‘In Treatment’: Week four in review

Once again, we’re going to review all four “In Treatment” episodes from this week in a single shot, coming up just as soon as I draw out the Pythagorean Theorem for you…

Though this season is the first of the series to not be based on pre-existing “Be’Tipul” episodes, it’s clear Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein are following the same kind of arc to their season. Week four is the midpoint, and as happened last year, it’s the week Paul finally begins to break through to his patients – and in turn has a breakthrough with Adele – often coming up with truths so close and cutting that his patients literally can’t say anything in response.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those breakthrough moments made this the most uniformly satisfying week of the season. (I even enjoyed the Frances episode, which will get to in a bit.) That said, a comment by reader Josh Morrison on last week’s review helped crystallize something about this season to me.

I’d already been concerned that the patients’ problems (Frances’ in particular) were a little too obvious, and that it was harder to be patient through the therapy, even with the great acting, if it was so clear (and in some cases so familiar) what was going on inside the patients’ heads. But Josh also pointed out that this is the first season of the show where Paul’s relationship with the patients is relatively uncomplicated.  Many of the stories in season one and two had an added layer of tension – Paul’s desire to sleep with Laura (and vice versa), Alex’s attempt to control the therapy, Mia knowing so much about Paul through the legal case, Paul literally having to save April’s life, etc. –  where this season he has a far more traditional doctor/patient relationship with all three. (Even Jesse seems in much less need of a surrogate parent than Sophie or Oliver did, since he already has too many parents to choose from.) And that’s fine, and more realistic – I would argue that season one pushed things too far in that direction – but it does take away a layer of tension from the show (except in the Adele episodes, where Paul continues to push the boundaries this week). And I think that’s the layer I was missing when I wrote about my initial ambivalence about the season before it started. It’s still a great show, and arguably truer to the world of therapy than before, but this season is also serving as a reminder, I think, of why drama often needs a heightened level of reality, even if it’s only slightly heightened.

And now that Josh has helped me with my own breakthrough about this season, let’s move on to the four episodes of week four…


“I felt as if I had already buried something.” -Sunil

Just to continue the above point for one more second, I will say this: if the performance and the writing are great enough, the show doesn’t always need that extra layer. And my sweet lord, Irrfan Khan and the writing by Adam Rapp have been so brilliant that the Sunil episodes need nothing more than what they’re already giving us.

Khan has done such a great job of inhabiting this character that there are episodes where I want to do nothing but watch what he does with his hands. So much of Sunil is defined by his gestures – how he’s always fussing with the items in his pocket, how he often talks to Paul like the math professor he used to be, and how his hands seem to settle down as Paul makes him look inward rather than out at Julia as the cause of all his problems. I just love watching the guy in both small moments and big ones, like his rant about how he’s Arun’s father. His eyes are red throughout the session, before and after he cries in front of Paul, and it’s clear that the last few weeks of therapy have been opening up reservoirs of pain and grief he’d ignored for decades.

Sunil’s unhealthy obsession with Julia continues (we again get a story about Sunil silently observing her and Arun for a disturbingly long period of time), but Paul begins to suggest that it’s less about his daughter-in-law than how Julia and Arun’s relationship reminds him of his own passionate affair in college. And we learn a tragic new detail – that Sunil’s girlfriend drowned herself in the river after breaking it off with him – that reshapes much of what we know about Sunil, and much of what he must think about himself.

I love Rapp’s portrait of this guy, and the way he puts these gorgeous, sad little phrases in Sunil’s mouth, like how he describes the feeling of the break-up by saying, “I felt like someone was pulling a spool of hot thread through my heart.” Damn.

I made a lot of Walter comparisons last week, and I think Paul’s making the connection, too. It was after their session at this point in season two that Walter tried to kill himself, and Paul’s instructions at the end of the session were clearly that of a doctor worried his patient is a suicide risk.

I don’t want to see the show duplicate its structure to that degree, but I also wouldn’t find it the least bit shocking if there’s a hospital visit in Paul and Sunil’s future.


“It’s a very nasty hangover, my life.” -Frances

Maybe it was the haircut and her other attempts to relate to her character, or maybe Paul’s just doing a good job, but Frances this week was much softer and less defensive than she’d been previously. This was a vastly more vulnerable, and likable Frances, and Debra Winger got to do some terrific work this week showing Frances with her guard down. Most of this episode’s best moments came in silence, as Frances simply had no answer for Paul’s questions, whether it was about the satisfaction she got out of roles or Paul asking what she thinks of the life she chose. At the moment, she thinks very little of it, unfortunately.

This was definitely the best of the Frances episodes so far, and I loved how exhausted Paul seemed at the end after pushing so hard to make her see what the important question is. When he has his mojo working, the therapy can be tremendously satisfying to him (as he discusses with Adele), but it can also take even more out of him than a more routine, less productive session.

The problem – and one that’s not going away unless there’s a surprising revelation in the next couple of weeks that turns this story on its head – is that it is so, so, so familiar a story. The “In Treatment” format allows us to examine that story in greater depth than usual, but it’s still another tale of an actress who’s insecure about her work and yet feels completely empty outside of the roles she plays.  

(I was also glad to get a brief glimpse of Mae Whitman as Rosie at the start of this one, and I continue to wish that we see Hope Davis or John Mahoney in a brief cameo leading into someone else’s therapy session.)


“It felt… fucking awesome.” -Jesse

Every episode of this show is compressing a 40+ minute therapy session in a little over 20 minutes, and that inevitably leads some of them to feel a bit compressed. Rarely have I felt the kind of emotional whiplash that I did throughout this one, but with Jesse, it never really feels out of place.

(Though the shifts were really more about Jesse’s desires than his mood, as he was relatively even-keeled in this session. Maybe he didn’t just take the Adderall before writing the letter?)

Jesse’s problem – he wants to believe his parents care about him – is in many ways just as familiar as Frances’. The difference, I suppose, is that with a teenager – and this one in particular – the emotions are far more raw, so even though I’ve seen many variations on this theme before, I still feel as slapped around by each session as Paul usually does.

Perhaps the episode’s strongest moment came with Paul again assuming the role of surrogant parent, as he did so well in seasons past with Sophie and April and Oliver. Jesse lists all his flaws and asks, “Would you have wanted a kid like me?” And Paul barely misses a beat before saying, unequivocally, “Yes.” What I like about that moment is that Paul’s response obviously means a lot to Jesse, but it doesn’t mean too much. As I mentioned above, he’s not looking for Paul to be his parent, but to help him sort through the jumble of potential parental figures before him. And though I expect things to get worse before they get better (this is, again, a season of “In Treatment”), this seems an area Paul is very well-suited to help him navigate.


“Do you know why? I was thinking about you.” -Paul

Paris Barclay directed this week’s bookend episodes, and there was a sense of intimacy – beyond even the show’s usual standard – to them. Here, the big moment is Paul’s confession of his attraction to Adele, with the camera seemingly inching closer to each of their faces with every back and forth cut. For a show that’s nothing but people talking about their feelings, there can be an incredible amount of tension to “In Treatment” sometimes – What’s the patient about to say? Or Paul? And will the listener respond well to it? – and as the show’s chief director, Barclay unsurprisingly has the best command of that tension. By the time Paul broke the spell by talking about transference, I was feeling a bit flushed myself.

We know of Paul’s history with Laura, and of his discussion with Gina that he and Mia might have made a good couple in another life, so it’s not surprising that he might once again conflate the intimacy of the room with more romantic feelings – that he might look at his attractive, younger, very sharp new shrink and view her as the solution to his lifetime of unhappiness. And because Adele is an unknown to Paul and to us – and because of how Amy Ryan shows Adele’s guard briefly dropping at this unexpected admission – there’s this tiny bit of uncertainty that she might be interested, too. I can’t imagine it, either from what little we know of the character or from the standpoint of the show repeating a problematic first season storyline, but in a season where I’ve so often felt like I knew where each story was leading long before it got there, Adele’s reaction to Paul’s admission was a rare moment where I was glad to have no idea where this was going.

What did everybody else think?

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