One of the central questions of In Treatment from the very start has been this: Is Paul Weston a good therapist? We've certainly seen him become engaged with certain patients and make a difference in their lives. He probably saved the lives of both Sophie and April, for example, and he probably helped someone like Walter further along the path toward being well. But he's also contemplated an affair with one patient, turned antagonistic with others, gotten involved unnecessarily in the personal lives of even some patients he really helped (see, again, April), and built a weirdly co-dependent relationship with his own former therapist. Paul clearly thinks that whatever needs to be done to help the patient is what he will do; he places the good of the patient ahead of all other concerns, professional and personal.
By and large, television trains us to think that this is the way doctors or cops or lawyers should behave. Most shows are built around renegades who do whatever it takes to get the job done, regardless of the consequences that might rain down upon their own heads. What I like about the third season of In Treatment is that it's very slowly showing how almost all of this is a lie, a formula introduced by fiction mostly to make things more exciting. Producers of previous seasons have talked about how they show the patients that really push Paul's buttons or the ones he really gets engaged with because it makes for more interesting drama. And that's certainly true. (We caught a glimpse of Paul in session with a few other patients last season, and that never seemed as interesting as what we actually saw.) But it also has the unfortunate effect of making it seem like that's the ONLY worthwhile approach to drama, that Paul's caring-too-much persona is somehow superior to a more cut-and-dry clinician like Adele.
Season three of In Treatment, then, is slowly pulling back this curtain, revealing more and more that Paul maybe isn't as good of a therapist as he'd like to be. He's gotten a little lazy and lost his passion for his work. He can't seem to steer patients as steadfastly as he used to. His own personal issues and problems are beginning to overshadow everything else, and there's a part of him that wishes he could just check out, take off on the miniature ship he keeps around to remind him of what he once cared about and travel the world for years on end. Paul's an outsider, indeed, rather a born one, and where the previous two seasons suggested that this outsider sensibility helped him be a better therapist, helped him do the things other doctors just might not do, this season suggests, more and more, that his being trapped outside of a vibrant, rich life has hurt him more than he'll ever know and that that hurt may have spread to his patients, even as he was completely unaware. To its credit, season three is engaging directly with these questions, even if it makes the main character seem like less of a saint.
Jesse: One of the other major questions of season three seems to be this: What does it mean to be a parent? Is the parent the person who's there to take care of you and feed you and clothe you from when you're a baby on? Or is a parent just someone who gives you some genes and sends you on your way? What obligations do we have to the people who are our biological parents but aren't necessarily those who raised us? Paul, obviously, is struggling to figure out his role in his son's life, now that his son has a new step-father who's perhaps better able to share some of his son's interests. Sunil can't quite comprehend that his son is now a separate man from his father. Frances is unable to escape the feelings caused by the death of her mother and by the fact that she, in some ways, would almost like to step in as a motherly figure for her ailing sister. And now we have Jesse, who puts this question to the audience most directly by being torn between his adoptive parents and his biological parents.
This half hour presents both sides of the story. Jesse's adoptive parents, Roberto and Marisa, have both finally learned of his birth mother's contact with him, and they've reacted in different ways. His father has taken more of a keen interest in his son's life, helping him study for an algebra test, which he manages to pull a B on. (One of the nice things about the Jesse sessions is that, since we started with him and Paul already several weeks into therapy, the exposition is mostly non-existent, but the show trusts us to know that when Paul is excited for Jesse doing so well in algebra, we'll accept that it was a problem spot for him before. I hope a theoretical season four features many more patients already in the middle of therapy.) Marisa, however, checks out almost completely. She spends the week in bed, obviously struggling with some sort of depressed state, and the only time she seems to get out of bed is when Jesse goes to see her and finds her kneeling in her closet, praying. (It's a rather too-neat reversal, actually: Just when Jesse steps fully out of the closet, Marisa takes her Catholicism back inside.) And yet these people did raise him from infancy. They do love him. They do want what's best for him. And Roberto is right that Karen contacting Jesse was illegal, as Jesse's a minor.
But, that said, Jesse IS 17. He's under a year away from being able to seek out his birth parents on his own, and presumably under a year away from moving out of the house to be an independent adult. Even though he reacts poorly to the idea of contacting his birth parents (an idea advanced to him by his biological father, Kevin, in a letter), Paul surmises that he might just be doing this because he doesn't want to hurt his adoptive parents, not because he's suddenly lost all interest in his origin story. And when you lay Jesse and Kevin's letters right next to each other, the handwriting is remarkably similar. Somewhere out there, there are two people who have the essence of Jesse's genetic material, and the pull of that is intoxicating to Jesse on some level. It doesn't mean that he no longer loves his adoptive parents, just that he's at a place where seeking out his identity is supremely important. Some adopted kids choose to ignore their roots, accepting the people who took them in and raised them. But some need to know more, even if they understand their adoptive parents to be their parents (in most sense of that term). Some just need to know why they're the way they are. It's that desire that directly confronts Jesse this week, and it's that idea that makes his episodes the most interesting to me.
Adele: I'm gonna be completely honest with you here: I didn't quite like Paul's sudden turn toward admitting that he has a certain, creepy desire for Adele. He's smart enough to realize that his feelings are a textbook case of transference, just like Laura felt for him back in season one, but he's not quite powerful enough to push those feelings down. And then Adele suggests that maybe he shouldn't push those feelings down, maybe he should give them their full voice. It's easy to leap from here to thinking, immediately, that Adele reciprocates those feelings, that she's not as detached as she might seem, but I'm pretty sure what the show is telling us is that Paul's lack of passion and feeling, his desire to tamp down some of these things in the guise of being the perfect, stand-up guy, is unquestionably a bad thing that has stunted his development. What Adele is pushing at is the idea that even if Paul's feelings aren't terribly appropriate, he should still be feeling them. Her space is a safe space to talk about these feelings, even if they directly involve her. That said, seeing Paul confess these feelings was tough to watch, and if Adele IS interested, it'll be a hard flaw for the season to overcome.
Still, the rest of this was powerful TV. Adele's right in that Paul has constructed certain stories for himself that he needs to live by, and even though Gina did some good work in helping him tear some of those down last season, particularly in regards to his father, he's still held prisoner by these ideas that always place him in the role of the victim, the boy torn away from boarding school or a happy life by a father who walked out on his family and left his son to care for an ailing mother. And yet, Adele suggests, Paul had plenty of time to get involved at boarding school. He had plenty of time to get involved at the school he was placed in when the family moved to Baltimore. And yet he didn't. He sat on the outside edges, looking in, trying to determine what made the other students click. Paul lets others do his feeling for him, he says, and Adele wonders why that might be. He remembers boarding school as a good time, but in his dream, he's outside the school, and he feels anticipation. Maybe his memory isn't what it's cracked up to be.
Which brings us back around to the end of the episode. Adele wants Paul to begin feeling things for himself, and if that means what he's feeling is a creepy infatuation with her, so be it. Paul's already talked about Googling her and how he sometimes thinks of her when he should be having sex with Wendy. (Now, let's be honest; everybody Googles their therapist at one time or another, but you never TELL your therapist that.) I think what we're getting at here is that Adele's willing to do some of the stuff Gina never could because Gina and Paul were too dependent on each other. I think what we're building toward is Paul discovering his new passion, the better to make whatever the season finale is work better as a series finale should the show be canceled. It just feels a bit uncomfortable to go through this choppy water on the way there.