In the world of figure skating, control is everything.
The entire sport, down to the timing of the jumps, the seamlessness of the footwork, even the importance of the music selection, is based on staying in control, rewarding measured movements and elegant execution. There is no room for error. Success depends upon it.
This goes doubly for women. Female figure skaters face insurmountable pressure to be perfectly composed, always poised and demure. Any sign of weakness, any slip of emotion can mean the difference between triumph and tragedy. Judges are always watching, skaters are reminded, both on and off the ice. Therefore, in order to win, skaters are expected to maintain a perfectly smooth façade that must be intact at all times.
But for Kat Baker, the façade is cracking.
Netflix’s new series Spinning Out takes us deep into the competitive trenches of ice skating, following Kat (Kaya Scodelario) as she works to revive her ice-skating career.
Kat, once a renowned figure skater, is now struggling to return to the ice after a brutal fall left her injured and shaken. She can no longer contort herself into the dizzying spins that used to come so easily to her, can no longer trust herself to leap, carefree, from the ice and stick the landing.
Not yet ready to face life beyond the rink, Kat instead takes up pairs skating as a method of easing her way back into competitive good graces. Her body takes a beating over and over again in her relentless climb back to the top. She is desperate to prove to everyone that she deserves to be a champion and that she will do anything to get there.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the series, however, is Kat’s quieter struggle: her battle with mental illness. Kat suffers from bipolar disorder, an illness punctuated by drastic mood swings and energy changes. Because of this, her instincts are often questioned and her judgment is dismissed. More than once, her emotions are chalked up to merely one of her “episodes.”
This dismissal is particularly evident in her tumultuous relationship with her mother Carol (January Jones) who also suffers from the same illness.
It’s worth noting, though, that Kat is never written as a one-note character. She has her own dreams and desires and ambitions that are completely separate from her bipolar disorder. The disorder is something she manages, something that is usually background white noise. She is a person living with bipolar disorder, not a caricature of the illness nor someone defined by it.
That said, the series doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh realities of bipolar disorder, particularly when the disease goes unchecked. When Carol takes her prescribed medication, her manic episodes are less severe. She makes levelheaded choices and can manage a normal lifestyle. But when she haphazardly stops taking the medication, her behavior becomes vengeful, unpredictable, even abusive.
In one troubling scene, she wakes younger daughter Serena in the middle of a midwinter night and forces her to do push-ups outside on the snowy sidewalk. In another, she scratches Kat’s face out of every single picture in a family photo album.
Spinning Out does a great job of separating the disease from the person and showing the viewers the illness’s alarming effects without condemning the person suffering. It explains, but never excuses, the abusive behavior. All the while, it manages to flesh out the illness without reducing it to flat cliches.
At least most of the time.
Look, Spinning Out isn’t exactly prestige television. The dialogue is often stilted, can be borderline cringeworthy at times, and the abundance of love triangles and will-they-or-won’t-they storylines read more like your average Freeform drama (the bad kind, not The Bold Type kind). The show tries to introduce too many narrative subplots and tackles too many intense storylines at once; its struggle to juggle them all is evident.
But where the series shines is its nuanced approach toward mental illness, something that is especially important for the rarely shown and often misunderstood bipolar disorder. Spinning Out may, in many ways, be fun, if overdrawn, teen fare. At its core, however, it is a drama that dignifies mental illness as something that can be managed and deserves to be talked about.
Spinning Out is currently streaming on Netflix.