The more things change, the more they stay the same. That seems to be what the individuals running HBO’s series In Treatment are telling us with the first batch of episodes of its sophomore season. Back in the therapist’s chair as Dr. Paul Weston is Gabriel Byrne, whose portrayal of Weston manages to make the character the best and the worst therapist of all time.
Season Two opens on the heels of much upheaval in Paul’s life. He’s relocated to Brooklyn after divorcing his wife and has restarted his practice in his apartment. The premiere begins with an off-hours knock on the door by Alex Prince Sr. (Glynn Turman), informing Paul that the Navy has found no mechanical malfunction with regards to his son’s death and subsequently serving him with papers for a lawsuit.
We next see Weston standing uncomfortably in a scenic high-rise office in downtown New York, where he intends to meet with his lawyer for the first time. Filling in for said lawyer, however, is Mia (the always wonderful Hope Davis) a top-notch lawyer at the firm, often tasked with impossible cases that she manages to win. Weston is put-off at Mia’s involvement as she was a patient of his some 20 years ago when she was merely a struggling college student.
Paul’s unease is palpable, made more so when Mia mentions the word malpractice, as though Weston had never really considered the accusations in such concrete terms. Mia explains that Prince’s family feels that Paul should have known that Alex was not ready to fly and should have informed the Navy of such. Mia probes Paul on Alex’s treatment with him, unhappy to discover that Paul no longer takes notes and eventually asks if Paul thinks that Alex’s time in therapy ended too soon. She presses the question until Paul finally suggests that perhaps she’s not so interested in the timeline of Alex’s treatment, but of her own, that in reality she’s projecting her own feelings of therapeutic abandonment onto the case at hand.
We discover that Mia has been carrying these feelings of abandonment with her for years, remembering the turn of events as something unceremonious and cruel, where in Paul’s eyes it was a professional parting of ways. Throughout their back and forth, there is an undercurrent of something uncomfortable and long buried, something brought to a head during the final moments when Mia asks Paul if he still remembers, an inexplicable question, to which Paul answers affirmatively.
All in all, Mia seems like the prototypical career woman with all she ever wanted in the world and nothing to show for it. A brief appearance by her direct superior undercuts her confident façade and it is only a matter of time before the rivulets become apparent throughout her tough exterior. Regardless of the top-notch performances in the episode, it will be hard for the show to overcome comparisons to the Paul/Laura (Melissa George) dynamic of last year, though I suppose establishing inappropriate relationships with his clients being a pattern of behavior for Paul does make him a more layered (if, completely horrifying) character.
Episode two brings us what is likely to be the breakout character of the season, a storyline and performance that hearkens back to that of Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) from Season One. Our first shot of April (Alison Pill) reveals her peering into a makeup compact examining her visage quizzically, craning her neck as though checking for hickeys or teeth marks. Upon entering Paul’s office, April is a bundle of nervous energy, rambling about, while asking questions about décor and rattling off inane facts about herself. She apologizes repeatedly, and Paul asks her to tell him more about herself. April seems stymied by the lack of direction in this question and asks Paul what it is he’d like to know. We learn background details about April’s life (she’s an architecture student, she has married parents and a brother, she recently broke up with her boyfriend) before she stalls out again, looking to Paul for guidance before delving into her thoughts on his Web site.
Paul finally asks her if she’s ever seen a psychologist before, and April tells him of her experiences at the college’s health center, a place she holds in particular disdain, and of her time with a therapist there. April could not think less of this person, a woman she characterizes as someone who went in to therapy because she woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and decided she looked like a good listener. The therapist told the same story twice, and April found her to be disinterested. The nail in the coffin, however, was when the therapist suggested that April might be angry at the fact that her brother (who’s autistic, she reveals) takes up so much of her mother’s time.
It becomes clear, as April continues on, that she is searching for a safe haven, free not only from judgment, but from others’ expectations of her. She even dodged the phone calls from that therapist she hated, as opposed to telling her she was quitting therapy. She didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She wants to be certain that she has found that comfort before allowing anyone in.
She asks Paul how many people come to him for really big problems; problems like death or rape. Her face contorts slightly as though she is literally trying to will the words from her mouth, to no avail. Her lips turn up in a nervous smile and she tells Paul that she wants to tell him but the words won’t come and would it be alright if she wrote it down?
It’s in this moment that Alison Pill is a revelation. What her face says when she says nothing at all is something amazing to watch. She writes her secret and then hesitates, mulling it over in her hand, before giving it to Paul. He reads it as she waits and he finally asks her, “How do you feel?” to which she responds, “Tired.”
He then asks what type of cancer it is that she has and she brushes it off; that’s not what she wants to talk about. She just wanted to tell someone, and right now, she has so many other things on her mind. She’s not sleeping. She talks of night sweats (a common symptom of lymphoma, she says) and the extensive process of getting diagnosed, starting at student health, being accused of being an addict and eventually ending up in a hospital in Brooklyn being informed that there was a big mass behind her spine.
April informs Paul that no one knows. Not her family. Not her friends. It’s evident that as soon as people know, she’ll feel obligated to help them through their grief and that is not a task she feels up to. She tells Paul that she doesn’t want to treat the cancer, despite it being stage three. She says maybe she wants to die right now and tells him of her thoughts of herbalists and acupuncturists. Paul takes a harsh tone with her, telling her that what she needs is chemotherapy and nothing less. Paul presses her on whether or not she truly believes she has cancer, as knowing and believing can be two very different things.
However, April feels her safe haven slipping away and bolts at the first opportunity, leaving Paul following after her, asking about future appointments, while she deflects his inquiries with vague answers, pointedly avoiding making any promises.
The third episode of the season is easily the most uneven, buoyed by the sweet and sincere portrayal of Oliver (Aaron Shaw), a 12 year-old caught in the middle of an increasingly ugly divorce, and weighed down by the representation of his feuding parents Bess and Luke (Sherri Saum and Russell Hornsby, respectively). It’s difficult to fault the actors for what works and what doesn’t, as the problem lies mainly in the fact that the characters are written as one dimensional and stereotypical, Bess as the overprotective mother, Luke as the absent, angry father. What bothers me more, I think, is the fact that In Treatment has such difficulty portraying couples in which I am willing to emotionally invest (see also: season one’s Jake (Josh Charles) and Amy (Embeth Davidtz) and Paul’s relationship with his ex-wife (Michelle Forbes).
Adding to the up-and-down nature of the episode is the fact that Aaron Shaw is so compelling as Oliver. Shaw is decidedly naturalistic, and I repeatedly had to remind myself that he was performing, not merely coming up with these things on his own.
From the opening scene, sitting uncomfortably on Paul’s couch, waiting for both parents to arrive, Oliver is the center of attention. Paul suggests they play a game while they wait, and Oliver agrees, eschewing Paul’s board games and opting instead for blackjack. He explains the game, to a seemingly baffled Paul, including such rules as not being able to stand on 15, lest he ’fuck the deck.’ He then hesitates, unsure if he’s just gotten himself in trouble by swearing in front of an adult. He quickly shakes it off and informs Paul that he’s just lost for trying to stand on 15 when his mom comes in and the session starts in earnest.
Sadly, this is just a story we’ve seen a hundred times over if we’ve seen it once: a good kid, caught in the middle of feuding parents, both of them eager to win them over to their side. There are, of course, variations on the theme, but ultimately the song remains the same.
Difficulties amongst the fractured family unit arise when Oliver no longer wants to stay at his dad’s apartment. He has a myriad of reasons (empty fridge, dad’s friends over) for his hesitations, and when he speaks of his experiences there, it’s evident that he doesn’t feel comfortable there. It seems, ultimately, like a reasonable suspicion that some of these things are issues fueled by his mother’s concerns about his father’s actions, but things apparently run deeper than that, as by episodes end, even though his father has agreed to address all of the issues that Oliver has, Oliver still refuses to stay with him, stalwart in his decision. His father is furious and storms out of the session, Oliver’s mother and Oliver following shortly after.
It’s the scene though, after everyone has left that truly sums up Oliver’s situation. Paul wanders back to the deck of cards and picks up the next on the pile, looking to see what fate held, had he drawn instead of stood, only to reveal a 10. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Rounding out our cast of new patients is John Mahoney, playing Walter, a big-time CEO who can’t sleep, his only problem, or so he’d have us believe. Walter blows into Paul’s office all business, talking about his expensive jacket before turning the tables on Paul and trying to discern what sort of information Paul has about him. It seems that his corporation has been in the newspapers of late, and he’s used to encountering people’s preconceived notions of him, though he also seems perturbed that Paul doesn’t immediately recognize him and goes on to bemoan the fact that no one seems to pick up the business section anymore.
Walter seems incredibly burdened by running his company. He intimates that he can’t trust anyone to do anything so he has to do it all himself. He’s the one that has to have all the answers, and it wears on him. He used to be able to handle anything, stresses and crises and anything the world could throw at him, but now, he’s stymied, sleep is elusive, and drugs aren’t the answer.
Whenever Paul tries to pin down exactly what Walter is suffering from, Walter changes the subject. Instead of talking about when his insomnia began, he wants to talk about the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. He doesn’t have time for dilly-dallying and wants Paul to make a snap judgment about what ails Walter, all the while refusing to give Paul any insight into the situation.
Eventually, we learn about Walter’s daughter Natalie, his shining star, who’s currently serving in a clinic in Rwanda, a fact that completely unnerves her father, so much so that he asks Paul if a seemingly innocuous e-mail from her means that he should go rescue her. When Paul disagrees, Walter gets upset, while Paul remains cool, refusing to be baited. Eventually, Walter moves to storm out, grabbing his coat, frantic, before collapsing and clutching his chest. With time he calms some, the anxiety attack passing, before standing to leave again, Paul is concerned but Walter is insistent, “They go away.”
While Mahoney is a talented actor, I couldn’t help but be a little underwhelmed by this episode. Walter is scattershot and aggressive, eager to show Paul up, and I couldn’t help but feel as though this was just Alex Redux. Hopefully, time will prove me wrong, but I’m wary.
It seems silly and sort of a cop out to choose the final episode of the week as my favorite, much like choosing a greatest hits album as your favorite of any particular band, but there’s something about the easy (and sometimes uneasy) chemistry between Gina (Dianne Wiest) and Paul that makes the last session of each week seem like a port in the storm. This week is no exception.
The premise, however, does differ from last year, in that this is no session for Gina and Paul, but rather a meeting of friends. Paul’s original intent in the visit (he’s in town for the weekend visiting the kids, as is his new routine) was to find out whether Gina was willing to make a deposition for the Alex lawsuit, but it becomes obvious that Paul is agitated by the work week, and living alone for the first time in his life leaves him no one to decompress to, no one to vent to.
He’s agitated by the lawsuit and seems convinced that he will lose, but that he doesn’t care because he’s just sick of sitting in the chair and listening to people’s problems, to which Gina can only say, “Oh boy. Oh boy.” He asks her if she ever gets tired of it, and she assures him that she does. She did just take two years off, after all.
Paul seems desperate and a little unhinged. He’s a far cry from the balky, resistant man from last season, who came to Gina reluctantly for counsel. Now he begs her to show him the way. To tell him what to do and how to feel. Clearly, Paul doesn’t trust his own judgment anymore, for good reason, perhaps, but a dangerous feeling for a man in a position such as his.
Paul continues to punish himself for those things he feels responsible for: his marriage, Alex, Laura, his mother. He tells Gina about April. About how he thinks that what she’s doing is wrong and that he wishes he could force her to get treatment. He says he’s angry that she’s refusing and that he feels he can’t get involved, lest he provoke another lawsuit. But in response Gina tells him that he was angry long before any of his patients walked into his office, that his mother was sick, too sick for him to save and that if he could have saved her, he would have, but it’s clear that Paul’s subconscious is having none of that.
The episode concludes with Paul asking Gina to take him back as a client.
“Do you think you can trust me?”
“You’re the only one I can trust.”
Overall, season two of In Treatment picks up where season one left off, both in terms of story and quality. At times, the show can be uneven, but the performances are always some of the finest on television. I’ve been known to say that everyone could benefit from a few sessions of therapy, but if you’re uninterested in examining your own idiosyncrasies, at least tune in to this series and get a little secondhand head shrinking.
Libby Hill is a psych student and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet.