The Constant Gardener

(Copyright HBO)

I was unable to find an episode of HBO’s “In Treatment” to link to, so the above, summarizing Blair Underwood’s role, will have to suffice. Needless to say, if you haven’t seen Underwood’s performance as patient Alex in season one, go out and rent the season — it’s absolutely unforgettable.

Anxiety is the settling in of a planted seed. Several people–or events–may have interred it, but once it starts to grow and flourish, its maturation can take unexpected, unanticipated turns. Usually, at this point, the host seeks to starve the plant of further sustenance, to deny its further health and existence. That’s what Alex seems to be seeking in therapy — how to kill off these growths at the root, and thus stop his anxiety cold.

His anxiety doesn’t present itself in the typical way, or not by a textbook definition. He’s arrogant, abrasive, argumentative. The viewer gradually understands that Alex is trying to learn the difference between denying/starving the plant and suppressing/avoiding it. Clearly, thus far, he’s been an expert at the latter. The suppressed can be dealt with, albeit temporarily, if buried. The problem is the method: The buried becomes the perfect condition for the seed.

To starve his anxiety, however, is to expose it — to leave it, and himself, vulnerable. Can a proud, perfectionist person be vulnerable? One sees Underwood struggle with this paradox in every episode. The first few sessions, he cannot even articulate the anxiety. He presents it in the abstract: Something is waking him from sleep, something is growing just under the surface.

Underwood’s role is all journey, and offers no guideposts toward progress or setbacks, no absolutes. It’s one of the most maddening, enigmatic, and difficult roles I’ve ever seen an actor play. With a lesser performer, the role of Alex would be an all-out mess, alienating the audience. Instead, embodied through Underwood, Alex is utterly compelling in his complexities and mystery.

In the end, the viewer wants the plant starved as much as Alex does. But we also want to see what type of plant is there, too, even knowing its roots and flowers are poisonous.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

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