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In Treatment: "Sunil: Week 4"/"Frances: Week 4"

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In the seven-week model of In Treatment, week four is the week when the show really begins to show its cards. In true form, both of the episodes tonight were the most riveting either Sunil or Frances has been yet, and the Sunil episode began to hint at what might be a darker side for the character. There were genuinely moving moments in both episodes, and while I still appreciate Frances more as an academic exercise than anything else, I've come to like her much more after this week's episode, which revealed an empty, crushing loneliness at her center, a desire to just be whatever anyone else wants her to be that hasn't led to her examining herself and determining just what it is that she wants, not what it is that everybody else around her wants.


It's interesting that so much of this season deals with the issues of people who are middle-aged, but closer to their elderly years than their youth. Three of the main characters this season are on the other side of 50, and both Paul and Frances have serious health concerns, while Sunil is dealing with being cast adrift in a culture he doesn't understand just yet. (Jesse doesn't have as many parallels to these characters, and we barely know anything about Adele beyond the way she seems to make Paul extra prickly.) Season three is asserting itself, more and more, as a season about the cost of extreme loneliness and the way it pushes people to do things they might not normally do. Sunil seems on a knife's edge with his son and daughter-in-law. Paul is reaching out to his children, but he can feel Steve the step-dad stepping in to take his place. Frances tries to make Paul more of a friend than a therapist at any given moment. These are all deeply lonely people, facing down the fact that they just might die without anyone who really understands them at their side.

We talked a little about stakes last week, and I'd hope that both of these episodes crystallized the stakes at hand for Sunil and Frances. In the case of Sunil, there's a certain fear that he could become violent or possessive. The way that he speaks about Julia often seems rather terrifying, and I don't think we've quite gotten all of the Malini story out of the way just yet. (Please note that I don't think that Sunil killed Malini or anything silly like that, but I do think we haven't necessarily heard the end of that story, particularly considering Malini's suicide.) Sunil is a man who's just been contentedly burying his own most awful feelings, and now, in the wake of his wife's death and his moving to America, he's finding that all of them are rising again from the grave he put them in. Frances, meanwhile, is still slightly lower key, but this week puts her story in the sharp focus of being about a woman who's never truly lived for herself and now faces a life where everyone she cared about has either betrayed her, is dead, or is dying. She's an actress, yes, but one who keeps putting on other characters as a disguise to hide the fact that at her core, she's barely examined herself.

Sunil: By far the most moving moment in tonight's episodes was the monologue from Sunil about his relationship with Malini. With its rise in geopolitical prominence and the popularity of films like Slumdog Millionaire, India has become a go-to destination for producers who want to add an element of the "exotic" to a story without having to try too hard, but the India of many movies and TV shows doesn't feel like a real place. It feels like a place assembled entirely from stereotypes. That's not the case with the Calcutta that Sunil grew up in and lived in, a place we never get to see but a place that his words evocatively create for us all the same. His story about how he and Malini could no longer be together because of the caste system separating them brimmed with grief, a grief that then spilled over when Paul finally pushed Sunil to reveal that Malini had jumped from a bridge in the city, stones in her pockets, and drowned. Sunil's manner here suggests he's never properly grieved this death and that his life, in many ways, has been about slotting aside unpleasant emotions and trying as he can to not feel them.

But here's the thing: Malini is still with him. Even though she's a ghost, someone he hasn't seen in 32 years, he can recall her with the most intimate of details, telling Paul how she looked as she smoked or recalling their relationship and its final moments. The suggestion that the two were intimate makes me think that we're perhaps in for a revelation that Malini was pregnant when she threw herself from the bridge, but that, similarly, might be a little too overdramatic for this show. Suffice it to say that Malini's presence has given the Sunil episodes an emotional weight that can make them almost overwhelming at times. Like Walter last season, this is a man who's standing at the edge of a deep well of grief, grief he's never properly dealt with.


It's the dream that takes up much of the first half of this episode that gives me pause. Sunil finds an animal with a dark coat lying on the ground, and he begins to poke and prod at it with a stick. He describes the animal as a "her" (something Paul points out that I never would have caught), and at one point, his son approaches. Does the animal represent Julia? Arun? Malini? Sunil's wife? All four? The episode never states a conclusion one way or the other, but the fact that Sunil had the dream after finding Julia's birth control pills and the fact that he seems ever more upset about his son and his wife's relationship suggests more and more to me that the feelings of anger and resentment he bears toward Julia are unhealthy and could manifest in hurtful ways. I'm intrigued by how In Treatment is taking the story of a sweet old man in such potentially dark directions, and I can't wait to see how things turn out.

Grade: A

Frances: The thing I'm increasingly learning about Frances is that you have to watch for the times when she deflects Paul's questions. She's a trained actress, so she can pretend to engage in just about anything, but she'll be successfully leading you down one rabbit trail before you even realize she has mostly avoided the core of Paul's questions. Paul's caught on to this more quickly than most viewers have, I would imagine, and tonight, he keeps her relentlessly on track, finally getting her to speak more about her mother's death and how she wasn't present to watch her mother finally slip away, how she just couldn't be there in the hospital and barely knew what to do with herself when she was there. All of this is beautifully written and acted, and it's the first time I've started to really get interested in just what's up with Frances. As Paul finally pushes her to realize that she needs to define herself for herself, not for the others in her life, the story of what's going on here finally snaps into place.


Honestly, getting past what other people think of you and moving on to only caring about what you think is one of the harder things to do in life. Most people never really bother doing it, living lives where they mostly just do what others ask of them and hope that will be enough. Despite all of her successes, despite all of the choices that she's made in her own life, Frances is someone who finds herself as hard to pin down as one of her roles. Scratch that. She's harder to pin down than one of her roles. At least when she's acting, the words are there on the page. Paul might be on to something when he suggests that she's having trouble learning her lines because this new character is so close to who she actually is. Examining this character might be too uncomfortably close to self-examination, and that's not exactly Frances' strong suit.

This isn't a perfect half hour. For one thing, that final beat with Frances returning to mention that she got the results from the test feels like a weirdly jarring way to end the hour (even as I'd buy that Frances would do this as yet another deflection from what Paul was asking her to do). For another, while I like the picture that's being painted of Frances' complex family life, I keep waiting to get a sense of Patricia as something other than the anti-Frances, the woman who's everything Frances could never be, who so easily dismisses what it is that Frances does. Still, I have a feeling that once all of these things snap into place, once Paul finally gets Frances to talk honestly about her feelings and what she wants from life, much of the groundwork done in the early episodes will pay off. It's taken a long while, but the Frances episodes finally have me interested.


Grade: B+

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