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Divorce, sexuality and the cult of self-improvement


In Treatment (M). Starring: Gabrielle Byrne, Irrfan Khan, Debra Winger, Dane DeHann, Diane Wiest, Amy Ryan

Discussing her 2011 film Sleeping Beauty, Australian filmmaker Julia Leigh coined the term 'tender witness', an appealing euphemism to describe the cinematic voyeur, who pours over characters' private moments without menace or malice. It is such an attitude that audiences are asked to bring to the excellent American series In Treatment — the third series of which is underway on the Foxtel channel Showcase.

The HBO drama epitomises the fine writing and performances that have become hallmarks of that network's impressive slate of productions of the past decade, from The Sopranos to The Wire to Game of Thrones. It offers an in-depth consideration of the nature, the strengths and pitfalls of the discipline of psychoanalysis, exacted within the various sombre-toned offices of therapist Dr Paul Weston (Byrne).

Each half-hour episode provides a snatch of a therapy session between Paul and one of his patients, played out in real-time through reams of utterly captivating dialogue. The therapist's office is a place where frankness is not only welcome but imperative, and self-examination is a veritable artform. The revelations made are therefore at times shocking, at times funny, at others deeply moving, but always illuminating.

The characters recur and their stories are cumulative, so that (in the current series) we spend each Monday with Sunil (Khan), a displaced Indian widower; Tuesday with Frances (Winger), a well-known, middle-aged actress whose sister is dying of breast cancer, to which she too may be genetically predisposed; and Wednesday with Jesse (Dane DeHaan), a gay teen with a self-destructive streak. Their stories and selves unfold week by week.

According to In Treatment tradition, Friday's episode is reserved for Paul's session with his own therapist (Wiest in seasons one and two; Ryan in season three). It is here that we learn the extent to which the intently compassionate persona he presents during the sessions he conducts with his own patients is a skillfully executed front. His own emotional traumas, self-delusions and egotism are as deeply dug-in as those of his patients.

Part of the brilliance of the series — a feat of both writing and performance — is how each patient's individual story, while following its own narrative arc towards a satisfactory resolution, also provides a kind of subtext to Paul's overarching narrative. This was most pointedly seen in series one, when Paul guided a couple through the final ugly stages of a marriage breakdown, even as his own marriage was disintegrating around his ears.

In the current series, Frances' terror of contracting cancer resonates with Paul's private fear that he is in the early stagtes of a degenerative illness. Sunil's feelings of helplessness as he adjusts to life in a new country reflects Paul's fears of aging and infirmity. Jesse represents a possible future-glimpse of Paul's own, increasingly alien teenage son.

It is a career-defining role for Byrne, who embodies Paul down to every well-rehearsed gesture and mannerism. To his therapist each week, Paul gradually, grudgingly exposes his fears and prejudices; and these truths tick beneath the stoic surface of his 'game face' during his sessions the following week. Ultimately this only serves to augment the humanity that inhabits every crease of his careworn face.

The audience may ponder whether the doctor or the patient is the more deeply disturbed. But as 'tender witnesses' we are invited to sympathise with both sides of the therapist's couch. So much humanity broils among the sometimes heated, sometimes intimate exchanges of dialogue that we cannot help but identify with all who speak it. Even as In Treatment gently satirises the cult of self-improvement, it promotes empathy for the other. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, In Treatment, Gabriel Byrne, psychoanalysis



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Existing comments

I'm currently reading an essay by Robert Manne (published in The Monthly) about "The Cypherpunk Revolutionary: Julian Assange". It's a revealing portrait of a complex character (aren't we all!). Last night, I read this passage about Assange's disillusionment about the initial impact of WikiLeaks: "He had once hoped for engaged analysis from the blogosphere. What he now discovered were what he thought of as indifferent narcissists repeating the views of the mainstream media on 'the issues de jour' with an additional flourish along the lines of 'their pussy cat predicted it all along'." The story of Assange continues. And so does our story. Sometimes there isn't an unmessy ending though...

Pam | 12 July 2012  

In Treatment is an excellent series that captures so intimately the depth of the therapeutic relationship. Including the need for clinical supervision gives it a real .credibility many programmes lack these days. Whether therapeutic goals are achieved seems to run a very distant second to getting caught up in the many moments that make this series such a good watch.

Damien | 19 July 2012  

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