Spinning Out
This skating drama gives the perfect combo of entertainment and real-life drama. (Illustration by Ellen Budell, Benedictine College)

‘Spinning Out’ Offers a Dramatic Look at Both Figure Skating and Mental Illness

This Netflix series captures the intersection of mental health and athletics.

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Spinning Out

This Netflix series captures the intersection of mental health and athletics.

“Spinning Out,” Netflix’s new single-season drama, thoroughly explores common issues figure skaters and other performance-based athletes face through its portrayal of several Olympic hopefuls in an Idaho ski town. The show follows 21-year-old Kat Baker, a burnt-out competitive skater who secretly struggles with bipolar disorder. Traumatized by a serious injury, Kat is no longer able to land her triple jump, the most important element of every senior-level skater’s routine. After briefly quitting the sport for good, Kat is encouraged by coach Dasha Fedorova to partner with Justin Davis, a wealthy Casanova and Dasha’s trainee. On top of learning to pair skate for the first time, Kat struggles to balance her work and home life, just like any other young professional athlete.

What is most fun to watch in “Spinning Out” is the way it pays homage to the real-life figure skating world, especially in its unsubtle parallels to the 2018 Olympics. Kat’s short program look is heavily inspired by Tessa Virtue’s attire in her playful Moulin Rouge routine, my favorite ice dance that won her and Scott Moir a gold medal in Pyeongchang. Additionally, the costume Kat wears in the flashback scenes resembles Alina Zagitova’s stunning Black Swan short program outfit. Another example is when one of the characters pokes fun at skating to Coldplay, à la Adam Rippon and the Shibutani siblings in 2018. Also, commentator and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir basically plays himself as Gabriel Richardson, who is also gay and genderqueer.

“Spinning Out,” true to its genre, is melodramatic, revealing backstories through flashbacks. There is also a soapy, contrived good versus bad boy love triangle that serves little purpose. However, despite its occasionally weak storytelling, “Spinning Out” manages to flesh out all its major characters, depict mental illness with accuracy and highlight the importance of presentation and the pressure of perfection that is required to make it big in the competitive circuit.

The show is most revolutionary in its destigmatizing of bipolar disorder. Both Kat and her mother, Carol, take lithium to prevent manic episodes and struggle with the resultant brain fog and emotional numbing. In the beginning, before checking herself into rehabilitation, Carol’s mania causes her to become unreasonably strict with her other daughter, Serena, and to steal things, including money from Kat’s bank account. Kat takes her medicine religiously until, in a moment of desperation, she quits cold turkey due to the energy and focus it takes to become a better skater. As a result, her life gets much more complicated, and she ruins several relationships. Thus, the show is largely about Kat’s life “spinning out” of her control and how her manic episodes affect those around her.

The consequences are compounded by Kat’s involvement in figure skating, which Carol says is “all about being perfect.” Women’s figure skating places a high value on presentation — a perfect appearance and reputation — and requires a delicate balance of gracefulness and athleticism. For example, Serena, a skilled jumper, faces criticism for her reliance on her technical score, which judges the execution and difficulty of program elements, over her performance component score, which grades style, interpretation and artistic presentation.

At sectionals, Serena has to compete against two girls who include a triple axel in their routine. Triple axels are notoriously difficult to land because they involve three and a half rotations, and proper execution is heavily affected by weight distribution. For this reason, Carol reprimands curvy Serena for eating muffins. Therefore, to land jumps, female figure skaters often struggle with their body image as they need to be as light and thin as possible while also being strong enough to maintain power throughout their programs.

Another physically demanding feat the scoring system rewards is jumping with both arms overhead. These jumps demonstrate a lot of skill. However, they can also be risky. In fact, Kat’s traumatizing head injury is the result of including the move in her program after Carol’s suggestion to her coach, even though Kat had not practiced it before sectionals.

In addition to risk, artistry and athletic ability, reputation plays a large role in the success of a skater’s career. So, Kat refuses to tell anyone else about her disorder, even though it would explain the mistakes she made during her manic episode.

Incidents of sexual abuse appear, as well. Serena’s doctor, Ethan Parker, has sex with her, even though Serena is 16 years old and a minor. He takes advantage of his other clients as well, and when Serena learns that he is also seeing Jenn, he pressures her not to tell anyone about their involvement in order to save her reputation.

Similar and worse scandals have plagued female athletes for decades. A recent example is the 20 years of ongoing sexual misconduct involving Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski and her coach, Richard Callaghan. Often, female athletes wait to press charges until their careers are over to avoid the negative attention they might face while they are still competing, or remain with abusive coaches who could give them a shot at gold. Thus, “Spinning Out” gives much-needed attention to the emphasis in sports of winning over athletes’ safety and personal development.

Finally, because high, winning scores determine an athlete’s success, “Spinning Out” also explores how quickly careers fade in physically taxing sports like figure skating. Most single skaters retire in their mid-to-late 20s, while pair skaters and ice dancers retire in their early-to-mid 30s because they have to do fewer jumps. By retirement age, most skaters have put their bodies under so much stress that they take longer to recover from injuries and cannot keep up with spry newcomers.

In “Spinning Out,” Jenn skates until she falls on her already-injured hip, permanently ending her professional career. She later reflects on her predicament, making figure skating her whole life at the expense of going to college and creating a backup plan. Winning in “Spinning Out,” and in real life, requires sacrifices. Carol, for example, never made it to the Olympics because she got pregnant with Kat. Dasha, on the other hand, chose skating over being with her girlfriend, Tatiana, as their relationship would not have been accepted in Russia or in the figure skating community at the time.

Underneath all the drama, beautiful costumes and visual effects, “Spinning Out” is a poignant and honest glimpse into the not-so-perfect lives of female figure skaters and the families, coaches and friends who support them. I recommend this new show to anyone involved or interested in performing arts and individual sports, and to those whose lives are affected by mental illness. Come for the urgent message, stay for the skating.

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