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TV Review: House – “Need to Know”

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(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired Feb. 7)

It’s been a cruel Houseless month, but Fox finally, mercifully, ended the detox with a new episode. (OK, so I’m a House addict, but it’s not a problem.) And while I genuinely appreciate the fix, I’m not quite sure what to think of “Need to Know.” Since “gee, I don’t know” makes for a lame review, though, I’ll try to sort it out.

It was not a bad episode of House. And even a “bad” episode of House is, to me, better than a good episode of most anything else. It even had one of the funniest lines, which was of course used repeatedly in the previews. “I know you’re in there,” House says outside Wilson’s locked door. “I can hear you caring.”

It’s the first episode that confused me. It made me think I’ve missed something crucial. Because this episode starts as if the last episode didn’t end the way it did. In “Failure to Communicate,” didn’t Stacy and House ruefully recognize that people don’t change? And wasn’t there a nice parallel between the patient desperately trying to change, and House realizing that he’s still the same man who couldn’t give Stacy what she needed? Did I imagine the bitter in the bittersweet ending? But … but … does this mean I have to retract my admiration for the way “Failure to Communicate” tied the medical and personal stories together, subtly but effectively? That would mean that I was … wrong. My brain is having trouble grasping that concept.

If we skip all the pesky patient stuff, “Need to Know” begins with House believing the kiss in Baltimore means a reconciliation, and Stacy, though conflicted about her commitment to her husband, ready to ditch Mark and live grumpily ever after with Greg. When she delays talking to Mark, because “if I never tell him, it will never hurt,” House breaks it down into a him-or-me argument: “It’s not easy, but it is simple.” The episode proceeds to show us how much difficulty people have with simplicity.

First, back to the patient stuff, because this is still a medical show, not a soap opera, and the case also ties in to the House-Stacy story and contributes to the theme that not only does everyone lie, but people in love lie even more.

When supermom Margo (Julie Warner, Family Law) crashes into her garage after her limbs start flailing wildly, House and his team believe her fertility treatments might be to blame. Since Huntington’s Disease is also a possibility, House wants to try his usual “let’s treat before we diagnose” trick – this time with even less attempt at justifying than usual – but Foreman is still in the waning days of his month in control of the department. Instead, they discover Margo has been sneaking Ritalin (“cocaine with a PG rating”) to cope with her frantic days, which explains her symptoms and is also easily treatable: stop taking the damn pills. But when she has a stroke on her way out of the hospital, House and Co. realize that something else is going on.

Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota, plays the adorable munchkin daughter who has no hope of melting House’s heart, but gives it the old kindergarten try. When she barges into his office wanting to play, he takes her by the hand and leads her to the elevators – awww! She asks about his limp: “Is that why you’re so sad?” “Oh, aren’t you adorable,” House replies sarcastically. “I’m not sad, I’m complicated. Chicks dig that.” The conversation segues into the revelation that her parents never fight, before he fakes her out and sends her off in the elevator by herself.

The conversation leads to the realization that it’s hard to fight when you don’t talk about anything meaningful, like that you don’t actually want to have another child and are taking birth control pills along with the fertility treatments. House tells Margo the benign liver tumor this caused will go away once she stops taking the birth control. Though the choice seems simple, if not easy, she opts to lie some more, to deny taking the Pill, and to have surgery in order to avoid telling her husband she doesn’t want another kid. “You don’t have to lie to me,” House tells her. “We’re not married.”

Lisa Edelstein is sadly absent for most of the episode, but makes up for it by doing a fabulously awful impersonation of Sela Ward. In a deliciously bad Southern accent, Cuddy mocks the legal advice Stacy would give House, calling him “the big mean doctor, albeit with dreamy eyes” who should, for legal reasons, act as though he believes the patient.

“Need to Know” gives us a taste of House’s view of romance, which is, not surprisingly, a little cheesy, a little sweet, and a lot disturbing. He actually admires Margo for going to such lengths, calling it romantic – “people do crazy things for love.” And when the magic whiteboard doesn’t give him any answers to his romantic dilemma, he admits (but … again? Didn’t he do this last episode?) that he is not willing to do anything for love, and sets Stacy free to be with Mark.

But not before our first House sex scene, with a shot of him and Stacy in bed together … and a brief February sweeps glimpse of Hugh Laurie’s bare chest. The suddenness of the bedroom shot, coming as it does near the beginning of the episode, and after some hand-wringing about the foolishness of pursing a relationship, works for shock value but not for the subtle or clever character progression the show usually demonstrates.

“Need to Know” gives us an overdose of character story when we’re used to having it doled out in smaller doses. It wraps up Sela Ward’s storyline and Cameron’s HIV scare while giving a minor nod to Chase’s dead dad and Foreman’s adolescent brush with crime (yes, sigh, again – Foreman needs more backstory). It relies on us still feeling the repercussions of Cameron’s crush on House, with Jennifer Morrison playing almost-suppressed jealousy nicely, and House not-so-nicely toying with her in order to force her to get her HIV test. But both the Cameron plotlines have been so far on the back burner lately that they don’t have enough emotional impact to make the scenes poignant, or funny, or anything but an afterthought. This episode feels like both a slight rewind and fast forward at the same time.

There are fun moments, like the rivalry between House and Foreman, and the team’s concern over Cameron manifesting as a bet over whether she’ll take the HIV test or not, and the usual sprinkling of politically incorrect laughs. But it also has an awkward scene that is either a near miss of slapstick or a near miss of pathos between House and Mark, who unbelievably comes to him for advice. There are also a couple of cringingly cheesy visuals of House and Stacy on the roof with a backdrop of purple skies – Laurie and Ward are great in the scenes, but the shots seem taken from House’s lessons on romantic cheesiness.

Wilson hovers around House and Stacy throughout this episode, warning her about the emotional mess she left when she broke up with House the first time, and warning House about the consequences of getting involved with her again. When the end comes, Wilson plays pop psychologist, astonished that House told Stacy the truth – that she’s better off without him – then deciding that House doesn’t actually believe that, however. His theory is that it’s not that House can’t change, it’s that House doesn’t want to change. “You don’t like yourself, but you do admire yourself,” he says, offering the theory that House believes that shorn of his misery, he would lose what makes him special.

“Need to Know” isn’t quite devoid of what makes House special, but it’s a sadly rushed ending to the Stacy storyline that occasionally seemed to drag on without progressing much. And it ends with a heavy-handed Wilson pronouncement that could have been more interesting and credible if the audience had been led to the conclusion ourselves, rather than having Wilson act as our narrator.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

  • http://bonamassablog.us Joanie

    good stuff, Diane! Off to Advance.net you go!

  • Carol

    Diane: Thanks so much for sustaining intelligent commentary in the frequently over-wrought House community. I agreed with many of your observations here, but would add the following: by the end of Failure to Communicate, we see several indications that House and Stacy have indeed managed to communicate quite well at last. She offers comfort and companionship as she dozes on the waiting room chairs in silent support of his ruminations on the long-distance patient. Without being asked she provides the power pack for the cell phone he needs to continue his work. Then, as they board the plane she starts the Woody Allen/curry anecdote which House seamlessly finishes with a smile. They are once again on the same page emotionally. Her bouncy and flirtatious smile as she exits into the plane is matched by his thoughtful, contented bouncing of the ball in the waiting room. The title of the episode is thus ironic: the patient lost (at least temporarily) his wife through a failure to communicate, while House and Stacy have regained their relationship largely through silent exchanges.
    After repeated viewing of the vexed House/Mark face-off in Need to Know, I think that this was a searingly well -played scene that had House moving rapidly through several crucial emotions toward a resolution of the relationship dilemma with Stacy. House rejected Mark’s pleas for insight into the woman they both love, but perhaps admired the other man’s dogged determination. Pity, envy, fear, and guilt are just several of the emotions I saw flit across Hugh Laurie’s face in that bravura scene.
    As you said, Laurie and Sela Ward were tremendous in their tender and convoluted scenes. I loved this episode for its rich ambiguity!
    Sorry for the long post but your comments are always so insightful and inspiring.

  • Diane Kristine

    Thanks for this, Carol. It’s exactly what I was hoping for – someone to show me an alternate explanation of “Failure to Communicate” that makes some kind of sense with “Need to Know.” The problem, then, is me. I can’t believe that Stacy would be OK with a Vindaloo curry kind of relationship, or that House would have any faith that she would have changed enough to accept that kind of relationship. “Failure to Communicate” showed us that Stacy and House had accepted that House can’t change, and yet we’re expected to believe that Stacy can, when she’s been so solidly established as someone who would pick stability and comfort over the love of her life.

    I think the writers have done a great job of showing the reasons why House and Stacy love each other, and how well suited they are in so many ways, and how they finally came to a point where they could remember that without the bitterness of the breakup … but they also did a great job of showing us the reasons why they couldn’t be together.

    And either the parallels between the patient story and the House-Stacy story weren’t as strong as I thought, or we’re expected to believe that the wife will come back when she misses the husband, and that will solve the issues in their relationship. That’s way too optimistic for me, and for what I expect of the show.

    But … with your insight, at least I can see what the writers maybe intended, even if I can’t go along with it because of my own expectations and views.

  • Carol

    Diane: Thanks much for your thoughtful response. Among the many things I love about this show is that the writers are constantly playing with our expectations – really just making us walk the tightrope each week. At least for this avid fan, they have achieved an incredible thing: I am as addicted to this show as Stacy is to House and as House is to his own misery!

    On change: I think that neither House nor Stacy can change alot but each can change a little and that is all that is needed. Each has been marked (sorry!) by their experience of vindaloo- level love and neither seems able to go back to plain Dinty Moore stew.

    I would love to know your views on this observation: in the first rooftop scene with Stacy I think we are seeing not just a cheesily romantic House, but a gender-reversal of large proportions. In the usual cliched view, it is the woman for whom sex seals the romantic deal while the man remains disengaged, able to compartmentalize the physical from the emotional aspects of the relationship. Here in Need to Know we have the opposite. On the rooftop we see House swooning under the power of a renewed physical relationship with Stacy and ready to commit to her completely after a single night of curry! Stacy, on the other hand, is understandably hesitant to immediately break with Mark and needs to process the dazzling turn of events. She loves House, is clearly rapturous about their renewed relationship. But she says she is struggling to find the vocabulary to ditch her husband, which I find I can sympathize with entirely. And therefore she cannot move forward at the rocket rate House expects. House, however, will never accept the middle ground, as we know, and issues his ultimatum — Mark or me.

    This idea, that once we have slept together we have sealed a sacred connection for all time, seems quintessentially feminine. Perhaps this is why House is so compelling as a fictional creation: he is both the alpha male personified and the unabashedly romantic female at the same time. Cathy AND Heathcliff in a single powerful character. I love this show!

  • Diane Kristine

    I hope it’s clear I love the show too, especially how they toy with expectations. I even found this episode very entertaining, just not convincing. I realize the “not convincing” part is what comes out strongest in my analysis, though. It’s not that I expected the show to go in a certain direction, it’s more that I don’t expect them to present a Pollyannaish view of relationships, and don’t admire that choice. But we’re back to the twisted House I know and love by the end, so I’m optimistic.

    About the gender role reversal – it’s an interesting point, but I’m always hesitant to look at things through that kind of gender lens, especially since I often don’t identify with the stereotypical female view. For me, the biggest difference is that Stacy is faced with giving up stability and comfort, while House is faced with (supposedly) giving up his misery. His seems the easier choice, so I’m not surprised he was ready to commit when she was still hesitant.

    And despite the fact that I think we’re supposed to believe what Wilson said at the end, that House wants to cling to his misery, I think what House said was true. He realized she’s better off without him, which means he’s also better off without her, since being with her would end up making her, and therefore him, miserable again. Of course, I also believe that fans can’t just ignore what the episode actually shows in order to believe what we want to believe, but I’m choosing to believe House’s explanation of the breakup, even if I have a nagging feeling that I’m not supposed to.

    And I have to say, I loved the peek at House’s warped view of romance. The cheesiness was adorable, and this episode gave some more resonance to Wilson’s observation to Cameron last season before her date with House, when he warned her against breaking House’s heart. Seems like when House finally exposes his heart, he goes all the way.

  • blue lucia

    Good question about the seeming inconsistencies between the end of “Failure to Communicate” and the opening of “Need to Know”. I interpreted the end of FtC the same as you did — as, I think, most viewers did. I think I was wrong.

    After rewatching FtC today, I realized the key to reconciling the two episodes lies in a line I had totally forgotten about. Here’s what I came up with:

    It’s the curry.

    House demonstrates, by leaving her in the hotel room to go solve the puzzle, that he can’t, or won’t, change the patterns of behavior that led to their breakup. With him, she’ll still be lonely. She knows it, and he knows it.

    But. At the very last, when she’s about to walk down the jetway, Stacy turns and says, “You know what Woody Allen said about relationships? Irrational and crazy, but we go through it all because —” House finishes for her, “We need the curry.”

    She’s telling him that she wants him anyway. She knows he isn’t going to change, and she wants him anyway.

    So in he walks at PPTH, buoyed by the knowledge that she knows what she’s getting into and she wants to give it a shot. How much more heartbreaking, then, to discover that she only intended the curry to be a side dish? And in the end, he came to the conclusion that she might think now that she wants the curry, but sooner or later it would still take the roof of her mouth off, and she’d only leave him again.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    Hi bluelu! Yeah, that Woody Allen quote is what Carol reminded me of, too. I hadn’t taken it as the momentous turning point it was obviously supposed to be. While that interpretation is the only one that makes sense (without thinking the writers have been experimenting with the Vicodin), to me it doesn’t fit well with what came before, and it’s too much of a leap for me to believe in that romantically optimistic/naive House. But at least I’m no longer confused. Still dissatisfied, but not confused.

  • blue lucia

    Hee. Yeah, romantically optimistsic/naive House is … counterintuitive, to be sure. But it also fits some of the data really well — not only was the corsage he bought for Cameron cheesy in the same kind of way as his Rx for Stacy’s “heart condition”, he bought it for a reason. He may have quickly come to his senses, but there had to be a moment when he thought the House/Cam ship might actually sail somewhere. And if he could believe that, even for so brief a time… well, I have simply decided to be charmed by the notion that there really does appear to be a genuinely idealistic romantic streak in him.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    And I loved those glimpses of his cheesy romanticism. I’ll try really hard to be charmed that he dropped his self-preservation so completely when I rewatch the episodes with this new insight.

    And I can still believe the “Failure to Communicate” patient story has strong ties to the House-Stacy story … both ended on a seemingly optimistic note (“we need the curry” versus “she’ll come back when she misses you”) but both seem doomed for disappointment.

    None of this makes me love “Need to Know” as much as I wanted to, but I think “Failure to Communicate” is mostly safe in my esteem.

  • lette

    “Relationships are irrational and crazy but we need to go through it all because we need the curry.”

    I just saw this episode today… :)

  • Nickel

    Diane, ever thought of writing a blog about something that you like and possibly understand? Wilson’s rant at the end of this episode was at best WRONG. House sent Stacy away because just like in Failure to Communicate House loves Stacy, but cannot trust her (with his heart AGAIN…..people don’t change, not House, not Stacy).