In its third week, In Treatment’s second season reveals its true intentions more thoroughly, as this week’s episodes show that this season is going to be about the ways other people hurt us (or the ways we LET them hurt us, as a therapist might say) and the ways we hurt them. It’s about how often we define ourselves in relation to the other people in our lives. Mia is constantly looking at herself through the lens of the men in her life, starting with her father. April defines herself through all of the people she feels she needs to please, from family (particularly her autistic brother, Daniel) to her former boyfriend. Oliver most directly finds himself trying to cope with how he perceives his parents perceiving him, while Walter is dealing with the twin problems of a daughter who’s seemingly abandoned him and the ghosts of parents who forced too much onto him long ago. And Paul himself is still trying to deal with the weight of who his parents were, his mother’s suicidal intentions.
As much as anything else, In Treatment is about the unfair lens of perception, how our brains take the information our five senses gather and corrupt it through the filter of our personalities and our memories. Paul is trying to get his patients to remove that filter as much as possible, to discover themselves without the idea of other people’s views of them getting in the way. But that’s impossible for all of us, and even for Paul, which makes his quest to get, say, Walter to admit that the loss of his brother has affected him even more than he knows somewhat quixotic.
But, hey, this is television. There are bound to be some breakthroughs in any given week, and there are a few in this week’s episodes of In Treatment, though most of the episodes have a sense of the characters digging in their heels, drawing up battle lines with their therapist, avoiding the real work that needs to be done to be made whole either physically (in the case of cancer-ridden April) or mentally (in the case of pretty clearly bugnuts Mia).
So, then, as is our custom, episode by episode:
Mia: Hope Davis and Gabriel Byrne pull off a massively impressive feat of restrained acting midway through this week’s Mia episode, as Mia describes how she imagines Paul felt sleeping with Laura (whose existence she learned of from a deposition in Paul’s lawsuit). Davis is shot entirely in close-up, Byrne’s voice mostly an unseen, oddly unnerving presence, guiding her deeper and deeper into her fantasy of Paul’s love for Laura, finally concluding with her assertion that someone like Paul would never love someone like her that way because she’s “like a knife in your neck.” It’s the kind of tiny little acting duet you just don’t see on TV, which tends to go in for bombast, even in the small moments. I especially like the way the series is unraveling the “mythology” of these two in tiny, incremental ways, how Paul saved Mia’s piano performance mixtape (resulting in another lovely monologue from Davis), how Mia’s old attraction for Paul still results in a palpable jealousy towards Laura. So far, there hasn’t been a single moment where either character explains who they were 20 years ago in bald-faced terms, but we’re getting as good a sense of 1989 Mia and Paul as we are their 2009 versions, sans any flashbacks with unfortunate wigs or unexpected time travel. In Treatment fans seem to be a little hesitant to embrace the Mia episodes as fully as they’re embracing Walter or, especially, April, but I remain fascinated by the way Paul keeps poking at her big ball of neuroses, trying to find the speck at the center holding it all together.
April: I try not to use too much hyperbole, but I think it’s entirely possible that Alison Pill is the greatest human being alive at this moment in time and just might be the greatest person to ever have lived. I’ve always liked Pill when she turns up in bit parts in movies and TV shows, but the way she’s honed in on just what makes April tick, just how ANGRY she is and how well she masks that, is truly impressive. It’s the kind of meshing between character and actor you sometimes get to see on TV, where actors are allowed to grow into their characters, like a comfortable set of clothes. As good as every other actor is on this season of this show, Pill’s the one I want to see find new corners and aspects of her character week after week, like a magic show where a new death-defying illusion is added on a weekly basis. There’s even a moment in this week’s episode where April destroys the model she’s built for her architecture project that, intellectually, I knew was a little too big, a little too broad for this show, but Pill made it all grow from some place of deep frustration that was so real I almost bought it. This week’s April session is all about how she sees herself in relation to her brother and, especially, her mother, whose unseen presence dominates the latter half of the meeting. April’s trying to find a way to process the fact that she’s deeply hurt by how her mother, out of necessity, focused more on her brother than on her when they were growing up, and that, more than anything, seems to be driving her seemingly slow-motion suicide and her need to push away literally everyone who isn’t Paul. His office increasingly seems the only place she can relax, be herself, and when she lets herself sleep for just a moment and Paul hesitates before awaking her, it’s a beautifully tender moment.
Oliver: On the other hand, I’m very sad to see the turtle go and get such an undignified exit as to disappear in a shoebox, without getting a moving final close-up. The Oliver sessions, which I was pretty unsure of at season’s start, continue to get better and better week after week as Oliver’s parents realize just how deeply they’re hurting their son by being unable to put their own differences aside long enough to be good parents. Of the four patients Paul is seeing this season, Oliver’s problems are perhaps the most “typical,” in that there have been millions upon millions of stories about young kids caught in the web of a painful divorce. To that end, the show is already kind of operating from a weak position in these episodes, since there’s nothing it can really do that’s NEW, but at least it’s hitting the expected beats in an enjoyable enough fashion. Watching Luke and Bess argue over whether Oliver is getting his homework done and Luke’s new girlfriend (Oliver’s former teacher!) doesn’t have the viscerally NEW feel of something you might see in one of the week’s other episodes, but the episodes do a pretty good job of making you feel these characters unique pain while still tying it into an experience that’s fairly universal. And seeing just how well Oliver is navigating the divorce waters – saying what his parents want to hear, playing them off of each other – makes for a nice series of reversals at each episode’s midpoint. I’m still not as sold on the Oliver storyline, but it’s not dragging things down actively or anything. It’s also nice to see how Paul’s failures to communicate with his son are played off of Oliver assuming he’s probably the best dad ever.
Walter: Walter’s life is clearly falling apart. He’s trying to deal with the crisis at work (involving bad baby formula), which is causing his well-structured life to completely dissolve. And in the middle of this, he’s leaving things in the hands of people he doesn’t fully trust so he can fly to Rwanda to check in on the daughter he thinks is lost on a wayward path. On most other series, the story of how Walter found himself embroiled in a massive corporate scandal would be THE issue Paul was looking into, but In Treatment realizes that in moments of crisis, we often fall back on deep-seated emotional responses to trauma, so we’re seeing Walter trying to save his daughter the only way he knows how – via being a forceful parent – and reliving the death of his brother (as he did last week). Walter, perhaps a bit disarmed by how rapidly his life is spinning out of control, is finally seeming to give a little in his give-and-take. Walter and his daughter are unable to figure out a way to reorganize their relationship now that she’s an adult. He freaks out that she’s cut her hair, and she sends him some exceptionally cruel e-mails. At the same time, he’s trying to put out fires at work. As Paul points out, he’s an excellent manager, and perhaps the fact that he can’t reel in his work life is causing him to try to over-manage his private life as well.
Gina: First things first, Paul’s hookin’ up with Tammy Kent, which leads to the terrific moment at this episode’s end where Gina puts back on her disapproving therapist glare and says, “We’ll talk about Tammy next week” before closing the door in his face. If anything, the Gina episodes this season are really laying down just how good Gina is at expertly manipulating her patients (well, the one patient we see) into places where they need to be to make breakthroughs. Even though she must have been aware that Paul would sleep with fellow patient Tammy, something he’d have to know to be a major indiscretion, particularly since Tammy’s married and all, she sent him on this course of action because she knows that he needs to deal with the fact that he’s still very angry at his dying father. The Gina episode deals most directly with the idea of our perceptions skewing things, as she brings up the idea that Paul’s remembrances of his childhood are “screen memories,” memories that he has selectively edited to more fully play to how he wants to remember things. Paul doesn’t want to remember how much his dad cared for his wife and kids, but Gina, using Tammy’s different memories of the Christmas Eve party Paul described last week, forces him to acknowledge that while the man had flaws, he wasn’t the monster Paul remembered. We see people and things in ways that benefit our own interpretations of life, interpretations we arrive at much later on. This was probably the best Gina episode so far, if for no other reason than watching Paul’s controlled explosion of anger and Gina patiently explaining why she doesn’t think Paul became a therapist solely because of his mother’s problems. That image of Paul trying to stop every single person in his life, including his patients, from going through the windshield is as deeply poignant as this show gets.
Week 3 average: A-
Paul best step off. Middlemarch is one of my favorite novels of all time.
I, uh, didn’t think April’s model was all that good, though I did like the humor in the idea that no architecture student can make it through school now without designing a Sept. 11 memorial.
Some other In Treatment fans and I have a long-standing debate as to whether Paul or Gina is the better therapist. There was no question last season that Gina was, but this season, Paul is making a good case that he’s as good as she is when he’s on his game. I think we suffer from not being able to see Gina with anyone but Paul, and I would almost love to see a season where we see GINA with three patients, Paul and her own therapist, played, of course, by Peter Bogdanovich.
I realize I've been giving Walter short shrift these last few weeks as I try to keep these from becoming behemoth pieces. I'll try and touch more on him next week.
As I put the finishing touches on this, I’m finishing up next week’s episodes on a screener. Come back, folks. It’s only getting better.