Public Service Announcement 18 of 2011: In Treatment

I was annoyed that my cable supplier didn’t (and doesn’t) give me access to Sky Atlantic. The silver lining, though, is that some pretty tough decisions have been taken for me, and it’s not as if I don’t have more than enough to watch anyway. For example, if I had it I’d probably have watched Boardwalk Empire and Treme; as it was I found the time to watch The Killing. Anyway, here we are again: on Sky Atlantic on Friday at 10.15pm,  In Treatment starts a belated first UK run for season 2. Season 1 was absolutely top-notch stuff, and I’ve no reason to think season 2 will be any different, with Hope Davis, John Mahoney, and Alison Pill queueing up to get the benefit of Gabriel Byrne’s advice, and Dianne Wiest reprising her role as the therapist’s therapist. But I won’t be watching, which might give me a chance to check out one or two of the new British shows starting next week, of which more in a day or two.

In Treatment s1 ep 41; ep 42; ep 43

And so season 1 comes to an end.  In one way I’m kind of relieved. As I’ve said more than once ‘In Treatment’ requires a massive investment from the viewer, and not just the time involved in watching five episodes a week; it’s challenging, emotional, thought-provoking drama.

The best episode of this final week was the first, which also had a genuine claim to be the best of the whole season.  Inevitably it involved the spellbinding Mia Wasikowska as Sophie, this time able to confront her absentee father, played to perfection by ‘Thirtysomething’ alumnus Peter Horton.  (Incidentally, many ‘In Treatment’ episodes were directed by Melanie Mayron, also ex-‘Thirtysomething’.  This sort of thing feeds my TV geek fantasy that the stars of ensemble TV drama and comedy also hang out in real life.)  Horton’s thankless task was to animate a major, but hitherto unseen, ‘In Treatment’ hate figure and for the first half of the episode he was as creepy and manipulative as might have been hoped.  He then turned it round quite stunningly in the second half, showing the pain caused by a broken family, while never quite letting go of the idea that he still, very probably, got off lightly.  And Gabriel Byrne’s measured performance as Paul completed a mesmerising episode.

After that, the home straight consisted of a few loose ends which needed to be tied up.  While both Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz once more turned in excellent performances as Jake and Amy, to this viewer at least their marriage seemed quite doomed from the start, leading to puzzlement as to why Paul would expend so much emotional energy trying to save it.  Jake, at least, became more complex as the series went on, particularly in the episodes in which he was on his own with Paul.

And then Paul turned up on Laura’s doorstep, in passing giving us a great wave of irritation as he told Kate who he was going to see, and Kate pulled a long-suffering face, as if to be all, “Do you see what I have to put up with?”  You, Kate, had the affair.  You fucked off  TO ROME with your lover.  Drop dead.  (Which Paul very nearly did anyway, but I’ll let the episode speak for itself.)

And in conclusion?  Despite the intensity of the schedule I wouldn’t have missed a second, never mind an episode.  ‘In Treatment’ offered yet further evidence that TV drama has every right to be considered as a major art form, with top-drawer acting, scripting and direction, and an appreciation that viewers are able to bring their own experiences to a show, shape it, and form their own conclusions.  I don’t know if seasons 2 or 3 will be shown in the UK , but I’ll be there if they are.

In Treatment s1 ep 36; ep 37; ep 38; ep 39; ep 40

Another emotionally draining week on ‘In Treatment’, as the season nears its conclusion.  The portentous phone call taken by Paul at the end of last week’s episodes turns out to have been about the death of Alex.  (And although Blair Underwood doesn’t appear in this week’s episodes I think it again fair to note that the big issue surrounding his death – suicide or not? – remain open in large measure because of his acting.)  The first episode of this week deals with the funeral, at which Paul, somewhat edgily, encounters Laura – once again, a much more plausible love interest outside of the therapy context.  The second episode sees Paul visited by Alex’s grieving father, (a quite breathtaking – and Emmy winning – performance by Glynn Turman, formerly of ‘The Wire’.)

On top of that, the Sophie episode was perhaps the most harrowing to date, as she reaches some sort of breakthrough in her therapy.  Perhaps just as well: I’m sure therapists can’t be evaluated on a success/failure basis, but apart from Sophie – who has herself attempted suicide, so it’s hardly unalloyed triumph – it’s not been a great year for Paul.  Gabriel Byrne and Mia Wasikowska continue to do terrific work together, and Sophie reaching out to her mother at the end was astonishingly moving. 

Up against the stiffest of competition the Jake/Amy episode – this week featuring only Jake – was again something of a makeweight, although Josh Charles was on top form as we found out a number of surprising things about Jake.  And after that pause for breath, there was more high-wire acting from Byrne and Dianne Wiest as the Paul/Gina episode started slowly but built to a remarkable and confrontational climax.  ‘In Treatment’ requires a high level of commitment from viewers, but we’re being richly rewarded.

In Treatment s1 ep 31; ep 32; ep 33; ep 34; ep 35

With Laura temporarily not featuring, the first episode of the week instead gave us Paul and his children.  It was typically well-crafted, but did little apart from add a little of Paul’s backstory.  This might have been the first time all season that ‘In Treatment’ has been a little dull.

Everyone else, however, was on top form.  Sorry to keep going on about this, but I just don’t buy the resumption of the therapist/patient relationship between Paul and Alex as remotely plausible.  I’m prepared to live with it, though, as it gave Blair Underwood the opportunity to turn in his best performance yet, even better than last time: apparently revealing a lot, but leaving the big questions opaque.  I still couldn’t say for sure whether he’s gay, whether he wants to go back on active duty, whether he’s traumatised.  Mia Wasikowska’s excellence as Sophie is now so routine that we’re in danger of losing sight of just how good she is.   And Paul and Kate’s own session with Gina was as compelling as ever: after a week of seeing Paul preside loftily over the petty behaviour of others, it’s salutary to watch him sniping petulantly at his wife, even if she does kind of deserve it.  Strike that “kind of”, on reflection.

But the most powerful episode of the week – and the real revelation – was the Josh and Amy episode.  After weeks of this being the weak link, we got the payoff this time round.  I mean, I’m now firmly on Team Josh, but as the two of them ripped each others’ souls out it was harrowing stuff.

In Treatment s1 ep 26; ep 27; ep 28; ep 29; ep 30

A very intense week on ‘In Treatment’ started off with Laura, no longer a patient, turning to Paul for solace while her father is in hospital and Paul, in turn, confessing his feelings to her.  Perhaps it’s because the therapist/patient relationship is over, perhaps not, but this was the first time I’ve been able to see why someone might love Laura.  (Lust, not a problem.)  And now that Paul’s feelings are out in the open, he is obliged to sit there during his joint session with Kate while she builds up quite the remarkable self-righteous head of steam.  As I’ve said before I like Michelle Forbes as an actor, but she’s taken on a hell of a challenge here: a character both unlikeable and unfaithful.  “You think you deserve her, you’ve earned her, because of what I did to you?” she demands of Paul earlier in the week.  To which the obvious answer is: yep, he does and he has.  Incidentally, it struck me that Gina’s clinical dissection of their marriage is the best example we’ve seen all season of a therapist actually dishing out the therapy.

Laura’s far from the only one with father issues this week.  (Mind you, as Philip Larkin (and Sylvia Plath) identified a while ago, who doesn’t have father issues?  And it can’t be coincidence that all of these patients are drawn to the distinctly paternal Paul.)  Alex certainly does, and in this week’s other highlight he and Paul also confront the big, well-dressed, showtune-loving elephant in the therapy room: is Alex gay?  While it might seem less than plausible that their relationship is re-established after the provocation and physical violence of their last encounter, this was undoubtedly Blair Underwood’s finest week so far.

Next to those three episodes, for the first time the Sophie storyline didn’t quite work for me: father issues, eating disorders, whatever: I felt as if we were treading water a bit, and although Mia Wasikowska was as good as ever Sophie was stripped of some of her nuances this time round and came off as petulant and unpleasant.  More father and food issues with Amy as well in the next episode of the least compelling storyline; I’m still not really caring about her clearly misguided and doomed marriage to Josh.

That aside, though, the end of the season is approaching, and the writers have at least five conclusions to fashion.  On the evidence so far, they’ve got the pacing pretty much right.

In Treatment s1 ep 21; ep 22; ep 23; ep 24; ep 25

Five excellent episodes this week; even the makeweight Jake and Amy storyline provided enjoyment as Paul decided that an aggressive approach might pay dividends.  Or maybe he just felt like it.  After all, he was having a hell of a week.

The series is still pivoting on the relationship between Paul and Laura, examined again in the first of this week’s episodes.  While we now know that Paul claims that he loves Laura, we still don’t know why, nor whether it’s because the producers are leaving it to the intuition of the viewer to fill in the gaps, or – and it matters – because they’ve undercooked the writing and acting. 

Anyway, Alex senses a weakness and homes in on it during his session, in what was perhaps the most extraordinary episode so far; and after ruthless and relentless probing – and a remarkable violation of privacy – Paul finally snaps.  This gets further explored during Paul’s own session with Gina, for which they are joined by Kate, ostensibly trying to save their marriage, although partly at least trying to reclaim a bit of the moral high ground.  Personally, though, I’m not sure that she deserves too much sympathy just because her dirty weekend in Rome didn’t go according to plan.

Somewhat sui generis in all of this is Sophie’s story, which this week provided raw, uncomfortable, but compelling viewing.  I’ve said it already, but justice demands that – yet again – Mia Wasikowska’s remarkable performance  be acknowledged.  She’s switching from girlhood to womanhood and back again in a manner which feels both utterly traumatic and completely natural.

In Treatment s1 ep 16; ep 17; ep 18; ep 19; ep 20

Defences are beginning to break down.  Laura is very evidently trying to make Paul jealous with her pursuit of Alex.  It’s a high-risk strategy, not least because there’s some evidence that Alex might well want to bat for the other side.  Nonetheless it works: firstly provoking an unusually combative and acrimonious session between Paul and Alex, and then pushing Paul, later in the week, into an admission of how he feels about Laura.

Sophie continues to straddle childhood and adulthood in a way which pushes her to another suicide attempt, this time more or less in front of Paul just after he’s managed to get her to concede the truth about her first one.  And back to being the weak link this time is the episode featuring Jake and Amy.  There aren’t many wholly likeable characters in ‘In Treatment’, but Jake and Amy are so intensely unlikeable that it’s hard to dredge up any sympathy for them.

Standout acting performance this week, though, is Gabriel Byrne’s in Paul’s own session with guru/therapist/friend Gina.  Paul requires to be reactive for most of the week, but with Gina he gets to set the pace; this week he’s got a lot to get out in the open, although one imagines there are still a few things about their shared past we’ve yet to discover for ourselves.  Dianne Wiest matches Byrne every step of the way.  ‘In Treatment’ continues to be sombre, thoughtful drama – TV for grown-ups.

In Treatment s1 ep 11; ep 12; ep 13; ep 14; ep 15

Something of a reverse on last week’s episodes.  The Laura storyline still looks pivotal, but we learned far more about it this week from Paul’s blustering self-pity at his own session with Gina than we did from Laura herself; episode 11 seemed well-acted but somewhat pointless as we went over old ground.  Perhaps its significance lay in the last few minutes, when Laura bumped into Alex.  Meantime Alex’s own session was much more interesting, as after a couple of weeks of alpha-male stonewalling he started to open up.

Were it not for the continuing excellence of Mia Wasikowska, in fact, episode of the week would have been 14, in which the terrific Embeth Davidtz explored her character’s complex and nuanced reaction to her miscarriage.  And flirted with Paul.  Can none of them resist him?

In Treatment s1 ep 6; ep 7; ep 8; ep 9; ep 10

A lot of TV, a lot of talking, a lot of acting.  I’m guessing that, as we start to sift the characters and probe what they’re all about, other viewers will have had the same experience as me: some you find more interesting than others.

This week’s winners were troubled teenage gymnast Sophie (the remarkable Mia Wasikowska) and troublesome anaesthesiologist Laura (the excellent Melissa George).  Sophie, damaged both mentally and physically, clearly has mysteries for Paul to unravel: the writing and acting are both first-rate, keeping Paul and the viewer off-balance.  Last week Laura looked and behaved as if she were somewhat deranged; this week she became a much more plausible object of desire for Paul, thus upping the stakes later in the week when it becomes clear that his marriage is in desperate trouble.

I’m not quite as interested yet in mercurial fighter pilot Alex (Blair Underwood) – this storyline seems somewhat unfocussed to me for now, but no doubt it will start to fall into place.  And my least favourite characters from the first week, bickering married couple Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz) were the recipients of an early bath this week as their session was brought to an abrupt halt by a medical emergency.

This freed up time for an unscheduled head-to-head between Paul and Kate, his wife, played by Michelle Forbes, who is clearly intent on challenging Patrick Fischler and Zeljko Ivanek for ubiquity.  Now I quite like Michelle Forbes as an actor, but she’s got a hell of a task on here given how unsympathetic her character is: even if Paul is an appalling husband we’re pretty much on his side from the start, as we’ve seen him in a relatively generous light as a care-giving professional.

The genius of ‘In Treatment’ lies, I think, in the fifth episode of the week, when we get to see Paul’s sessions with his mentor Gina (Dianne Wiest).  The subtle adjustments of the power balance between the two, added to the bonus of getting Paul’s version of his encounters earlier in the week, bring the show together very satisfyingly.  This week it was like watching a boxing match between two wily old pros: just at the point when Paul looked like going down he suddenly fought his way back, and by the end both were at what looked like an emotional standstill.

In Treatment s1 ep 1; ep 2; ep 3; ep 4; ep 5

‘In Treatment’ is about psychotherapist Dr Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne); it’s on every night Monday – Friday.  For four nights it focusses on his sessions with his patients.  So on Monday it’s highly-strung Laura (our old friend Melissa George, who was Lauren Reed in ‘Alias’), who says she’s in love with him; Tuesday it’s fighter pilot Alex (another old friend, Blair Underwood, looking no older than when he was Jonathan Rollins in ‘LA Law’); Wednesday it’s troubled teenager Sophie (Mia Wasikowska); Thursday it’s dysfunctional couple Amy and Jake (Embeth Davidtz and Josh Charles). 

And then on Friday Dr Weston unburdens himself to his former colleague Gina (Dianne Wiest). During this session he unpacks the feelings about his clients which he has been bottling up during the week, and he hints at marital troubles.  

Given the unique structure I thought I would wait for a full week before reviewing the show.  As it happens, I could pretty much have written the review after five minutes of episode 1.  There’s no flashy direction; no location filming; hardly any intrusive mood music (although still a trifle too much for my tastes).  And it’s absolutely compelling, mesmerising stuff.  The focus is on the acting and the writing, and both are absolutely top-notch.  Gabriel Byrne isn’t my favourite actor: like Ralph Fiennes, he’s always struck me as a somewhat aloof performer.  But perhaps this quality is precisely what’s required for a character who perforce must engage with others while remaining at a distance from them.  And when he cuts loose – as he did this week in the electrifying encounter with Wiest  – it’s thrilling.

As I suggested in one of my comments on our last book club selection, direct experience of psychoanalysis is rare to a British audience: our main exposure to it comes through American art forms.  But ‘In Treatment’ comfortably transcends that reservation.  Each episode is a well-paced 20-30 minutes long: it’s quite a lot over the course of a week, but for anyone who’s undecided about trying it, it’s highly recommended.  For UK viewers Sky Arts 1 has an omnibus on Sundays at 10pm.