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TV Review: House, M.D. – “A Pox Upon Our House” in Depth

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From the 1950s until the 1970s babies were routinely vaccinated against the often-fatal and highly contagious disease. Many of us can still see the scar left by the vaccine (on the upper arm near the shoulder—it looks sort of like a brown flower tattoo). But smallpox was eradicated from the face of the earth more than 30 years ago; the supply of virus was largely destroyed (small amounts were sent to specific, well-protected labs for research). The decision to destroy the vaccine supply came in the aftermath of the accidental exposure of medical photographer Janet Parker. Which brings us to this week’s House, M.D. episode “A Pox on Our House.”

Julie, a teenage girl, picks up a medicine bottle from 18th Century slave ship wreckage off Bermuda. The slave ship had been sunk because it was believed that the passengers were infected or exposed to the deadly virus. When the girl breaks out in a suspicious rash after cutting her hand with broken bottle, House (Hugh Laurie) thinks she may have smallpox. Despite Foreman’s (Omar Epps) protestations to the contrary, confirmatory tests do seem to indicate that she has it.

House sees something in Julie’s symptoms that don’t’ quite fit a smallpox diagnosis. But in the meantime, the hospital has been quarantined—because it might be smallpox, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) comes in to take over the investigation from House and the team, leaving them with little else to do but twiddle their thumbs and wait for results.

Minor rant: Okay, so there’s only one thing that bugged me about this episode. It makes complete sense to call in the CDC, but his complete dismissal of House doesn’t make sense given House’s expertise. House is not only as a diagnostician (he’s world famous enough for the CIA to have called him in on a consult in “Whatever it Takes,” which aired season four), he’s also board certified in infectious diseases (and nephrology).  That’s quite a pedigree to have him shoved aside by the CDC guy like he’s some sort of provincial hospital doc.  On the other hand, maybe the CDC honcho does know about House and just doesn’t like his way of doing things—or maybe he’s just arrogant. It just bothered me a bit – and it bothered me that House didn’t really push it. End of rant, and now returning you to your regularly scheduled House commentary.

Foreman, Chase (Jesse Spencer) and Taub (Peter Jacobson) are content to read the paper and wait out the CDC. But the earnest and eager newbie Masters (Amber Tamblyn) wants to continue the differential. “What looks like smallpox, but isn’t?” is a question we might expect House to ask.

But House isn’t exactly biding his time by doing the New York Times crossword; he’s doing research. The CDC may hold the keys to the quarantine room, but the resourceful House has located the captain’s log from the sunken ship. But it’s in Dutch. Now, I would guess that House has at least a passing knowledge of Dutch, but would not be fluent enough (or fast enough) to translate all that Dutch (especially 18th Century Dutch) quickly and efficiently. Which would explain why he enlists a Dutch cyber-hooker to translate the journal. (Okay, that’s not the only reason!)

The historical perspective places House on another path, but neither reason nor manipulation get House anywhere with the CDC doctor. Although House considers that the African men who got sick on the ship actually died of cervical tuberculosis (scrofula), he can’t really get near enough to test the theory before Julie’s dad keels over in pain.

House plans a sneak attack to get a needed head CT, but humoring Masters, he lets her try using her more honest approach. Surprising (to House, anyway) it works, but before they can transport him, he shows yet more symptoms, with more evidence for smallpox—less for the “scroffulicious” cervical TB.

But after the dad develops pustules, even House is convinced that Julie and her dad both have smallpox—for the moment. But soon, House sees something else that doesn’t fit after Masters notices that Julie has no telltale pustules on her palms and soles of her feet. House believes that the dad is reacting to the smallpox treatment he’s been receiving, but the CDC doc isn’t buying House’s earnest argument, to which he seems just as immune as he would have been to House’s “Jedi mind tricks.” (I had to get that in, along with Hugh Laurie’s spot on Obi-Wan Kenobe impression.)

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • pieter

    @ Eve_Venn:
    I’m also a native dutch speaker and I did manage to understand some of the words on the slave ship. The docter guy is hard to follow but he does say ”ik heb alles daarin opgeschreven” and ”als er ook maar eentje zoveel als hoest…”
    The 2nd guy says ”Ik zal m’n best doen. Maar blijf op anker tot je van me hoort, want het volgende schot zal geen waarschuwing zijn.” It’s even consistent with the english translations.

  • Sera G

    @Leodie, #49.
    Interesting idea with regards to why Cuddy is having such a hard time with the lie. She does have control issues. She is great at her job for just that reason.
    My thought is not nearly so complex. I think she is just human. We say we want something, we even think that we really do, but often when we have it, we don’t react the way we think we will. Cuddy thinks she wants to keep work/home separate; and she probably does…but people are funny. When she discovers his lie, it feels more like a betrayal now that they are a couple. Before she might have been upset but able to ignore it. Now it feels like the man she loves doesn’t really respect her. (Even if intellectually she knows that he does.)
    Emotion and love does change things.
    I am with Barbara, I think it is a storm in their relationship that they will deal with and be able to move on stronger.
    Looking forward to Monday’s show and dreading the looooong winter break. That must be why God invented DVDs. (Ha!)

  • doctorwhat

    really enjoy house
    and usually pretty spot on medically
    but just plain wrong this week…R-pox is not lethal
    it is in fact a mild self limited disease

  • Viola

    @ Eve_Venn I also though they didnt speak dutch but after a few times going back I heard that the doctor did speak dutch he said: Ik zal mijn best doen etc. what the other man said I dont know but it sure wasnt dutch.
    btw he spoke with limburg accent maybe venlo?

  • 2centsworth

    I’m so surprised to read that a number of fans dislike Ms. Watros/Sam- I think Sam is a good character, well played. To me, the Sam character is potentially a much better match for House than Cuddy is…. which offers possibilities for interesting future twists.

    re: their compatibility…In the episode where Cuddy’s too “adult” to be interested in go-carts any more, Sam’s take is, “So cool! Haven’t done this since I was 12!” And: when everyone’s rolling their eyes at House for being a “Jack Cannon” fan, Sam’s all, “Sure! I’m team Deacon!” Neither is interested in kids, or has any rapport with them…

    House & Sam also seem to have similar histories, first as overbearing narcissists, & now as people sufficiently sick of lonliness that each of them is now trying to “recalibrate” enough to sustain a relationship. They could understand each other!

  • bakerstreet blues

    anyone think it was overtly obvious at how quickly Foreman/Taub and Chase were willing to give up on House’s life??? Thank God for Masters or this show would have ended on this episode. I have always contended that Taub and Foreman especially cannot learn ANYTHING from House. They both are incapable of learning anything because they’re both too narrow minded. Taub is the most judgmental of the fellows, Foreman truly believes that he already knows everything. Chase is the most teachable, open minded and willing to learn. The growth that Chase has shown in the past 7 years has been great. I still don’t like the Cuddy/House relationship….Cuddy cannot tell House that she doesn’t want him to change and then expect him to jump thru every hoop that she gives him. I just don’t like her, never have. I thought even in the Pilot episode her snide comment about House not having anything to go home to was especially nasty, then after learning that her ethical lapse is what caused not only his leg injury, but also the loss of the love of House’s life (Stacy) that comment really comes off as just plain BITCHLIKE. I agree with 2centworth that House has much more in common with Sam. Not to mention I noticed that anytime House ever interacted with Stacy (whether he was in trouble with her or in harmony with her) he ALWAYS looked at her with SOFT EYES. You could just see that he was completely and totally in love with her. He never said anything mean and personal to her. House never looked at Cuddy with those eyes. I always thought that House believed that Cuddy’s acceptance of him is what made him think she was right for him.