My favorite chemistry professor once said: “Why makes something simple when you can make it complex and beautiful?” Although his sage advice referred to organic synthesis, it can also be applied to writing, even for television. And like the best House, MD episodes, “Whatever it Takes” is simple on the outside (and a tasty treat for the casual viewer), but complex and beautiful for anyone who wants to take a peek beneath the surface.
The hour unfolds in side-by-side medical cases as Dr. Gregory House (the ever-amazing Hugh Laurie) is called away to tend to a secret agent with an unknown and likely fatal illness. In the meantime, newly chastened and returned to House’s staff, Dr. Eric Foreman leads the fellow-wannabe in their efforts to diagnose a race-car driver. Simple, straightforward procedural. But (and this is what makes me an adoring fan of the show) things are never as simple as they seem, and the beautifully constructed character plot contrasts the eccentric House with not one, but two doctors. Guess who wins?
The episode’s two medical cases are solved side by side. House is off-campus at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as Foreman leads the team back at the ranch (PPTH). The parallel cases set up an interesting contrast between House and Foreman, who believes that he is not only as good a doctor as is House, but better–and without the excess baggage. But Foreman lacks House’s experience, credentials and humility.
When a CIA guy drops in on House, badge and all, House is (to say the least) skeptical (actually House doesn’t even believe that the guy is an actual CIA agent, but a practical joke sent by Wilson or Cuddy). However, disbelief soon changes to adolescent glee as House is transported via black helicopter and corporate jet to the fantasy land of spies and double crosses. I have a sneaking suspicion House devoured Ian Fleming novels as a kid. And I would not be surprised to discover that he has a copy of Hugh Laurie’s novel The Gun Seller tucked away somewhere in his flat.
Suddenly House finds himself right in the middle of some teenage boy fantasy–complete with a beautiful woman and real spies. House, a bit seduced by the “cool” factor, is (at first) more than excited. He is practically giddy by the time he arrives at the CIA. But House is not the only doctor on the case. The CIA have also brought in the anti-House, a staid, no-nonsense and equally famous doctor from the Mayo Clinic. It’s an interesting premise to see House interact in this sort of situation with a peer not only from outside House’s universe, but set outside his usual environment (and not on his own turf).
Throughout much of the episode, House’s conversation with the CIA doctor (who resembles a figment of a video game designer’s imagination) is overtly sexual and crude. House is usually better at filtering his language around strangers, reserving his raciest comments for Cuddy. I was really put off by House and leering, wondering if it had something to do with him being outside his element, but then I realized that his language and interactions with the CIA doctor were a direct result of his video-game-playing- adolescent- “aren’t I cool?” state of mind.
His filters are (more or less, and thankfully) back in place once the patient’s situation becomes dire and reality settles back onto House’s shoulders. He thinks he has the diagnosis early on, and being wrong, he initiates the wrong treatment. After realizing the error, House's entire demeanor and way of handling the case changes.
“Whatever it Takes” is a perfect title for this episode. House's reputation is based on both his genius for putting together the puzzle, and because he does “whatever it takes” to save the life of a patient. He will bend, even break, rules; ignore established medical ethical standards, lie and steal. But House also has a fundamental understanding of his own fallibility, and is humble enough to recognize it, be affected by it and make adjustments to serve the interests of the patient because of it. “Humility is important if you’re wrong a lot,” he tells Foreman way back in the season 1 episode “DNR.
Working on the other case, back at PPTH, Foreman’s team misdiagnoses the race-car driver. Foreman tells her that he’s going to do something that doctors aren’t supposed to do: “admit I’m wrong.” It is hard for him to do, as he is just learning that sort of humility (he began this journey last season). But Foreman is handcuffed by the error; devastated by his fallibility. By contrast, House, who judges his own medical decisions even more harshly than he judges everyone else’s, recognizes and adjusts, and finds a new path toward the diagnosis.
House’s ego (which was getting the better of him, being at the CIA and all) now takes a back seat (as it usually does) to really fixing the patient. House does “whatever it takes,” even, setting aside vanity, arrogance and ego.
And through honest, quiet and calm conversation with the patient (I love these little one-on-ones) House comes up with THE answer. House even abandons his usual bias against eastern/herbal medicine to try an experimental treatment he’s only read about. House brews the tea himself, holding the mug to the agent’s lips, all the while honestly admitting to the patient that he is still likely to die.
Back on the home front of PPTH, Foreman’s team continues to diagnose the driver. Early in the episode, House turns over his precious markers to Foreman. “You’re in charge,” he tells Foreman as he leaves for points unknown. “I know,” Foreman retorts, arrogantly. Foreman assumes the power he’s been given is his right, conferred by Cuddy and not by House. This attitude informs the way in which he runs the team. Foreman tries to undercut House’s ultimate authority by badmouthing House to his team, something House does not deserve.
Cameron gives Foreman some good advice when she tells him that no one is ever totally wrong. Some good can come out of mistakes and missed diagnoses. “You’re never going to get everything wrong,” she tells him. This is a crucial lesson she has learned from the master, House, over the course of her fellowship with him. “What if we’re wrong?” Cameron asks House in the show's pilot episode. “We learn something else,” House wisely replies. This crucial lesson is one that Foreman has either missed or forgotten.
House returns from his little sojourn to the CIA only to find that the team has made the outrageous diagnosis of polio on the race-car driver. And that she has been miraculously cured by mega doses orange juice. House is shocked, since, when he left, the patient had heat stroke, which was Foreman's original diagnosis. But wait. Foreman enters the lecture hall with proof that she did not, after all, have polio. But what about the tests Brennan ran on the patient that showed the presence of the polio virus?
“You believe him?” Foreman asks incredulously of House. “They do,” replies House calmly, answering a more important question. This is failure that never would have happened had House been there.
Ultimately, this episode also demonstrates House’s own ethical boundaries. House immediately understands that “whatever it takes” Brennan, contrived the entire polio/orange juice scenario. House is furious (in a dangerously calm way). House has never placed ambition over a patient’s well being.
In the end, in a wonderful scene, the CIA doc presents herself to House. And House is completely flummoxed. He hasn’t a clue as to what do with this. Or with her. Hugh Laurie is brilliant at suggesting House’s dismay, unease and bewilderment. His expression tells us “Oh great. Now what do I do?” And we will be anxious to find out next Tuesday.