House’s "Last Resort" was a challenging episode, one guaranteed to polarise viewers for a long time to come. I loved it. The plot centered around a disgruntled patient willing to kill to find answers and House’s dawning realisation that he both understands and ultimately does not understand what drives that kind of obsession.
The show was modeled on a “bottle” episode — one where the cast and action are confined to one or two inside locations, so the drama is concentrated on interactions between characters. Such episodes either really work or really don’t, and "Last Resort" really does. The always wonderful Hugh Laurie and guest star Zeljko Ivanek (Jason) are a well-matched pair as they square off, House with his mouth and brain, Jason with his gun and need to know. Between the two of them, the tension builds in the room as the gunman shows that he will kill in his drive to get an answer for what ails him, and House shows that he has more understanding of that than the audience would like him to.
House has never been intended to be a heroic figure. He may be the protagonist of the show, but he’s a protagonist who’s a two-for-one deal — he’s also sometimes the antagonist and it’s not always easy to define what’s driving him: ethics, obsession, self-interest, the desire to teach. We’ve seen him act from any and all these motivations and because there’s usually a mix, House has always inspired heated discussion on whether he has an ethical code and how he interprets it, if so. This episode adds a lot of fuel to that fiery debate.
The hostage drama starts with House clearly differentiated from the gunman. When Jason asks him if he’s never needed to know something (in his case, what illness he has), House shoots back that he’s never shot anyone to find out. While acceding to Jason’s demands in order to keep everyone alive, House does his best to bring the hostage drama to a close by any means possible, including trying to sneak his captor a knock-out drug. House assumes the leadership position among the hostages and he and the would-be patient are antagonists.
But House can never not want to know about people, so he keeps poking at the reason for the gunman’s desire for an answer. He suggests the gunman is using the situation to send a message to an estranged wife or a former employer. But he’s wrong. Jason just needs to know why his body is no longer functioning as it used to. He knows there must be an answer, a truth, to what is happening to him, but despite seeing sixteen doctors, no one has been focused on finding that truth. As the old saying goes, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything, and Jason’s life has now been concentrated into finding out why he doesn’t have his health.
Realising what the gunman’s motivation is changes House’s emotional reaction to the situation. He moves from viewing Jason as the problem that needs to be removed to the problem that needs to be solved. He’s already assumed the hostage leadership role in the room, trying to keep people from getting shot as the patient shows just how serious he is about getting his answer. Now he includes Jason in the group of people who have needs and that shift pushes him into a rather more ambiguous role, as clearly the patient’s needs and the hostages’ needs are oppositional.
The clashing needs are most visible in regard to Thirteen (an excellent Olivia Wilde). Thirteen has been trying to appease the gunman by volunteering to be a guinea pig for his medications, to House’s dismay. He thinks she’s really trying for assisted suicide due to her Huntington’s diagnosis. Thirteen doesn’t deny that she thinks her limited life span makes her the logical choice to risk her life, but still thinks she’s doing what she must to keep the patient from shooting anyone.
All these murky motivations come to a head when House tries to confirm a diagnosis via CT scan, and the gunman can only get a clean scan if he gives up his gun. House believes he has a relationship with Jason, and I think it’s because he thinks he understands not only the patient’s desire to know the truth, an obsession House shares, but he also specifically remembers his own search for a diagnosis during his infarction, when his pain was dismissed as drug seeking behaviour and then misdiagnosed until House’s life was on the line and ultimately affected forever. The episode forces us to compare House and Jason, as House correctly deduces that the patient will hand over his gun to learn the truth, and then in a stunning move, hands back the gun himself when his diagnosis is shown to be wrong.
It’s a bold move on the part of the writers, because House viewers are very invested in trying to understand Gregory House and get a read on his character that goes beyond the surface acerbity and obsession with truth to the more complicated and nobler man inside. To many in the audience, he has a strong sense of ethics, just not necessarily one based on the set of values or, perhaps more accurately, social needs most people have. Seeing House hand back the gun to a man who has shown he will hurt people — one of whom is Thirteen, House’s fellow — is shocking.
However, I found it to be in character, because I think the scene showed us that House is not only to be compared to the gunman, he is also to be contrasted. House understands the obsessive need to know, and he is now fully wrapped up in this case, viewing success not as taking the gunman down but rather in diagnosing him. I think it can be argued that at that point, the similarity of experience and outlook he thinks he shares with the patient is heightened by the extreme danger of the situation. One might have expected that the gun would throw House into post-traumatic stress disorder, considering he’s been shot before, but I think it is consistent with his character that any PTSD he experiences from the situation is related to the infarction and the crippling of his leg instead. He relates to the gunman’s need and thinks they share a common view of the situation, so he makes a grand gesture to show Jason they are working together for that common goal and hands him back the gun.
House thinks that he has established that there is no longer any need for coercion and therefore testing on Thirteen is out of the equation. He assumes he has control over the situation in the room and turns his attention to the SWAT team instead. But what he fails to take into account is that the gunman has never stopped factoring in the SWAT team. He is not as tightly focused on finding his answer as House thinks — instead, he still sees everyone in the room as playing pieces for how to get out of the room. House has been trying his best to bring the situation to a safe conclusion for everyone including Jason. Jason is intent on bringing the situation to his own conclusion and sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. Unlike House, he is not looking at finding the truth as the ultimate goal, but rather at making sure he gets what he wants from the SWAT team. It turns out to be a very large difference with huge consequences.
To House’s shock and horror, Jason decides to use Thirteen again as his guinea pig for the medicine, despite knowing that at this point, it will kill her. House is clearly caught by surprise at this turn of events. When he gave back the gun, he honestly thought he had established a relationship with Jason that precluded this action. But Jason has picked up that Thirteen is not sure she wants to live and may be using the situation as assisted suicide, and he’s willing to live with hastening that end for his own benefit. House is left with the knowledge that his own hubris in thinking he understood and could control the gunman’s actions has now endangered Thirteen.
His response shows his differences from the gunman. Told that he needs to leave (and put himself out of danger), House does not grab at the chance. Instead he argues with Jason about the morality of what he is doing and offers himself as the guinea pig, instead. Despite allowing the hostage situation to continue, House was never so coldly detached from the case he saw Thirteen as an expendable guinea pig. He was, in fact, very attached to this case, so much so it clouded his judgment of how the patient viewed the hostages. And House pays the price for his hubris, as he has to leave Thirteen to her fate and walk to safety himself — a long walk for House, but not as long as the walk back into the room after the SWAT team takes control, as he finds out Thirteen’s fate.
House fully expects to find Thirteen dead, because he’s accepted he misread the gunman and he’s accepted that at heart, Thirteen really wanted to die and took the drugs willingly. He is very happy to find out he was wrong again, on both scores. Jason does not in the end force Thirteen to take the drugs once she shows him she wants to live and that his action would definitely be murder, not assisted suicide. The standoff ends with House still having enough understanding of Jason’s need to know that he confirms his diagnosis for him through gestures across the room. And Thirteen’s ordeal has shown her she has not given up on her life and she needs to take hold of it again.
However, to the viewer, the issue of House’s complicity in the danger to Thirteen is very much still a part of the scenario. Is it to House? Will he struggle with how much he is willing to risk other people for his obsession to know? The situation ultimately gets resolved in a way that shows House was not in the end wrong about how far the gunman would go. But that walk out of the room when it looked like Thirteen would pay the ultimate price for House’s need to know looked like it cost House dearly. And he is a man who values honesty, particularly about ethics.
I think the episode played out beautifully as an exploration of what House values and why. It showed both his dedication to the puzzle and the way he can emotionally bond when something touches him. It showed that his ruthlessness can have severe consequences but also that he perhaps loses most sense of proportion when he responds emotionally, as he did to Jason’s need to know what was happening to his body. Like the gunman, he too can burn people around him with his single-minded vision, but unlike the gunman, he has different limits on how much. During the hostage drama, he didn't understand their differences, only their similarities. And of course, even that makes him complicit more than is comfortable in the end. The House writers pull no punches in keeping House a complicated man who doesn’t draw lines where most of us do. And Hugh Laurie continues never to hit a wrong note as he makes this character as fascinating as he is challenging.