House M.D. returned for its fifth season on Tuesday, and what a return it was. In an emotionally wrenching episode, the denizens of Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital grapple with loss—and the realization that there is no ring road around grief. The key story, of course, is House and Wilson, as they face each other for the first time since Amber’s death, mired in guilt, anger, and fear. Oh, and love.
Unlike the post-shooting season three premiere, this time the opening episode does not skip past the emotional aftermath of a momentous event. It may be two months since Amber died, but as Wilson has been on leave and avoiding House, we get to see the first time they come back into each other’s lives. House signals his fear of what he’ll face by avoiding going to see Wilson, to everyone’s surprise, but of course, he eventually does. And what he finds is that Wilson is going to even bigger lengths to avoid him—Wilson is resigning and probably leaving the state.
House is shocked at Wilson’s plan for dealing with his grief, but he stubbornly refuses to try and reach Wilson at an emotional level. He’s willing to call his friend an idiot, but not to say he’s sorry. He claims he doesn’t feel sorrow or guilt because he wasn’t to blame for the accident. But Cuddy doesn’t accept that House feels nothing, and indeed viewers know from "Wilson’s Heart" that House is very sorry indeed that Amber died and he feels a survivor’s guilt he knows is irrational but there, nonetheless. Yet he resists opening up verbally to Wilson, although he is willing to walk away from his patient to show Wilson how much he cares. He’s hoping that Wilson, as he did in the series’ premiere, will see that House’s feelings are revealed by what he does, not what he says.
Cuddy is concerned for both men, sure that they are both avoiding their real emotions and all will be well if they can just talk. She tells House that if he wants to keep Wilson, he needs to show Wilson he is not alone and that House is sorry Amber died. In a key confrontation, Cuddy yells at House as he closes his door, telling him that he is avoiding getting vulnerable before Wilson because he’s afraid that if he shows Wilson how much he genuinely cares for him and feels badly about Amber, Wilson will walk out anyway. Cuddy says House is running away just as much as Wilson is, and of course, she’s right. She tells House he has to do something to keep Wilson and emotional blackmail isn’t it.
As we’ve seen in past, House may blow a lot of smoke when the people he trusts give him relationship advice, but he often follows it. However, Cuddy hasn’t necessarily picked up on the nuances of Wilson’s feelings, as her funny yet poignant couples counseling shows. In her zeal to heal her friends’ rift, she seems to have forgotten that House told Wilson he was sorry during the deep brain stimulation in "Wilson’s Heart," and nobody besides House seems to think House’s willingness to do the very dangerous DBS showed his feelings for Wilson in action. Wrestling with his fear, House gamely goes into what is mostly uncharted territory for him: he expresses his feelings in words.
In a final powerful scene, House approaches Wilson and talks about Amber, expressing his sorrow and guilt. In an unprecedented move, he tries to be the kind of friend Wilson said he wanted in season two during the collapse of his marriage, and asks if he can help. This is House at his most vulnerable, dropping his defenses and risking the rejection Cuddy so accurately said he dreaded.
In a stunning reversal of Cuddy’s expectations, though perhaps not House’s, Wilson denies blaming House for Amber’s death, but has a more damning charge: he bluntly tells House he spreads nothing but misery because all he can feel is misery. Wilson is not only not prepared to be friends with House now, in a blow calculated to hurt, he tells House he’s not sure they ever were. Both Leonard and Laurie nail this scene, both so vulnerable and so hurt, you don’t know where to aim your virtual hugs. This episode was much lower key than "Wilson’s Heart," but the ending left me with the same feeling of being punched in the gut. Hugh Laurie shows yet again why he is so deserving of his Emmy nominations, as he allows the audience to feel just how much House loves Wilson, even as Wilson doubts the friendship.
The final scene left me torn about my feelings for Wilson, which probably suits the writers just fine. I think the choice to have Wilson realize that House was not responsible for Amber’s death was a good one, as that area of blame doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Wilson’s charge that the friendship has been little more than House spreading misery and Wilson enabling it on the surface appears to have more substance. But does it?
Wilson derides House’s games, but this is the same guy who suckered House into a bet about detoxing, lied to him about his success in diagnosing a patient at a time when House was terrified of the price he may have paid for a failing experiment with ketamine, slipped him anti-depressants in his coffee, and kidnapped and damaged his cherished Flying V guitar. Wilson’s a game player, too and his games have occasionally turned toxic. Wilson justifies all his games by saying they’re for House’s own good, but does that actually excuse him from accepting responsibility for his actions when his plans go wrong? House’s vulnerability tends to bring out the manipulator in Wilson as much as the enabler, as episodes like "Meaning" and "Cane and Able" show. In this episode’s confrontation, Robert Sean Leonard brought such painful rawness to his role, I couldn’t help but sympathize with Wilson, but at the same time, I think he was projecting his pain about Amber’s loss onto his relationship with House, seeing only House’s negatives and none of the positives.
If Wilson was indeed the martyr he describes, the relationship would not have been the source of so much enjoyment to viewers over the last four seasons. Both men are complicated, with House wearing his dysfunction on his sleeve and Wilson hiding his from view, and Wilson has been in charge of the friendship far more often than he's willing to admit. Wilson’s greatest flaw is his need to be seen as the good guy—that need helped sink his three marriages and now it threatens to sink his relationship with House. I’m not sure how the writers will repair the rift, but surely they will have to include Wilson reassessing what House offers him. It would be a fitting legacy for Amber if her loss was the catalyst for growth in both men.
The premiere’s theme of loss was carried through with the supporting characters, as well, and the exploration showed the writers have a much firmer grip on how to deal with the loss of the old team some viewers were feeling. Cameron draws on her own experience of bereavement in a touching scene where she counsels Wilson, while Chase refuses to endanger the patient as Thirteen deals with the knowledge of her Huntington’s diagnosis by desperately trying to prove her worth. Both are strong scenes that feel organic to the storyline, showing how Chase and Cameron’s new positions give them a different vantage point to interact with the rest of the cast. Kutner, Taub, and Thirteen begin defining their relationship as team members as they struggle both with the loss of House and Thirteen’s loss of a future.
"Dying Changes Everything" picks up beautifully where "Wilson’s Heart" left off, wisely focusing on the state of House’s heart. In Hugh Laurie’s capable hands, we never doubt that House has one, and the fascination of trying to figure out this complicated man is as potent as ever.