Doris Egan took time out of a day-long season seven story meeting (she’s writing next season’s premiere) to talk to me about this week’s penultimate episode “Baggage” and on writing House. Many in the House fan community were sad to learn on Egan’s blog that she is cutting back next year on her involvement in the series to concentrate on other things. As a consulting producer next season, she will only write one episode. “We’ll see how many of my projects work out. I want at least to make the attempt to (among other things) write a new book. My editor has stopped asking when the new book will be written.” The good news is that we won’t have to wait long for that one episode; she’s writing the season seven premiere!
With the series since season two, Egan has penned some of the series best episodes, including “Don’t Ever Change” (with Leonard Dick, for which they recieved a Writers Guild nomination). She has become known to fans of the House-Wilson relationship as St. Doris for her take on their friendship, but has also become the House road trip maven.
When David Shore mentioned at a writers meeting that there should be a road trip episode in season in season six, “for some reason everyone around the table looked at me,” she laughed. Indeed, Egan has written most of the series road trips, including “Failure to Communicate,” “Son of Coma Guy,” “Birthmarks,” “The Social Contract,” and “Known Unknowns.”
Egan has written episodes solo and with a writing partner. “Each has different pluses and minuses. When you’re writing by yourself, to an extent, you don’t have anyone to satisfy but yourself.” And while Egan likes writing by herself, she also enjoys writing with a partner. “When you’re writing with a partner, you have to find some way of making it work in those scenes on which you don’t agree. Sometimes you have to get creative and try to find a way to rethink the approach from a completely new angle.” That’s often a great thing, she explained. “Sometimes you can sometimes come up with something that’s better than you ever had at the beginning. The great thing about writing with a partner, like brainstorming in a writers room, it’s better than the sum of its parts.”
Egan wrote “Baggage” with David Foster, with whom she paired to write last season’s “Birthmarks” as well. “David wanted to do a story with Alvie.” Egan noted that Foster “is amazingly good at channeling Alvie. He is just brilliant with writing Alvie.” It was his idea to do the immigration story and we talked about where else to take things.” They felt it was a natural way to bring things back full circle from “Broken” and “see where House was after an entire season. Iit just began to feel natural that if Alvie was there to bring in Nolan into it.”
The episode plays out as a therapy session during which House tells Nolan about his week. Like season one’s “Three Stories,” and season two’s “The Mistake,” “Baggage” unfolds as cuts from narration to flashback, sometimes non-linearly. “Chronologically we go from Wilson’s place to the apartment where we saw Alvie and then to the ER, but the way House tells the story, he starts in the ER.” It’s not a place where House usually hangs out so Nolan stops him, asking what he was doing there. “Then we go back to Wilson” where House reveals that Wilson has asked him to leave. “We thought about doing the whole thing non-linearly,” Egan said, “but we thought it might get very confusing.”
Although we have some evidence during the season that House has continued with his therapy, in “Baggage,” we learn that House has maintained weekly appointments with his psychiatrist.
“We had talked about whether House was still seeing Nolan and came to the conclusion he was. We didn’t necessarily think way back at the beginning of the season that we must have an episode where we see them together again, but we were always open to the idea of getting Andre Braugher back.” Egan added, “who wouldn’t be?”
The result in “Baggage” is stunning. A perfect combination of writers, a director and two powerful actors in Braugher and Hugh Laurie makes for an incredible series of scenes between brilliant shrink and brilliant patient. “I really loved watching this episode shot,” Egan noted.
In last season’s “Both Sides Now,” House doesn’t believe that rehab or therapy will help him. But by the end of “Broken,” he begins to believe that he can be helped. “I don’t know how far he would have gotten in therapy with someone else,” suggested Egan.
But is Nolan House’s “House?” I asked. “I think he is to an extent,” Egan commented. “He certainly doesn’t hesitate on calling House out on any of his bullshit and where House diagnoses physical illnesses, Nolan spends his day diagnosing the way people are thinking. I think it’s very fortunate for House that Nolan turned out to be his therapist.”
As we are flies on the wall during House’s therapy session, we learn that for this therapy session House seems to come in with more “baggage” than usual. Nolan notes that he’s late (something Nolan says is rare–interestingly–in the chronically late House), and has failed to comment on a new piece of art in the waiting room.
“House notices everything and normally at that point, he might say something critical or annoying or just generally Housian, but instead he says he was in a hurry and just didn’t notice it. This is what Nolan really picks up on.” Egan explained that “House does notice things. He may not talk about everything he notices, but he does notice them.” Nolan, who is as perceptive as House, realizes that something is very off.
As usual, there are connections as well in the story between House and the patient of the week. “Usually the way it happens in writing House, you start with a basic concept and the scenes and parallels grow out naturally as you work with it.”
In “Baggage,” the patient is a woman with amnesia (Sydney). Her husband is having a hard time dealing with it, which is difficult for Sydney, who has no affinity for the life her husband insists she’s lived for years—and loved. He sees Sydney distancing herself from him, rejecting him.
“The husband is losing someone he loves and wants to hold on to them, but he’s going about in exactly the wrong way,” Egan explained. “House is really hard on the husband,” whom he views as forcing an intimacy and familiarity on Sydney. She doesn’t remember him and the familiarity seems to put her off and make her uncomfortable. “I liked the idea of House being hard on the husband,” Egan noted, “because House is being hard on himself” by extension.
“Usually House is not that hard on people in his way. Yes, he’s hard on everybody, but he is not usually judgmental,” she continued. Although that seems strange for the bitingly sarcastic House, Egan is right of course. If you look at the record, House is probably the least judgmental guy around Princeton-Plainsboro. But in “Baggage,” perhaps House sees himself in the husband. “He’s as harsh (on Sydney’s husband) as he would be on himself. When House fails his own standards, I don’t think he’s very forgiving.”
An important part of the episode concerns the reappearance of Alvie, House’s roommate at Mayfield. “I think he is a distraction for House. And we’ve known since ‘Broken’ that he likes Alvie. But of course “they’re never going to be best friends like he and Wilson.” House and Wilson’s relationship is unique.
“You can’t imagine him having one of those House-Wilson conversations with Alvie.” Egan explained that Alvie is like a one of those playful, but irritating, pesty kid brothers “who follows you around everywhere and refuses to go away. But then when he’s gone, and you may pretend you don’t want him there, but at the end of the day you’re sad that he gave up and left.”
House is far from happy when he discovers that Alvie has pawned a bunch of House’s belongings to buy redecorating supplies. House goes to great expense to recover his lost treasures, including a stack of books. And he’s very upset when he learns that the pawnbroker has sold one of the volumes. “people like their stuff,” is how House explains to the pawnbroker why he’s willing to pay $500 for a seemingly worthless pile of junk.
Egan explained that “House is a guy who wanted the same carpet in his office even though was bloodstained (‘Lines in the Sand’ in season three). He is not really a guy who responds well to change.”
But as we learn, there is more to the missing book that immediately meets the eye, something that Nolan finds interesting until he realizes that it’s not just any book. It’s a medical text written by Cuddy’s great grandfather—something he’s been holding onto, he tells Nolan until he can give it to her for a special occasion.
“We know, of course that House cares a lot about her. And I think we can see that House feels he’s made mistakes with her.” And what’s next, if anything, House and Cuddy? Egan was predictably cagey (especially with the season finale days away). “I say wait and see,” she replied.
Egan and I talked a bit about season six as a whole and some of the challenges of writing the series as it goes into its seventh season. “There was a lot of thought about how much of an effect House’s stay at Mayfield has on him,” Egan said about season six. “If you can’t perceive any difference at all, you wonder if was it worthwhile going through all that. And if you do perceive a difference, how much of a difference was there?”
By the end of “Broken,” House is clearly ready to try something else. “He gets to the point where he is actually participating in trying to change himself.” But how does that change the character. “How is that going to affect his interactions with other people? He’s always going to be sarcastic. So, how far along the road to goodness do you take a guy like House? There was a lot of thinking about that at the beginning of the season,” Egan explained.
The six-act structure of the episodes continued all season to annoy fans and equally plague the series creative team. Although there are the same number of minutes in each script, most of the commercial minutes are pushed to the back half, which can render the second half choppy, and sometimes completely interrupt the episode’s natural flow for viewers. As Egan said, “it affects the rhythm of the episodes.”
Although the creative minds hate the confines of this structure, there’s little they can about it but try to work within it. “In a traditional four-act structure, you’re always working toward the ‘act-out’ (the end of an act), which is hopefully on a more dramatic point. But if there are six acts, you can’t have six dramatic points in 42 minutes or it will feel silly, but you can’t cut out of nothingness into commercials, because that’s also a little odd.”
Season seven will bring some new faces to the writers room. “We’ve all been pitching stories. I think you are going to enjoy what they’re bringing,” she said. But the seventh season of any series, no matter how great the writing staff, is going to bring its own challenges. “At this point, I wonder if there’s any road to choose that would satisfy the audience as a whole,” Egan noted candidly. “If we magnify the medical stories and downplay the personal,” some people would criticize the show as too predictable. But, “if we magnify the personal, it’s soap opera. We should be risky, but risky in the right way.” And that is the challenge, she explained.
“What, at this stage, can you change to keep things fresh, without changing the thread that makes it interesting? I don’t know if there’s an answer, but I can assure you nobody’s taking anything for granted.”
The House season finale, “Help Me,” airs Monday night at 8:00 ET. I will be posting a preview of the finale Sunday, followed by a season wrap up with executive producer/writers Garrett Lerner, Russel Friend and co-executive producer/writer Peter Blake in the days after the finale airs. So, stay tuned!