As In Treatment nears the end of its third season, it's remarkable to me just how consistent of a series it seems to be. For each season of the show, there's been a different showrunner (or set of showrunners), and the approaches of these teams are all fairly different. Considering how much work putting together a season of this show is, I'd assume a prospective fourth season would hire an entirely new showrunner or showrunner team, who would give yet another spin on the material. Add in to that the fact that the show boasts exactly one regular character who's carried across all three seasons, and you should have a recipe for incoherent disaster. Instead, the series went from a good but could-have-been-better first season to a terrific second season to a solid if not-quite-as-good third season. The character of Paul has more or less remained remarkably consistent, and the situations he's in haven't repeated themselves so much as to reveal the show's inherently procedural nature.
There's a good reason for this, I think: The show's true showrunner is Gabriel Byrne. He knows the character of Paul so well at this point that he's able to guide the writers, to keep them from doing ridiculous things with the guy and to keep them from utterly destroying what Byrne has so carefully built over the course of the series. Yet Byrne isn't afraid to make this character an ugly one. He's been willing to take Paul to some dark and disturbing places this season, and while the Frances episode tonight gives the sense that Paul is really helping a woman find some closure in a tough time in her life, tonight's Sunil episode suggests that he was too easily misled by a man who didn't have his best interests at heart. (We'll talk more about this "twist" later.) And we don't even need to begin to discuss the depths of Paul's own depression or the way that he's been too possessive of Adele and his fantasy of her as his lover. Byrne is protective of the character, yes, but he's also willing to push into dark territory, and I think he deserves a little credit for that.
Because if nothing else, season three of this show is the darkest that this show has ever been. I mean, sure, we had the Alex sessions in season one and the sense that absolutely no one gave a shit about poor little Oliver in season two, but tonight's episodes are full of permanent leavetakings. And by the very simple trick of messing with the order the episodes air in, by the very simple trick of putting the Frances episode on first, the series creates a kind of tension that it's never had. We're antsy to know just what's up with Sunil, something that underlies a Frances episode that is all about catharsis and moving toward a closure point. It's a gutsy decision, and it pushes the Frances episode in a way that it might not have been. I think it made both episodes that much more interesting, but I can see where some might be too distracted by thoughts of Sunil to pay much heed to what was going on with Frances.
Frances: Patricia is dying. Indeed, she would be dead, if not for Frances' intervention, which brought Tricia to the hospital and stuck the respirator down her throat. Now, the time has come for Frances, who's the one designated to make these decisions in Tricia's living will, to decide whether to insert a feeding tube or not. Tricia's living will makes it quite clear that she doesn't want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures, but Frances is doing just that. She's panicked and isn't sure what to do. If Tricia dies, does that take all of her memories of the two of them as children with her? If Tricia dies, does that take a part of Frances away forever? It would seem so, and this episode is all about Paul trying to help Frances move toward a kind of closure with her decision. When the episode ends, she hasn't made up her mind about the feeding tube yet, but you know that she's made up her mind. She's referring to Tricia in the past tense. If it's not this week, it'll be the next.
One of the things that's been wonderful about the Frances episodes is the way that they've created this full set of characters around Frances that we never meet (except for seeing Izzy very briefly). As we wrap up Frances' storyline, I feel as though I know Patricia and Russell and Izzy, and I feel as though I know Patricia very well, because both Frances and Paul (who's clearly moved to learn of her passing and stops just short of admitting he was somewhat in love with her) knew her so well. It's a tricky thing to do, building characters that no one ever sees, and yet Byrne and Debra Winger have built such solid portraits of these people that I almost feel as though I could see them in my head. Indeed, when I objected to the portrayal of Izzy last week, it was less about the actress and more about the fact that the portrayal didn't fit the Izzy I'd built in my head, like when you go to see a movie adaptation of a beloved book and they get one of the characters all wrong.
The Frances episodes took their sweet time in getting through to me, but I found this one tremendously moving. The idea of letting go of the pieces of yourself that someone else is holding on to is one that the episode expresses very neatly and very beautifully, and I loved the ambiguity of the ending. Will Frances insert the feeding tube or obey her sister's wishes? I think that the choice of the word "was" to describe Tricia speaks volumes, but I'm already seeing arguments heading in the other direction. In a season where the other three storylines were so heavily intertwined with each other and with Paul's life, the Frances half hours were like little islands of some other series, almost a throwback to the show's first season, and I appreciated how they eventually snuck up on me.
Sunil: I'll be upfront here: I'm not so sure how I feel about Sunil as a supervillain, revealing his plan to get deported back to India to Paul. Obviously, what he's done is not villainous at all and is, rather, the last ditch effort of a man who feels no one will ever listen to him. I find all of that completely understandable. But the scene where Sunil reveals the depths of his plans to Paul, reveals just how thoroughly he's been playing the man to get his desired result, that didn't really work for me. Sunil's plan relies on so many different elements going just right, on so many different people acting in just the right way, that I find it a little ludicrous. The twist undermines a lot of good drama, and while it explains handily why last week's episode felt so railroad-y at the time, it also makes much of the season's midsection, indeed, the VERY BEST EPISODES of this season, feel like kind of a cheat. That's always the danger with a twist like this, that it will make everything else feel less important, and while I think the show largely played fair, I'm still not sure the twist makes a ton of sense.
On the other hand, I completely buy the MOTIVATIONS for what happened. I completely buy that Sunil wants to go back to India and is hatching a desperate plan to make someone think he's a threat to Julia, someone who will initiate a chain of events that will result in the police taking him into custody after he refuses to show his papers. He's going to be deported, and though he has no plan, he's fine with that. He'll find a way. He's at home in Calcutta, and it will allow him to be closer to the ghost of Malini, who was pregnant, as many fans have been speculating. Paul's therapy sessions have been good for dredging up lots of things that Sunil hasn't thought about in years, and he's very thankful for that. I also buy that Paul wouldn't grasp what Sunil was doing because he identifies with the man so thoroughly (and I loved the way that Sunil threw much of this back in his face, challenging Paul to take his own leap of faith).
But the idea that Sunil has set this intricate set of events in motion, designed to make sure everybody behaves like clockwork automatons? That just doesn't work with the character as he's been presented. I buy the why of what he's doing, but I don't buy the how of it, and that ultimately undermines what's been a powerful set of episodes, possibly irreparably. It's a fantastic twist in the moment, but the more one thinks about it, the more it falls apart, the more it seems to invalidate the richness of the previous episodes with Sunil. He insists he's not lying about much of what he said, but how can we know? Still, the final scenes of this episode, where Sunil sings the song of farewell to a friend from last week over the phone before the prison guards come to get him, then continues to sing it wordlessly behind the soundproof glass. It's an evocative farewell to a perfectly played character, even if the twist let that character down, and the little wave of farewell he gives to Paul and Paul's look of sadness at that wave speak volumes. I wish the show hadn't introduced this twist, but there was plenty to like in the final half hour.