In Studies on Hysteria, Freud said that his goal as a psychoanalyst was to transform his patients’ “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” As the third season of HBO’sIn Treatment begins, Brooklyn-based psychoanalyst Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) appears more unhappy than any of his three new patients. Two years after last season’s finale, he’s still struggling with the end of his marriage, feeling estranged from his children, and fearful that he may have Parkinson’s disease, which years ago claimed his father’s life. Moreover, now that Paul has terminated his therapeutic relationship with former teacher, professional supervisor, and analyst Gina (Dianne Wiest), he’s feeling especially alone and unmoored.
In back-to-back episodes on two successive nights each week, we see Paul treat his patients, then attend therapy himself. Though some action is depicted outside the two therapists’ offices, most episodes are dominated by the sessions themselves, which unfold as brilliantly performed one-act plays. On Monday nights, Paul works with Sunil (a fantastic Irrfan Khan), a widower from Calcutta who has recently moved to Brooklyn to live with his son’s family, and Frances (Debra Winger), a film and stage actress grappling with her latest role while her younger sister is dying of breast cancer, which she too may inherit. On Tuesdays, Paul counsels Jesse (Dane DeHaan), an adopted gay teen with ADHD who was recently contacted by his birth mother. Finally Paul tussles with his own new analyst, Adele (Amy Ryan), whom he first sees to renew a lapsed sleeping-pill prescription. But when she utters the magic words, “My door is always open to you” (a sentiment Gina refused to extend to Paul when he ended therapy last season), Paul continues to see her.
The scenes that take place in therapy adhere closely to a shot-reverse-shot format, and rooted to their seats, the actors primarily use their eyes to convey the roiling internal struggles of their characters. DeHaan’s rapidly changing expressions have the flickering intensity of storm clouds, and Khan masterfully diverts his gaze to telegraph Sunil’s reluctance even to be a patient (his son and daughter-in-law have forced him into therapy). In the rare instances when Khan looks directly into the lens (the stand-in for Byrne’s sightline), the viewer realizes Paul has broken through and engendered Sunil’s trust, and a seemingly tiny gesture amasses deep dramatic power.
The camera is most often situated behind Paul’s shoulder, the viewer encouraged to participate in the interpretation of his patients’ stories. By the third week of episodes, the latent wishes that bubble to the surface during these sessions will likely jump out at the audience, with Sunil especially. At first, I found myself becoming impatient with him (Why can’t he see what’s going on already?) and with the show’s writers (Why are they making this mystery so easy to solve?). But on second thought, the strategy seems an especially canny way of furthering the audience’s identification with Paul. After all, what therapist hasn’t listened to a patient recount the same stories again and again, the implications of which seeming obvious to the outside observer, but not to the speaker?
While we may admire our own powers of perception and fancy ourselves amateur therapists, In Treatment makes clear that interpretation is only part of this complex process. These insights can’t be gleaned, much less shared, without a foundation of trust between analyst and analysand. An effective therapist not only knows what questions to ask, but also when to ask them, probe further, and perhaps most important, keep his mouth shut. Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the show is watching Paul listen. For instance, he allows Sunil to smoke during sessions, a pleasure that is forbidden to him in his son’s home, restoring some of the man’s sense of control. He must reassure Frances, a minor celebrity, that he will never tell anyone that she’s a patient. For Jesse, who constantly attempts to push Paul to his limit, the therapist must define boundaries; the more steadfast Paul is in his approach, the less chaotically Jesse feels and behaves.
At the same time, Paul faces his own potential fracturing, and as in previous seasons, each of his patients helps him to see something more clearly about himself. Like the widower Sunil, the middle-aged and unmarried Paul feels trapped. Like Frances, he fears that his genetic makeup will wreak irrevocable damage to his health. And like Jesse, anxious about meeting his birth mother, Paul is poised between maternal figures, in Gina and Adele.
Of course, Paul is the testiest and most defensive patient of all and, thrown by Adele’s youth (as well as her loveliness, one suspects), he challenges her at every turn. As Tony Soprano once articulated, in therapy one learns that “what you’re feeling is not what you’re feeling, and what you’re not feeling is your true agenda.” Paul, who should know better, becomes cagey on the couch, resisting his doctor’s scrutiny.
A therapist once told me, after hearing my adolescent impressions of my parents’ relationship, that marriage is merely “a fantasy that two people agree to uphold.” The psychoanalytic relationship is just as beholden to fantasy — both as subject matter and as a therapeutic dynamic — though apparently “common unhappiness” is its aim rather than “happily ever after.” Again, In Treatment is revealing the many intricacies of this relationship.