Mistreatment of children has been an ongoing and extremely important theme of House, M.D. since the series start in 2004. Beginning with “Paternity,” in which House briefly believes his teenage patient is a victim of parental sexual abuse to House’s (Hugh Laurie) own infrequent revelations about his childhood in seasons two, four and five (“Daddy’s Boy,” “One Day One Room,” and “Birthmarks,” respectively), the series has explored parental relationships and their effect on both growing and grownup children.
Any time House explores the dynamics between parents and children, whether in humorous clinic scenes or in heartfelt one-on-ones between the doctor and his patient, we have the opportunity to learn more about the series central character. In this week’s excellent episode “Parents,” House’s own parental mishegass (translation from Yiddish: craziness, or perhaps more appropriately here, baggage) is out on full display. The patient of the week is Ben (Harrison Thomas), a teenager; his biological father, Mom Janey (Lisa Lackey) tells House, was a clown (for real), having died years earlier from cancer. But everybody lies, and when it’s revealed that the teen may need a transplant, a monstrous secret about his father becomes suddenly relevant. Dad is not dead; at least not yet.
For years House has advocated in a sort of subversive, strictly House-ian way for children that happen into his care. Whether “reassuring” a mother about her daughter’s “gratification disorder” (“Euphoria 2,” season two) or showing nothing but contempt for a father who has sexually abused his daughter (“Skin Deep,” season two), House has a highly perceptive radar for children who are caught in the crossfire of destructive parenting, particularly when he perceives abuse.
At the end of “Parents,” it dawns on him that the patient’s biological father walks funny. Synthesizing the Ben’s constellation of symptoms and the father’s subtle limp, a symptom signifying late-stage syphilis, House makes his final diagnosis. Ben was sexually abused, he realizes, and has syphilis. The revelation has massive consequences, not just for the boy’s illness, but for his emotional well being and future.
The mother was obviously aware of the abuse, yet did nothing, choosing only to declare the pedophile father deceased. Was it shame? Guilt? Fear? What would cause a parent to push something so significant into the closet with the other skeletons?
Although this story thread doesn’t overtly connect to House’s story, we know that House was the victim of (at least) verbal abuse at the hands of his father while his mother, ever the peacemaker, likely allowed it. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) reminds House (and us) that House is the product of an illicit affair. When Wilson contrasts House’s biological “good guy” father with John House, a brutal, unforgiving man, House reminds him that good guy, though he may have been, he wasn’t good enough to have resisted an affair with his mother while his father was overseas. There is a distinct note of bitterness in House’s voice. House is clearly still affected by those actions and the secrets that followed.
The affair had been a deeply held secret; House had suspected it since he was 12, but never confirms it until his father’s death in season five (“Birthmarks”). But the cost of keeping that secret likely has had a high price tag, having likely played into his mother’s passivity in the face of John’s treatment of his son. This week’s medical case and House’s story both raise the question about the potentially destructive power of parenting, and illustrate House’s contention that all parents damage their children in one way or another—albeit some worse than others. And on a tragically ironic note, this story of sexual abuse and its consequences comes amid the stunning and horrifying revelations about the Penn State football program.
The rest of the episode’s threads also play on the theme of parenting and how parents can make or break us, nurture or destroy us. Obviously, House’s needling of Taub (Peter Jacobson) about his twin girls reflects on it, and the way he presses Adams (Odette Annable) as well. Even parental perfection has its costs! The clinic patient and House’s amusing boxing match plan also suggest parental issues (of a different sort).
House’s “diabetic” clinic patients is essentially a man-child, whose wife seems more mother than partner. Her “care” nearly kills him.
And then there’s the boxing match. I loved this little detour; it’s so very much what makes House the show it can be when it’s firing on all burners. Of course, Wilson and Foreman are House’s parents quite a meaningful way.
Foreman (Omar Epps) clearly defines their parental roles and responsibilities as they endeavor to get House through his parole unscathed. Foreman is the stern father (or mother) figure to put enforceable limits on their wild son; Wilson’s role is to be House’s friend—hold his hand, be supportive—even when that means sacrifice (like giving up ringside seats at a sell-out boxing match).
Foreman would never allow House to “go out” with Wilson all the way to Atlantic City. He knows how easily House can manipulate his best friend, which would only lead to trouble. But Foreman also knows that House has been doing everything right since coming back to work; he deserves a night away from his house imprisonment. But how to accomplish that, along with helping House to recover a bit of the dignity he’s lost in the past year? How, indeed! Connive the boxing match tickets from Wilson, and take House to the match himself. It’s a ploy that House would be proud of—and Wilson? In the end, he’s fine with how it works out. Baby steps.
“Parents” really gets back to all the things I love about this series. There is fun and the obligatory House-antics. But they are subtler and less silly than they’ve been. And they don’t detract from the rest of the story. The episode weaves in and around the episode’s theme in a great script by Eli Attie, which plucks at issues very relevant in the context of recent news.
House returns next Monday night at 9:00 ET on FOX.
And on a side note, if you’re watching ABC’s new series Once Upon a Time (starring House alum Jennifer Morrison), be sure to check out my newest ongoing series feature!
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