Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I have no idea whether HBO plans a third season of In Treatment or if the Israeli source material went into a third installment but I have to commend Gabriel Byrne on his stamina. For an actor of his stature to do what's essentially a season and a half of television in which he's in almost every scene while playing a grumpy, self-absorbed, and emotionally distant man the material has to be pretty good, and the second season of In Treatment largely lived up to Byrne's commitment to his role. Beginning with a visit from the father (Glynn Turman) of the patient who died while in Paul's care last year, season 2 began with Paul's visit to a lawyer named Mia (Hope Davis) about the lawsuit brought by the patient's family.
Paul and Mia have a history; he had treated her years before when she was pregnant and Mia holds him responsible for the decision to terminate the pregnancy and for her failure to find a husband and raise children in ensuing years. I've been a fan of Hope Davis since Next Stop, Wonderland, and her theater background serves her well in the show's close quarters. Yet the Mia episodes didn't shed much light on Paul's behavior with Laura and Alex in season 1 (though Davis's resemblance to Melissa George can't have been an accident) or on why Mia hasn't had much luck meeting a man. Mia is all over the place emotionally; telling tales of casual sex after bursting into Paul's office with baked goods then recalling a break down after a fight with her father. A couple of episodes dangled some erotic tension between Paul and Mia but that felt forced given the disaster of the near-relationship with Laura. Despite Davis's strength Mia ended up being the most conventional character of the season, simply not possessing the tools to balance work and a personal life thanks to mixed messages from her parents and a major case of denial.
This season of In Treatment belonged to Alison Pill and John Mahoney. Pill's flinty April was a sort of inverted version of season one's Sophie (who gets a callback in the final April episode). Where Sophie was anger and raw emotion, April comes to Paul with her defenses already up. Recently diagnosed with cancer, April is convinced that going through chemo and allowing her family to help her would be signs of fatal weakness. Pill's collapse in Paul's office when he won't take her to chemo a second time was the scene of the year, but it's her insistence on subsequently expressing grief at the death of Paul's father and on not being allowed to act like a brat in Paul's office that marked the biggest change in the show this season. Season one's patients seemed concocted to bring Paul to a crisis point as a husband and father, to set up why Paul is divorced and living in Brooklyn this year. Season two's patients are much more combative - arguing with Paul, acting out and then apologizing, or in the case of divorced mother Bess moving away despite the fragile emotional state of unhappy son Oliver (Aaron Grady Shaw). April's insistence on thanking Paul for the work they've done gives her story arc a pleasingly unruly finish, a sense that her life exists outside the office and will maybe even eventually lead back to therapy.
John Mahoney's Walter is a character we really haven't seen on TV before, a successful man at the end of his professional life (a CEO forced out after a scandal) who isn't sure what to do next. Like all of the other patients (except maybe Oliver), Walter's story isn't really resolved but we've seen the most interesting part therapeutically speaking. Mahoney gets to play a range of emotions rarely seen in a single TV season, from curt dismissiveness (we get the feeling he's squeezing Paul in) to utter helplessness. I always thought Mahoney was wasting his time on Frasier (go back and look at his performance in Say Anything), and his work here makes me think about what roles he might have played in the years he was tied down by his TV job.
If In Treatment has aired for the last time then it's stopping at a good place. Paul, who in the last episode ends his own therapy with Gina (Dianne Wiest), has learned a little humility and the limits of what a therapist can do and is free from the legal cloud he was under when the season began. Byrne's performance will live on thanks to DVD and reruns but I can't help wondering if he isn't ready to show a few more colors.