The third week of a season of In Treatment is where we really start to get into the dirt of what's going on. Paul might advance some theories, he might have some brutal arguments with his patients, and it might seem like there's never going to be a way forward for any of these people. He tried both of those tactics on Sunil and Frances tonight, offering up a theory for Sunil's life that Sunil dismissed fairly readily and having a big argument with Frances when he refused to help her get ready for her performance for reasons of keeping the boundaries between "therapist" and "friend" clear. At the same time, Paul's messing up his own life even more. His short conversation with his son was fairly sweet, but he didn't handle his response to his younger girlfriend's assertion that he seems happier when she's around very well at all. (To be fair, staring sadly into the middle distance is never the way to convince someone you're nuts about them.)
Sunil and Frances seem just a bit consumed by jealousy. Sunil, perhaps, is driven by a desire to live the kind of life his son has and his fears that his son's life might crumble apart if Julia leaves him for a younger, handsomer author. Frances, it would seem, is deeply driven by anger and envy of her sister, who was always the one the two's mother wanted to be with and even seemed to have an even more natural gift for acting than Frances had, a gift that Frances sabotaged right away. What is it about us human beings that makes us want so badly to have what someone else has or even to be just like them? Why can we never be happy with what we've got? To be sure, Sunil's been dealt a pretty raw deal in the last few months, but Frances is a woman who's had a wildly successful life, yet can't stop looking at all of the little things that went wrong. (Then again, having your husband cheat on you and being cast back into singleness in middle age will do that to a person.)
So let's take a look at these two and figure out who they might really want to be more like.
Sunil: The obvious answer here is that Sunil wants to be more like Arun, who's adapted thoroughly and completely to American culture and doesn't seem fazed by the idea of his wife going out to a party with a good looking young author, wearing a dress with a short hemline and doing her hair to look very smooth and professional. Paul suggests to Sunil that there's an element of jealousy here, that (I suppose) Sunil wishes he could have had the open and free youth and courtship that Arun has had, but he also suggests that there's an element of fear, that a betrayal of Arun by Julia is also a betrayal of Sunil. Sunil responds to this theorizing with over-the-top laughter, but it's the kind of laughter that looks almost as much like weeping. (Indeed, I had to rewind this portion of my screener several times to grasp just what emotions the actor was going for.) It's a laughter that's a little TOO desperate, as if Sunil is trying to keep Paul from seeing just how close to the mark he's hit.
But let me advance a different idea here: The person that Sunil is really jealous of is Paul. I don't think this is literally the case, and I highly doubt the show would ever put it in those terms (or think of it in those terms), but the dominant theme of the Sunil episodes so far is his bafflement at American culture, even as he finds it oddly enticing. It's easy enough to say that when Sunil stands and watches Julia working out and taking out her own anger on herself, he's jealous of his son, who gets to hit that, but I think there's something more going on here. Sunil is trying to adapt to a culture that's wildly different from the one he grew up in, and he's trying to do it largely on the fly as an older man. Paul and Sunil are rough contemporaries, but Sunil will never be as at ease in the American culture Paul is very much a part of because he immigrated here in late middle age, not as a young child. Sunil had a child as a very young man; Paul's obviously waited. Arun has already reached a point where his father's influence doesn't mean that much to him, while Max spends the day home from school, sick in bed, still very much dependent on his father (even as his artwork suggests the kid is beginning to develop his own independence).
This is a richly emotional episode for Sunil, and it's not just because of the laugh-cry scene mentioned above. He also gets to talk about the girl he loved back in India, the one that he was with before the dictates of his culture said he needed to be with another member of his cast, leading him to Kamala. He gets to consider the oddness of the new culture he finds himself in by watching Survivor. And he tells Paul about a special remembrance he and his son held to recall Kamala, on the anniversary of Kamala and Sunil's wedding. There are plenty of great opportunities for Sunil to express the regret that's becoming central to his character, but there are also plenty of opportunities for the show to express just how lost he is when considering how his son (or a man like Paul) could end up doing everything so thoroughly differently. So much of what happens to you is dictated by where you're born, but few people get to experience that acutely. Sunil is in the process of experiencing that, and it's throwing him just a bit.
Frances: I'm not gonna say the Frances half hours are bad or anything; clearly, Debra Winger is giving it her all, and I enjoyed the argument Frances and Paul had this week. But there's something lacking in them that the other three patients have in spades. I can't decide what it is, either. At first, I thought it might be because she holds Paul at arm's length, to a degree, but that's also true of Sunil, and you could make a good argument he's the best patient of the season. Then I thought it might be the fact that she does, in her own way, try to get Paul to cross his ethical boundaries. There may be more to this than the other theory. After two seasons where multiple patients attempted to get Paul to do this (with a few succeeding), there's just inherently less drama in watching the guy hesitate, then cross the line he knows he shouldn't.
But, honestly, I think it might just be that what the Frances story boils down to is something I've seen a million times before. There are two sisters, and one of the sisters always seemed to be favored by everyone she came in contact with, even as the other sister became a world famous actress. And the important thing is that this may not even necessarily be true. Certainly Frances has had great success in her career, and she probably doesn't need to continually compare herself to Tricia to be proud of what she's done. And yet, here she is, still waging the sibling rivalry that began when she was a small child against her sister, even as her sister is dying.
On the other hand, I almost realize the failing is mine here. The material isn't original or anything, but no storyline on In Treatment ever is. This is a show that traffics in fairly obvious clichés because it realizes that in the world of psychology, there are very few things that are new under the sun. Issues with parents and issues with siblings keep coming up because probably 95 percent of psychological issues stem from things that happened to people as small children. Even questions of, say, how you relate to your spouse can sometimes be boiled down to questions of how you related to your parents and siblings as a young child. And the show is certainly presenting this material in as compelling a fashion as it knows how, with Gabriel Byrne and Winger making great sparring partners when she tries to push him too far. Yet something about it is keeping me unengaged, and I'm not sure what it is. On the other hand, there are marked similarities to the Walter storyline from last season in this story, and that one took a while to grab me, too, before turning out two or three of my absolute favorite episodes of this show ever. Maybe we just have to get through all of this to get to the good stuff.