“Larger than Life” is the perfect title for the return of House, M.D. to new episodes. It’s been nearly two months since we last saw Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) and the rest of the team, so any new episode is going to be larger than life to fans who have missed their weekly appointment with the show.
Someone larger than life is imposing, impressive—just a little bigger than everyone else. An ordinary man jumps from a crowded subway platform to save the life of an epileptic woman trapped on the tracks. He’s this week’s patient: a hero—larger than life to a grateful survivor and to the stunned rush hour commuters who didn’t rush to the rescue. But the “patient of the week” is not the only larger than life character diagnosed in this week’s episode.
Dr. Chris Taub (Peter Jacobson) is selected to represent medicine’s “best” in an advertising campaign: he’s the guy you trust. The very presence of Arlene Cuddy (Candice Bergen), the imposing mother of Dean of Medicine Lisa, is intimidating to all she encounters. And what about the long-distance male friend of Taub’s wife, who seems to have captured not just her fancy, but also an emotional investment that eludes him? Everything seems imposingly large—exaggerated, even.
“Larger than Life” provides a great venue to explore several of the relationships that populate Dr. Gregory House’s universe. People who seem larger than life, seldom are; they have feet of clay, insecurities, faults and foibles. Sometimes they’re all on the surface; hollow on the inside. Or substanially less intimidating (or heroic) than they appear.
What motivates the patient to leap from the platform of a crowded subway station in front of his young daughter? He’s not normally self-sacrificing and heroic, not even a good guy by nature according to his wife. He’s an absentee father who spends most of his time chasing the dream of being a rock star.
His actions, though appearing noble, terrify those closest to him, epsecially his young daughter; they are the collateral damage on the flip side of the patient’s larger than life heroism. House, of course, believes the heroism is a symptom, pointing to a neurological problem. But he also thinks that his patient is trying to change himself in the eyes of those whom he loves—to make himself larger, a better man, than the husband and father they know. House thinks it’s a futile exercise. One of his favorite mantras is “people don’t change.” Wanting to change and changing are not the same. I would have liked to see a bit more interaction between House and the patient on this popular House trope. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get it.
Taub is the new advertising symbol of all that is good at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. Life size—and larger than life-size—images of him appear on billboards all over Princeton’s environs. But does the man fit the image? Over the course of the episode, the pathologically unfaithful Taub understands that he is far from the image the projected in the ad campaign. He’s finally driven away his wife Rachel, whom he professes to love—and I think at least he believes it. But now that his wife has acquired a male confidante (whom she has never met), Taub believes that she is emotionally attached to this long-distance friend.
Realizing her relationship is his own fault, Taub is disgusted with the image projected by the billboard image. He is a small man inside, and refusing to understand where Rachel is coming from, proposed to end their 11 year marriage. But has Taub overestimated the relationship between Rachel and the confidante? Does the relationship (in his mind) become needlessly intimidating? Or is it just an excuse to finally end a marriage to which he wasn’t all that committed anyway?
And then there’s Cuddy’s mother Arlene; she is also larger than life in several ways. She is certainly not what House expects when they first meet. He expects a little old Jewish lady and not a blond (as he calls her) “shiksa.” I think her presence alone completely intimidates him, especially after she ambushes him in the clinic.
Bergen plays Arlene as my worst nightmare of a Jewish mother: hypercritical, overbearing, and a general “butt-inisky.” She’s more a throwback to Rhoda Morgenstern’s mother in the ‘70s sitcom Rhoda, than she is to anyone I know (and, trust me, I know a lot of Jewish mothers—having one, and being one myself).
Arlene plays out very over-the-top. It’s a great comic portrayal, but why play the stereotype to such an extreme degree? Candice Bergen explained to TV Guide that Arlene is a “gentile who would prefer to be a Jew.” And often “Jews by Choice” as converts are often called, outdo those born to Judaism in lots of ways. I suggested in my preview article that Arlene might be overcompensating for not being born as an MOT (“member of the tribe”). Perhaps to Arlene, fitting in means spouting off more Yiddishisms per second than anyone else in the Cuddy family. Another part of me wonders if Cuddy’s mom was coming on strong to see if she might intimidate House (and find a reason to annoy her daughter).
The pivotal set piece (and one of the funniest) in the episode takes place at Cuddy’s birthday celebration. Arlene does her best to antagonize Cuddy (not so much House), but when she pushes one particular button, it’s one too far. I love that House had really tried to play nice (sort of), but feels he has to step in when he perceives that Cuddy’s really under attack. But before he gets a chance to get a snark into the conversation, Arlene—and Wilson are knocked out, victims of House’s slipped Mickey.
Although House’s solution to silencing Arlene is underhanded (and oh-so-Housian), it has its own sweetness. It buys House and Cuddy a little domestic downtime together: washing up the dishes and sitting together on the sofa. I really like House’s birthday present to Cuddy—a ribbon-wrapped bottle of more sedative. It’s a funny, lighthearted gift that demonstrates undoubtedly how much House cares for Cuddy. And in the end, Arlene sees that as well. Showing herself as neither as intimidating nor as much of a dragon as she suggests at first, Arlene wisely acknowledges that no matter what she personally thinks of House, she understands that he loves her daughter. I love that Sara Hess (the episode’s writer) stepped back from complete stereotype to make Arlene more reasonable—and real—than she appears at first.
I really enjoyed the interplay between Cuddy and House, and between House and Wilson. We do not need to see House and Cuddy snogging and pawing each other to know they care about each other. They have quibbles with each other, and even snipe a bit. But that’s pretty real. And I really like how the series writers are exploring this latest challenge to House on his quest to “not be miserable.”
Each season House faces new challenges and obstacles on his journey. In season one it was simply interacting with people outside his immediate circle; in season two, it was dealing with the reappearance of someone who he deeply resents—and just as deeply loves. Season three House grappled with the failure of the Ketamine treatment (and getting shot at the end of season two), and in season four, he learned how to adjust to a new set of fellows. Season five saw House dealing with multiple losses—other emotional traumas, while in season six he struggled with learning to live a life free of narcotic painkillers.
This season, House’s challenge is perhaps his greatest. He is taking a huge emotional risk by allowing himself to become so involved with someone about whom he so deeply cares. The task is daunting—perhaps itself “larger than life.” He wants to do the right thing; he wants to protect and nurture the relationship and try not to destroy it. He’s playing against type. He believes that people can’t change, rejecting the very idea. Yet here he is, trying to change—trying to be more “human.”
He’s also trying to be there for the newly single Wilson. And all of this “change” and humanity is taking its toll. Our favorite loner seems desperately to need a little time to be alone. And the two sides of House are in complete conflict. Of course in the end, he arrives at the solution to this dilemma in a perfectly Housian way—by lying to both.
A new House episode airs Monday night: “Carrot and Stick.” If you are in the Chicago area tomorrow, do stop by and say hi tomorrow night at Barbara’s Bookstore for an evening of House discussion with yours truly.