Since his release last autumn, House (Hugh Laurie, in an understated and poignant performance) has continued his treatment between the lines and behind the scenes. But in this season’s penultimate episode House, M.D. episode “Baggage,” we get to be flies on the wall as psychiatrist Dr. Daryl Nolan (the brilliant Andre Braugher) picks at the tough scabs that scar House’s soul.
Nolan puts House through a raw and sometimes brutal self-examination full of reveals and resonances—and the sort of episode that fans of the more introspective House have been craving for months. Writers Doris Egan and David Foster have created a gorgeous and intricately wrought script—off the formula, but still with a medical mystery at its heart.
Using a storytelling technique similar to season one’s “Three Stories,” and season two’s “The Mistake,” “Baggage” unfolds like a play, an exploration into House’s mind and heart. It is certainly one of the most important (and one of the best) House episodes in the series history.
Structured as a therapy session, “Baggage” allows us to see House as he describes his latest case to Nolan. Running the gamut from belligerent and sarcastic to vulnerable and fearful, House walks us through his week, and a case that has significant emotional resonances for him.
House is late to his regular appointment with Nolan, which the therapist points out is unusual. Nolan notices that other things off as well. But House deflects, insisting that his week was “ordinary.” When Nolan challenges his assertion, House glares silently. Clearly all is not so well and House’s week is far from ordinary. “Tell me about it,” prompts Nolan. And as they (literally) walk through the case of Sydney, a woman with amnesia, Nolan places House under a microscope—challenging and examining House’s every action for meaning and subtext.
House’s week has started off badly as Wilson has decided that it’s time for House to leave. Nolan is surprised that House doesn’t feel betrayed by Wilson’s demand, so soon after buying the condo. House shrugs it off, defending Wilson’s decision as inevitable now that he’s found happiness — despite the fact that it leaves House out in the cold.
But when Wilson soon thereafter reverses himself, House suspects collusion between him and Cuddy. Describing a likely meeting between Cuddy and Wilson, we, Nolan and House watch their conversation take place through House’s point of view. In House’s mind, Wilson and Cuddy argue about whose turn it is to be House caretaker—make sure he’s not crushed beneath the weight of his own emotional fragility.
Nolan disputes House’s harsh assessment, arguing that a different scenario is equally likely. Nolan’s sunnier scenario—that Wilson’s eviction means that he believes House is ready to live on his own—rings false to House. He has a lot of evidence, going back to season one (and likely before that). From their collusion to get House to admit addiction in season one (“Detox”) to their fiasco of early season three (“Cane and Able”) just after House regains the use of his leg, Cuddy and Wilson do have a history of “for his own good” House-manipulation.
Nolan wonders why House is so keen to talk about this particular case? Sydney has amnesia. She has no idea who she is, but what she’s being told is the truth rings false and doesn’t feel right—much to the frustration of her husband. It seems that after a family tragedy, Sydney wanted to find more “meaning’ in her life. Changing course, she’s molded herself from a surfer girl into a high powered attorney. Somewhere along the way she seems to have lost herself. And with no memory of the tragedy that caused her to change, she is now a stranger to who she has become.
Is this why Sydney’s life resonates so deeply with House? Has House lost himself as he’s tried to change? Or is it something else? The team first diagnoses prion disease, which is potentially fatal unless they perform a dangerous brain surgery, which will eradicate her long term memory completely. Her husband refuses consent, arguing that his wife is incapable of making an informed decision, given the state of her memory, although she wants the operation.
The husband refuses to allow the operation because he will lose the last vestiges of the woman he married. This angers House, because the husband appears to value his marriage and relationship above his wife’s life. Saving her life might mean destroying whatever chance they have at a relationship.
People get stupid, House tells Nolan, when they’re about to lose someone they love. What sort of resonance does that have for House in his life? When Stacy made the decision to go against House’s wishes with regard to his leg (“Three Stories”), she knew she might forfeit House’s love—and certainly their relationship. But she did it anyway, arguably saving his life. Does House now value Stacy’s decision; has he reconciled that she did the right thing? I wonder how much Nolan knows about Stacy and her decision.
But it turns out that House’s initial diagnosis is wrong (she’s not going to die). It’s actually Sydney’s past (a partially removed tattoo) that has caused her symptoms. By illuminating (literally, with an ultraviolet light) her past, House found the cure for her present medical malady. Isn’t this what Nolan is trying to do with House? Isn’t that what therapy is all about?
Sydney’s husband is frustrated by her, and his attempts to reconnect with her fall flat; she doesn’t remember him and his familiarity is off-putting and uninvited. But suddenly he changes tactics and begins courting Sydney, as if he’s wooing her for the first time. Nolan sense’s House’s fingerprints on the husband’s strategic change, although House brushes it off as something Taub came up with. It’s interesting that Nolan would pick up on that in House—the misanthrope who thinks everyone is an idiot, yet makes it possible for young love to flourish in others.
One of the things that makes House such a great paradox of a character is that despite his cynicism, he “wants to believe.” He doesn’t believe that people can change; he doesn’t believe he can be happy. People are idiots and everyone’s miserable. Yet, House has a considerable romantic streak that allows him to help others find happiness—find themselves. It’s a deeply hidden idealism that keeps him wanting to find the thing that will make him slightly less miserable. And if not for himself, for others.
(I remember something Jennifer Morrison said to me in an interview last spring. She suggested that House lives vicariously in a way through his patients. Unable to heal himself or be healed, he heals others. It’s the best he can do. It’s a very romantic view of House—one he would surely eschew. But, as House would say, it fits.)
For a year, House has been undergoing psychotherapy with his Mayfield psychiatrist, Dr. Daryl Nolan. Brought to a low point after his emotional collapse last spring, House has done everything that Nolan has asked of him, in the hope that he can be a little less miserable, stay off Vicodin and forestall the chronic pain that plagues his every day.
House has gone through periods over the series history when he seems to “want to believe” –believe in a cure that will take away his physical pain (or make it more tolerable). He’s considered brain implants and nerve grafting; ketamine and methadone—all to make life more tolerable and less miserable. As House has said, he doesn’t want to be miserable—he just has had no idea how to feel better. None of these have worked for him, yet he keeps trying—if only to survive.
Seeing Nolan, taking antidepressants, getting off narcotics were all supposed to have helped. “You’re a faith healer,” House accuses Nolan, deciding in the end, that he’s had enough of being weekly picked apart. There is nothing in Nolan’s bag of tricks to help House. He feels betrayed and preyed upon, his efforts unrewarded, and for all he’s tried changing, he is still miserable. “I want to be happy,” House tells Nolan simply in “Broken.”
A year later, everyone who matters to House is finding the happiness that still eludes him; everyone is moving on: Cuddy, Lucas, Wilson—even Alvie, his Mayfield roommate. Alvie, House learns, has been camped out in his apartment during his stay at Wilson’s. Hiding out from immigration officials, Alvie, who is Puerto Rican (and an American citizen), but whose birth certificate had been long ago destroyed, is afraid of being deported.
House makes a grand gesture to help Alvie. Setting up a hearing (which Alvie misses) and then falsifying DNA records to prove his maternal connection to his mother, House has gone above and beyond to do something nice. In the end, however, like Wilson and Cuddy, Alvie leaves, heading to Phoenix to live with family. And where does that leave House? A year into therapy, and he’s back to the beginning: in pain and no happier in his life, despite his efforts.
While Alvie camping out at House's, we learn, he has pawned several of House’s books – and his coffee table to buy paint (to paint House’s apartment bright and cheery yellow). They’re old books and a scratched coffee table, but House is willing to pay dearly to retrieve the items. But why? Among the pawned items is one now missing: an antiquarian medical text by a Dr. Ernest Cuddy. Fortunately, Alvie’s slippery fingers are able to procure the book back from the man who bought it from the pawn shop. (But not until House offers to pay the man $2,000 for it!)
Nolan notices a bruise on House’s arm, suspiciously in the shape of a boot. “I fell,” explains House, not wanting to reveal more—or that, having been drunk, he doesn’t quite remember how it happened. Clearly House had been in a brawl and kicked after he had fallen. Nolan suggests that “on some level” House knew he would get into a fight and knew that if he got drunk, he would provoke someone “to take a swing,” essentially asking to be pummeled. He wonders if House believes he “deserves” to be punished. “What did you screw up?” he asks House wondering why he would intentionally put himself at such physical risk.
“I don’t know,” is House’s broken reply. This has deeply upset him, so much so, that he drops his defenses just long enough for Nolan (and us) to see it. Nolan assumes it’s about a relationship, which is why he believes House has been so intent about talking through his case, which has at its core a shaky relationship. Sydney’s husband fears that he is losing his wife; House is suffering his own losses: Cuddy and Wilson — and at the same time.
Is it about Wilson, Nolan wonders? House angrily (almost violently) denies it. But then Nolan makes the connection between the book and Cuddy. Recognizing the title and (after a Google search) the author, he realizes that the missing book isn’t just any book. A rare tome, worth thousands of dollars, it’s something he’s kept for a long time; something he has intended to give as a gift to the author’s great granddaughter Lisa “for a special occasion.” Like the desk he acquires for Cuddy in season five (“Let Them Eat Cake”), House’s intentions illuminate a more hidden side of House—and one he keeps well under wraps.
So perhaps it’s about Cuddy, Nolan speculates. Although House plays it cool, suggesting that Cuddy’s happy—and he’s not even involved with her at this point, it’s clear that House can’t be “cool” with the status quo. As he remarks to Wilson in “Wilson,” House is not at all doing fine playing the adult and allowing love to bloom between Lucas and Cuddy.
So House backs away from both his friends, allowing each room to breathe in their new relationships. Isolating himself, instead, he punishes himself for being miserable, for being alone—and for screwing up his few friendships. House has always had feelings of extreme worthlessness rattling around in the dark recesses of his soul. They come out every so often under stress: the end of “Honeymoon” in season one; his hallucination in “No Reason,” “Merry Little Christmas” in season three, etc. One thing not explored yet is the origin of House’s low self-worth and the relationship of that to his father.
Maybe next year.
On Wednesday, I’ll be talking with writer Egan to get insights about “Baggage” and all things House. Look for that to appear in this space later this week, along with a preview of the season finale. I’ve seen it; it is stunning in all ways. And—to close out the season, I’ve got an interview scheduled with the finale’s writers as well after the episode airs.
In the meantime, the bidding is still open on an autographed copy of the forthcoming Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. (plus an hour of chat about the show) at Brenda Novak’s auction to support diabetes research.