In Treatment is one of those shows that you have to take in large doses. Since its first season, I have never once watched the show when it first airs. Instead, I prefer to take three or even four weeks at a time courtesy of On Demand, which is how I watched the recently concluded third season.
Let’s start with Paul (and his new therapist, Adele). Paul Weston is one of the most complex characters currently on television, and Gabriel Byrne has essentially given three season’s worth of master classes on the art of listening to his troubled patients. Paul is a decent therapist, but far from a good man. And the shortcomings in the latter role inevitably effect his practice. In this season alone, he opens his door to the troubled Jesse late at night and prepares tea for standout patient Sunil. These attempts to go beyond the call of duty are as much for Paul as they are for his patients. So desperate is he to not fail those in his professional life (as he has in the personal realm; see the fractured relationships with his dead parents, his ex-wife, and his children) that he blurs the lines and ultimately loses his patients (he didn’t really stand a chance with Sunil; more on that in a bit). During previous seasons, Dianne Wiest’s Gina took Paul to task for his self-absorbed conduct. Some of the Gina sessions were compelling and even revelatory. But the established history between the characters (and possibly the fact that Byrne had more screen time) always had me in Paul’s corner when they would talk. Not so with Amy Ryan’s Adele.
Adele sizes Paul up from the start, calls him out of the fact that it’s easier for him to live vicariously through his patients and their problems than to take a hard look at himself and work towards self-improvement. And even when tries that, he’s blaming his father for his lost childhood, sending his son back to his ex instead of being a proper parent, and clinging to what is likely an imaginary Parkinson’s diagnosis rather than take any kind of personal responsibility. Never has Paul seemed such an ass, especially when fabricating a romantic relationship with Adele in yet another attempt to lay his possibilities for happiness at another’s feet. But Adele, attracted though she might be, remains an objective practitioner, and this is what Paul ultimately needs to break the cycle of transference and leave all aspects of therapy to walk alone in the world and see what he might accomplish without so many crutches. If the show ends here, Paul has taken quite the journey to a place where he seems ready to take part in the messiness that is humanity.
But the heart of any In Treatment season is still Paul’s patients. So let’s count them down.
Aging actress Frances (Debra Winger). This was a plot that, on the surface, had a lot going for it. A fading film star tries to reinvent herself on the stage, but she can’t remember her lines. Her marriage fell apart; her teenage daughter hates her. And she can’t get past her guilt over her mother’s death from breast cancer along with the fear that she too will become afflicted. And now her sister, with whom she’s always had a complicated and competitive relationship, is also dying of cancer. And her sister is Paul’s former patient! That should be enough to fuel its own show, right? Wrong.
Winger, who looks fabulous, gave a strong performance, and despite her status as Paul’s lone “success story” in a very dark series of sessions, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I wasn’t more invested in her journey. Then there came the the episode where Frances talks about her sulky, rebellious daughter who, despite the impending death of her aunt and her parents’ broken union, really has no idea what defines a truly difficult childhood. And that’s when it hit me. Compared to the plights of Paul’s other current patients, and several past ones, Frances doesn’t have it all that bad. She’s working. She ultimately learns that she’s healthy. And too many of her appointments came off as so much whining. I know this probably sounds insensitive. Everyone has problems, fears, insecurities, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. But Frances just didn’t do it for me.
The obligatory adolescent patient of this season was aspiring photographer Jesse. Initially, I was not on board. The show that gave us Mia Wasikowska’s Sophie and Aaron Shaw’s Oliver spoiled me with some of the best younger actors ever on TV. By comparison, Dane DeHaan’s performance was too “watch me act!” for my taste. But that was only the beginning, and I soon realized that Jesse as a character is all about playing roles to impress or shock people in misguided attempts to form something like a real connection. Like Frances, he too has baggage (adopted, growing up gay in a Catholic household, finding out that his birth parents gave him up but kept a terminally ill sibling). He’s not a blameless victim, but his self-sabotage is a symptom of his history. When he pushes lovers away, insults the woman who raised him, and gets stoned before meeting his birth parents, he’s trying to be anything but himself because he sees that as the problem. In the end, Jesse appears to abandon his dreams of life as an artist on account of an adoptive father who promises something like love if only Jesse conforms to his standards of masculinity. So Jesse stops his therapy, once again playing a role, and leaving Paul (and the audience) worried about what will happen when Jesse realizes that sacrificing his identity will never solve the many issues only touched upon. Maybe, one day, Jesse will face up to life as himself. For now, he’s a shell of the boy first seen behind his camera.
Good stuff with Jesse, but again, the most compelling plot, actually one of the best stories of the entire television year, was Sunil (Irrfan Khan), the widowed immigrant longing to return to India but trapped in his Americanized son’s household. Sunil, educated but at a loss in his new surroundings, initially appears as man who just needs the room to grieve for his wife, and maybe then he can start to adjust to life under his son’s roof. But it quickly (seemingly) becomes clear that Sunil’s problems go deeper. He is haunted by memories of a lost love from his youth and appears to be confusing that woman with his blonde, beautiful daughter-in-law, Julia. It gets more complicated. Sunil talks of spying on Julia with a client, an author, and he works to convince Paul that she is an unfaithful wife. Then come the dreams of harming Julia, and Sunil ultimately “pushes past her” following an argument over singing in Bengali to his grandchildren. And Julia is injured. At this point, the decision is made, for Sunil not by Sunil, that his therapy must come to an end. Paul works to convince the man that there is still work to be done, and he even offers to treat Sunil pro bono. Sunil responds by handing his therapist a cricket bat for safe keeping (Sunil hints that he might be tempted to use it to further injure Julia while his son is out of town). It takes Paul until his weekly session with Adele to admit the ramifications of this admission and inform Sunil’s family of the danger he poses. So the police are called. And Sunil refuses to show his papers. So he’s set to be deported. And that was Sunil’s game the entire time.
It’s rare a twist really leaves me stunned, but I did not see this coming. Sunil’s therapy was mostly grounded in fact (his despair over his dead wife, his regret over the girlfriend who took her own life rather than shame his family, his resentment of Julia as a symbol of what he cannot have and the distance between himself and his son). But Sunil still plays Paul, pushes all of the right buttons until the therapist can no longer serve his own needs via Sunil and, finally, must take the kind of action that Adele repeatedly prompts. At first, briefly, Paul feels that he has let the man he came to view as a friend and an extension of his own frustrations down. Then he is left betrayed by the revelation that he was merely a pawn in Sunil’s quest to go home. For his part, Sunil thanks Paul and tells him that he is a good man. As he is taken away, once again singing the Bengali folk song (watch the scene and don’t tear up; I dare you), Paul appears to believe that he might be a good man, worthy of trust and love. But here he also starts to understand that his own biases, his own wants, his own emptiness prevent him from being an effective therapist. So he has to stop. And yet, Sunil might be the one patient whom Paul has truly helped achieve exactly what he wanted when he entered treatment. Strange and wondrous and tragic how these things play out.
Final assessment? Well done. If the show does not return, Sunil joins the ranks of Sophie, Oliver, and John Mahoney’s Walter. And in a year that gave us Don Draper in freefall, the twisted Agent Van Alden, and more antics from the gang at Greendale Community College, Paul Weston loomed large and walked away a few steps ahead of the rest.