In Treatment: Season Two Premiere

HBO's strangely beguiling series about therapy sessions reboots as Paul grapples with a new life, wondering how he's missed or misunderstood the rules.

In Treatment

Airtime: Sunday and Mondays, 9pm ET
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Hope Davis, Dianne Wiest, Aaron Shaw, Russell Hornsby, John Mahoney, Alison Pill, Sherri Saum
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Season Two Premiere
Network: HBO
US release date: 2009-04-05
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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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