It’s often easier to tell difficult truths and deepest fears to complete strangers: people we can’t see face to face. They are an audience who cannot see into our eyes, nor we into theirs to note disappointment or rejection staring back at us.
The hero of our story, Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), knows this well. He will reveal himself to strangers: a patient, perhaps even a hooker, rather than risk himself to his friends or anyone one else who really matters to him.
This week’s patient, a blogger, finds that telling her troubles (and joys) to the world brings her close to those who understand her, her state of mind and way of thinking–perhaps better than her husband. That’s the great beauty of the Internet. It’s a private/public space where you keep your anonymity while revealing parts of yourself you’d never reveal to even you closest friends and family.The lure of the Internet is seductive as a forum to reveal one’s most intimate secrets, vet one’s most personal decisions. As revealing and public as it is, there is an anonymity to this sort of virtual life, and therefore less risk.
I remember first getting hooked on House back in 2004. I couldn’t tell my husband and risk his certain teasing and (good natured) ridicule for becoming addicted to a television show (again). But I went on the Internet to see if anyone else felt as I did; saw in the show the things I saw; perceived House as I perceived him. And of course I did. I could barely admit my addiction to friends (and when I did it was with an embarrassed giggle). But to my community on the Internet, who of course “understood” me in a way impossible to explain to anyone else, I could bare all without fear of ridicule.
“Private Lives” nicely explores the nature of perception and privacy in our lives. Written by Doris Egan, the episode brings restores some of what I had felt had gone missing this season—most importantly the more introspective and serious side of House. Yes, prankster House was quite in evidence, but he considered the case and the patient seriously and thoughtfully. It was wonderful to observe House deep in thought over the patient, wracking his brain and getting one of his patented epiphanies from something completely remote from the week’s case.
This week’s patient seems to live her entire life through her blog. Nothing in her life (not even her marriage) is off limits, much to the annoyance of her husband. She blogs everything, and even as she has to make a significant choice in treatment, she turns to her readers for advice, despite her husband’s pleas that she not make this decision into an Internet poll. Her real and virtual lives have converged in a way that risks her real relationship.
Like our blogger (and dare I say like most of us), House also lives two lives. Outwardly his life is an open book: he’s an unabashed jerk who (as Chase points out) brings hookers to the hospital and openly gambles with bookies. He leers and is generally a boorish lout. But House has another side, one that he keeps essentially private (even from Wilson and Cuddy). In “Broken,” House’s therapist perceptively asks him why he shrinks from letting people know the “real” him. It's a question that gets to House's deep-rooted intimacy and trust issues.
House’s real idea of a relaxing evening is rather solitary and sad: sitting on the sofa, eating cornflakes and watching porn. No intimacy necessary; no one to judge, reject or gawk at the “freak” he sees when he looks in the mirror. By contrast, Wilson is moving on with his life, hoping to score at a speed dating extravaganza. And he’s convinced House to come along, promising an equal if not better outcome to the evening he’s planned for himself. House sees the speed dating scene as a “meat market” rather than a "meet" market, and looks remarkably uncomfortable. Even when he happens upon a woman who seems a reflection of himself, he realizes that’s just not possible and pushes her away with blazing speed and precision.
The speed dating outing is a great set piece within the episode and sets up a neat little exploration of Chase and how he perceives himself. Playing on his “pretty boy status” (even without the blond floppy hair, which I personally miss), the story reveals Chase’s disbelief (and disappointment) that people like him more for his looks than anything more intrinsic to his personality. He even questions his now-defunct relationship with Cameron, wondering whether she was ever really interested in him—or only to his physically attractive surface. Does Chase’s appearance prevent women from seeing beneath the façade and into who he really is?
Wilson’s speed dating endeavor should teach him never to reveal his medical specialty. It’s a great conversation starter; unfortunately everyone knows someone who’s encountered cancer. And certainly the Wilson of years past might have delighted in finding a needy woman using his oncologist shingle. But post-Amber, perhaps Wilson has changed; his reaction to the parade of speed dating women suggests that Wilson is looking for something different. But how easy will it be for Wilson to change his persona…if that's what he really wants.
But Wilson does have another persona, and you needn't look further than an old porn movie about wood nymphs frolicking in the forest to find it. But maybe that's something Wilson would rather keep secret. Too bad that House has found said porno and gleefully outs it to the entire hospital. Wilson takes a very good natured (and persistent) ribbing from everyone. But turnabout is fair play and Wilson wants to get something embarrassing on his friend to spread around town.
Chase is shocked when Wilson asks him if he knows any embarrassing tidbits; after all, Wilson is House’s best friend. But Wilson realizes how private and secretive House can be, despite the fact that House brings what would surely be considered very private quite out into the open at work.
In any event, Chase tells Wilson that House is reading The Golden Bowl, Henry James’ novel about completely dysfunctional relationships. But House isn’t actually reading it, strongly hinting at the old axiom that “you can never tell a book by its cover,” which fits right into the episode’s theme.
Self-described atheist House is actually reading a book of sermons written by a Unitarian minister. It’s so uncharacteristic that Wilson worries it’s some sort of psychotic break—or that House has reached the end of his personal reserves regarding his pain and is grasping at straws and clinging to his last vestiges of hope by reading the ramblings of a minister. But House refuses to play along and won’t reveal what’s actually going on and why he's intently studying a book that flies in the face of his atheistic worldview.
But Wilson is undeterred, and the answer is revealed when he notes the dust jacket photograph of the author. The Unitarian minister is House’s biological father, first mentioned in Egan's fifth season episode "Birthmarks." House pleads that only mild curiosity about the man has driven him to read the book. But as Wilson points out, House hasn’t just been leafing through the pages; he’s been studying the book. But why?
Wilson may be right when he suggests that House is trying learn something about himself from the writings of his biological father. Clearly unlike either his mother or John House in his way of thinking, Wilson considers that House is seeking insight into himself. It’s lonely where House resides way out there in the fringes (as Wilson notes) and House is grasping at the possibility that in his biological father's writing he may find something to help explain him. But why not pick up the phone? Why read a book to get into his father’s head? House explains that although he’s curious, he’s not that curious.
But perhaps there’s another answer—one that ties into the episodes overarching theme. Reading a book, like making essentially anonymous contact on the Internet is risk-free: no rejections, no embarrassment. It’s completely private. And House, who trusts no one with his emotions, probably finds it easier to connect this “virtual” way than by actual human contact.
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