Spoilers for this week’s finale of season three of In Treatment coming up:
Those of us who were particularly anxious to find out the resolution of Sunil’s story on In Treatment had to wait a little longer this week, as HBO pulled a switcheroo and aired the final Frances session first. And, we soon learned, that wasn’t the only switcheroo being pulled.
I was not in love with the twist conclusion, in which we learned that Sunil had essentially manipulated Paul to secure his deportation and return home to India. Part of my problem was skepticism that a strong-willed man like Sunil would let his son keep him in America if he really wanted to leave, blood ties or no; that may have worked on paper but in practice it felt like plot-hole spackle necessary to get the story to the twist that the writer wanted to pull off. Another part is simply that there are simply too damn many twists in pop-culture storytelling today—damn you, Shyamalan!—and I wish In Treatment weren’t resorting to them too.
Having said that, that ending was pretty satisfying anyway. Partly, of course, because Gabriel Byrne and Irrfan Khan committed so well to each side of the discussion. Watching their dance this whole season has been tremendously satisfying, and it became more so as Sunil gained the upper hand—he was the one calmly reassuring Paul, while Paul simmered in rage at being used.
But more important, this twist was not exactly like all other twists, in that we left it unsure just exactly how much Sunil had lied. He was cagey as usual, allowing that “many” of the events that he described had happened, and that many of the core issues they had discussed were indeed real. It wasn’t so much that Sunil had manufactured a problem out of nothing to execute a scheme; it was, as in so many things, that he came to the point where he saw an advantage in taking the truth and steering it in the direction he wanted it—and his therapist—to go.
This fed into the overarching theme of the finale, and in a way, of all three seasons: as Paul says, “I can’t tell what’s real.” Paul gets very close to his patients, too close sometimes. This makes him perceptive and capable of insights and breakthroughs, but it also leaves him vulnerable to manipulation, button-pushing and crossing professional boundaries. (He’s hardly incompetent, but in a way this is a more realistic version of the Bob Newhart principle: i.e., that a therapist who always does right by his patients is not very interesting.)
Paul has a personal life, as we have seen, and he has a professional life, and it’s not unusual for patients—like Jesse this year, asking after Paul’s son—to try to act out and gain power by crossing those boundaries. But Paul himself can get the boundaries confused, often in the name of trying to help patients.
Contrary to what he tells Sunil, he does sometimes try to shade the boundary of friend and therapist, as he did with Sunil, with Oliver, with Laura—pick a name, really. And it’s taken a toll: I don’t know if I believe in this artifice [of therapy] anymore,” he tells Adele. (With whom, to complicate things further, he has fallen into the transference trap, just like one of his patients.)
Paul ends therapy and considers ending his career. Whether he actually does the latter, of course, probably depends mainly on whether HBO picks up a fourth season of the show. If not, though, it would make sense to end the series on Paul’s recognition that his style of therapy may have been effective—if not always—but at too high a cost for him to sustain.
And what a gorgeously shot final scene, courtesy of director Paris Barclay, to end on: Paul melting into a crowd of pedestrians in Brooklyn, no longer a patient, maybe no longer a therapist. Just one more guy, alone with his problems.