In Treatment

A noted feminist scholar tells us why this TV masterpiece pulls us in — and what gender has to do with our responses to the action in the therapist’s office.

In my world, there are two kinds of people — those who don’t watch the HBO series “In Treatment” and those who regard it as one of television’s greatest works of art. This spring, each half-hour episode (there are five every week) concentrates on the therapy session between Dr. Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne, and one of four patients. The fifth and final weekly episode shows Paul, a psychologist who is having his own emotional and vocational life-crisis, consulting his therapist, Dr. Gina Toll, played by Dianne Wiest.

Now, having seen the final episodes of season two at the end of May 2009, and understood its narrative arc, I’ve realized that “In Treatment” divides its audience in terms of gender. It’s not that male viewers are less impressed by the program than female viewers; I have had a regular email exchange with my old friend Frank in Boston, who is perhaps even more stunned and moved by the performances of Gabriel Byrne, Alison Pill, Hope Davis, Aaron Shaw, John Mahoney, and Dianne Wiest than I am. But, as befits a series about Freudian psychotherapy, the concept, writing, construction, and acting of “In Treatment” are strongly marked by sexual codes, fantasies, and reversals which read differently for men and for women; and for me, those give the series much of its subtle originality and timeliness.

Readers of Lilith may already know that “In Treatment” is an American adaptation of a prize-winning Israeli television program, “B’Tipul,” which aired in 2005. The original series was freighted with metaphors about Israeli issues of living with crisis in a society burdened by history and the struggle for survival. In the first HBO season, some Israeli political themes were translated into American terms. The Israeli sabra veteran, guilt-ridden over participating in a massacre in Lebanon, and his Holocaust-survivor father became the American fighter pilot who mistakenly bombed an Iraqi school and his fiercely patriotic and rigid father. Aficionados like myself, obsessed with details of background and adaptation, can listen to podcasts of a UCLA conference on the Israeli-American contexts at www.

But in season two, more personal and primal issues come to the fore: birth, facing illness and possible death, divorce and parenting, suicide versus painful self-renewal. In the original Israeli episodes, almost all the scripts were written by Israeli women, still credited in the American version: Yael Hedaya, Keren Margalit, Shiri Artzi, Daphne Levin. In the American series, the brilliant young playwright Sarah Treem (“A Feminine Ending”) wrote the scripts for the case of “April,” the most emotionally wrenching of the sessions, in which a 23-year-old architecture student, shatteringly portrayed by Alison Pill, faces a diagnosis of cancer. The episodes with Paul and his therapist, Gina, were written by the playwright Marsha Norman (best known for “’night, Mother”). All the writers are wonderful, but the unheralded presence of Treem and Norman makes this series the most significant television showcase for women’s dramatic writing talents since Wendy Holtzman scripted “My So-Called Life.”

Does it make a difference to have women writing the scripts? I think so. In psychiatric drama generally, according to the Freudian cultural template, the therapist is male and the patient is female. He is the father; she is the seductive, needy, hysterical daughter. Some of Paul’s cases reflect that model, notably Laura (Melissa George) in season one and Mia (Hope Davis) in season two. Indeed, Mia accuses Paul of needing to have women patients on the couch who think they are in love with him. (A brief scene in another episode where he is counseling a lesbian couple offers a quiet refutation.) But Paul himself has a female therapist. According to a journal article by psychologist Lisa Gornick, we need a new master narrative for this version of the therapeutic dyad, one that “specifically addresses the relationship of boys to their mothers and the quite different meanings of power and sexuality for men and women in our culture.” The female therapist carries a heavy burden; she is desired as a woman, loved as the nurturing mother, and hated for her power.

Watching Paul acknowledge his multiple relationships with Gina complicates the otherwise familiar drama of the sexy male therapist. Marsha Norman’s script follows every twist and nuance of their sessions, and Dianne Wiest’s face and body language register all the impact of the transference and countertransference she is professionally forbidden to articulate. It’s possible to watch the series without these sessions, but I believe to do so is to miss the deeper metaphors about sexual combat and its persistence. As season two ends, Paul wants to break off therapy with Gina, and she tells him that, against usual practice, the door is no longer open. Already fans are petitioning HBO for season three; but I think we have reached closure. For these characters, this drama of treatment feels complete.

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton University. Her most recent book is A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradsteet to Annie Proulx (Knopf)