Let me tell you about my television therapist. Lauren over at The Hedgepig has the same therapist I do. We both have a personal reaction to In Treatment. Mine is a bit more personal than hers, but I think I have been in television therapy longer. Spoilers for Season 3 abound in this essay, so please be forewarned.
The three seasons of In Treatment provided a remarkable character arc for one particular character. Paul Weston, played with shape-shifting mastery by Gabriel Byrne, began the first season as an accomplished therapist who was beginning to show the cracks of professional burn-out and personal despair. Byrne was mesmerizing, but so was his alter-ego, Dr. Weston. Distinguishing between the two, as episode piled on episode and those eyes sometimes pierced through the lies and dissembling of crying and arguing patients and sometimes just shone with emotion and empathy, became almost impossible. What I did not realize at the time is now so obvious that I smile ruefully when I consider it. The writers and other creatives involved in the series, and their lead actor, pulled the oldest trick in the dramatic book. They made me fall in love with Paul and then they used their Socratic muscles and made me care about the other players, and then the play itself.
But not right away. Laura. Alex. Sophie. Jake and Amy. Interesting, of course, all of them. Real, multi-dimensional, complicated. Sophie in particular grabbed my heart and would not let go. But no one held my rapt and absolute attention the way Paul did. How could this be? I knew this guy, the actor Gabriel Byrne. I had seen most of his films over the years and always appreciated his work. None of that prepared me for the experience of falling madly and perilously in love with this image that danced on my television screen. It was such an intense experience that I wrote a letter to The Powers That Be, politely requesting a second season, please. Virginia Heffernan at The Medium, a blog she wrote for The New York Times in 2008, published my letter. I was feeling anything but polite. I was in deep withdrawal. I wanted more patients and more stories. Mostly, though, I needed more Paul.
Season 2 was a very different kettle of fish. The patients began to enter into my experience of the stories more forcefully. I was so touched by April, so pissed off at Mia, so intrigued by Walter and Oliver–Paul was as entrancing and disturbing as ever, but the characters with whom he was interacting began to play an equal role. How could so much pain and anguish be borne? How could people struggle so hard to not change? How could they not recognize what was happening to them? And how could Paul just sit there, appointment after appointment, dealing with this onslaught of self-delusion and deception? How? Because he was as self-deluded and deceptive as they were. This was unthinkable. But it was turning out to be true and it was fascinating and ultimately far more instructive. The writers and the actors created a world I understood now. The human condition was playing out on the screen every evening. And now I saw that the healer needed to be healed. How intriguing was that?
Nothing prepared me for Season 3. Here is the personal part. My husband passed away on October 16 after a long illness. A few days later, the new season, for which I had been preparing at this website for weeks, began. I did watch (it was better than crying my eyes out all the time), but often I turned away. There was too much that was too true for me. Sunil had lost his wife of thirty years and was inconsolable. Yes. Frances was faced with death in her family and the possibility of her own illness. Yes. Jesse struggled with his adoption (I am adopted myself), which turned out to be much more important than his sexual orientation. Yes. And Paul was sure he was developing Parkinson’s disease (a disease that destroyed my biological father) plus he was having his old doubts about his work. Yes.
Good God. This was not entertainment. Or drama. This was real life (my life!) spilling out of the television into my living room (a room that used to be “our” living room). I found that my regard for Paul as a therapist, while not diminished, moved to the background, and the stories of his patients and his own personal struggles transfixed me. How could fiction be so real? How could something on the screen reflect the reality of my existence so accurately, so intensely? The fourth wall was completely blasted away during these episodes. I was there. They were here. This does not happen. Was I crazy?
The entire experience escalated when Adele, just before the great Transference, said with compassion and some force to Paul:
You accept a growing paralysis rather than taking a risk of finding where or towards whom your real passion lies. Is it any wonder you haven’t found what drives you yet? You’re fifty seven years old. At a certain point you have to move past the stories that you’ve assigned to your life. The steadfast explanations that you’ve settled on years ago. You have to look at yourself again. For real answers. You have to take that risk.
Watching Paul take in her words was a revelation (Gabriel Byrne should win every award on the planet for this role). And typically, he prevaricated by playing the Transference card. Hearts fluttered. But Adele could have been speaking to me. She was speaking to me. And yes, I am fifty seven years old (that is the last of the fiction/real life parallels, thank goodness). I tried to talk to her on the screen. How, Adele? How in the world do I do that? Later, I found myself remembering her words (the words of Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein, of course, but Amy Ryan makes them so real and so natural that they seem to flow wisely from herself) over the next weeks and attempting to follow through on her advice. Move past the stories you have assigned to your life. Look at yourself again. You have to take that risk. I was in television therapy. Paul was in treatment. I was In Treatment.
As the ending of each character’s story played out, I breathed a sigh of relief. These endings were disturbing (Jesse), unexpected (Sunil), and real (Frances). Watching their experience with Paul come to a close made me feel better about my own life and good about him as a therapist. My own life had no closure, so it was comforting to view closure on the screen. And comforting to see Paul follow through for his patients. He failed and he succeeded. He was no longer the icon I had experienced in the first season or the troubled but appealing enigma of the second. He was a man dealing with his own pain. But he was there for his patients anyway. He always tried and he never gave up, no matter how often he said he would. He never gave up.
Until he did. “My door will always be open to you.” “Well, that’s okay. You can close it behind me.” Seeing Paul walk out of Adele’s office and into the streets of Brooklyn, a changed man, brought the entire story to an close for me. Somehow, over the course of the weeks he had spent haranguing, hiding, and transferring in her office, she had led him to this realization: that he could no longer be a therapist. His reasons are his own–it’s too confusing, it’s too hard, I need to free myself, I have to stop, I can’t sit in a room listening to people anymore–and he still finds it difficult to be honest with himself sometimes, but we know that he cannot continue to try to help and heal others at the expense of his own psyche. And since he cannot figure out a way to do both–help others and become whole himself–it was time to stop.
So, then, it is time for In Treatment to stop, too. Television therapy has much to recommend it, but when the therapist moves on, we must move on, too, painful as it might be. There is a way to make Season 4 a reality, of course. Adele takes Paul’s place and the line of patients knocking at her door continues. Paul might even be one of those patients. Probably not, though. He’s off writing his book. “The Artifice of Therapy: One Man’s Journey.” And what a journey it was.
PS. Other therapeutic assistance that has helped me, in case you are wondering, includes friends and family who understand and reading Talk Therapy over at HBO [It is no longer available, I’m afraid]. I am very lucky to have people in my life who care about me during this dark time and also virtual friends here at the Forum. Will I ever seek therapy in real life? Probably not. But I will always have my television therapists–Paul and Adele on DVD and DVR–to help me through the rough spots. smile