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The Patient–More Restraint Needed

The Patient , a Hulu ten-episode mini-series, is a psychological thriller and entrapment drama that premiered in August 2022.  The series stars Steve Carell, Domhnall Gleeson, and Linda Emond. 

Sam, a sociopathological young serial killer (Gleeson), is determined to stop his murdering obsession.   He seeks a therapist, Dr. Alan Strauss (Carrell), in the hope that he will  be  “cured” of his anger issues, which propel him to murder. 

The source of his rage:  a brutal and psychotic child-abusing father.  Wanting around-the-clock therapy when he is not at his job inspecting restaurants, Sam  kidnaps his therapist, and handcuffs him to a bed in the basement of the home he shares with Candace, his mother (Emond).  “I have a compulsion to kill people,” Sam  admits coldly to Dr. Strauss. “Every once in a while, I just do it.” And so begins a dueling dance  between Sam and Alan, with both men struggling  to repress Sam’s urge to murder again.

Strauss has deep conflicts with his own son, who converted from his liberal Judaism to the most conservative orthodox form.  This conversion to orthodox Judaism is not accepted by either Strauss or his now-dead wife.  The parallel father-son failure is threaded throughout.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse therapeutic nightmare with Strauss unable to rein in Sam and Sam unable to find peace for his tormented, unhinged soul.  The unsettling questions raised:   What are the  limits of psychotherapy for a profoundly damaged person whose hellish childhood seems inescapable; and what are the limits of empathy from a therapist, spilling into complicity and partner-in-crime.

While The Patient offers a complex view of patient-therapist relations with an underscoring of the flaws and human vulnerability of the therapist, the backstory of all three main characters is poorly developed and only hinted at.  The terror that one feels as a Jewish person, along with the horrors of the Holocaust nightmare, interrupts Strauss’s mind-set, negatively impacts his relationship with his own son,  and requires his own need for therapy.  A young abused child (Sam)  whose mother feels helpless to protect him conjures strong material for analyzing damage, love, and connection.  Yet The Patient unfortunately fails in its painting of a landscape of the tormented soul, both Strauss’s and Sam’s, with disruptive flashbacks and disconnection between past and present.

A well-told  tale with a clear psychological and emotional payoff or at least a labyrinthian series of unexpected revelations of past pain and grief would have made The Patient so much more than a reasonably insightful tale of yearning to be free of damage and despair. The Patient  has the theatrical feel of being on a stage. Poorly paced, I found myself trying to improve each scene–especially the bloated psycho-mumbo jumbo–and wanting to edit the length of this mini-series by half.

“One of the reasons I didn’t want to go into therapy is because I know it’s all ‘mothers, mothers, mothers’: my mother is not my problem,” Sam protests…a bit too much.  Is this a genuine psychological sketch of two tortured souls and the nature of family dysfunction, or just pretending to be one?  The Patient never quite catches on fire. 

The outstanding performances by all three principal actors–Stephen Carrell, Domhnall Gleeson, and Linda Emond–influenced this viewer’s commitment to watching until the very end.

Availability:  Hulu

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