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Television Review

Separation anxiety as 'In Treatment' ends

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 28, 2008

"In Treatment" hasn't been a big hit for HBO, with an estimated 2 million viewers. But it's one of those TV shows whose 2 million fans are intensely passionate and loyal - they'd have to be to watch some 43 therapy sessions over the course of nine weeks. I've heard from more readers who are fanatical about "In Treatment" - loving its phenomenal acting, obsessing over its psychological twists, stressing about its still unclear future - than from viewers of shows that get five times as many eyes.

Well it's time to terminate with the first season of "In Treatment," and I, for one, am not ready. Tonight at 9:30, the show comes to a close as Gabriel Byrne's Dr. Paul Weston grapples once and for all with his attraction to his patient Laura (Melissa George). It has been particularly excruciating to say goodbye to Paul and his clients during these final weeks, because we've bonded with them so intimately. We've come to know Sophie, Laura, Alex, Paul, Jake, and Amy from the inside out, as if looking through a telescope onto their souls. Most dramas are built on action and foray into character and feeling, but "In Treatment" has been all emotion and introspection, all the time.

Maybe grieving fans feel the same tug this week that therapists feel as they finish up with their most vivid clients. Like therapists, we're letting go of something to which we've been committed, an exercise in ruthless honesty and liberating self-definition. We've been privy to the secret torments and the lifelong challenges of these characters, seen them rise up to conquer their demons or, in the case of Alex (Blair Underwood), succumb.

Nowhere was the beauty of watching a patient open up more profound than in the case of suicidal teenager Sophie, played with amazing honesty (and a flawless accent) by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska. You had to feel for Sophie as she fell apart and put herself back together with Paul's help. At a certain point in her treatment, we realized - as Paul did - that it was foolish to underestimate her. She only needed protecting by a trustworthy adult male to flourish. When Paul barred Sophie's absentee father from crashing her last session, it was one of the show's most heart-rending moments.

Sophie's final words to her mentor: "Farewell old fart." Perfect.

Adapted from an Israeli show by Rodrigo Garcia, "In Treatment" has been a masterwork of scripting from the start to tonight's finish, which lands in exactly the right spot. The writers never cop out on this show with shortcuts, even while the sessions are condensed down to 30-minutes episodes, and that is especially true tonight when Paul goes to see Laura. Some of the finale is jarring, as we leave the office to go to Laura's home - but that strangeness suits the material, since Paul is entering a therapist's moral free-fall zone. He goes to her only after watching his wife, Kate, sleep, something each husband on the show has done at a critical point in the marriage.

The writers have also expertly made "In Treatment" into a hall of mirrors. We've seen Paul's clients reveal their selves as they project their fears and wishes onto Paul; and we've seen Paul reveal his own conflicts through his projections onto his therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest) and his clients. When Paul angrily accuses Gina of trying to stop him from sleeping with Laura, he is, essentially, talking to himself. And we've clearly seen Gina's biases, her impact on the direction that Paul takes. As if inside a turning prism, all the therapists and patients are casting light onto one another to different degrees and at different angles at different times.

The actors have taken these fascinating scripts and run with them. The performances have been outrageously good, good enough to get viewers to forget about all the sitting and staring. As our window onto the patients, Byrne has been the most extraordinary.

By the third week of the series, we could almost read his thoughts while he sat poker-faced, listening. And as a flawed man, finding his own life mirrored in his clients, questioning his marriage and his professional abilities, he has been moving and chilling. He has made Paul's troubles into both a pat midlife crisis and yet so much more. It was through Byrne's character that "In Treatment" questioned the value of talk therapy itself, as Paul lost faith in his power to help others and to be helped by Gina.

Byrne's performance is even more monumental when you think about the mechanics of it. The show was filmed in chronological order, with a few days for each episode. So while the supporting actors came and went over the course of months, Byrne was in almost every single scene without end. That's a dense schedule even for TV actors, who generally face rigorous filming schedules.

About Wasikowska, about Wiest, about Michelle Forbes as Kate, not enough enthusiastic things can be said. In the scene last week when Gina tips her hand about her own romantic passions, Wiest managed to make a passive-aggressive and self-righteous woman wholly sympathetic in an instant. Embeth Davidtz and Josh Charles were a compellingly brittle pair as Jake and Amy, whose estrangement spoke to Paul's fears about his own marriage.

Even the one-time, peripheral performances were unforgettable, most notably Glynn Turman (from "The Wire") as Alex's father, who accuses Paul of shattering his son's much-needed state of denial. Turman was exactly the man we'd been imagining during Alex's sessions, and he even adopted Underwood's mannerisms so that Alex's ghost always seemed nearby.

By the end of tonight's finale, the show has affirmed talk therapy as a healing method. Just as the acting and dialogue of "In Treatment" have thrived within a tight nightly structure, many of the characters on the show have thrived within the careful boundaries of their sessions. And yet "In Treatment" also leaves us with a reminder that therapists are human, too. Like Paul, like Gina, they travel in the footsteps of their parents, they muddle through their own failures, and they suffer their own losses.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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