What Empire Gets Wrong (and Right) About Bipolar Disorder

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

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.

The show’s timeline can only do so much, but I’d like Rhonda or someone to mention how sometimes he’s so grandiose, overconfident and extremely goal-driven that it seems a bit much. Instead of him literally bouncing off the walls, I’d like to see a point when Andre’s energy dwindles, he starts to worry more, withdraw socially and lose interest in things. Vernon could take him to task for no longer caring about being a horrible person. Then Vernon could try to choke him out again, which would be awesome.


On the bright side, we did see subtle signs before he stopped taking his meds. His high energy drew a little casual side eye. I also like that he can take care of Empire’s business and do an excellent job. When Lucious covered up his hospitalization so as not to scare off investors, Andre deftly handled a dinner meeting. Plenty of people in Andre’s position can function, so I give the Empire writers credit for that, but there are lost opportunities, too.

Rhonda and Andre attended a dinner party that was clearly a scene meant to provide exposition. The host told them about the famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has beaten the odds by living past 70 with ALS. That was an important scene, but why not let Rhonda read a celebrity magazine and casually mention Black-ish actress Jenifer Lewis, who has been open about living with bipolar disorder? Lord knows Empire can’t resist name-checking someone, except Mo’Nique.


I love Empire. It’s a wild, funny soap opera. I can see myself having a moment and shouting, “Take these cookies!” But I would never take part in a “Lean on Me” sing-along. When I’m having a moment, I just need a little bit of this:

To learn more about bipolar disorder, check out the following:

DBSA, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

The Icarus Project

The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide: What You And Your Family Need to Know

Black Psychiatrists of America

Elaine G. Flores is a New York writer, editor and bon vivant. She’s a hard-core shipper and excommunicated soap opera reviewer. Her fictional dinner-party guests include Omar Little, Buffy Summers, Abigail Mills and Ichabod Crane. You can visit her site, TV Recappers Delight.

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