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TV Review: House, MD – “Merry Little Christmas”

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Throughout its three-plus year run, House, MD has featured numerous heart-wrenching scenes. Scenes involving the patient alone and House alone, and scenes involving House and the patient together. Of these poignant moments, "Merry Little Christmas", a mid-season three episode re-run Tuesday evening on FOX, features several. But a scene towards the end of this episode, during which House leaves his mother an emotional "Merry Christmas" message is surely the most heartbreaking scene in the entire series to this point. It is a moment that never (no matter how many times I’ve seen it) fails to leave a lump in my throat.

This week’s patient is a teenage girl with presumed dwarfism (presumed because of her short stature and her mother’s own dwarfism). She exhibits symptoms that suggest any number of disorders. In the midst of this diagnostic dilemma, Wilson has made a deal with Detective Tritter to drop the drug charges against House if he agrees to enter drug rehab — a deal that House, of course, refuses. Wilson convinces Cuddy to deny House his pain meds and revoke his hospital privileges in an attempt to manipulate him into taking the deal. Still refusing, and betting that he’ll be able to cope without drugs longer than they’ll be able to cope without his skills, House retreats to the solitude of his flat.

The team, along with Wilson and Cuddy, attempt to diagnose the perplexing young patient without the benefit of House’s wisdom and experience. Unsuccessful, first Cuddy and then Cameron visit the oracle of House, appealing to his better nature. He initially resists his natural urge to help with the case, flatly refusing to help unless Cuddy relents and lets him have his meds. Eventually, however, House does come back into the case, Cameron convincing him that Cuddy was not going to give in, and appealing to House’s strong sense of right and wrong. (He could not allow the girl to die to simply prove a point.) Even strung out and in agonizing pain, House, alone, is able to see the connections in the case that no one else can.

This is not lost on Wilson, who, perhaps for the first time, acknowledges that what House does is not a “flip of the card,” or simple luck. House has a singular gift. It’s an epiphany that moves him to go back to Tritter, willing to sacrifice himself for the uniquely talented House. It’s a noble, but fruitless gesture, and one which not only fails to undo the damage done to House, but puts Wilson at risk as well.

Although House’s initial diagnosis is incorrect, he does ultimately solve the case. As it turns out, Abigail is not a dwarf like her mother. She has a condition that has left her short of stature, masking a neurological symptom, which, now revealed, enables House to solve the case. And with appropriate treatment she can grow to a normal height. As House bluntly puts it, the treatment is her “ticket out of the freak show;” a freak show of which House considers himself a part.

When the daughter (encouraged by mom) refuses the treatment, preferring to retain her uniqueness — the differentness that her physical condition grants her, House empathizes — and respects their point of view. But he disagrees. He asks the mom if she really wants her daughter to have to constantly have to always be tough just to survive. “Being a freak makes us strong,” he acknowledges. “But how strong do you really want her to have to be?” House's impassioned plea to the mother changes her mind, and she tells Abigail that she should take advantage of this opportunity to have a "normal" life.

Sick from the forced withdrawal and nearly out of his mind with pain, (even going so far as to deliberately cut himself for the endorphin rush) House has been downing pill after pill of the powerful pain killer. And when Wilson finds him alone in his darkened office on Christmas Eve, case solved, he is clearly worried about House’s state of mind, and doesn’t want him to be alone. But House dismisses his offer of companionship with an oh-so-bitter laugh, leaving a worried and stunned Wilson standing alone in House's darkened office.

So House returns to his flat, alone, knowing that the time clock on Tritter’s deal is about to expire. It’s a somber moment, as if the entire series of events since his shooting has finally come crashing down around him. He sees a bleak future, his vision certainly clouded by the drugs, the pressure, the whiskey, and the relentless pounding his life has taken since having been shot. He is sentenced to a life of relentless pain, constantly having to justify its validity — even to his best friends, and has to wonder if it’s all worthwhile.

And then comes that breathtaking scene where House calls home. Knowing that his mom is attending a family Christmas party, he speaks — haltingly, wistfully, heartbreakingly — into the phone, leaving a voice mail message that is as much “goodbye” as it is “merry Christmas.” Wilson finds him hours later, delirious, collapsed on the floor. Disgusted with his friend after noticing the name of his patient on the Oxy bottle, Wilson leaves House on the floor where he finds him.

Gregory House is generally a very strong man. He has suffered adversity (which we now know includes an abusive father), suffers severe chronic pain, and bears the burden of genius that not even his closest associates really understand. Ascribing his ability to discern subtle connections to “luck” and “guesses,” even his best friend fails to acknowledge (until its nearly too late) that what House does is no parlor trick.

Despite the anguish he’s in, despite the fact that he’s high on the Oxy; that he hasn’t slept in days, and is physically and emotionally at the end of his rope, he retains a stunning clarity and empathy that allows him to not only diagnose Abigail, but to convince her mother to go along with the treatment. But even a strong man breaks when pushed hard enough.

Normally, House’s default position when he’s pushed is to push back, but harder. But in “Merry Little Christmas,” House’s inner reserves of strength are nearly sapped. And when he asks the patient’s mother “How strong do you really want her to have to be?” he could have just as easily been referring to himself.

Hugh Laurie flawlessly conveys a man at the end of his emotional rope, in what may be  some of the finest acting I have ever seen — particularly in the phone call scene. There is nothing overt or over the top. The quiet desperation in House’s expression; the stillness; that tearful message. Hanging up the phone quickly, before allowing himself to say anything else or lose his resolve. Glancing at the nearly empty pill bottle (which only hours before contained 30 pills.) The silent determination to take the remaining pills and chasing it with the whiskey; forcing himself to drink the entire contents of the tumbler. It’s a quietly devastating scene. And it’s all in the performance, in the virtually dialogue-free scene. And it’s a brilliant performance.

As the episode closes, House, having gathered himself together, raises the white flag. But it’s too late. The deal (if there even was really a deal — we don’t know if Tritter wasn’t lying to Wilson to get him to betray House) is off. So ends House’s “Merry Little Christmas.”

A year later, we all know how it comes out in the end. But that knowledge in no way lessens the punch to the gut that this episode delivers.

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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.
  • rtlemurs

    To quote a wise beer commercial…

    True.

    Every time I watch this episode, even though I know how it turns out, it physically hurts to watch the phone scene. How Hugh Laurie has not won an Emmy is beyond me.

    Anyhow, I think that scene is the first wide open glimpse we’ve had of House’s tortured soul and you can see why he hides it from all around him. All of these threats (chronic pain, threat of jail and loss of his medical license, friends who doubt his pain and his genius) are pretty much always present in House’s day to day life.

    House has learned to deflect and hide from them for the most part and even distract himself at times. He has learned the rules and how to play the game in his little world but suddenly, Tritter steps into the picture and the rules change. Tritter doesn’t play by the rules of House’s world. This pushes House off balance and amplifies the pushing from all sides that already exsists. It’s like the vase on a table. Fine as long as everything around is stays the same but once and outside element enters and bumps the table it is the beginning of the end. The vase wobbles and with no support or steadying hand it will fall and break. That steadying hand should have been Wilson. And in Wilson’s mind, that is what he was doing. Unfortunately, in House’s mind, Wilson just pulled the rug out from under him.

    And now we see what I also love about this episode; what it reveals about Wilson and his relationship with House. RSL does a fantastic job of conveying Wilson’s desperation. His desire to save House from himself is so strong because he truly cares about House. He’s not trying to make House a better person, he’s just trying to save him. Yes, it is Wilson’s pathology to care or need the needy but I never get the impression that he is doing this for any benefit to himself (As Cameron insinuates).

    He knows House’s pride will never allow him to make a deal but he believes that House would take an out if one were presented. Almost immediately he realizes that he has underestimated that pride but it’s too late. All through the episode he is trying to save House. From jail, from losing his medical license, from his addiction, from the terrible mistake he (Wilson) has made. As with Hugh’s performance, RSL does nothing overt or over the top and yet conveys that desperation and heartbreak flawlessly.

    Really, all around strong performances by everyone in this episode. A stand out episode in a stand out series.

    And as always, a great review!

  • http://marieyates'blueyonder.co.uk marie

    Thank you Barbara, a great review as always , spot on with this analysis I thought, always gives me the same heartbreak feeling for the man when I watch it ,was this episode put foreward for the Emmys ….I agree rtlemurs , this should have been enough on its own to get an Emmy, everyone was fantastic in this episode , one of the most compelling hours of tv in a decade ..

  • denise

    The phone scene is very painful for me to watch, but atlas hugh is a magnet. Barbara I love your wonderful reviews. Hugh Laurie I bow to your talents!

  • http://sweetiethesmartestdog.com sue

    This episode shows what happens when a co-dependent relationship is pushed to the s_it or get off the pot scenario. House is Peter Pan-he won’t grow up. Wilson is his Wendy-he wants to cure all of House’s ills for him. The reverse situation also exists, but it is not as relevant to this episode.

    As long as their relationship was based on simple situations, it satisfied each of them. When pushed past that point, the mutual trust collapsed. They started to question each other’s motives in a way that belied what had been.

    Who was responsible for the Tritter situation in the first place? Was it the way House treated Tritter in the clinic, and his subsequent behavior? Was it Wilson’s refusal to write Rxs for pain meds for House in Meaning? Was it House when he forged Rxs? Was it Wilson trying to make judgements about how much and which medication House should take, saying he understood the pain House was having but really didn’t? Each time Wilson did something to help House, House blamed him more. The blame keeps going back and forth between House and Wilson, and this is where their relationship breaks down.

    House thinks Wilson is responsible for all of his trouble with Tritter. Then, when Wilson made the deal, House couldn’t recognize that Wilson was trying to help him. (House never found out that Wilson was going to sacrifice himself to help him by refusing to testify.) Wilson, who felt he was making some progress in the past with his lectures to House, ran up against a brick wall that he did not believe existed; House’s pride and determination went well past what Wilson ever expected. When he made the deal, he believed he could make House see that he had Wendied House out of a horrible situation, that his attempts to help House had been successful beyond even his own
    imagination. When confronted by a belligerent House, he was stunned at House’s refusal, scenes acted briliantly by RSL.

    As Wilson watched House’s desperate methods of medicating himself, he realized he couldn’t Wendy House out of his troubles, and he turned to tough love. Even that didn’t work. He realized that only House could help himself. Wilson saw the depths House had to fall to, and at the lowest point, Wilson finally gave up. He could have put House in the hospital when he found him passed out on the floor, but he didn’t want to make it any easier for House.

    When everyone else piled on, House had no support, and he couldn’t weasel himself out of his situation. Not only did Tritter outsmart him, Tritter got the whole gang to go along with him. House had finally run up against someone who’s will was stonger than his.

    Cameron’s lecture to Wilson about Wilson’s motives was a low point in the episode, a scene that was absolutely unnessary and did nothing for her character’s benefit. Her motives were never followed up; her tirade was unjustified based on her prior relationship with Wilson in the past.

    No one can deny that Hugh Laurie is brilliant. His nuanced acting is what draws people to him. (It is has sadly been lacking this season due only to the writing.) This is what makes people watch episodes over and over. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He is entrancing.

    I truly believe he did not win the Emmy this season because he is British. With so much press this season about how Hugh was responsible for the “British invasion” of actors who have taken starring roles away from American actors, the voters got gun shy. With the onslaught of reality shows, the number of roles for American actors has diminished. I believe that if Hugh had won, the perception that British actors were acceptable would have further dimished roles for American actors. He had already won the SAG award, where many of the same actors who vote for the Emmy had already awarded him, but that was before the press about the “British invasion.” When James Spader won, even he was shocked. I think Hugh should have submitted Merry Little Christmas for Emmy consideration; Half Wit should have won it for him anyway. I don’t believe any actor in Hollywood has not seen more than one episode of House; they read the critical reviews, they know that Hugh has been highly praised everywhere. Everyone knows he deserved the Emmy.

    This episode had everything that makes House grest. Each episode is a gift, one that we can treasure forever.

  • http://community.livejournal.com/house_reviews Barbara Barnett

    rtlemurs,marie and denise–thanks (as always) for you kind words. As I said, that scene simply blows me away. No, according to what I know, Hugh did not submit MLC to the Emmy people (I think he submitted Half-Wit).

    Great news about his winning a third GG nomination this year. And wonderful that the show also got a nomination when most network shows were completely passed over.

    Sue–Totally agree with you about how HL’s acting just draws you in like a magnet. I’m not entirely sure I agree with your very well argued assessment of House’s relationships with people. I don’t think House is Peter Pan. I think part of him doesn’t want to grow up, and I think that’s probably because he didn’t have much of a childhood, given what we know about him.

    Although we get the impression that he was pretty grouchy before the Stacy betrayal, I think we also get the impression that his pain and disability have fundamentally changed him (exacerbated by long-term use of pain killers and the emotional toll of Stacy’s betrayal).

    True, try as he might, Wilson can’t change House. But he keeps trying. However well intentioned he is, his constant attempts at manipulation, his sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness have had the effect of dismissive of House’s legitimate need for pain relief.

    What a powerful episode this was. You are so very correct!

    barbara

  • kate

    did he try to commit suicide ? … i tend to think not ….