“There is not a thin line between love and hate. There is, in fact, a Great Wall of China with armed sentries posted every twenty feet between love and hate.” Dr. Gregory House articulates his feelings vehemently when his best friend Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) asks him in an early season one episode (“Occam’s Razor”), “What’s going on between you and Cuddy?” (Even so early in the series history, Hugh Laurie really nailed the internal struggle still at war within House's heart and soul.)
So often, especially in the early days of the series, the character of James Wilson represents us, the viewers, by asking the same questions we might ask; making the same observations we might make of the enigmatic and prickly Dr. House.
House responds to Wilson’s simple question with such vehemence that it’s pretty clear from the start that he has asked himself the same question — and has probably had the same argument with Wilson many times before. The man just protesteth too much, methinks.
Figuring out House and Cuddy’s relationship is like plucking roses from a particularly thorny bush. There’s snark, innuendo, name-calling, of course. But there’s also a sense of loyalty between them, as well as real affection and caring. Is it love? Could it ever be love? For four-plus seasons House and Cuddy have been engaged in an unconventional courtship dance, more appropriate in a Victorian novel. Both of them seem stuck, unwilling to move forward. Taking a step, but then retreating. Testing and pulling back. As it says in the musical Carousel (in the song "If I Loved You"): "Longing to tell you, but afraid and shy/I'd let my golden chances pass me by…"
So that is the question, and here we are, four years later, asking Wilson’s question once again: “What’s going on between House and Cuddy?” What is the nature of their relationship — particularly as it intensifies (as it has this season)?
Unlike House’s relationships with either Cameron or Stacy, the House/Cuddy story is told in furtive glances and body language. It is much harder to grasp and much more open to interpretation. For the first several seasons it is easy to interpret House’s interest as merely a blend of curiosity and sexual fantasy; Cuddy’s as guilt (about House’s leg) and protectiveness. But even in the early seasons there is an underlying affection between them that speaks to something much more significant going on behind it all. That snap and spark, the snipe and insult has beneath it the sensuality of an exotic dance by two people who are terrified of what they actually feel.
But their relationship, and what they can do about it, is further complicated by their respective positions in their ongoing power struggle: maverick doctor who sometimes has to bend, if not break, the rules; and dean of medicine, whose job it is to control the sometimes nearly uncontrollable genius who works for her. She has to draw lines, requiring him to color within them. He's Picasso, not only staying outside the lines, but refusing to even acknowledge their existence.
In season one, Vogler, the hospital board chairman questions Cuddy’s objectivity with regard to House, guessing that they are (or had been) lovers. Otherwise, Vogler contends, why would Cuddy put up with his attitude and antics? She protests the inappropriateness of the question (as well she should), but the question suggests that even complete strangers “see” in their relationship something more than “exasperated boss” and “rebellious employee.”
In the season two episode “Humpty Dumpty,” Cameron asks Cuddy why she hasn’t yet fired House, since they always seem to be at each other’s throats. When she hired him, Cuddy notes that four other hospitals had fired him. But Cuddy insists that Cameron’s not asking the right question. “Why did I hire him?” is the question.
Both Lisa Edelstein, who plays Cuddy, and Hugh Laurie have noted in interviews the mutual affection, admiration – and respect – the two doctors share. Despite the jibes and jabs; the thrust and parry.
So much of what they say to each other is provocative and cutting that it’s sometimes hard to decipher what they’re really saying. What do they really think of each other and feel about each other? House, at least, has articulated in his inimitably blunt way what he thinks of Cuddy.
In the the fourth season episode “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” House is ordered to give performance reviews to his new team. He rebels against that task, but presents to Cuddy his evaluation of her. “You want to have someone jump you and tell you ‘I love you;’ you run away from what you need, you have no idea of what you want. Your accomplishments make you proud; but you are still miserable.” What do we take away from that? What clues? In my humble opinion, House is baring his own feelings to Cuddy; telling her that she needs him, and doesn’t (yet) realize that she wants him.
What Cuddy does see is the hidden gem that is at the heart of Dr. Gregory House. She sees what might be. As House articulated in season two’s “Humpty Dumpty:” “You see things as they are and how they might be. What you don’t see is the gaping chasm that lies between. If you did, you’d never have hired me…”
I believe that the “hidden” gem prospect is like catnip to Cuddy. She knows him, she knows he’s in pain…and she knows that he will go to the limit (and beyond) for any patient. And for her. (At least I think that’s what she believes.)
Cuddy is very protective of the man she calls the best doctor at her hospital, but is it because of his medical skill that she’s so protective? Or are there deeper feelings at play? As she protects him against Vogler in season one, she also protects him from Detective Tritter in season three, committing perjury to keep him from being jailed on drug fraud charges. She does this at great risk. In “Merry Little Christmas,” she tells House that she is willing to let a patient die to prevent the hundreds of other “who will die while you’re in jail.”
House is also protective of Cuddy. In the second season episode “Forever,” the ever-curious House observes his boss in a way that some might find fairly creepy: he seems to know Cuddy’s fertility cycle better than my husband knows mine. But it’s not that knowledge that suggests House’s protectiveness towards her. When House observes that Cuddy is using “red clover,” an herbal supplement that can (among other things) be used in cancer treatment, his alarm bells go off. Could she have cancer? Especially since she’s asked Wilson to dinner. His extreme interest in Cuddy’s health even prompts Wilson to call him on it. And House (of course) deflects with a snarky comment rather than admit his concern.
In the same episode he asks Wilson why he’s not interested in dating Cuddy. “She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s got a zesty bod…” House rattles off a list of virtues that doesn’t both begin and end with “boobs.” He clearly appreciates more than her body. And he proves it at the end of the episode, in a scene that’s always stayed with me as the moment when both Cuddy and we (the viewers) understand that there’s more to House’s interest in Cuddy than sexual leering. After House realizes that she is actually using the red clover to boost her chances with in vitro fertilization (IVF) to get pregnant, Cuddy fully expects House to gossip the news to Wilson, mock her, and have a field day at her expense.
A scene later, as Wilson and House emerge from an elevator, Cuddy’s closed body language seems to be steeling her from the mockery certain to come. Instead, House looks at her shyly, only saying “hi” and nothing more. He has kept her confidence even to best friend Wilson, lying to him to keep Cuddy’s secret. I think this has stayed with me because it shows (rather than tells) House’s feelings of protectiveness towards Cuddy.
In the next episode, “Who’s Your Daddy,” Cuddy asks House to help her with the IVF about which he’s already guessed. She needs injections, and since House already knows about her little project…
He agrees while advising her against using something as cold as randomness and genetic data to select someone with whom to have a child. Going to extremes to show Cuddy how picking someone with the exactly right genetic profile can lead to the absolute wrong person, House finally tells her to “pick someone you trust.”
“Someone like you?” she responds, thinking that House simply wants “his chance” with her.
“Pick someone you like,” he finally acknowledges, realizing that he’s not realistically in the running. He hasn’t the courage to tell her how he feels, so he looks away shyly and leaves the room. In the end, Cuddy has clearly taken House’s words to heart, and when she goes to his office to seek him out at the episode’s end, he wonders why she’s there. She, like he, has backed away from what they are each really feeling.
House’s subconscious thoughts as he hallucinates in “No Reason” gives us more clues with regard to his feelings. In his hallucination, Cuddy, who is better at seeing things as they might be than as they actually are, cures House’s leg with a radical therapy. Angry at her breach of trust (and conflating her with Stacy and what she did to him when he had the infarction), House lashes out at both Cuddy and Wilson for experimenting on him without his consent.
But in the end, his last words before again losing consciousness are, “Tell Cuddy to give me ketamine” (the veterinary anesthetic used in the hallucination, which has been shown to “reboot” the brain’s pain centers). Cuddy appears to be one of the few people House does trust with his life.
As the ketamine wears off in the early weeks of season three, there is a wonderfully intimate scene in “Cane and Able,” in which Cuddy gets right into House’s personal space like no one else can — and breaks down his emotional barriers, if only temporarily.
At first, House deflects her concern with an overly-intense interest in her maternal status (and her breasts), but she refuses to take the bait, ignoring him entirely and moving closer until she eventually perches on his desk. Cuddy presses him about the leg and its deterioration. And he ultimately folds, lying about the state of his leg. If things were going south, he insists “don’t you think I’d try to do something about it?” She knows he’s lying, and that he’s worried, but he’s paged, interrupting the conversation.
There’s always been a bit of flirtation between House and Cuddy. He makes innuendo after innuendo about her breasts, her tush, her clothes, and she refuses to be baited. She ignores it; it’s a game between them, and they both know it. And both revel in it.
But how many deans of medicine would perjure themselves for a subordinate physician? Cuddy does just that in “Words and Deeds,” saving House from years in jail, something I believe she knows he wouldn’t survive.
And as season three winds down, House’s flirtation intensifies as other men begin to show an interest in Cuddy, including Wilson. This territorial infringement will simply never do. Not even if it’s Wilson!
When Cuddy has a blind date during “Insensitive,” House seeks any reason possible to follow her around and crash her evening out. Like a hovering older brother, he quizzes and annoys her date, who tells House that he’s in the auto repair business. Smiling condescendingly, House asks him where he might find his repair shop, not realizing that the guy is an oil-change mogul, owning “Eastern Lube.” The smirk disappears as House realizes Mr. Eastern Lube is a real, honest-to-goodness threat. And must be stopped. Using the current medical case as pretext, House drops in on Cuddy, knowing that her date is there — and noticing that they are getting…close.
Exasperated at the interruptions, Cuddy gets right into House’s personal space, asking him point blank if he wants her for himself, challenging him to say something to indicate how he feels. Of course her assertiveness terrifies House, and he immediately backs off. Cuddy’s blind date astutely observes how she’s different around House than she is around him. “You should hear yourself when you’re talking to him. Nothing else in the world’s going on. You’re focused, confident, compelling. Don’t… don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d like to go out with that woman!” And he’s right, of course. I think Cuddy thrives on the sparks that fly between them. She loves the challenge of House. Mr. Eastern Lube doesn’t stand a chance with Cuddy as long as House is in the picture. She’s already spoken for.
Once again, Cuddy enters into House’s dreams in “Top Secret,” as House treats a marine who he recognizes but can’t place. Being driven slowly crazy by the disconnect, House finally realizes who he is and where he seen him before. When Cuddy realizes that House recognizes the patient simply because he had been making out with her at a hospital function, Cuddy teases House about his attraction to her. Telling him to stop fantasizing about her, to stop staring at her from afar, she sashays away coquettishly, telling him, “Get over me. That ship sailed a long time ago.” House’s smile (of some delight) suggests that he will neither “get over her” nor stop fantasizing about her. And he does not appear to mind her having gotten in the last word on the subject. Thrust and parry.
When Wilson suggests in “Act Your Age” that he might have an interest in Cuddy by taking her to the theatre (with the tickets House gave him), House confronts Wilson in a purely “Housian” way. But Wilson can easily push House’s “Cuddy” buttons. Each time Wilson tells House that he has slept with (or wants to sleep with) Cuddy, a rather terrified expression crosses House’s eyes, enough so that it prompts Wilson to warn House that he’s “got a problem.” (Of course House’s strong attraction to Cuddy is old news to Wilson.) But acting on that problem is something at which the otherwise brilliant Dr. Gregory House is hopeless. Stuck in the eighth grade.
And in the final scene of that episode, long-time friends House and Cuddy stand on the hospital’s mezzanine watching House’s patients leave. Cuddy asks why relationships need to be so difficult. Looking at her, and perhaps seeing an opening, and almost involuntarily, House replies that he has two theatre tickets. He asks so shyly and with so little confidence that it gives the impression of a geeky high school kid asking out the head cheerleader.
All of these later third season episodes set up a further serious exploration of the House-Cuddy relationship. But season four, shortened by the writers’ strike and dominated by the “survivor” arc, left little time to explore House and Cuddy’s relationship until the final two episodes of the season, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart.”
Punctuated by House’s fantasy diagnostic session with “Stripper Cuddy,” her babysitting him in his flat he recovers from his head trauma, and the sensually photographed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after House collapses at the end of the episode “House’s Head” suggests a closeness between them that seems only to come out when the other is not looking. The final scene in “Wilson’s Heart” underlines this notion as the fourth season closes with a shot of Cuddy sleeping in a chair next to House’s hospital bed. She is holding his hand, simply “there” for him. And he appears unaware of her intimate gesture.
Which leads us to this season, with the story still unfolding. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, to be sure. For House, season five has been an emotional roller coaster and Cuddy has only been a part of it (okay, a significant part). From the final scene of "Lucky 13" through Cuddy's finally getting the baby she has longed for since late season two in "Joy to the World," House's feelings for his boss — his nemesis, protector, friend, and colleague — have become more and more apparent.
But did the final scene of "Joy to the World" effectively end their relationship? I think not. I think the best is yet to come in this very interesting sexy, smart, and fascinating exploration. But how it resolves — and if it does — is anyone's guess. (I invite you to reread my episode reviews from this season, for more about the season five House/Cuddy relationship.) But more importantly, what do you think? Is there more to explore with House and Cuddy this season? Or are they done?
Note: There have been so many “moments” between House and Cuddy since the series start, that can be interpreted as part of their “relationship,” this article would have been thousands of words longer. I’ve chosen moments for this piece that (to me) are particularly significant in understanding this long-standing thing between the two doctors. If I left your favorites out of the mix, feel free to add them in the comments section below.