everything until I burn myself out. I’ve been wanting to binge-watch House of Cards like everyone else, but I can’t stay up all night, so I have to wait until the weekend. (Please don’t tell me what happens!)

Interestingly, when Andre ended up blowing the slush fund on a Lamborghini, the scenario wasn’t all that outlandish. In certain individuals, bipolar can lead to recklessness, including impulsive spending sprees. The scene would have worked better with context. Because Andre is so sketchy, using the money to buy himself a car looks like a flaw in character, not brain chemistry. Of course, Lucious did want the money used for bribes, so it was still sketchy, but that’s not the point.

Sometimes Andre seems a little too bouncy. That’s fine. Without enough sleep, balance and a mood-stabilizer, I can come off as a little extra. Though I’m no doctor, Andre’s dramatic and sudden highs and lows can look like rapid cycling. As the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance puts it, “With rapid cycling, mood swings can quickly go from low to high and back again, and occur over periods of a few days and sometimes even hours.”  

With Andre it seems to change every second, but that’s not how it works. It’s just one unbelievable aspect of his behavior. He’s wearing a business suit as he cries in the shower. He’s playing Russian roulette. He’s raging and knocking things over. He is doing everything. This is all well-intentioned but unrealistic, and stigmatizes a real health issue.

The character pretty much exemplifies every worst-case bipolar scenario. It’s like a story about one character with lung cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, colon cancer, etc. It’s exaggerated and not relatable. Do you know anyone who acts like Andre? If Andre were over-the-top with elation for a while and then sank into the kind of depression where Rhonda had to drag him to a meeting, I’d buy it.