Knowing the Rules
It’s too bad you don’t have a dog. You could mess that up too.
—Gina (Dianne Wiest)
“You kind of suck at this game, don’t you?” Oliver (Aaron Shaw) and Paul (Gabriel Byrne) are playing blackjack. They’re also waiting for Oliver’s parents to arrive at Paul’s office, where they’re scheduled to talk. This is a new office for Paul, in Brooklyn, and 12-year-old Oliver is one of a new set of patients. It so happens that Oliver is feeling anxious over the upcoming divorce of his parents, Bess (Sherri Saum) and Luke (Russell Hornsby). It’s a situation Paul recognizes from the other end, having just divorced his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes). He doesn’t tell this to Oliver, of course, but the boy wonders why he’s agreed to play poker with him, though Paul hasn’t played before. “If you don’t know the rules,” the boy asks, “Why play? You’re just wasting your time.”
Oliver’s questions are pertinent for most all of the second season of In Treatment. HBO’s strangely beguiling series reboots as Paul grapples with a new life, wondering how he’s missed or misunderstood the rules, how he left his children back in Maryland (he’s seeing them on weekends and on his new MacBook this season), and how he’s going to face his father’s imminent death. Is he wasting his time? How can he go on listening to “other people’s problems” when he has so many of his own? And how can he deal with a most immediate crisis, the death of his patient Alex Prince (Blair Underwood)? As the new season begins, Paul answers his door to find the navy pilot’s father (Glynn Turman), arrived to serve notice of a lawsuit. He blames Paul for his son’s plane crash at the end of last season. Paul looks stricken. “Can we talk about this please?, he asks. Mr. Prince stands outside in the hallway, infuriated. “That’s what killed Alex in the first place,” he says, “Talking with you.”
Talking with Paul is the premise of In Treatment, of course, as each half-hour episode consists mostly of a patient session. The new ones, including Oliver, raise new concerns, pose new dilemmas. April (Alison Pill), an architecture student at Pratt, tells him she’s found his name on line, then opens her first session with a series of observations of his office: “They sort of train us to always be aware of your surroundings,” she explains. When, after a minute or so, she pauses to ask, “Am I talking too much?”, Paul smiles. “People don’t usually ask that question,” he notes, reminding her that these particular surroundings have a particular function. She has plenty to talk about, though she’s loath to do so: her brother is autistic, her mother is unsupportive and angry, her father is absent. Even as she sits on his couch, April resists the process of talking with Paul, unable to speak the reason she’s come, finally only able to divulge it by writing it on a piece of paper. And Paul’s face as he reads the note reveals that he is not nearly so sick of listening to other people’s problems as he pronounces to his own therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest, back for the second season).
Paul’s sessions this time around are sometimes soapy—as they were last year—but they are always mesmerizing. He’s mostly come to terms with the mistake of falling in love with Laura (Melissa George) last year, he must now deal with the aftermath, as she was a factor in Alex’s life and maybe his death, and being deposed for the lawsuit. When Paul hires a lawyer for his case, he finds that one of the litigators is a patient from 20 years ago, Mia (Hope Davis). Now a great professional success, she has memories of her time with Paul that provide a kind of mirror image of his (unconsummated) relationship with Laura, a transference that has lingered for her. Now angry that she’s a 40something career woman without a family, Mia decides to reenter therapy with Paul, in part as a kind of revenge: she comes with stories of the lawsuit’s progress (including Laura’s deposition), as well as her affair with her married boss and her one-night stands. It’s not a surprise that she’s working through “issues” with her father, but it is compelling, if only because of Davis’ consistently remarkable performance: throughout the season, Mia becomes more complicated, less predictable, and at least as smart and sympathetic as Paul.
Less plainly sympathetic and discomfortingly topical, Walter (John Mahoney) is a worried father and CEO. Suffering from insomnia and panic attacks, he insists he’s only seeing Paul because his wife has sent him. Come to find out he’s also facing legal problems, as his company is accused of selling contaminated baby food. A dedicated employee and skillful manager, he refers more than once to his experience in Vietnam and his current sense of going into battle (armed with his BlackBerrys). Walter rejects Paul repeatedly, suggesting another sort of father-son relationship even as he recalls burdens placed on him by his own father and the pain he caused his parents by serving “halfway around the world” in Southeast Asia. Now that his daughter is working in Rwanda, Walter finds himself fearful each day; in Walter and in his delicate, difficult work with the elusive April, Paul sees as well his paternal worries, refracted and amplified, projected into all sorts of possible futures.
Still, Paul avoids talking about his father, watching Oliver deal with his. Luke resents his wife, behaves childishly, comes late for appointments. Bess accuses him of neglecting their child, refusing her efforts to reconcile: every encounter between the parents is an emotional tennis match, Oliver seated between them and Paul’s eyes looking from one to the other, sometimes startled by their patent lack of maturity, other times sympathizing, as they echo his and Kate’s own brutal sessions last season. Oliver is, in a word, terrific, self-aware and confused at the same time, alternately fearing, emulating, and trying to fix his parents (one of their sessions, all of which are directed by the excellent Ryan Fleck, opens on three separate close-ups of their iPods, each individual trying hard to not hear the others).
Oliver’s unable to sleep, and worries about it. “A lot of people can’t sleep at night,” Paul observes. “They can’t empty their minds.” It’s a keen metaphor, alluding again to the labor to get and play by rules, to make relationships right, to feel responsible for errors, breakdowns, and disappointments. Assigned to look after a turtle for science class (“If it dies, I fail”), Oliver promptly leaves it in Paul’s office when he and his parents leave. The potential meanings of this mistake resonate, having to do with fears of failure, abandonment, expectations, and desperate desires to communicate and fit in. Paul keeps the turtle for a few days, providing it with appropriate “surroundings” (water, a rock, and food). Again, a metaphor. As Paul and Oliver exchange ideas about children and parents, security and risk, they share as well as sense of evolving understanding of the rules, no matter how unfair and even as they must sometimes be broken.