“Almost dying changes everything–for about two months.” House believes that a near death experience has but a fleeting affect, if any. First said to Foreman following his brush with death in “Euphoria” and oft repeated, it has become a truism from a man who has had several close encounters with death. But in "Dying Changes Everything", the season five House, MD premiere, House learns a tragic corollary: “dying changes everything” in the aftermath of Amber’s tragic demise. And, indeed, everything may well have changed for House and for Wilson.
Last season’s finale episode “Wilson’s Heart” left House recovering from head injuries sustained in a terrible and fatal bus crash (and from the deep brain stimulation procedure done at Wilson’s request) that killed “cut-throat bitch” Amber Volakis.
The single most important scene in “Wilson’s Heart” finds a comatose and hallucinating House sitting in an otherworldly bus with the dead Amber. He debates with her (really wrestling with his own subconscious) about whether he wants to, or even should, return to the land of the living. House argues that he should stay on the bus with Amber (who is, one might suspect, going on to that “better place”); a place with no pain (for House the ultimate escape), where he isn’t miserable and where Wilson doesn’t hate him. “I don’t want to be in pain; I don’t want to be miserable; I don’t want him to hate me” is House’s heartfelt confession.
The season premiere picks up two months later. House and Wilson haven’t spoken since Amber’s death; Wilson has been on bereavement leave. Cuddy is astonished that they haven’t yet spoken, which House brushes off as “he wanted some time alone” (Since when has that ever stopped House?).
“I’m leaving,” Wilson tells him placidly when House finally works up the nerve to visit him. House begins to push back, but doesn’t really want to. He stops himself, telling Wilson he should take more time if he needs it. “Good for you,” he says, albeit slightly insincerely.
But House has misunderstood Wilson's intentions. Wilson doesn’t intend to extend his leave; he is leaving Princeton Plainsboro for good.
For his part, House is trying to be helpful, sympathetic, rationally trying to prevent Wilson from making the mistake of leaving a good job (and him) while in mourning. "It’s textbook” House tells him. “Bereavement 101”. In House’s mind this is familiar territory. All House needs to do is to change Wilson’s mind; badger him about it, remind him that he’s not thinking rationally. Which goes over like a lead balloon.
I love House's "tells" (thank you Hugh Laurie for their subtle brilliance). House’s tells remind us that despite the fact that (or maybe because of the fact) he’s acting like even more of an ass to everyone, it’s because he’s dying inside.
All you need to do is read House’s body language and (even more importantly) his expression. Laurie’s line readings and the physicality of the performance tell us both his level of physical pain and the extent of his emotional suffering (and I’m going to take this opportunity to state that there is no justice if Laurie does not win the Emmy this year for his tour de force performance in last season’s “House’s Head.” There. I’ve said it).
House’s demeanor is even more brusque than usual, outing 13’s Huntington’s Chorea during a differential diagnosis session–a deflection away from his own problems. He paces nervously; he opens and closes his fist. The anxiety is practically pouring off of him, glancing surreptitiously towards Wilson’s balcony. House is worried that Wilson really, truly might leave. And it scares the Hell out of him!
Eventually, House pushes back against him, angrily telling Wilson that he’s self-destructing out of grief. “You’re being an idiot.” But Wilson won’t engage him; won’t yell back. The beauty of Robert Sean Leonard’s performance in these scenes is that, knowing the episode’s final reveal, you can see it coming. He’s not angry; he doesn’t engage House at all. There’s a resignation; a finality and resolve to Wilson’s demeanor and tone of voice. A decision’s been made. Wilson has already moved on. Or thinks he has. House reads it as grief on steroids, but it’s not.
This almost reminds me of a marriage way beyond repair; way beyond the caring of one partner. There’s no anger, no hatred—only sadness, resignation and resolve. It’s over. I wonder if that’s how Wilson’s marriages ended: he fed his wives’ neediness until he grew resentful and simply abandoned them.
House grows increasingly agitated as Wilson’s decision sinks in. After diagnosing an ectopic pregnancy in the patient, he calls for the fetus to be aborted. 13 disagrees and House rants at her about the inherent unfairness of life. “People get what they get, it’s nothing to do with what they deserve,” he barks. “People die! You, Amber, everyone”, he bellows.
House's words echo back to “Wilson’s Heart:” “Life shouldn’t be random,” House considers aloud. “Do gooders in love who are pulled out of their homes in the middle of the night should walk away clean.”
How many times over the course of the intervening two months has House lectured himself on the randomness of life and the injustice of Amber dying while he lives on. In a just world, House had told Amber, he would have died. But these are thoughts that the wary and guarded House would never articulate; not to Wilson. Not to Cuddy.
For her part, Cuddy whispers in House’s ear and yells in his face, to simply “talk” to Wilson, to tell him that he’s sorry; that he feels bad and feels his pain. That he takes some responsibility for what happened. House believes that talk changes nothing. Letting Wilson talk about his loss will do nothing to mitigate the pain of losing his soul mate, so why bother doing it. I recall back in season three’s “One Day One Room”, House’s words to Eve that only action changes things, has a chance to make things better. House believes that talk is cheap, so it has no value for him… for anyone else.
“You really don’t feel any sense of guilt?” Cuddy asks him disbelievingly. House’s responds with a blank-faced stare that should tell her “of course I do, but it doesn’t matter; won’t bring Amber back; won’t reset the clock.” But suffused with a hard-edged bitterness, his glare, instead tells her that he feels nothing.
Believing he knows what will work with Wilson (guilt and his “do-gooder” instinct), House makes the radical move of boycotting his own case until Wilson decides to stay on. On paper, it sounds like House is holding his breath or threatening to eat worms. But I believe that it’s the only way the socially inept House can think of to tell Wilson through some sort of convoluted subtext that their friendship is more important than his job (which is really, fundamentally all House believes he has). OK, so it’s also emotional blackmail.
Gotta love Cuddy. Going to House’s apartment during his boycott, she confronts House about the patient, who is now dying in the hands of his helpless team, and about Wilson. She verbally backs House into a corner, telling him things he already knows. Forcing him to listen, knowing that even if he pretends to ignore her, he will internalize her words. “If you make yourself vulnerable for once in your nerve-deadening…”
But if House allows the shutters to come up and the guards to come down, he becomes emotionally exposed. What defense will he have if Wilson’s reaction is to sever his ties to House? And House, who sees the bleakest side to everything, must have thought this once or twice in the two months since Amber’s demise. Slamming the door in Cuddy’s face, he turns for solace to a waiting glass of whiskey to obliterate the pain. House moves slowly and so painfully in that scene as he walks back into his living room, it hurts to watch him. And this is another “tell.”
But Cuddy doesn’t give up, trying to reconcile the friends through her own bit of blackmail and “couples counseling”. I think House is actually game for this—at least not resistant. Wilson wants no part of it. And the effort falls flat, despite Cuddy’s determined efforts.
House’s blackmail doesn’t work any better than Cuddy’s threat and, of course, House comes back to the hospital to save the life of the patient. House’s professional responsibility usually does blink first, no matter what’s being withheld on the other side: drugs, friendship, cable TV…
And in the end, House finally realizes that the only way he’ll get to Wilson is to let his guard down. For House, it’s a huge risk. Wilson, himself, has occasionally reminded us of House’s great fragility. Back in season one, his words to Cameron, even about something as simple as a dinner date: “If he opens up and gets hurt again” he tells her, “there may not be another time.”
House risks realizing his worst fears, as Cuddy noted. “It’s a fear that’s gnawed at House for two months. And confronting Wilson, guard down, risks learning that beyond blaming him for Amber’s death, Wilson also now hates him. “You’re afraid to know why Wilson’s leaving,” Cuddy tells House. She nails it.
And so, finally, he goes to Wilson vulnerable, as Cuddy suggested. “I’m sorry”, he begins in the devastating final scene. He explains he that although he knows he’s not responsible for Amber’s death, he feels bad about it and expects Wilson’s anger, but asks for his forgiveness.
"I don't blame you." He'd like to, but can't. Wilson, perhaps thinking of his own survivor guilt, his own complicity in Amber's death, can barely look House in the eye.
“Then we’re OK? ‘Cause maybe I can help…” House’s guard drops, taking a step forward, testing the waters. Maybe they will be OK, he thinks. You can see the hope in House’s expression, tinged with trepidation for the inevitable other shoe to drop. The "but…".
All of House’s pushback; his anger, his railing at Wilson, was because he was certain he was going to hear those words from Wilson—“I blame you.” All during House's attempts to snap Wilson out of his grief into thinking rationally, House’s guard was all up, rifles loaded and poised—and firing warning shots. But when Wilson uttered those words, House's wariness (albeit fleetingly) gave way. All House wanted to hear, probably had wanted to hear for the two months since Amber’s death was “I don’t blame you” emanating from Wilson’s lips. Because then they would be “all right.”
But Wilson continues. “You spread misery, because that’s all you can feel; you manipulate people because you can’t have a real relationship.” Wilson pronounces a harsh judgment on House–and on himself. On himself for failing to protect Amber from House's destructiveness. But his words land like blows to House as he stands, taking it in stunned silence.
Wilson has spoken to House like that before: In season two’s “Need to Know”, in season three's "Cane and Able" and “Words and Deeds." At those times, like this one, House was in a particularly vulnerable state. But fundamentally, then, House knew that he and Wilson were “OK”. They would survive to be mutually exasperated another day.
But this time, in this stunning turn of events, Wilson has chosen to move on; separate himself, leaving House shattered in his wake. “You should have been on that bus alone,” comes another blow. “We aren’t friends anymore, House. I'm not sure we ever were,” lands that final blow as Wilson leaves a stunned and devastated House standing speechless in the empty office. I feel for both of these characters. Stay tuned.
I really liked “Dying Changes Everything.” The large cast seems to be better integrated, and I continue to love what they’ve done with Chase. Cameron, too, had a small, but very significant role to play. The new fellows have seemed to gel for all of their lack of experience. And Foreman, although he tries to be House, suffers because he’s not and cannot be. I did think that 13 had too large a role to play. I understand that her dealing with Huntington’s Chorea puts her in the “dying” category. And we’re meant to wonder whether it will change anything in her life. Her scenes, like Foreman’s in season three’s “House Training” were too much and took us away from House’s story, which is (of course) so central to the series. He was AWOL for far too long in the middle of the episode, boycott or no!
What did you all think? Let me know, and let the season five discussion commence!