Analyzing Naomi Watts’ Out-of-Control Therapist With the Creator of Gypsy and a Clinical Psychologist

Lisa Rubin, the creator of Netlfix’s upcoming Gypsy, and her sister, a clinical psychologist, examine Naomi Watts’ boundary-crossing Jean Holloway.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix

On the surface, Jean Holloway, the bored, perfectly blonde Connecticut mother and wife in the new Netflix series Gypsy, dropping this Friday, is the female version of the male, middle-aged breadwinner facing an existential crisis stereotype. Except Jean, as played by Naomi Watts, is also a New York-based cognitive behavioral therapist, and her midlife misgivings manifest themselves not in the form of a Porsche or a mistress (well, not from the outset, at least) but in her increasingly questionable interactions with her patients. When one young man Sam (Karl Glusman) struggles with a breakup from his ex-girlfriend Sidney (Sophie Cookson), Jean—posing as a journalist named Diane—seeks her out, initially searching for clues to help Sam. But she soon finds that the seductive Sidney is a catalyst for her own darker desires, complicating both her picturesque suburban family life and her professional responsibilities.

Gypsy, which was created by Lisa Rubin and whose first two episodes were directed by 50 Shades of Grey‘s Sam Taylor-Wood, is a portrait of a privileged, successful woman on the precipice: Jean has to choose between the safety of the life in which she is trapped, and the free fall—and potential euphoria—of what lies just past the edge. It’s also an exploration of the boundaries we set in our lives—societal ones, romantic ones, and in Jean’s case, crucially, professional ones. Jean’s identity as a CBT therapist is not a device to get the plot stirring, it’s integral to the development of her character. Her exchanges with her patients illuminate both her struggles and theirs. It may not be surprising, then, that Rubin had some real-life insight in the form of her own sister Rachel Rubin Frank, a Connecticut-based clinical psychologist who specializes in CBT (and no, Rachel was not the inspiration for Jean). Here, Rubin and Rubin Frank discuss the issue of control, pop culture’s fascination with therapists, and what lies beneath Jean’s transgressions.

When you were creating the show, did you always know you wanted Jean to be a therapist, and specifically a CBT therapist?

Lisa: I absolutely knew I wanted her to be a therapist, because what I really wanted to explore was how much people hide from themselves. And I thought by having her be a therapist and working things out in her own life with her mom, her child, her husband, she’d be able to—not that it’s a great thing—work out some of those issues on her patients. I’ve always been very interested in the lines of forbidden relationships and things that are sort of secretive, and I feel like with therapy there are obviously lines you’re not supposed to cross or transgress, the same way as [with a] teacher [and a] student. And also, how I hoped viewers can look at Jean is almost as a therapist trying to diagnose herself, or trying to figure out clues about who she is, why is she doing this, what is her relationship with these people. CBT-wise, because my sister is a CBT psychologist, I like drawing from real life when possible. My sister Rachel is nothing like Jean, despite the fact that people sometimes think that when I say my sister is a therapist, she lives in Connecticut, and is married to a lawyer. I literally was just thinking how Rachel couldn’t be further from Jean. Also, she’s extremely ethical. But because I knew that world a little bit just from hearing from her, it seemed to both make sense to me, and also the idea that with CBT therapy you’re really looking for solutions. Ideally you won’t be in therapy forever. It’s not like psychoanalysis. You ideally want to find solutions.

When I interviewed Naomi Watts, she mentioned to me that she specifically spoke with you, Rachel, when she was preparing for this role. What kinds of insight did you give her?

Rachel: She really wanted to know my story and why I chose to go into CBT psychology, why do people become psychologists. She was really interested in the dynamics between me and my colleagues in a group private practice and what the everyday life is—seeing a patient, taking a break, how we cope with going back home to our families. But I did tell her about CBT and how it’s different from psychodynamic and psychoanalytic, how it’s empirically validated. And Jean was definitely a researcher, because to get a PhD you have to do research, so she’s a science person. But I think going back to the first question, it is an empirically validated short-term therapy where you see people achieving their goals versus an open-ended, let’s-explore-our-childhood kind of supportive therapy. With Jean, wanting to help her patients and wanting to cross the line to help her patients, it makes sense that she would pursue something where we know this type of therapy gets this kind of results for this disorder, this issue.

Lisa: Also, Rachel, you said this to me at some point, too, the idea that Jean’s frustration about not being able to help her patients. It’s not that with CBT you expect results fast, but if you’re not getting results, it might make sense that she’s especially frustrated.

Rachel: CBT being so goal-oriented, you set goals right away with the patient. If the person starts to not show up for sessions or is really not doing their homework, you can question it in the office, you can try to come up with creative ways to solve it with the patient, but if they just don’t and they’re unwilling to participate in the therapy, you are kind of limited then to meet the patient where they are. And not what Jean does, which is, How can I intervene now to get the results? That’s where she crosses the line of CBT. CBT can only go so far; you’re still only in the room for those 45-minute sessions.

How much back and forth was there between you two as Lisa was working on the show, for the sake of veracity or authenticity?

Lisa: I had actually written the pilot and it was getting traction and I showed it to Rachel finally, like, Let’s see if it passes the test of reality. And I sent it to her and, Rachel, I don’t know if you remember this, but the first thing you said was, “She can’t do this! She’s definitely crossing a line, Lisa.” And I was like, “No, I know, that’s the show.” Because Jean starts crossing boundaries very early on, I definitely felt like I had more liberty with some of those choices…

I would call Rachel and be like, “She has this patient Alison who is going into AA, would it be okay for her to go with her to a meeting?” Or, “What are the forms called?” Making sure all the stuff felt right. But the biggest thing was probably I would send her all the supervision scenes, the scenes with all of the therapists [in the same group practice] where they sit around the table [discussing their cases]. Some people call it backstage of therapy. That was definitely a place where I wanted her to consult: because those therapists [other than Jean] are abiding by those rules, I wanted to make sure what they would say would be appropriate and right and how they would interact with each other. Luckily, she’s my sister, so I could call her anytime.

Rachel: Yes, even sprinkling in the little CBT tidbits, we always give homework at the end of CBT. Lisa could be a psychologist. I feel like Lisa has such a good hold on human nature and she’s a good listener. The scenes she wrote were fantastic. It was more like, Oh, that’s crossing a boundary or you can have a session outside of the office so long as there’s a therapeutic rationale for it. So it was really supplemental. It was really impressive, her knowledge of what being a psychologist is like.

Naomi Watts and Sophie Cookson in Netflix's Gypsy.

Alison Cohen Rosa

You both broached the topic of boundaries. It’s such a huge theme in the show, both from a professional and ethical standpoint, and also the societal boundaries that bind you into a marriage or lifestyle that perhaps you didn’t really want. Can you each speak to that either from a creative standpoint, why that was such an important theme to explore in the show, and then also professionally, how as a psychologist you draw those boundaries?

Lisa: [In] one of the first scenes of the pilot, she writes down “boundaries” about [her patient] Claire as a mother, and I think that Jean is preaching these ideas and believes them and yet can’t seem to follow them in her own life, she’s rebelling against a lot of the rules or restrictions or boundaries that she feels she’s supposed to live by, that her mother maybe from a young age taught her and that’s in her head. And I think part of it is wanting to break free of it, but it’s the public face of what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to do X, Y and Z, and yet inside, Jean has a lot of drive and desire and ends up obviously breaking a lot of boundaries, even in social politics in Connecticut at a kid’s birthday party. It takes its shape in many ways. And I think as a therapist it starts out in the first few episodes, Jean is in the scene in supervision saying, I’m so tired of sitting in that office listening to the same story week after week and not being able to get any results. It’s frustrating. She says that and I think again, whether she’s justifying her actions in some way? Probably true. But I think it was really important to Naomi that she felt like Jean was starting in a well-intentioned place. Whether ethical or not, she wants to have an effect, she wants to have an impact. And I would often say it’s like when you feel like you don’t have much control in your own life, you try to control other people. But as we get into the show she’s definitely doing things that are not ethical. I hope viewers will try to understand Jean, why she’s doing this or how she might feel justified. But a hundred percent, I realize what she’s doing as a therapist is unethical.

Rachel: Making those ethical boundaries is definitely extremely difficult because each situation is not black and white. And that’s why you need supervision to help make sure you’re setting those boundaries. CBT therapy is a collaborative process and if the patient isn’t willing to help themselves you can’t do anything for them. When I’m in the room with them, if I’m doing more work and talking a lot more than the patient, then I realize I have to sit back and let the patient take over. Because you run that risk of if you do too much, they’re going to rely on you to do the work for them. And the whole point of CBT is I’m going to give you the tools and then you’re going to be able to become your own therapist. So I can’t give you extra time, maybe once or twice, but then you develop into a pattern of, maybe the patient is manipulating me. You have to draw those lines. I told Lisa this when she started writing the show. One of my first patients was a 13-year-old obese girl and she wanted to lose weight and so I was treating her for obesity. But her parents kept giving her really fattening foods for lunch. And I went to the deli and I bought, with my own money, a turkey sandwich. I felt so compelled that I want to help her so I’ll buy her a healthy lunch. But that is obviously unethical, how would that really serve the patient? How is she ever going to learn to be healthy or talk to her parents to be healthy if I’m going to cross that line and do it for her?

Lisa: I remember Rachel telling me that and thinking about it as my sister coming from a place of really wanting to help someone, because you care about these people and you have empathy and compassion. But you’re limited by the boundaries. But you can see the gray of that, which is so interesting.

Rachel: And I think the fantasy of all therapists is if we didn’t have a life outside of our jobs. I would love to go with my OCD patient who’s so avoidant, every single day I would meet him and go on the subway with him and make sure he gets to work. But that’s the line. I can’t do it. I have to just talk about his goal and how he can get there and if he chooses not to go there; we discuss it, but I can’t then be like, Okay tomorrow I’m going to meet you at your house and then we’re going to go every day. We have to have our own lives, too. I think every therapist wishes they could break the boundaries like Jean. So therapists are going to enjoy watching this show. It’s a fantasy, like, I wish I could go talk to the boyfriend of someone and talk some sense into them.

Lisa: Or they’ll be mad. Therapists might be like, Oh no, now people will judge them as being potentially capable of something like this.

Using their mental powers for ill…

Lisa: Yeah, it’s like a superpower. You could use it for good or bad.

That’s another ongoing theme: the idea of interpretation and motivation when you look at the degree to which Jean becomes involved in her patients’ lives. On the one hand, it could come from a place of extreme concern for your patient. But as it manifests itself with Jean, it can be construed as manipulation and using other people’s lives and problems as a way to avoid your own issues and also to control things. You’re the ultimate puppet master. How would you each interpret that?

Lisa: It’s one thing [for Jean] to seek out Sidney, and think that she’s finally going to get Sam free of this, but it’s very different when it becomes self-serving. I think very quickly in the show you start to understand that she really likes having this power and this control, and actually she realizes she can control both sides of the relationship, which is the ultimate puppet master to manipulate both sides of this thing and see it play out. And of course, as her feelings get involved with Sidney especially, you see how that changes things in therapy with Sam. She’s breaking the boundaries and wants to still have an impact both at work and at home and in all different capacities, but very quickly you understand that it’s feeding something in her. As the show goes on, you realize she needs a bigger fix for the same high. That it almost becomes an addiction of sorts. Now she needs to trespass in a larger way to have that same effect.

Rachel: I looked at it like she was definitely devoted and wanting to help the patients, but she probably was always a little oppositional, so I look at her like she was oppositional and breaking the ethics code to fulfill her fantasies, to feel that high. Because clearly she knows the patients are vulnerable and to make that choice, the multiple choices she does, they clearly have to serve her and make her feel better than looking at the reality of what she’s doing. One thing I learned in my training, one of my old supervisors used to say there’s no such thing as a self. We don’t have a self. Because humans are dynamic and fluid and changing. So I look at it like she’s many faces of Jean, many selves and might have started out pure, but ultimately chooses to go dark and selfish. But that’s still real life. People do ultimately change and can make some poor choices if they get a high from it, if they’re bored, if they have an addictive brain. It’s a common story of the spiral.

At home with Billy Crudup.

Alison Cohen Rosa/Netflix

Let’s look at the landscape of how pop culture depicts therapists, say Lorraine Bracco’s role as Dr. Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos. I’m curious what you think of the many portrayals.

Rachel: It’s such a confidential profession that to get a window in is so interesting for people—for voyeuristic reasons they want to know people’s dark secrets, what’s the secret magic that therapists are doing that is going to help people. And I think there’s an identification piece where, whether you’re in therapy or not, they like seeing other people’s problems, and does it relate to my own problems? It’s about people universally being interested in the human condition. I thought about the movie Good Will Hunting because I loved the relationship between Robin Williams and Matt Damon, which was a traditional psychodynamic therapy. You see how in the hallmark of any good therapy is that relationship, that therapeutic alliance, that in order for Matt Damon to heal, he had to trust the therapist. And how they grew that trust. And then you see how it affected Robin Williams. And I think showing how patients are affecting the therapists is really interesting for people, too. It really bothers me when in TV or little segment, when people stereotypically have the therapist saying, “So how does that make you feel?” Because it just oversimplifies [things] and I think it deters people from therapy because they’re seeing these little depictions of I’m laying on the couch talking about my childhood, and the therapist is saying “How does it make you feel,” and that’s not going to help me.

Lisa: I think typically we’d see the patient get obsessed with the therapist. When you mention therapy, people want to know, What’s my therapist like? Because they don’t disclose very much, so it creates this secrecy. They know so much about you and [you] know absolutely nothing. There’s definitely a power dynamic there. So I kept thinking with this therapist as a protagonist, Jean has access to all of these people’s secrets and most intimate details and if you use those things for good or for bad or for yourself, just how dangerous that power could be. And that felt very ripe with dramatic potential, being able to really look at real people’s dysfunction, it gives us a window: you can have a therapy scene where people reveal a lot about themselves, whereas in most scenes in life, people aren’t that open. It’s funny with The Sopranos, I remember [director] Sam Taylor-Johnson saying she loved those scenes. And so we would talk a lot from a practical standpoint: what those scenes in The Sopranos did so well was they were tense and interesting and despite having just two people sitting in a room they made them visually interesting. And we definitely talked a lot about that office and how to keep it dramatic because obviously it could become quite mundane.

You were both joking earlier about how therapists might react to this depiction of their livelihood. Gypsy delves very deeply into Jean’s personal life, too. How important was it to show the darkness in Jean’s personal life?

Lisa: So much of the story is about Jean carving out this other identity and struggling with her own and through the course of season one, as Diane, through lying and manipulation, she ends up becoming more authentic Jean. So it’s a tricky one because you could argue that people go to therapy to get clarity or seek some kind of truth or figure out something about themselves. For Jean, it’s hard to make a judgment call on that because of course she’s doing things that are really immoral and dark, but if she’s coming into her own, there’s a kind of authenticity to that, too, which I find interesting. And the fact that Jean is so flawed… it’s that thing of we idolize people in power, or our doctors or therapists. Everyone’s always a little curious: What is my therapist like? What do they really do? What kind of notes do they take? Basically, what are they really thinking? And this show allows us to really look at Jean as almost like a patient.

Rachel: I think such a strength of the show is Lisa does show the personal life, so she’s a very real character, she’s very flawed, she’s very human. People put psychologists on a pedestal: they’re perfect, they can handle everything wrong in their life. I love that she’s not a perfect mother and there are scenes where she doesn’t say something skilled to her daughter. That’s a tenet of CBT, self-acceptance. We’re all human, we’re going to make bad choices and it doesn’t make you a bad human, it just means you made a poor choice. That’s such a strength of the show that we see how she hurts her family and she makes mistakes and she struggles. It takes the mystique out of the perfect profession.

Right. But Jean probably should be in therapy, no?

Lisa: Yes, and actually in the end you see she goes back to her therapist. But whether she’ll manipulate her therapist is another story. I debated a lot whether Jean should be in therapy in season one because with so much of what she’s doing, she does not want to be held accountable. She actually is in the escape mode as opposed to wanting to work on herself. In a strange way, I feel like therapy is the first step toward: I need to work on something.

And from your professional opinion, Rachel, Jean should be in therapy?

Rachel: Yes. I mean she’s doing this all alone. She’s self-destructing.

Lisa: But it’s the height of cheating—nobody wants to be told not to. You probably know you shouldn’t, but you don’t necessarily want to stop.

Rachel: Yes, it takes people with addictions sometimes years to admit they have a problem. Because they get such fulfillment from whatever compulsion they’re doing. They don’t want to stop. And it’s hard work to go to therapy, and Jean knows this. The commitment, you have to look at yourself, you have to be honest, you have to be vulnerable. And right now as Diane, she’s…

Lisa:… not those things.

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