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TV Review: House – “House vs. God”

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I use the word faith a lot when I talk about House to friends. With mock seriousness, I invoke my faith in the writers when I have the most doubt. How will they use Stacy in season two, when her story seemed nicely wrapped up until five minutes remaining in the season one finale? How will they avoid mawkishness when choosing an adorably plucky little girl with cancer as the patient of the week? How will they portray a wide-eyed faith healer without taking the easy paths of either ridicule or salvation?

My faith is almost always vindicated. It definitely was with “House vs. God,” where the patient of the week is a teenager specializing in “divine health management” who has two-way conversations with God, who can touch a cancer patient and cause her to go into remission, and who chooses not to have surgery for fear it will take away his gift.

I cringed at the plot synopsis and the potential for religious or anti-religious heavy-handedness. But I had faith, because I’ve loved the show’s take on the theme so far. Unlike race, religion is woven into the characters’ backgrounds without usually being a lightening rod. Chase’s life in seminary school has been highlighted and Wilson’s Jewishness comes up as texture frequently. We know Cuddy (who sadly only makes a two-line cameo in this episode) is Jewish, Cameron doesn’t believe in a personal God, and House is an atheist … but not necessarily a devout one.

Season one’s “Damned if You Do” was one of my favorite episodes, treating the spectrum of faith from atheism to nun with respect and thoughtfulness. And as the nun tells House: “You can’t be angry with God and not believe in him at the same time. No one can. Not even you.” House’s beliefs were given more shading in “Three Stories”: “I choose to believe that the white light people sometimes see … they’re all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down. … I find it more comforting to believe that this isn’t simply a test,” he says.

And now “House vs. God” paints even more of the picture of House’s faith, filling in more details of his choice of faith in science over faith in a supreme being. Written by Doris Egan, who also wrote “Failure to Communicate” and seems to have a gift for complexity, this episode provides entire paragraphs of character explanation without losing itself in pedantic exposition or absolutes. And Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard deliver those paragraphs beautifully as the friendship between House and Wilson takes on a new dimension amid all the God talk.

But first, the catalyst: 15-year-old Boyd (Thomas Dekker) is brought in after collapsing at one of his session: “Daddy, I think I need a doctor,” the faith healer says.

His first confrontation with House comes early on, and though it seems to set them up on opposite sides of the rational versus religion scale, it also introduces a hint that there is an element of faith to both sides, whether it’s faith in God and faith in science.

House scorns the kid’s gift of hearing the voice of God, which lets him know Cameron is still “harboring vengeful thoughts” towards Foreman for scooping her medical article, and that House looks for excuses to be alone. “See, that’s the kind of brilliance that sounds deep, but you could say that about any person who doesn’t pine for the social approval of everyone he meets, which you were cleverly able to deduce about me by not being a moron,” replies House.

It’s a gift House shares, only without the voice-from-God element. “He figures out what’s going on in people’s lives by watching, listening, deducing,” House scoffs to Wilson. “You’re worried about trademark infringement?” Wilson asks.

Faith annoys House to an amusing degree. “You know, I get it if people are just looking for ways to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. They go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their hole. Climb out of your holes, people!” he rants.

His faith, of course, has so far encountered no holes in this fictional world where he solves all cases within the hour, and it’s not really tested here. For that I am grateful to the deity I don’t believe in, because that was exactly the road I expected from the episode, and therefore the well-traveled road I didn’t want it to take.

House is, however, puzzled that Boyd knows that he doesn’t want to invite the recently moved-out Wilson to his Thursday night poker game – a piece of information only House and Wilson know. Even more baffling is the fact that the tumor of Wilson’s dying cancer patient, Grace, shrank after Boyd performed a healing on her.

It was an easy diagnosis this week. The team didn’t even almost kill Boyd once, and just a simple MRI proved their guess. Which means, of course, that it can’t possibly be the final diagnosis.

Wilson trades an invitation to the poker game for helping House convince Boyd and his father to go ahead with surgery on the tuberous sclerosis, working his Wilson magic to manipulate them with kind reasonableness, contrasted with House’s unkind forcefulness in a good doc-bad doc scene.

Boyd doesn’t want to be cured, since Chase tells him it will also cure his “auditory hallucinations.” Weak-willed Dad (William Katt – aww, it’s The Greatest American Hero, though not so heroic here) also wants to believe his son is a saint. But Wilson points out that humility is a trait of saints, so one would consider the possibility that he wasn’t really chosen by God, and was, instead, simply sick.

When Boyd finds out Grace’s cancer is in remission, he withdraws consent for the surgery, and House’s team must prove she’s not actually getting better in order to save his life. “This is insane,” Chase points out. “We’re diagnosing a recovery.”

In the episode’s most outrageous suspension of disbelief moment – though what do I know, maybe random radiation from a leaky microwave really can cure cancer – Chase is sent to investigate her apartment to find potential sources of radiation.

In brilliantly intercut scenes, we see Chase snooping in the apartment while Wilson joins House and his “buddies” in the poker match. I was unreasonably happy to find out House doesn’t really have a secret stash of friends when he introduced his poker buddies as “Dry Cleaner, Tax Accountant, and Guy from the Bus Stop.” He’s a gambler – he needs people to gamble against. His reluctance to have Wilson join them seems explained by the fact that they know each other too well – Wilson can tell when House is bluffing. “I’m screwed, aren’t I?” one nameless guy says when he realizes House is about to win, while we see Chase realizing he might be screwed too, discovered snooping.

We get a shot of Chase encountering male dress shirts and ties in Grace’s closet cut with a shot of the uncharacteristically casually dressed Wilson in his McGill University product placement sweatshirt. It’s subtle enough that House’s deduction – a thought process that’s written all over Hugh Laurie’s expressive face as House also ponders his cards – comes as a shock. Well, to me, at least, but I can be pretty oblivious. Chase berates House for putting him in danger of a felony break-and-enter charge if the boyfriend returns, but House finally tells him the boyfriend won’t be coming home at that moment. Because, he doesn’t say, the boyfriend is betting against him across the table. Wilson is sleeping with his patient.

Leonard’s face in the moment of revelation displays a heartbreaking mix of fear, guilt, anger, and shame, and it’s a huge credit to the actor and the writers that this isn’t the moment where Wilson is dead to me. He’s a flawed character, in much less obvious ways than House. He’s got no cane to brandish, no pills to pop, no sarcastic remarks to hide behind. Well, maybe he has the sarcastic remarks, but only directed at the deserving House. Instead, he hides his flaws behind caring, passivity, niceness.

And once House reveals his indiscretion, it all makes sense. It explains why Wilson was so outraged that Boyd had interfered with Grace, why he was so concerned with her dreams and her potential to be disappointed. It also fits with what we know of Wilson, and adds a little bit more. He’s the nice one, but also the one who doesn’t seem to uphold his own moral code, choosing comfort over honesty, temptation over faithfulness. House, on the other hand, is the nasty one who, while not necessarily moral by others’ standards, rigidly adheres to his unique moral code.

“You eat neediness,” House accuses him when he learns how Wilson fell into the relationship with Grace by trying to take care of her when she was at her sickest. “Lucky for you,” Wilson replies, in an exchange that succinctly explains their relationship. There’s more to it, of course, but that has been the unsaid dynamic between the two – House needs Wilson, and Wilson needs House’s need for him.

Though Wilson is usually the one to force House to confront his failings, the poker table is turned here. “You’re a functional vampire,” House says. “Sure, you’re heroic, useful to society, but only because it feeds you.” Wilson’s weakness is House’s strength: that’s where House’s peculiar nobility is evident – in being the despised hero, useful to society while shunning it. And while he certainly feeds off the intellectual satisfaction of solving the puzzle, he has risked his career not for personal gain, but to save patients.

In one of those character-revealing paragraphs, Wilson doesn’t let House have the last character analysis: “You’re mad because I lied to you and you couldn’t tell. … That’s why you didn’t want me in your poker game. Because when it comes to being in control, Gregory House leaves our faith healer in the dust. And that’s why religious belief annoys you. Because if the universe operates by abstract rules, you can learn them and you can protect yourself. If a supreme being exists, he can squash you any time he wants.”

Their conversation is interrupted by a call notifying House that Boyd has spiked a temperature, which is not a symptom of the easy diagnosis. Walking down the hospital corridor with Wilson, we again see all the pieces come together in House’s mind as he realizes the diagnosis that explains everything, from Boyd’s symptoms to Grace’s remission: Boyd has herpes encephalitis. His touch transmitted the virus to Grace, which acted on her tumor to temporarily shrink it.

House quotes medical journals to give precedents for this turn of events, but this is an intentional credibility-stretching moment that adds even more depth to the episode.

Chase has been keeping score on the whiteboard throughout the case: House versus God. House got a point for each correct diagnosis, from low sodium to the tuberous sclerosis to herpes, while God got a point for Boyd’s deductions about Cameron and Foreman, healing Grace, and … I think knowing about the poker game? It fittingly ends in a tie, though House thinks God should get a point knocked off because he didn’t really make Grace feel better, the virus did. But Chase points out: “Do you know what the odds are? You say she won the lottery. He says miracle.” It’s a wonderfully untidy ending to the competition.

Boyd comes to apologize to House, and shows some not-necessarily-divinely-inspired insight. “You’re lucky. You go through life with the certainty that what you’re doing is right. I know how comforting that is,” he says regretfully, having, apparently, lost some of his own.

Since we know that certainty is a deliberate and perhaps slightly desperate choice for House, there’s a bit of pathos to the declaration. His pills, his distractions, his faith in science, even his certainty in his moral superiority are attempts to protect and comfort himself.

In a slightly tidier wrap up to the Wilson-House tension, Wilson admits his imperfections: “It is possible to believe in something and still fail to live up to it,” he tells House poignantly. House, still arrogant but still needy, asks if Wilson is going to move back in with him now that he’s leaving Grace. When the answer is no, he tentatively asks: “But we’re OK?”

“House?” Wilson says in exasperation. “You are … as God made you,” he finishes with a smile, leaving House comforted, if not filled with certainty about exactly how that’s a compliment.

Next week House we get a double dose of House, with a two-part episode spread over Tuesday, May 2 at 9 p.m. and Wednesday, May 3 at 8 p.m. (I’ll do a single review encompassing both after Wednesday’s airing.) I dare you to say anything bad about often-maligned FOX right now.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

  • West by southwest

    But does it mean that Wilson can get herpes encephalitis too, or what?

    I kept waiting for House to dwell on that uncomfortably obvious point.

  • http://www.encephalitisglobal.com Wendy Station, Encephaltis Global, Inc.

    House website quote: “”House mentions herpes virii are most prone to attack cancer cells. Wilson realizes that herpes encephalitis would fit all of the symptoms. House walks into Boyd’s room and orders him to strip. House is looking for the sores that are symptomatic of herpes encephalitis, mentioning to Walter that Boyd contracted it through sex. ”
    Are they saying that genital herpes sores are symptomatic (a symptom of the disease) of encephalitis? That’s like saying that with high thyroid… You must have encephalitis! (Hashimoto’s)…. Receiving mosquito bites….you must have encephalitis! (West Nile). Diagnosed with measles, mumps, rubella, or chickenpox… you must have encephalitis!

    None of these statements are inaccurate, of course, but I think the author of this episode is really pushing the facts on this one, and also:
    a) frightening folks with genital herpes sores, that encephalitis is pending…. and also….
    b) telling folks with HSE that they must have had genital herpes.

    House website quote: “A few days later, Boyd knocks on House’s door.”
    You’re telling us that days shortly following fever, delerious, and being diagnosed with HSE, this survivor is out for a walk? Now I can tell you from personal experience that a survivor of HSE spends months recovering… and does NOT go for a walk a few days later.

    Wendy Station, President
    Encephalitis Global, Inc.

  • Diane Kristine

    I think they’re saying he had herpes encephalitis, not that all encephalitis is caused by herpes or that all herpes causes encephalitis. And I think they give their audience credit for knowing that real life would make for very boring TV and that getting your medical facts from a fictional TV show is probably not the wisest idea.

  • jlvelt

    What I find interesting is that this is the 3rd episode of House where tuberous sclerosis is mentioned, either as a definitive diagnosis or as part of the differential. This is an extremely rare genetic condition that both of my children happen to have, which is the only reason I have any clue what it even is. But on House (my very favorite show on TV, by the way!!), TS has been mentioned in some fairly inaccurate contexts, including referring to it as a form of cancer, which it is not, even though benign tumors are part of the disease; and in the House vs. God episode, there is no mention of trying to eradicate the seizures and auditory hallucinations (potentially another type of seizure) through anticonvulsant drugs–we skip immediately to brain surgery, which is definitely a last resort for TS patients. Kind of weird–the first time I heard them mention it, I was sort of proud of the whole “Hey, you’re BUSTED–that’s not right! tee hee” but by the 3rd episode where TS was referenced, I am now wishing that if they’re going to mention it, please use this as a forum to spread accurate information about a disease that is so rare that it gets totally inadequate funding so that somebody might pay more attention.

  • Bob

    Having herpes encephalitis does not mean you have genital lesions, or cold sores – you can’t diagnose herpes encephalitis from looking for genital lesions or cold sores. Very interesting episode though, lots going on. Not sure why the kid lost his confidence at the end, I’m sure God probably wanted him to have some fun while spreading his word, shouldn’t be beating himself up about it.

  • gail

    jlvelt – since you have two children with TS, you must know that it is NOT a rare disease, though research is severely underfunded. It’s more common than cystic fibrosis. I do, however, agree that the writers of the show need to do significantly more research about TS because they definitely get it wrong!