Monday, May 18, 2009

In Treatment: Week six in review

For the next-to-last time this season, I'm going to be looking at all five episodes of "In Treatment" at once, offering a brief overview of the week and then going patient-by-patient. Spoilers coming up just as soon as I'm placed on hold...
"It's not about you, Paul. They're human beings. They're struggling with profound problems. If only you could find courage to sit with the fact that what we do is hard, and sometimes it makes you feel like an idiot. It's a humbling profession, and if you lack anything as a therapist, it's humility." -Gina
Because "In Treatment" is a scripted drama and not a documentary, Paul's makes more progress, and faster progress, than a real therapist would. While he really only "cured" one of last season's patients (Sophie), he consistently achieved breakthroughs with them over the course of that season. (Mr. Prince would argue that Paul was too successful with Alex, which is why his son is dead and not flying jets.) And here, in this shorter season, Paul has done remarkable work with a group of patients who often fight him kicking and screaming every step of the way.

But as Gina says in the line I quoted above, therapy is often a lot trickier than that. The process doesn't always work, the patients don't always want to let it work, and sometimes outside circumstances conspire to prevent Paul from accomplishing much of anything at all.

And so it feels right, and moving, to see a week in which Paul repeatedly, and painfully, smacked up against the limits of his profession, encountered one scenario after another where his training seemed to be of little use. By the end of the week, it was no surprise he was ranting to Gina about his desire to chuck it all and become "a life coach."

Also, while we may be at the it-goes-without-saying point on the genius of these performances, holy cow was everyone amazing this week. A few specific points on that as we go patient-by-patient...

"Why did she give up? Okay, she was sick for a year. But after that, why didn't she fight harder to be my mother? How come nobody sticks by me?" -Mia
As Paul says to Gina, what can he really do for Mia? The things that Mia wants -- children, and a husband to raise them with -- are almost beyond her now. There's still a chance she could find the right man, and they could adopt, etc., etc., but it'll be a struggle all the way. But at the same time, as Gina notes, the only way Mia even has a chance for that to happen is if Paul can help her learn to let love and affection into her life, to not be so guarded.

Now, when Amy had her miscarriage in Paul's office last season, I didn't like that choice (even though I'm guessing it came from the Israeli version), as I thought the more interesting choice would be for Jake and Amy to realize that a baby didn't come close to curing all the ills of their marriage. But here, I was okay with Mia's condition turning out to be a false positive (does anyone still use the term "hysterical pregnancy"?), because far more than Amy, so much of Mia's unhappiness is genuinely tied up in this lack of a child. Having one wouldn't solve all her problems, either, but it would solve enough of them that, in "In Treatment" terms, it wouldn't give Paul enough to work with to make for good TV.

And while helping her cope with the realization that her fantasy of being a mom was just that, and might always be, Paul also started to make significant progress on helping her deal with the underlying issues that have likely kept her from succeeding in previous relationships. He still hasn't gotten Mia to drop her idealized view of her daddy, but he did at least get her to start re-examining her belief that her mother is to blame for all her problems.

All the patients are, in some ways, a reflection on Paul, and here we got to see him apply a lesson he'd learned from Gina about the unreliability of childhood memory -- of editing your own mental autobiography and learning to believe the altered details -- and show Mia how maybe, just maybe, her mother wanted to reach out to her, but her father made that impossible.

Two great acting moments to highlight here: first Hope Davis as Mia sitting on the couch and debating whether to follow Paul into his office, as if crossing that threshold would make the therapy session real, as opposed to this impromptu waiting room chat she could pretend was just two friends chatting; and then Gabriel Byrne as Paul learning that this was no miscarriage at all and understanding the depths of Mia's pain.

"I don't believe in anything anymore. I don't believe in love, or my mother, or my body, or you. Because of all this stupid therapy, I don't even believe in myself anymore. I literally have no idea why I should get out of bed in the morning." -April

One of the limitations of the series' format is the difficulty in showing an event like Paul at the hospital with April, calling her mother in. It could have been done, but it would have had to be clumsily shoehorned into someone else's episode. So instead, we learn about it after the fact, as the episode opens with Paul and April as physically far apart in the TV frame as possible, her arms crossed, her attitude sullen and chilly. At first, I assumed she was still mad at him for not wanting to take her to chemo anymore, but instead it was this whole other story, with Paul making a choice to violate the one cardinal request April had made of him.

And I understand why he did it -- just as, I think, April finally did by the end of the session, even though she didn't want to admit it. But her level of anger with him, and his frustration with her, led to some amazingly raw acting from both Byrne and Alison Pill. (Pill also had some hilarious black comic moments, like her delivery of "I don't understand: are you for this woman or against her?" She's at the can-do-no-wrong stage for me.)

What we're seeing here, as we saw last week, and as we'll see in the Oliver episode, is that, while Paul's desire to play savior with his patients is admirable, it also creates problems that a more professionally-distanced therapist like Gina simply wouldn't have. April has come to think of Paul as much more than her therapist, and she feels flat-out betrayed by him. No matter how much she might objectively understand why Paul did what he did, it still hurts too much for her to deal with.

And then comes that moment at the end, when she physically can't get herself up off the couch, and has to ask for help from this man whose help she's not sure she wants anymore. Mortifying, devastating, and brilliantly-played.

"You can't help me." -Oliver
And this one hurt -- badly.

With Mia or April or even Walter, Paul at least has the hope that he can do something for them emotionally, even if he can't solve their bigger problem (Mia's loneliness, April's cancer, Walter's career). Here, he has completely and utterly failed to do anything to help Oliver -- not through any fault of his own, but just because Bess and Luke are such selfish, messed-up, oblivious twits that they have created a situation -- where Bess takes Oliver away from the city altogether so she can take this new job -- that no therapist could fix. Paul can rail against them, can cross all kinds of professional lines with them, can flat-out yell, "You have got to figure out a way to look after your son!," but there's no getting through to them. As Oliver realizes, neither of them wants him, and he's stuck with the one who doesn't want him less than the other one.

And the hell of it is, Oliver has grown to like and trust Paul so much that, like April, he can't see him as a doctor anymore, but a father figure. And so of course he pleads with Paul to stay with him, and there's nothing Paul can tell him -- that it's ethically unkosher (I think it is, anyway), or that once Oliver went from being his patient to being his foster son, Paul would likely become just as distant with him as he's been with his own kids -- to ease the pain of being rejected by another parental figure, and especially by the one parental figure who actually seems to like him.

There was a finality to that scene on the playground (beautifully shot by director Paris Barclay) that has me feeling, sadly, like this is the last we'll see of Oliver. Last year, we saw a few episodes towards the end without certain patients, and I could see us getting a "Wednesday" episode in the final week that has nothing to do with Oliver at all. (Maybe Paul's court hearing?)

But dammit, it stinks that it had to come to this for the kid.

"I'm not supposed to malfunction, Paul. That's for other people." -Walter
Wow, and then double wow.

The closing sequence, with Walter doubled over and bawling and wrapping his arms around Paul's leg like a little boy clutching his daddy, was among the most affecting scenes of this incredible week. In fact, I loved it so much, I asked "In Treatment" showrunner Warren Leight (who's been writing most of the Walter episodes of late) about its origins, since he'd alluded to it when I interviewed him before the season. Here's what he had to say:
The truth is, I had been hoping for Walter to breakdown in front of Paul for a few episodes: week four, right after he'd been fired, and week five, in the hospital after his suicide attempt. What was fascinating to me was Mahoney's first take on those two episodes. His Walter stumbled, but he didn't breakdown. And even stayed confrontational. So, after week four, I wrote week five, set it in the hospital, and waited for a breakdown which never came (the Israeli week five was a one on one session between Paul and Walter's daughter discussing her spiritual quest in India, and her lesbianism, I believe. There was no suicide attempt).

After week five, I thought, Walter's defenses are crumbling, but they are all he has, and he won't go down without a fight. So I wrote week six with that in mind. When I got to the last line from Paul, about how the other Walter is the one who wants to live, I thought, 'OK, this will work.' And it did. We had a long talk on the set about the false self and the true self, and how often people split off from themselves to please others or to survive. This seemed to resonate with both actors.

The grabbing of Paul's leg was a spontaneous gesture on Mahoney's part. After the first take, Gabriel came up to me and Paris and said, basically, "How am I supposed to sit in the chair when the man is falling apart in front of me?" He asked if he could go over to Walter, we said yes, and we all decided not to tell John that would be happening. John reacted in the moment, and I think it's one of their strongest moments. Week seven then had to be rethought, to acknowledge, or deny, what had happened in week six.

John would've gone there earlier if we'd asked, but I trusted his instincts. It would take someone like Walter a very long time and a huge amount of pressure before he'd drop his defenses. Older men don't come to therapy easily.
Am I the only one who finds it really cool that the writer of the episode was trying just as hard to get Mahoney to open up as Paul was trying with Walter? In the end, it all played out perfectly, so I'm glad Mahoney had the instincts he did; Walter crying pre-suicide attempt, or even right after, wouldn't have had nearly as much power as it did after this long wait.

Other than Walter's breakdown, the most interesting part of the episode to me was the comment by Walter's shrink from the hospital, about how Paul maybe opened a Pandora's Box he shouldn't have with Walter. That's what he arguably did with Alex, and what I was worried about in the early episodes of this season. I think the "other Walter" does deserve to come out after all this time, but I can't help but wonder if the Walter who came to Paul as a patient will be better off this way.

"I really think that you're acting like an a--hole. I really think that you're a therapist who has remarkably little insight into your own behavior. You are so self-absorbed. You are so entitled. You come in here and you spout the same old bulls--t!" -Gina
Triple wow.

What's usually so wonderful about Dianne Wiest's performance as Gina is the extreme control she displays in front of Paul -- both how she manipulates him where she wants him to go, but how she keeps her own emotions buttoned up tight. While Paul is obviously more demonstrative with Gina than he is with his patients, it's more of a matter of degree; it's not stunning that the guy who occasionally loses his patience with the likes of Luke and Bess might explode even more when outside the confines of his role as a therapist. So to see Gina finally, after two seasons of goading from Paul, lose it and unload on him... amazing. I usually take meticulous, near-transcribed notes of these episodes, but when we got to Gina's outburst, I put the computer down, except to jot down an occasional line or two, because I didn't want to miss a second of this when I might be otherwise distracted by making sure my notes were correct.

After all of Paul's failures during the week, Gina argues pretty convincingly for the value of what they do, and hopefully we won't see him asking for the letter back next week. But things got really, fascinatingly, ugly there for a little while, didn't they?

Finally, I want to say that I've written all of the above without watching the final week's worth of episodes. I hope to get to those in the next few days, depending on my Upfront Week schedule, and to maybe talk to Warren Leight for a season post-mortem interview. I don't know what the future is for the show, or for these patients, but it feels like there's too much left to deal with in each case for the show to wrap up anybody's story the way that season one did, in one way or another, with all of its patients. I'd like to think this year leaves things a little more ambiguously, whether or not there's going to be a third season, and whether or not any or all of these four characters would be a part of it.

What did everybody else think?


Yet another anonymous said...

Wow, wow and more wow. It has to be said again: these actors are giving some of the best performances on television right now, and that's saying something given some of the quality shows on air (particularly on cable).

This show in no way affected me this way last season. I am blown away and rather bereft at the thought that next week is the last week.

Usually, I hate to admit, I watch TV in the background. Not with this show. My eyes are front and center, not willing to miss a nuance. Every episode felt like it was the most emotional, until the next one (I give massive props to Gabriel Byrne, because shooting week six had to be pretty taxing).

They were all incredible (I'm a big fan of Allison Pill's, but John Mahoney was incredible tonight. His face telegraphed more emotions than I think I'm capable of feeling in a half hour!) But I'm just as taken with smaller moments: watch Gabriel Byrne's face as Luke and Bess are telling Oliver about their plans. If I'm remembering it correctly, in the beginning, we don't see Oliver's face much, or at least a very visceral reaction, but the camera shot of Byrne's face telegraphs his anger, his concern and the trainwreck that is about to happen. Gorgeous.

I'm almost afraid to watch week 7: can it somehow even equal the goods of this week?

And Richard Schiff had a good week (unless they are two separate people): first a nice turn on In Plain Sight, then directing an episode of In Treatment.

Anonymous said...

Many Wows.

Even before watching the Gina episode I was thinking about what Paul's scorecard with his patients might be. Are they better or worse off, happier or less happy, at episode seven (or nine) than they were in episode one (IMHO)?

Season One:
Laura: Worse
Alex: Worse
Sophie: Better
Jake & Amy: Worse

This season (through episode 6)
Mia: Worse
April: Worse
Oilver: Worse
Walter: Worse

Even if being a therapist is a little like being a baseball hitter (as Gina suggests), at one for eight, Paul's still got a ways to go to get to the Mendoza line.

I think Paul would be a good life coach. Mia would probably like a dog, but a big one, like a golden retriever. He could buy Oliver a taser on-line.

And speaking of (Supreme Court Justice) Mendoza, props to West Wing alum Richard Schiff for a very nice job directing the Gina episode. If IMDB is to be believed, his only directorial track record is two West Wing episodes.

I must say, I thought the Mia arc had jumped the shark when she "miscarried." But somehow, the writers (and Byrne and Hope Davis) managed to rise above it.

Michael said...

Until tonight, I still had trouble seeing John Mahoney as Frasier Crane's father Martin. But wow is right, he was amazing. I can't believe he did these episodes in between plays.

It'll be a shame when these guys - in particular, Byrne, Mahoney, Pill, and Weist - get passed over for Emmys.

Thanks for writing about this series, Alan, I never would have found out about it last season without your posts.

SR said...

I can't remember another show that offered such a wealth of killer performances week after week. It's not just great drama, it's practically an acting clinic.

Mike F said...

this has easily become one of my favorite shows...pretty much all the actors are terrific...the writing...and especially gabriel byrne...its hard to carry a show like this

I hope they do 10 hbo subscription probably depends on it

Anonymous said...

From Jan:

What a powerful week of episodes! I can't believe next week is the last one. John Mahoney was outstanding, but every one of the actors was just terrific. And poor Oliver. All of them have such incredible facial expressions--just the littlest gesture indicates what's going on inside--even that little half smile that Paul gives Gina at the end.

BTW--for Turtle Scholar: I noticed in the last week of episodes (didn't get around to watching it right away because of the concentration it takes) that Gina suggests that Paul is using his anger for protection--like a shell. I just thought it was worth noting.

fuzzydunlop said...

Surely you meant to say it's ethically unkosher for Oliver to live with Paul?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Um... yeah. Bad typo. Fixed.

Anonymous said...

Great Freudian typo, Alan
Great catch, Fuzzy.

And speaking of The Wire, couldn't you see the remarkable Aaron Shaw as part of the Michael/Randy/Duquan/Namond crew of Season 4? (In some alternate universe, of course.)

Maybe there's a part for him in David Simon's new joint?

Oh, and did any Wireheads notice that Michael Kostroff (the great, awful Maury Levy) has a recurring role on Sonny With a Chance (the Demi Lovato Hannah Montana ripoff) on Disney? Guess the bills must be paid.

If Paul moved back to Maryland, maybe Maury Levy could come in for a few soul-cleansing sessions?

(optional) said...

This week's episode made me appreciate Hope Davis and her ability to play the small moments. Mia is probably the patient with the least to work with in terms of big breakthrough moments. At least so far.

Makes me think Melissa George could have maybe done more with Laura.

kathy said...

Ai yi yi, I need a session with Paul to get over last night. I watched all 5 in a row On Demand. Every episode was tremendous but Oliver's episode had me apoplectic with rage. I know I'm supposed to see his parents as flawed people (as we all are) who are dealing with their own issues but all I could think of was punching them repeatedly in their respective heads.

That scene where the two of them agree to this horrible plan and the look on Paul's face as they so quickly decided to uproot their deeply troubled and damaged child from everything he knows, so as not to inconvenience themselves, that was really difficult to watch.

Every child's worst fear is that their parent doesn't love them or doesn't love them enough and in Oliver's case, it's true. How does a kid his age process that: yes, he's right to feel the way he does. His parents see him as a burden and really would rather not have him around. Horrifying.

This was John Mahoney's week, I loved the scene of Paul calling him out on his bullshit and Walter's entire persona changed, he just deflated.Thanks so much for the sharing that behind the scnes insight, the moment when he grabbed Paul's leg was heart-breaking.

I can't believe there is only one more week.

acool said...

This show is a classic. I agree with all that's been said here. Every episode was written, directed and acted beautifully. This has got to be the role that defines Gabriel Byrne. I am very anxious for another season.

LA said...

What was this, Emmy reel week or something? John Mahoney was spectacular. So were Pill, Byrne and Weist.

A couple random thoughts about the plot:

I was so happy Paul started to challenge Mia about her father. I've been waiting for that shell to be cracked, and I was watching the "clock" with this being week 6 and all, thinking they had better get to it soon.

I was really happy Paul let Bess and Luke have it. They don't listen to Oliver at all, and I loved how Paul expressed the depth of rage (outrage, really) that they would only brush off if it were coming from Oliver. Poor Oliver.

Paul and Gina - Bravo. Standing O.

I don't know if it's the acting, the writing or both, but I am really far more invested in these patients this season, which is why I'm so worried about next week being the last.

I read an interview with Byrne at the start of the season where he said it's physically and emotionally exhausting for him to do this series. I hope there's a season 3, but if there's not, I hope we get a little bit of closure for Paul next week.

Oaktown Girl said...

Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes stuff with us for the Walter story. Really interesting stuff, and I respect this show now even more than I did before.

Susan said...

I'm with you all - Wow. This was an incredible week. Each half hour left me wiped out and exhilarated at the same time. Amazing, incredible stories. Even my least-favorite session (Oliver) had me riveted.

Anon 1:04AM, I have to disagree on some of your "better/worse" assessments. I think Oliver and April fall into the worse category. Oliver's situation has definitely gotten worse, and April hasn't learned at all that she can lean on the people who love her, she's just turned to Paul instead. But I think both Mia and Walter have made breakthroughs that can really help them towards getting better. Mia is starting to see her family situation in a whole new light - and it's pretty clear that her relationships with both parents are partially responsible for the issues she has today - and Walter is starting to see how much he's kept inside his whole life, from when he had to grow up incredibly fast at age 6. Maybe seeing these things will let both of them move on and find some happiness.

This is an incredible show. I didn't watch season 1 and now and then I regret that (when the Alex storyline comes up, mostly), but I don't feel I'm missing anything.

Thanks, Alan, for the interview with Warren Leight. It was really illuminating to see how the writers and actor work together to craft not just the character, but the movement of the plot. I also really enjoyed the article in last Sunday's NY Times Arts & Leisure section about Sarah Treem and Allison Pill and how they've grown really close and how they've worked together to create April.

Marjorie said...

Another typo, under "Gina":

You wrote: "You come in her and you spout the same old bulls--t!" -Gina"

Perhaps you should change "her" to "here...."


Alan Sepinwall said...

Yikes! It's not just that they're typos -- it's that the typos are so fraught with meaning.

Stella said...

Wow times 5! For the episodes themselves and also for your great synopses, Alan.
It is not surprising that the penultimate week would be filled with angst and more angst. What is surprising is that all this angst led to such incredible story-telling and acting. These patients are nowhere near ready to fly on their own, and yet soon those stories will be told and the season will be done. I think you are right about the nature of Season 2: no pretty bows, no funeral wreaths, no sighs of relief. Last year, I argued that Gabriel Byrne should return to In Treatment because the series had left us all hanging; well, that goes DOUBLE for this year (I should wait for the last week, I know, but I feel it in my bones).
The mirroring these patients have provided for the character of Paul has been so well written and so well designed. I feel the writers more than I did last year and I like that.
Thanks, Alan, for your observations and your analysis and especially for your insights about the behind-the-scenes work, with Warren Leight etc. That is really invaluable!
Can't wait for next week and the end. I don't want next week to come and I hate the idea of IT Season 2 ending. Uh oh. I think I am in conflict. ;-)
One last thing: Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest rock BIG TIME!!!
PS. I posted this over at the version of this article, too.

The Bgt said...

This is the second time in a row I had to pause the video player and leave the room to breath a little (last week during April's session this week during Oliver's).

I have never reacted like this watching drama tv. Or cinema. Never.

And I thought last year's In Treatment was extraordinary tv.

I really dunno what else to say, I just hope there will br more seasons, even if I am not surethis kind of quality can be achieved again.

They should create a special OSCAR category for the whole cast..

dez said...

I was really happy Paul let Bess and Luke have it. They don't listen to Oliver at all,Paul has a problem by crossing the doctor/patient boundary so often, but as with the time he took April to chemo, I didn't mind when crossed the border and unloaded on Bess and Luke. They both need to grow up.

I noticed the wave machine came back into play in Oliver's session. Little did the poor kid know when he was playing with the tossing waves that he would soon be sailing stormy seas because of his selfish parents.

And to echo others, John Mahoney was brilliant, as was Dianne Wiest and of course, Gabriel Byrne. I wonder how much therapy Gina needs after putting up with Paul's petulance each week?

Anonymous said...

I don't agree at all with the April - Worse categorization.

Yeah, maybe she's mentally at a worse place but at least she's out of her denial. If she had not seen Paul she would have been dead by now.

Mia and Walter are obviously making breakthroughs. And Oliver?

What the fuck can Paul do, really?

Nicole said...

I don't want to repeat what has already been said, but John Mahoney was really amazing this week. I think if he can get in the same category as Glynn Turman did, he can get the Emmy.

Everyone really is amazing in this show and while I always liked Gabriel Byrne, I am just so glad that he decided to do this show so that I can watch how excellent he is in every episode.

Why can't something like this air 5 nights a week on a network, as opposed to 5 nights of Leno?

Anonymous said...

Why can't something like this air 5 nights a week on a network, as opposed to 5 nights of Leno?Well, for one thing, the commercial breaks would ruin the tone and pacing.

Considering that there hasn't been a season 3 of Be'Tipul yet, I'm curious about the possibility of having a season of In Treatment that originated in America. I don't want anyone to mess with a good thing, but I'm still curious.

acool said...

Gabriel Byrne is brilliant in this show - this is the defining role of his career, I think. Has anyone heard if he's interested in returning for another season?

Anonymous 1:04 said...

I find it interesting (and a tribute to the show and the quality of the discourse about it here) that two smart viewers (Susan and Anon 7:22) argue about my better/worse list in different ways.

I'm beginning to think Paul is right, and that being happy might just be more important than self-knowledge.

Walter is this season's Alex, and my sense is that without Paul he probably wouldn't have dropped the ball on the crisis by going to Darfur in search of Natalie, and thus would have lived to fight another day as CEO.

And as for April, I think she was playing a game, and if Paul had been a dullard like the other Pratt shrink, she would have just given up and checked herself into the hospital with many of her self-delusions intact.

These characters may be hobbling on (emotional) crutches, but Paul (and I) worry that he's taking away their crutches but not teaching them to walk.

I might actually buy it that Mia might be better off, but I can see a real possibility that she falls back into her old patterns, and her newfound insights just make her more aware of what she's doing, and more mad at herself.

And Kathy, I'm with you. Both Luke and Bess need to be smacked upside the head. Oliver (who is from Baltimore BTW) really is of a piece with the lost boys from The Wire. Despite having two parents present, he seems as emotionally neglected as Randy or Dukie.

And thank again, Allan for giving us a place to talk about all this. At least I'll have this season of Breaking Bad to catch up on when In Treatment is over.

Anonymous said...

This is the only show I watch on television. It is AWESOME! I pray there will be a season 3,4,5,& 6!

Anonymous said...
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Alan Sepinwall said...

Please wait for the week 7 post to go up before discussing week 7 episodes.