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TV Review: House, MD – “Meaning” (Revisited)

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There is a scene at the beginning of the season three House premiere, “Meaning,” that reveals a healed Gregory House (the brilliant Hugh Laurie). Graceful and quick, he runs through a park, free of pain and the shackles of disability. It is but a brief glimpse, and by the end of the episode, we know that for House, it will be (as Wilson will say by episode two) only a taste of what is not meant to be. And by midway through the season, House will have crashed and burned, reaching the depths of despair.

Throughout “Meaning,” House struggles with himself and his colleagues to find his sense of self in his new reality, having gone through dual life-changing events: being near fatally shot and attempting a radical therapy to rid himself of pain (and get himself off of pain killers). Convinced after his fevered hallucination in the season two finale “No Reason” that he lacks humanity, House accepts a brain-damaged quadriplegic cancer patient for the sole purpose of helping him with pain, almost daring himself that he can find “meaning” in normal “doctor stuff.” But he can’t quite figure out how to react when the patient’s family thanks him. In House’s mind, he’s done nothing; he hasn’t cured the patient or done anything significant. Confused, House believes he should “feel” something, and he doesn’t. He confesses to Wilson: “I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to feel."

Wilson tells him, rightly, that House doesn't have to do or feel anything different, but should appreciate it for what it is. He need not change anything. It's a matter of perspective, he suggests by his words. He believes that House is trying to force himself to be something that he is not, and that it's not necessary. Wilson tells House that he simply has to learn to appreciate what he already does for people. I like this Wilson, who was on the right track for that brief moment, before he went on to tell House to work his “caring” muscles; “the feeling will come.”

House seeks answers about “caring” from the patient’s wife, asking her why she doesn’t put him in a nursing home. What does she get out of her self-sacrifice? It's as if House is trying to understand this level of devotion and compassion for its own sake. She's "sacrificing (herself) and gets nothing in return…" Why would she do that? Does it make her happy? Fulfilled? No, she explains. But not doing it would leave her even emptier. In House's “No Reason” hallucination, Moriarty tells him that he sacrifices himself for “no reason.” House wonders how the wife can derive something from what he sees as a miserable life. Can he apply this to his own life? Does House need to do what he does best to keep himself from being even more miserable?

While House wends his way through this uncharted territory emotional territory, everyone suspects that he has an agenda; that he’s playing with the patient for his amusement, creating a puzzle for himself where there is none.

Not satisfied with leaving the patient and his family with the status quo, House considers the possibility that the patient’s paralysis might be something curable after hearing the patient grunt (which House translates as speech). But everyone attacks House’s motives. Cameron mocks him; Cuddy accuses; Wilson lectures and scolds. Meeting House at the park, Wilson accuses him of fabricating a mystery for his amusement.

"You didn't tell the wife it was just a grunt?"

"No, of course not."

House retorts that he's built them up with too much false hope and can't let them down, playing up his image as a jerk. It’s a safe fall-back position for him. But in his encounters with the wife and the patient, there is nothing in House’s demeanor, body language or remarks that suggest anything other than sincere belief that the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound patient has something curable. And that there's a chance that his quality of life for both patient and family will be improved. There is an idealism in House's approach to medicine that comes out in moments like this.

At the same time, House’s begins to fear that the ketamine treatment is failing. Skateboarding in the park, House feels a sudden pain in his thigh. Clearly unnerved by this sudden pain, House confides his fears to Wilson, asking him to write a prescription for pain medicine. Dismissing House’s soreness as “middle-aged aches and pains,” Wilson suggests that House is scamming him. I think Wilson’s wrong. If House is concerned enough to tell Wilson, it's got to be either bad or extremely frightening. House has been riding high on his newly pain-free life, suddenly able to do (physically) what he’s been unable to do for years. The return of the pain probably is his deepest fear.

As House leaves his office, Wilson finally acknowledges the extent of House’s fear, reassuring that procedure worked and that it will just take some time to feel good again (in all ways).

There is a second running scene in “Meaning,” a stark contrast to the joyful opening scene. Starkly shot and darkly atmospheric, it is devoid of the the first scene's promise and hopefulness. The gracefulness of the first running scene is replaced by desperation; House is running away — from his fear; from his demons.

But House has an epiphany about his patient, and, late at night, taps at Cuddy’s window, waking her. I loved seeing House, breathing heavily, hot, exhausted, talking a mile a minute, running (not walking) Cuddy through his scientific reasoning. He is excited, delighted and, as Cuddy says, high.

"I can make him walk, I can make him talk!" House implores Cuddy. ("I can help him — I can make his life better — I can make his family's life better" — this is what he's really saying.) This is the “fulfillment” that House gets; this is the joy and satisfaction he derives from the diagnosis. Yes, the final piece of the puzzle falls neatly into place, but it’s meaningless to House unless it means something to the patient, unless he can send the patient home better off than when he came onto his service. This is ultimate job satisfaction for House.

But Cuddy shuts him down, believing that House has to learn when “enough is enough.” House’s self-esteem is completely tied up in his ability to make inspired connections between disparate facts that no one else can. Taking that away from him, which is what Cuddy is doing here, strips House of the very thing that makes his medical value unique. If they can't let House be House, then who is he? With Wilson, Cuddy, and Cameron all accusing House of playing at some sort of game with a traumatized patient, and in light of House’s own fear of the ketamine’s cognitive side effects, his own confidence begins to unravel.

Worn down by a combination of his own confusion and the barrage from his closest colleagues, House is convinced that his motives and judgment are wrong. He broods in his office the next morning, depressed that he’s failed not only the patient, but his own impossible test. “Cuddy was right; I was only in it for the puzzle,” he confesses bitterly to Wilson, his voice tinged with self-loathing. “She was right to shoot me down.”

Wilson has oft stated that House’s success is all about luck, and this plays out in the final scene, as Cuddy herself uses House’s treatment on the patient. House was right; but Wilson insists they not tell him, in order to rein him in. I have never felt worse for House. And, in my opinion, nothing can justify this action. The short-term result is to leave House feeling both isolated and desperate. And it sets him on a path that will lead to nearly tragic consequences by Christmas (“Merry Little Christmas”).

Hugh Laurie does a magnificent job in this episode (but when does he not?) revealing the conflict raging in House, as well as his delighted joy and the depths of his despair. So much happens in this packed episode that it's easy to ignore the effortless range of Laurie's performance in it.

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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.
  • hl_lover

    Great review, Barbara!

    I think one of the key things of this episode, looking at it in the retrospective light of the further events of Season 3 (what is referred to as the ‘Tritter Arc’),as you pointed out, was the isolation House was placed in by having his team reject this new ‘persona’ that he was projecting and by the loss of his two closest friends and supporters. Everything that subsequently happened, including the return of House’s pain, can be linked to these events.

    What I found to be interesting from these first few episodes of Season 3, too, was that the speculation that House needed to be in pain and on narcotics was a necessary part of his brilliance. Imo this episode showed that it wasn’t true…that House fundamentally was brilliant, and being miserable or in pain was not the trigger for his unique ability to process information.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/barbara_barnett Barbara Barnett

    I completely agree with you HL_L. The tragedy of this episode was that it started House on a downward spiral–one that his colleagues should have suspected would happen. (Especially Wilson). House was in such isolation at the end of the episode. He felt trapped and that no good had come from the ordeal he had put himself through by “choosing life” (as Wilson said.)

  • NLP

    Brilliant review as always, I love your “revisited” reviews! I so enjoyed seeing House be happy; I had hoped that TPTB would not end that joy quite so fast. But everyone’s reactions to House foreshadowed all that I hated about Season 3 — and that was a lot. I agree that what they did to House was unforgivable.

    Blowing his idea off as a “hunch” was just stupid and totally unbelievable. Experienced people who have hunches (doctors, law enforcement officers, scientists, etc.), aren’t just blindly guessing. They may not be able sometimes to articulate very well what is behind their “hunch,” but it is still a deduction made from a lifetime of experience. I try to just keep telling myself, “artistic license,” the need to create drama, the need to keep the drama going, etc., etc., yet I still get infuriated!

    I just thought everyone around House in Season 3 (especially Cameron & Wilson) was/were acting out of character (from the way they’d been carefully crafted & set up in the 1st 2 seasons). I hated, and still hate that.

  • Tigerfeet

    Barbara.

    I have been a silent reader of your articles on House since you “took over” frome Diane Kristine. I love them, they are so well written and expresses most of my own thoughts on House and the fabolous acting of Hugh Laurie. (Are there ANY emotions he is not able to express, or ANY more or less outragous behaviour he can’t convey without grace and humour!? He seems to bring out new nuances to his acting all the time.)

    Like so many of your readers you have also opened my eyes to the more subtle messages of the episodes and the series as a whole. Thank you! This has also made me read all your previous posts on Thought Process. And for the first time in my life I have read some fan-fiction!

    Thanks for enhancing my already huge enjoyment of House and Hugh!

  • Barbara Barnett

    Thanks NLP and Tigerfeet. I was a big fan of Diane’s reviews (and she was a lot quicker to get her reviews up than I am–still don’t know how she mangaed that).

    I will continue the “revisted” episode reviews while we’re waiting for new episodes to appear. This week (and it appears that FOX is rerunning season three in order now. Cool) we have episode 2 of season three, “Cane and Able,” which features such a brilliant performance by Hugh L.

    And Tigerfeet–welcome to the guilty pleasure of fanfiction!

    Up later today: The “Thought Process” House Trivia Quiz

  • http://perceivingwholes.blogspot.com Jane

    How real is House’s not understanding self-sacrifice? He is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself, not generally for another person, but for his principles. (Think of the Vogler speech.)

  • Barbara Barnett

    How real is House’s not understanding self-sacrifice? He is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself, not generally for another person, but for his principles. (Think of the Vogler speech.)

    I think that House not only understands self-sacrifice, but (in his own) was does it. As you say, he self-sacrifices for a principle (and his very strict–though elaborate–moral code); he also has done it for patients–Carly for one, but also when he’s risked suspension or firing for other patients as well (Mark Warner, The Howard Hessman character in Sex Kills, among others).

    But I don’t think that House perceives what he does as “self-sacrifice” as he said to Wilson in Don’t Ever Change. He is self-aware of many things. He is not self-aware of his better nature.

  • http://perceivingwholes.blogspot.com Jane

    And if he doesn’t sacrifice for Stacy, I don’t know what he does. Now, Wilson is not entirely wrong to say that House, on some level, wants to be miserable. A person can get stuck living in a certain way and be afraid to change, even when they know change would be good. But there’s more to House’s actions than just fear or self-pity or emotional inertia.

    Funny, I haven’t done this kind of character analysis since high school English class — and never thought I’d be doing it on a TV character!