July 2011

Arts & Letters

Couch habit

By Robyn Davidson
‘In Treatment: Season Three’

If, like Frederick Crews of the ‘Freud wars’, you think Freud was a crank, and his legacy a “spurious, ineffective pseudoscience”; or if, like Nabokov, you “detest” Freud (“I think he’s crude, I think he’s medieval, and I don’t want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me …”) then this is the show for you. If, on the other hand, you are among the multitude who have undergone analysis and who feel that it was an enriching experience, then this is the show for you.

In other words, at the end of Season Three of HBO’s In Treatment (screening on Showcase from this month), school is still out on the talking cure. And that refusal of a Manichean judgement is just one of the things that makes the series such compelling television. 

In Treatment concerns a middle-aged psychotherapist, Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne), in dialogue with his patients (one patient per episode) and, at the end of his week, with his own therapist. In the first two seasons the latter was colleague and supervisor Gina (played by the wonderful Dianne Wiest), whom Paul refers to as “the spider” and who, sadly, doesn’t make it into the third season.

The program’s format is based on (and is apparently often a direct translation of) Hagai Levi’s Israeli series Be’Tipul. In Treatment debuted in the US in 2008; Season Two came along in 2009. The third season has grown up and away from its origins and is no longer dependent on its Israeli parent for material. Paul has terminated his sessions with Gina, but now takes his problems (and erotic transference) to Adele (Amy Ryan, another sensationally good actress). And he’s had a haircut.

I recommend marathon watching rather than waiting for the episodes to turn up piecemeal on your television. In fact I recommend getting out the DVDs, turning up the electric blanket and taking your computer to bed for hours of ‘treatment’ at a time. I believe these are optimum watching conditions for all the excellent series from HBO, which began, for me, with The Wire – television that reached the zenith of its form.

But back to Paul Weston and his variously disturbed patients. In Season Three we re-visit his office in Brooklyn to find that he is now officially divorced, living more or less alone, and is even sadder than he was in Season Two. (Oddly, no one in the series, including Paul, seems to be taking antidepressants.) He cares about his patients too much. He has a problem with boundaries. Gina, his previous therapist, has written a successful novel, which he sees advertised in the New York Review of Books; he is livid with jealousy and a sense of betrayal. And his scepticism regarding the efficacy of therapy – his profession of 30 years – has reached crippling proportions.

“Physician, heal thyself,” we wish to say, and he does try. He goes along to an attractive therapist in the neighbourhood, initially to extend his prescription for sleeping pills. But, of course, he gets hooked. And she, fine actress that she is, indicates she might not be immune to a bit of counter-transference herself, by the tiniest movement of a muscle in her throat.

We know Paul suffers debilitating doubt but his patients don’t. His patients, often resistant as hell, nevertheless need to believe that Paul is going to help them. They come back week after week, even though they sometimes feel worse than they did when they began. They fight and parry with him, accuse him, walk out on him, try to manipulate him, attempt to seduce him, and are often gobsmackingly rude to him. (This rudeness might have its roots in Israeli forthrightness, or perhaps it’s just the exigencies of keeping a talking-heads structure dramatic. In real life, therapy sessions are no doubt full of silence, evasion and boredom.)

But Paul doesn’t give up on them, no matter how confronting or intolerable they are. He gives all his patients permission to behave badly, just like an indulgent dad. And sometimes, just sometimes, an observation from Paul seems to bypass their defences and clunk down within – a little nugget of self-awareness they can take away with them, and maybe even use.

First in the door this time is Sunil – a Bengali mathematician who has fetched up in the US after the death of his wife and who lives with his son and daughter-in-law. Sunil is miserably lonely and at odds with the daughter-in-law – the embodiment of empowered American womanhood. Cultural differences and misunderstandings are superbly rendered, and a faint ominousness transmits itself through the writing without anything being overtly stated. Sunil, unlike most of Paul’s patients, is polite. That he is also rather more self-aware and cunning, we discover in the last of his episodes. Next is the actress Frances, who has trouble remembering her lines. And, as Paul cattily later remarks, isn’t as famous as she thinks she is. Then there’s Jesse, a beautiful, underage gay boy who peddles his prescription drugs but gives his body for free. He is adopted. He is the sort of vulnerable, aggressive child–man you want desperately to help, and desperately to shake until all his teeth fall out.

Finally, there’s Adele. In the Gina and Adele sessions we witness Paul retelling history, distorting it in the process, usually in a way that is more flattering to himself. Which is, of course, what we all do.

Paul is as rude and unpleasant to his shrinks as his patients are to him. Eventually, he tells Adele that he imagined her while having sex with his girlfriend. But Paul knows about the tantalising horrors of erotic transference and decides it would be just all too hard. Exit Paul. And there we are left, wondering how it’s all going to turn out, wondering if HBO is going to make a Season Four, because if it doesn’t, how will we manage without our therapy by proxy? The network is being coy about this. If there is to be a fourth season, it will be “in a different format”.

In Treatment is great television. Let’s not cavil about the times a set-up is unbelievable, or some dialogue cringe-making, or an actor not up to scratch. The general brilliance renders the less successful bits merely irritating. Nevertheless, at the end of the marathon (I watched all of Seasons Two and Three in a week), I am, like Paul, existentially fatigued. I am tired of humans and their egos – their defences and their hedging and feinting. I am tired of watching catastrophes unfurl, damage being done, the sad fates of children set in motion by the selfishness or helplessness of parents. Like a junkie, I want more but I also want out.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

Cover: July 2011

July 2011

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