The Kubler-Ross grief scale first emerged on House in the season two premiere “Acceptance.” At the time, House (Hugh Laurie) had been struggling with the return of Stacy Warner into his life. Stacy, whom House (Hugh Laurie) both loved and resented; he both desired her and was repelled by her presence. It seems so long ago, lifetimes of tragedy and angst for House—seven seasons for us—since that moment in season two.
And here we are at the penultimate episode of season eight—the last season of our beloved House, M.D. And like House, trying desperately to deal with Wilson’s (Robert Sean Leonard, in arguably his best performance to date in the series) decision not to have chemotherapy, we are right there with him, going through the stages of grief, not only for Wilson, but for a beloved television series.
Like the series showrunners must have agonized over whether to end the long-running series, Wilson grapples with whether to die a quicker, but more dignified life, or to die little by little in agony. A prolonged and senseless way to go. And Wilson’s decision would be easy, but for House, who will not take Wilson’s demise well.
Although last week’s episode “Post Mortem” was heartbreaking, this one just broke me, leaving me in tears as I watched House desperately try to get Wilson to see “reason”—or at least “reasons” to stay alive for at least a little while longer. House cannot understand giving in to the nothingness of death; cannot accept that Wilson simply wants it to be over before life gets too maudlin. It is his right to die, and something for which House has argued over and over these many seasons.
The episode opens with viewers learning that Wilson will have only five or six months to live without chemo, which would give him another two or three more years—much of which would be spent confined to a hospital chemo suite and in pain.
But Wilson has decided to die “with dignity,” something in which House neither believes nor accepts. “You can only live with dignity; you can’t die with it.” The passion in House’s words to Rebecca Adler from the series pilot still resonate as his mantra for lo these many years. There is only living; there is only dying.
Although everyone is sad for Wilson, Foreman and everyone else is more concerned about how House will deal with both Wilson’s decision and his death. No one thinks it will end well, prompting Taub (Peter Jacobson) to resign, and Foreman (Omar Epps) to try setting the stage for House’s life after Wilson (and not very gracefully).
House’s tough exterior is a fragile shell, and everyone is aware that he is likely to shatter into a million pieces if his best—arguably his only—friend dies. Foreman buys a pair of hockey season tickets—they’ll go together. Of course House sees through the transparent attempt to replace Wilson as the man who keeps House from falling apart. No one can replace Wilson—and how dare Foreman try, and in retaliation for this affront, House acts out in one of his most stupid and reckless pranks ever. With results disastrous for the hospital—and for House.
Stuffing the tickets down into the hospital plumbing is one of the dumber things House has ever done (and his track record is considerable). He must have known that the backup would cause a disaster and kill the MRI. Had that been retaliation against Foreman’s gesture—or retaliation against the MRI machine that has conspired to take Wilson from him?
Although Wilson has accepted his fate, it still isn’t easy. He needs House, but until he can accept that Wilson is going to die, House will only be a blockade to Wilson’s getting on with his final days, pulling pranks and trying his best to manipulate Wilson into therapy he is unwilling to undergo.
And while House deals childishly with Wilson’s death, this week’s patient continues in denial about his own brother’s death 10 years earlier. Having never been allowed to grieve, the young man still talks to his dead sibling, unable to move past the loss.