Drama Therapy


Gabriel Byrne as Paul Weston in In Treatment.

on the couch, in treatment turns therapeutic culture inside out.

Behind the gentle guise of the therapeutic culture of self-help in America often lurks the harsher ethos of up-by-the-bootstraps self-reliance. In either case, a nasty form of the ideology of liberal individualism dominates. It’s all about the self-involved “I,” not the collectively-conscious “we.”

Though imported from Israel, the HBO drama In Treatment succeeds in turning this therapeutic culture of self-help on its head. It does this by using, of all things, therapy.

Stripped down, for the most part, to two actors engaged in extended stage-drama dialogue, with only the occasional intrusion of non-diegetic music (one of a number of the show’s occasional lapses into what New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley called “Lifetime movie territory”), the show insists that the self is deeply social and that only by coming to terms with this inextricable socialness can the self be set free.

When the show is at its best, the language — both spoken and gestural — thickens. Words and glances resonate with therapist Paul Weston’s own predicaments or with the stories of other patients.

Themes emerge in the merest reference, the quietest comment: one week everyone is leaving things behind at Weston’s office; the next week, all are caught along the ethical boundaries of the professional and the personal; and even as large questions about life and death, love and loss, threaten to become banal, or at least mundane, small tragedies and shards of memory suddenly become deeply significant. Nothing seems to make sense, and yet everything feels like it is connected; or, as often happens in therapy, everything suddenly makes sense, it falls into place, but the mystery of the deepest linkages moves elsewhere.

As the shows two seasons unfold, the distinctive details that emerge with each patient start to reveal common narratives: shared stories of personal formation. But the narratives never become one and the same. These characters remain individuals. Indeed, their respective stories are enriched by their shared traits.

Enlivened by excellent acting all around, the stories of In Treatment pivot on Gabriel Byrne’s ability to signal ambivalent emotions with the smallest gulp in the throat, the slightest turning-up of his lip, the rise of a brow, the hunch of a shoulder, and the ability to keep his eyes focused and narrow. Only a great actor could hold the show in place, and could, as an individual, give the story over to collective interaction.

Byrne and In Treatment put therapeutic culture on the couch. When the show is at its best, it gives the lie to self-help. Without ever saying it out loud, In Treatment applies the talking cure to the myths of liberal individualism. In the process, it lets slip (in a political as well as a Freudian way) that the self can only be made whole in the social web of its incompleteness.

Image: HBO

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