Confrontation: candidate vs. candidate; candidate vs. campaign manager; Foreman (Omar Epps) vs. Taub (Peter Jacobson); House (Hugh Laurie) vs. a new staff member—and Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein). Everything is about perception and the truth is often only a means to an end, unless it doesn’t serve your purpose. House, M.D.’s sixth entry in the still-young season seven is a breath of fresh air offered just after the insane political season just past.
“Office Politics” is much about cause and effect, action and consequence. What does it mean to win? To lose? In other words: politics. The episode begins by taking a jab at the negative 2010 political climate and the pervasive politics of fear that has gripped our country this political season when Joe Dugan (Jack Coleman), a Rove-ian political director proposes using a scurrilous and untrue attack ad in a hard fought U.S. Senate race.
It may win the election for his candidate, but the candidate is reluctant to run it—not because it’s unethical, but because it might galvanize the opposition. In politics, the road to a win is paved with all sorts of dubious ethical choices. It’s not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose. It’s cynical, and certainly appears to be true in this era, but is it really true?
The patient story in “Office Politics” sets the candidate and his campaign manager against each other. Although he claims not to like the attack ad, the candidate leaks the ad and blames his sick campaign manager. The candidate can remain clean, and although it crucifies his chief adviser, Dugan appreciates the act for the pure politics of it. It will be effective, so who cares why? Does the unfairness of it matter if the consequences fall on the wrong guy?
The conflict between truth and lies is a common theme on House, played out over more than six seasons. House views lies as an often necessary means to learn a necessary truth. If he doesn’t lie, his patient might die. (At least, that what he believes.) And in “Office Politics” it’s hard to disagree with him in the end.
Dugan has contracted Hepatitis C and his physiology is lying about it, concealing the disease’s usual symptoms. And ironically, it is only by giving him an 85 percent fatal case of Hepatitis A that Dugan stands a chance at survival.
But the fatality rate is too high and Cuddy refuses to allow him to do it without absolutely confirming the Hep C. House cheats the system and lies to Cuddy to get the needed (albeit faked) result he needs to satisfy her. In the end, he will likely pay for the lie personally; he’s involved with Cuddy and lying to her takes on a different meaning entirely. The consequences are likely to reverberate in one way or another well into the next several episodes.
Into this mix of truth and lies, politics and medicine, Cuddy thrusts the young Martha Masters. On House’s case for weeks to hire a female staff member, she believes the diagnostics team is too heavily scented with eau de “sausage fest.”
The department needs a feminine touch to offset the aroma, and although House claims that he’s tried (and failed) to find a suitable candidate for the female chair in his department, Cuddy has adroitly taken the decision from House’s hands. Martha Masters is a third-year medical student, socially clueless as she is brilliant. She’s as versed in the humanities as she is in science, but I don’t want to cover ground I’ve already trod earlier this week.
So how does throwing a young, naïve, socially awkward girl genius change the dynamics of House’s world? Ms. Masters (she’s not a doctor yet) operates by a rigid moral code. She really doesn’t care that House fires her for her ethics (he does repeatedly) and she refuses to be bullied by him. After a brief awe-struck teenager moment in House’s magnificent presence, she begins to see how he operates.
Masters respects (and is still in awe of) House, she doesn’t let that affect her moral stand—whether it concerns breaking into the patient’s home or eliciting truly informed consent from the patient Dugan about the life and death decisions before him. To Masters, how you play the game does count, no matter the outcome—even if the outcome means the death of a patient. She is the anti-House. And the tension (none of it sexual) between them is fantastic.
Although I loved the dynamics between all the regular characters and Masters in “Office Politics,” the interactions between House, Cuddy and the new recruit are stellar. Director Sanford Bookstaver and writer Seth Hoffman do a great job of keeping the tension between all three characters, and Amber Tamblyn as Masters more than holds her own against powerhouse actor Laurie.
Masters really gets under House’s skin, enough that he feels compelled to argue his case to her in front of the fellows. He doesn’t call her an idiot or stupid—or even naïve. But he can’t understand how someone so intelligent isn’t as willing as he is to find the flexibility in ethical rules. Although he keeps firing her, he continually seeks her input, despite what he might say.
Masters fairly shocks House by fearlessly confronting even Cuddy, calling her a coward for refusing to take the risks necessary to save their patient’s life. “We shouldn’t compromise patient care to avoid law suits,” she argues, with words that might just have easily emerged from House’s mouth. He is stunned yet admiring—at least while she’s arguing his side of the controversy. But whether her fearlessness is out of principle or not knowing any better (terrible office politics to tick off the boss’ boss—especially when she’s on your side) remains to be seen.
Giving Dugan Hep A, argues House, will save his life—maybe; but there’s an 85 percent chance it will kill him. So, of course, Cuddy wants proof—proof that is impossible to get from this patient. But because Dugan has acquired his Hep C infection from Senator Anderson, House does know where he can get evidence. But evidence will not be adequate to make his case honestly. But since when has that stopped House?
Of course, the hitch is that he and Cuddy are now romantically now, and that hugely alters the dynamics between them. In the pre-“Huddy” days, life was simpler for House. He would have simply ignored her—or faked a test result to prove his point. But there’s a new variable in the equation: What will Cuddy think? More importantly, What will Cuddy do?
It bothers House sufficiently that he consults Wilson and then broods upon it alone in his office. He knows what his principles dictate, but what will it cost personally? Will he sacrifice what he believes to please Cuddy? And what if the patient dies? Unsurprisingly, House decides to prove to himself that Dugan has Hep C by testing candidate Anderson under an assumed name: Dugan’s. If Anderson has it, so does Dugan. Point proven—but only to himself.
To get Cuddy to sign off, House lies to her, compounding it when she compliments him on his newfound trustworthiness. It’s clear from House’s face that he feels terrible, but House’s principles trump his love. (And I can imagine the uproar in the fan community had he decided to be politic about it and honest with Cuddy.)
Now having permission from Cuddy, House has to convince Dugan to go along with a treatment that has a 15 percent chance of success and an 85 percent chance of killing him. He sends Masters to do the job.
With House observing, Masters tries to explain the treatment and get his consent. House would have also told him the truth, but left him little choice. But Masters uses a tactic that House would never have employed. She reveals the professional risk House has taken to get to the truth of Dugan’s condition. “He could lose his license.” It’s a tactical decision that risks her job—but House’s career if Dugan chooses to expose him. She offers House to win the patient’s confidence—to win. Just as Senator Anderson offers up Anderson as the sacrificial lamb for his victorious campaign.
Obviously there’s no moral equivalence here, only a subtle parallel. House leaves Masters with little choice; she takes a risk—and wins. “You hired me because you like my principles.” Principles vs. skirting them. House vs. Masters. I like it! I love this character.
The dynamics between Masters and each of her colleagues are also interesting. Chase is amused by her and indifferent to her intelligence. He knows that House will crush her; Foreman likes her and views her as the only one who isn’t a frog in pot of boiling water. She’s unaffected by House, as in awe as she is, and Foreman (like we) find that refreshing. Taub takes an immediate dislike to her, but there’s a reason. Foreman thinks that she makes Taub feel old. But scrappy, short, Taub teaches Foreman a little about basketball. But I think the dynamics within House’s new team will be fun to watch. I like what Masters (and Tamblyn’s portrayal) bring to Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.
But what about House and Cuddy’s dynamic going forward from “Office Politics?” By episode’s end, Cuddy learns that House has not only directly gone against her orders, but he’s lied about it to her. Cuddy is hurt and feeling betrayed. And she should.
I will only tell you that this issue is not dropped by next week’s episode and even beyond (I’ve seen next week’s episode and will preview it over the weekend.) Cuddy had never expected House to be honest in the past, and I have to wonder had he not lied to her with such false sincerity, whether she would be anywhere as hurt? Lisa Edelstein really sold that scene; I wonder where it will eventually lead.
House’s betrayal of Cuddy’s trust is indefensible. House is wrong to betray Cuddy’s trust and he deserves to suffer some sort of consequences for his actions. I don’t think it will lead to a break up, but it will shade and frame their relationship going forward.
What do you think? Did you like Masters? How will the team’s dynamics change? What happens when (or if) “13” returns to the fold? And what’s ahead for House and Cuddy? Your thoughts below!