When last we saw Dr. Gregory House (the brilliant Hugh Laurie, criminally robbed of an Emmy yet again), he seemed to have hit rock bottom. Plagued by hallucinations (the dead Amber Volakis) and haunted by the inexplicable suicide of his fellow Lawrence Kutner, House fell ever-deeper into the abyss. In the season five finale, House is abruptly snapped from his happy delusion of being Vicodin-free and in a relationship with Cuddy.
Believing his symptoms are caused by long-term Vicodin abuse, House admits himself to Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital. The final scene of season five finds House hesitantly going through the doors of Mayfield, leaving fans to wonder just what we (and House) would find on the other side of summer.
What we have is "Broken," a two-hour premiere that pulls House (and us) from his familiar surroundings and people and thrusts him into an environment completely antithetical to what we know of the character. It's a complete departure for the series, dispensing with the usual medical mystery, and most of the main series cast. "Broken" confirms the series is far from "broken," with tight writing, sensitive direction, and wonderful, fully realized performances all round.
I had the chance to interview House, M.D. executive producer/writers Garret Lerner and Russel Friend for their thoughts on "Broken" and the season ahead. The duo wrote the season premiere along with series creator and showrunner David Shore and David Foster.
Friend and Lerner have been writing House since season two and have penned some of the series' finest episodes, including the stunning season four two-part finale "House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart," and season five's "Locked In." But writing the premiere, and coming at it from such a foreign position "was scary and risky to do," the duo told me. "We left the comfort zone in a way we never have before."
The writers explained "with the character of House already at such a low point, it would have been difficult to start from there and have the same show." Instead, executive producer (and episode director) Katie Jacobs decided to take the risk of doing a two-hour episode and "follow House through that experience."
"We talked a lot about whether we were going to cut back to the hospital and see what's going on with everyone there, what the team is doing in House's absence, what's going on with Wilson and Cuddy. We ultimately decided to simply be true to House's experience. It would be more powerful to just stay with him," they said. Of the regular cast, only Wilson appears, and then only for a brief scene.
Of course that was one of the risks. "We left our familiar storytelling and our familiar characters. I know we're asking a lot of our audience to go on this ride for two hours." Starting from a premise of letting "House be House" — snarky, blunt, and an unrepentant jerk — the writers had to build to a point at which "House admits he needs help."
It's obvious the show is going to be unusual when the usual teaser and credits sequence are replaced by a shot of House through a tiny window. He is in agony, clearly in great distress; his dosage is cut and his symptoms worsen to the point he is screaming in agony, pounding his fists on the door. And finally placed in restraints.
The credits drift aimlessly across the screen to an ironically upbeat carnivalesque melody. Instead of the usual parade of producers and executive producers gliding across the bottom of the screen, there are only three credited producers (including frequent director Greg Yaitanes) and three executive producers (David Shore, Katie Jacobs, and Hugh Laurie, who seems finally to be taking credit for a job he's been doing for some time).
That opening sequence, which allows us to view House going through days of withdrawal as he is weaned from narcotics, is painful to watch (in a good way). Laurie is magnificent as the camera simply observes him through the window and into his room through a series of short cuts.
"There is not a ton of direction in the script for that scene," noted the writers. "A scene like that is more a director's playground more than a writer's playground. I think we spent an entire day shooting just that sequence."
It appears that House is finally serious about getting help. Emphasis on appears. But he isn't, at least not beyond clearing the Vicodin from his system and losing the hallucinations. Once he makes it through withdrawal, House is ready to leave and packing his bags.
In his season five conversation with Wilson in "Under My Skin," and in his fantasy with Cuddy, House acknowledges how futile rehab would be for him. He knows all too well how to game the system, how to manipulate and badger his way out of anything.
Of course, at the time, he hadn't met Dr. Darryl Nolan. Played by the brilliant Andre Braugher, Lerner and Friend noted the part was written specifically for him. Early drafts of the script even called the character Andre. The writers credit Jacobs and Shore with some "excellent producing and persuading" in managing to snag the brilliant character actor for the role despite some scheduling and other conflicts.
"It was a very conscious decision to cast him. Andre has the gravitas, and the power and intelligence to be able to analyze someone like House." Everyone on the creative team felt "extremely lucky to get him. It was an incredible experience to sit on set and watch these two guys. A career highlight," they noted.
Nolan isn't ready to let House off the hook and back to practicing medicine, although House doesn't agree with Nolan's diagnosis. Insisting he's functioning just fine, and no longer on drugs, House reminds his doctor he's there voluntarily and with the hallucinations gone, he's leaving. Deeper issues like two colleagues dying along with his father over the course of one year? Something to put on the back burner.
Nolan confronts House, wondering why he didn't just go to a rehab facility if detoxing was the only thing needed. Why check into a psychiatric hospital? Using almost the exact words House himself used with Wilson in "Under My Skin," Nolan reminds him he's been using Vicodin for years with no side effects. There has to be another explanation, and until they have it, House is free to leave, but not practice medicine. He needs to be admitted to a long-term ward for treatment.
Not one to give up easily, House decides to make life a living Hell for Nolan and his entire staff of doctors, taking no prisoners. Nolan will be begging him to leave in no time, with whatever letter he needs for the state medical licensing board.
It takes no time for House to put his plan into action as he taunts his fellow patients on ward six. Easily evaluating their problems, House pushes their most sensitive buttons, acting out in the worst way he can, like some playground bully. The only one he can't taunt into misery is his new roomie, the manic rapper Alvie (Lin-Miranda Manuel).
It's one of a very few moments in the episode that made me cringe. Yes, House is blunt and can be nasty, but it's not really like him to cut a swath quite that wide. On the other hand, House is fighting the system the only way he can (at least in his own mind). He needs to get out, and this is his plan to do it, damn the consequences. We have to remember during this scene that House is sick himself, whether or not we understand him that way. When it's clear his scorched earth strategy isn't working, House stirs up a mini-uprising. When Nolan defuses that, he guns for the shrink directly, trying to dig up some dirt, trying to enlist Wilson in his scheme.
Wilson isn't up for the game, however. Nolan has already gotten to Wilson, telling him not to interfere. When Wilson reluctantly and necessarily hangs up on House, I recalled last season's "Social Contract" and the story about hanging up the phone on his schizophrenic brother. According to Lerner and Friend, the connection wasn't intentional. "It was a happy coincidence," not mentioned in the script. However, they thought Robert Sean Leonard (Wilson) might well have had Danny Wilson in mind during the scene as the camera lingers.
House, M.D. has a strong relationship with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The show has raised more than half a million dollars for the organization, including the funds raised at a screening of "Broken" in Los Angeles last Thursday night. I asked Lerner and Friend how they prepared for writing dealing with such a sensitive issue.
"We wanted to make it as realistic as possible because of our relationship with NAMI, and because we like to present the real side of things," they told me. "We talked to some experts; went to visit a psychiatric hospital just north of LA. Katie (Jacobs) did an amazing amount of research as well, which was incredibly helpful."
Mayfield is based on a New Jersey facility called Greystone, which has been open since 1902. Jacobs and production designer Jeremy Cassells got "copious material about everything, from the day room's appearance to how the day is divided up." Besides doing a lot of reading and talking to the show's consulting physicians, House also added a new consultant to the team — a psychiatrist (and writer Liz Friedman's sister).
The entire creative team read extensively about people's experiences in psychiatric hospitals and "tried to apply some of those real things to the episode." But Lerner and Friend credit the actors who populate nearly every scene for completely inhabiting their roles whether they had pages of dialogue or only four lines. "They are in almost every scene and do a great job of creating their characters."
We also meet Alvie House's roommate, played by Tony-winning actor/writer Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights). Gregarious, outgoing, and chronically friendly, Alvie is the anti-House, but somehow it works. They both have a taste for playing the angles and beating the system, something House uses to his advantage at first.
For the first (nearly) 45 minutes of the two-hour episode, House is the unrepentant jerk he can be, especially under stress. He's a jerk to everyone. The notable exception is Lydia (German film actress Franka Potente), the sister-in-law of a withdrawn cellist who hasn't spoken in 10 years. Hearing her play the piano (which is usually locked), House is drawn to her as she visits daily, hoping to get through to her close friend and sister-in-law.
The show pulls one of its signature left turns and throws the story in another direction when a young man named Steve arrives. Calling himself "Freedom Master," he lives the delusion he is a superhero. When one of the psychiatrists (Dr. Medina) breaks coldly and harshly through Steve's delusion, House is enraged at the gratuitous cruelty of the doctor, especially when he shatters Steve, blurting out the terrible truth that Steve's wife is dead and no superpower can redeem the evil that killed her.
The orderlies subdue the young man, and when he doesn't appear at a ward gathering, House becomes suddenly concerned. Seeing Steve practically catatonic horrifies House, and he is angry, not only at Dr. Medina, but at himself for allowing it to happen; continuing to play poker without intervening when he could have.
Why does this bother House so much, I wondered? House is all for telling the unvarnished truth "in the harshest manner possible" (as he accuses himself in the season two episode "No Reason"). Yet, here he is reacting viscerally to the actions of another doctor. He seems to care very deeply about this. The two writers explained, "I think in House's mind, what Medina did was completely gratuitous; it seemed punitive. When House does something like that, there's a reason; a point to be made."
Of course House would never admit caring about anything in that way. The writers noted, "House can justify his reaction as 'I really don't care about him, I just care about how this doctor is acting.' But that's just on the surface."
House's caring leads to a near-tragedy. Borrowing Lydia's car, he takes Steve to an amusement park, going on a ride that takes them both soaring above the crowds superhero style. It's a wonderful and sweet moment of pure joy for Steve — and I suspect for House as well. Our tethered-to-a-cane super-doctor can also fly as long as Steve continues to hold his hand. It's a fabulous moment only to be broken by another left turn in the story.
The exultant Steve really tries to fly, nearly killing himself as he leaps from the garage wall stories down to the pavement below. Once again, House's actions have indirectly led to tragedy. As House sits numbly in the hospital waiting room, he does get what he wanted all along. He's broken Nolan, who's going to transfer the destructive House to a different facility.
"I'm done," declares Nolan, accusing him of simply trying to take a swing at him, not caring about the collateral damage. But is that what House is trying to do here? Is it really another scheme, or a profoundly nice (but, as Lydia later says, misguided) thing House has tried doing for Steve?
The wind knocked out of his sails, no matter his intentions, House recognizes the harm he has caused. It is a clear echo back to Amber's death at the end of season four and to whatever he thinks he may have missed leading up to Kutner's suicide in "A Simple Explanation." House asks Nolan please not to give up on him. "I need help," he finally acknowledges. It's a breakthrough that Nolan can't ignore.
Lerner and Friend acknowledge there's a measure of truth to what Nolan says to House. "That's at least part of the motivation, to take a swing at Nolan. House has spent the first three acts butting up against him. He's done everything in his power to undermine Nolan and failed. But there's also a measure of [wanting Freedom Master] to feel good about himself."
So, does House have a niceness streak in him somewhere? Lydia certainly thinks so. But was House being nice to be nice, or simply to cure Freedom Master? "Solve the puzzle and show up the Mayfield doctors as idiots. It's open to interpretation, giving House some plausible deniability," noted Friend.
"On the other hand," they noted, "Lydia might say, 'Hey, you're doing an awful lot of nice things.' We didn't think about it explicitly, but thought it might be nice to spur that debate about whether House is doing it to be nice or with some other agenda. It's something that's endlessly debated not just by fans but internally here by the writers. Does he have a compassionate streak under it all?"
The fallout from this incident leads directly to one of House's biggest issues, and something that's been raised periodically over the course of the series. House doesn't deserve to be happy if the world is just.
He causes pain; he misses a diagnosis; a patient dies. Therefore, he should suffer for it. It goes back to Stacy's question to House in "Three Stories," way back in season one: "You don't think you deserve to be happy?" Wilson brings it up again in "Son of Coma Guy." House's misery is very tied up in his failures. And to House, you can't redeem failures. Successes are fleeting; failures are forever, he tells Nolan. Apologies are useless.
House repeats a familiar trope for him: talking accomplishes nothing. "You can't just keep talking and hope for the best." It reflects what he's said so many times about action being the only thing with the capability to change things. When Nolan explains it's as simple as apologizing, House doesn't exactly buy it. "Apologize so you can feel better and allow yourself to continue to feel better," he tells House.
"Apologies, powerful things," House responds bitterly. "Get someone to jump off a building, say two words, then go on with your life." House has never bought that argument. In "Dying Changes Everything," House has an almost impossible time apologizing to Wilson, telling Cuddy it is hypocritical; meaningless. Now we know why. In House's world an apology is pointless; it fixes nothing and just lets you off the hook; lets you feel better without making it right. It grants absolution when it's not deserved. To House, only fixing things will put it back to right. But you can't fix someone who's dead (Amber, or season three's Lupe in "House Training," for example).
House considers taking Nolan's advice, but can't find the words. So House tries to fix what's he done to Steve, make it somehow right. If only he can heal Steve and by extension Silent Girl.
Remembering Steve's outburst in the day room about a locked up music box (which he believes is Silent Girl's missing "voice box,"), House demands the box, promising it will work to cure both Steve and Silent Girl. But it doesn't work; House has failed. He can't put it right, and is anguished by his failure. It hurts to see House's desperate attempt to fix something unfixable. House is shaken and hurting.
Nolan wants to put House on antidepressants. "You obviously have no problem taking drugs," digs Nolan. As House reminds him, the drugs are for his pain. And he is afraid the drug will change him, take away his edge and, as Nolan notes, prevent him from making the "unique connections that make you a successful doctor." Bingo. We've been down this road with House before ("Resignation," season three; "Softer Side," season five), but this time, House is willing to try it.
As the episode progresses, House and Nolan seem to connect, understand each other on an unexpected level. When Nolan calls House in to consult about his father, it feels like an attempt for House to keep his diagnostic dignity: a ploy. And maybe it is, at least in the beginning. But House stays, consult and ensuing mockery finished: stays to just sit with Nolan as his father slips away.
Lerner and Friend explained, "We went back and forth. There were drafts initially where House leaves and doesn't stay. As the re-writes went on, their relationship evolved. We thought it may be a little risky and may not feel House-like, but then it kind of did. House is taking a little step, although he still has to have his 'House moment.'"
House also connects with another human being in a completely different way. That would, of course, be Lydia. I mentioned to Lerner and Friend how tenderly that story played out, considering it was written in a room full of testosterone (all four of the episode's writers are male). They confessed that Katie Jacobs helped a lot with this sub-plot. "The four of us (Lerner and Friend with Shore and Foster) came up with good stuff, but then Katie stepped in and really elevated it. And made it hopefully a very emotional touching, dare I say, heartbreaking story."
The writers mentioned their concern about House-Cuddy fans and how they might react to the little love story between House and Lydia. "But it was a risk we had to take." Casting Franka, they said, was a great decision by Jacobs. "She somehow doesn't seem to challenge the House-Cuddy thing; like a 'summer romance.'"
It's probably been years since House has been able to connect with anyone on that level. He has never been able to bring himself to that point with Cuddy (except in fantasy), or with Cameron, and it's a pivotal moment for the character, made more poignant by the emotional effect it has on him. House in tears: he feels, he connects.
As we know, House can get caught up in romantic feelings, misreading his partner's intentions. He's done it with Stacy, and in his Cuddy fantasy. You can see it after House and Lydia kiss at the benefit, sitting outside on the park bench. He is deeply affected by that brief kiss, and equally terrified. As Nolan tells him later, he probably spent 12 hours thinking about what it meant.
But as with Stacy, he's not willing to risk his heart, afraid to take a step that seems to have no winners. "There are two ways this could end: we stop and someone gets hurt, or we don't and someone gets hurt." House can't do it. The risk is too great.
Yet, almost in spite of himself, when he sees Lydia alone and sobbing late one night, he tries to comfort her. Comfort becomes something else, and eventually leads to passionate, but gentle lovemaking. Which brings House to tears. "It was something Hugh Laurie came up with on the set that day," the writers told me. "He felt he wanted to try it. He felt it was the appropriate thing. And then when we saw it on the monitor, it was incredibly moving."
Circumstances conspire to take this brief encounter away from House. Seeing the music box cradled in Steve's arm, House remembers its significance and how much Steve wanted Silent Girl to have it. Handing the box from Steve to the girl, House has managed to fix two people with one small gesture and his own super-human observational and deductive reasoning skills. Okay, so it's a bit contrived. Call me sentimental, but I just thought the three actors really sold it! But it leads to the release of Lydia's sister-in-law, and the end of House's relationship. It's a poignant moment for House, losing Lydia.
Four people are touched by House in this episode, and are made better in some way: Alvie, Freedom Master, Silent Girl, even Nolan. "But it's interesting," noted the writers, "House helps Alvy by telling him him to go worry about his own loser life. And he helps Freedom Master by essentially getting him to jump off a building."
"House is not bringing people flowers. He's challenging them and helping them in that way, by being House — by making them look inward. And hopefully that's how we thought we were protecting the character; because he doesn't ever go really schmaltzy or soft. He helps them through the force of his personality."
I found it interesting for an episode so infused with music — cellos, pianos, Dvorak, music boxes — little of it was House's music. Including House's little vocal solo in the bathroom stall. House singing Gilbert and Sullivan? HMS Pinafore? Friend and Lerner laughed, "That was Hugh. Thought of it on set. Oh. And the cake in the face? That was Hugh too. "Final take. Only Katie Jacobs knew, no one else on set about it. The reactions are genuine."
So House is given his leave to return to his normal life back in Princeton. As he feared, the relationship ended, and House is left alone. As Nolan tells him, now willing to write on his behalf to the medical board, he trusted enough to connect; he was hurt by it, and wanted to talk instead of numbing his pain in a pill bottle. It's a small but significant step for House.
It's telling that he didn't call Wilson to fetch him. House is taking that step alone. As he must. But armed with an understanding that he's not quite as alone as he might think. And wearing Alvie's shirt. So what now? What can we expect in the future?
"Without giving too much away, as a writing staff, we'll try to be honest with regard to what happened in the premiere," promised Lerner and Friend. "Yes, the show will go back to the medical mysteries, and the characters are back. But House is going to go on a little bit of journey, and not just plug back into the guy he was 10 episodes ago. The challenge is how to stay relevant and keep the viewers interested."
House airs Monday nights on FOX at 8:00 p.m. ET.