House, MD will celebrate its 100th episode on Monday, February 2. It’s an achievement that the series creators and star Hugh Laurie never imagined when they first endeavored to thrust this difficult, complex character into prime time network television. The fact that House is the only non-cable series up for a drama series Golden Globe award, and that Mr. Laurie is the only non-cable drama series star to be nominated for best actor, reminds us that House is unique among network television shows: a wonderfully detailed and textured character study wrapped in a medical procedural wrapped in a mystery.
The almost constant airing of series reruns on the USA Network has generated many new viewers. Unfortunately, USA chose to run many of the episodes out of order, leaving those new viewers with questions and some mistaken impressions.
So, as a service to all of those new viewers and to anyone else who might happen upon this column, I have assembled a guide to the 20 essential episodes of House, MD. (Okay, I cheated a little bit, incorporating by reference several other noteworthy episodes containing pivotal moments.) They represent major character reveals, firsts, and milestones; they explore the complexity of the central character by reaching into his soul (whether through the writing or through Hugh Laurie’s nuanced performance and expressively tragic blue eyes); have him engaged in not only the “puzzle,” but with the patient; or have him dealing with his own considerable emotional and physical issues.
While the episodes I’ve highlighted represent some of the best episodes in the four-plus years of House, I have excluded some of my favorites (and even some that are technically “better” than those listed) for not being as crucial to the overall series narrative. The chosen episodes really focus only on ongoing story arc of the central character Gregory House because it is his story that the series tells. Of course we’ve learned a lot about all of the other characters as well, and their personal narratives, but perhaps they are better served in a separate article.
Part one of this two-part article covers episodes airing in seasons one and two; part two covers seasons three through five.
”Pilot” – Hugh Laurie nailed right from the start the flawed, melancholy, and tormented doctor. Caustically sarcastic, Laurie tempers this side of House with a genuine pathos, making the acerbic House completely sympathetic. It’s brilliant. Wilson’s character, too, is completely formed in the pilot. He is likable and mainstream, clearly a loyal friend — but manipulative enough to lie to House (and get away with it). Cuddy is portrayed as loyal to House, but able to go toe-to-toe with him, sarcasm for sarcasm. A tantalizing bit of House’s soul – and his history – is revealed as well in the poignant and pivotal moment he spends with the dying patient at the end. It’s a speech that stands, nearly five years later as one House’s best (in my mind, anyway). The difficulty with which he speaks about his leg finally to Rebecca Adler and the heartfelt intensity of the reveal tells us that there is much more to this man than a brilliant jerk. The episode also introduced us to the clinic and set the stage for so many memorable and truly funny moments there.
“Socratic Method” – The sixth episode of season one, we are privy to observing another side to House, one more deeply sensitive and far more sympathetic that we might have thought existed in the acerbic House. To the surprise of his staff (and even Wilson) House spends time with the schizophrenic Lucy and her son, giving him money (and his pager), reading her poetry and advocating on her behalf to his staff beyond all reason. It’s one of those early episodes that provide a counter-argument to the “House is simply a funny jerk” meme. House shows a deep understanding of his patient and her needs — and the needs of her son. When the impoverished and dismissed Lucy makes a completely rational move, the hyper-observant House is listening and notices the subtext of her actions. House may appear never to listen, but he really listens, understands, and acts to a much greater degree than do his peers. In a signature move, House lies to a surgeon, temporarily shrinking Lucy’s tumor so that it meets surgical criteria, and possibly saving her life. When Cuddy learns of House’s plan, she reprimands him for proposing the unethical procedure, but ultimately keeps the plan secret. Her actions help us know that she fundamentally understands and trusts the maverick doc.
“DNR” – This episode is one of the most exquisitely complex episodes written for the series. It has major character reveals, philosophical debate, ethical dilemmas, and bonding between House and the patient. The medical story of a jazz trumpeter with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is complicated by Foreman’s relationship with the patient’s doctor, the easy-going California physician Marty. The contrast between the likable “Dr. Marty” and the intense House causes Foreman to examine his own place in medicine and on House’s staff. But the episode ends with both Foreman and viewers understanding more about what makes House tick, what moves him and what pushes his ethical buttons. Although the patient has a DNR (“do not resuscitate”) order filed, House breaks legal and ethical codes by reviving him after the patient reacts badly to a drug. House asks the ethical question about whether the DNR morally covers allowing the patient to die for a reason unconnected to his condition — one caused by their treatment. It’s an interesting question. Watch House’s expression as they take the patient off life support. He is the only observer who cannot bear to watch, as he averts his eyes, knowing that (in his opinion) the patient is dying needlessly.
The episode features several pivotal scenes, but two strike me as crucial to understanding House. Foreman fiercely argues with House about the difference in styles between his mentors old and new. House’s impassioned “I think what I do and what you do matters! He sleeps better at night; he shouldn’t” tells us that the apparently detached and callous House is neither. House is completely devoted to medicine, and has a sort of humility that doctors like Marty can barely comprehend. The second scene comes at the end of the episode, where we observe House’s unexpectedly emotional reaction to the patient’s gift. House tries to distance himself in order to remain objective and detached, but we’re left to wonder whether House’s emotions are closer to the surface than he would have us believe.
“Control” – I know that at the time many fans did not like the intrusion of Vogler into the series. (“Hate” is probably not too strong a word.) But Vogler’s point of view allowed us to observe how House might be viewed in a more realistic world. More importantly for this episode, it allowed us to learn several things about the “real” House and what he’s willing to risk for his patient. His patient is a high functioning bulimic who cuts herself, which House suspects. Her actions have caused her heart to malfunction and she needs a heart transplant. Her bulimia makes her a poor risk for the transplant committee, so after some soul searching and an intense conversation with the patient, House makes a decision to withhold this information so that she can get the transplant. The ethics of House’s actions are controversial, because by saving her, he potentially condemns another, hypothetical transplant recipient, to his or her death. And, if found out, House would lose his medical license. House tells the patient that he “wants to do what is right,” a theme that we learn much later is crucial to understanding the character and one that is explored often during the series run.
Does House do the right thing? Or is he simply arrogantly playing God as Vogler suggests? The episode also adds much to our understanding that House isn’t quite who he “appears” to be — the sullen misanthropic jerk who only cares about himself — and the puzzle. Carly says to House accusingly, “You think I’m pathetic; I have a good job, everything in the world and yet I hate the way I look…” Her words clearly resonate with House, who might utter the same words about himself. House’s actions also dispel the myth that House is all about the “puzzle.” The professional risk that House takes here has nothing to do with the diagnosis, and much to do with healing the sick. We also learn that Chase is not merely a spoiled and bitter brat; he’s Quisling.
"Role Model" – Although House’s declaration that “they don’t call it the ‘White House’ for nothing” no longer applies, this episode is important for watching House really struggle with his own moral compass. Does he do as Vogler asks and keep his team intact — or does he “do the right thing” and serve a greater purpose by refusing to endorse a product that does nothing new but cost patients more money. No one (not even Wilson) quite understands why House is balking at making a 10-minutes speech — an easy decision and only a minor moral compromise. Ultimately House can’t bring himself to make the speech without compromising his personal ethics. Returning home and knowing he has to cut one of his staff members, Cameron visits, and quitting House’s staff, tells him how much she really does understand about him: “I always thought what you do, you do to help people. I was wrong. You do them because they’re right.” House is left speechless and defeated by Cameron’s resignation. More than any other episode, “Role Model” explains House’s ethical code and the moral boundary that he cannot cross.
“Three Stories”/”Honeymoon” – “Three Stories” was, at the time, the Holy Grail for House fans. Brilliantly written by David Shore, using a non-linear narrative and breaking from the series formula, it tells the story of how House became disabled and suffers chronic pain. The victim of a misdiagnosis and a betrayal of trust by a loved one (Stacy), House slowly and almost involuntarily tells an increasingly packed lecture hall his story (perhaps “talking about it” for the first time anywhere). But the double episode, which concluded the series first season, is also noteworthy for the return of Stacy, who has come to have her husband diagnosed by her old lover. At first House refuses to consider taking on Mark as a patient, but eventually relents, and in “Honeymoon” reluctantly helps Stacy do the same thing to Mark that she did to him. In the end, House learns that his feelings for Stacy are not dead, and that Stacy still loves him. The man whom we have been led to believe carries no romantic nor emotional inner life has both. As Cameron says: “I thought you couldn’t love anyone. But I was wrong.”
“Autopsy” – This is simply a beautifully written and performed episode, contrasting the bravery and essential optimism of Andie (a young cancer patient) with House’s bleak view of himself and life. House can’t believe that Andie possess the almost saintly courage she exhibits in the face of her certain death. But it is House who learns his own life lesson from this fearless girl who agrees to put herself through House’s risky experimental diagnostic procedure just to give her mother the hope of another year with her dying daughter. House’s brutally honest discussion with Andie, who he believes deserves to know and understand the risks, has more impact on House than it does on his patient. We also get a rare opportunity to observe House in full “doctor mode,” in command of the elaborate procedure, first in rehearsal and then real-time. He barks orders and guides an entire operating theatre full of doctors and their egos, learning that despite what his peers may think of him personally, in a medical situation, House is respected, trusted, and granted full cooperation.
“Failure to Communicate”/”Need to Know” – These episodes conclude the story arc that began in season one’s “Three Stories.” House’s love for Stacy was powerful enough for him to forgive her betrayal, treat her husband’s illness, and ultimately to let her go (I know that a big part of the “letting her go” was House’s fear of putting himself again through what he believes will be an ultimate break-up). These episodes are critical to understanding House’s romanticism and his fear of getting involved again. They also explore the degree to which we delude ourselves in the name of love both through the patients’ stories — and the dynamic between House and Stacy. A long time in coming, their scene in the hotel room and the scene that follows as House sits in the deserted hallway with Stacy sitting vigil by his side tell us much about their love for each other. “Need to Know” is only marred by Wilson’s misunderstanding of House and his motives in sending Stacy back to her husband (Wilson accusing House that he “likes” being miserable because it sets him apart).
Stacy’s departure affects House for several episodes that followed, leading to a pivotal moment in “Skin Deep” where House, suffering from dramatically increased leg pain pleads with Cuddy to inject him with morphine. When she refuses, House drops his pants to reveal (for the first time to viewers) the horrible and disfiguring scar on his right thigh. But Cuddy, believing that House’s pain is psychological, gives him a placebo. The scene at the end of “Skin Deep,” with House battling both the pain and self-doubt and finally succumbing to the relief of his pain meds, is stunning and poignant.
“All In” – Long before the series timeline begins, House had a patient who died. Forever haunted by the patient’s death, House now has a new patient who seems to have the same condition. Set against a lavish black-tie poker benefit, House becomes more and more obsessed over his case as the team watches him slowly fall apart over it. This episode is important in understanding the degree to which House treads a fine line between relentlessness and out-and-out obsession. For the first time, House’s patented control melts away in front of his fellows, shocking and scaring them with his increasingly desperate behavior, never more so than when his diagnosis is finally confirmed.
"Who’s Your Daddy" – Dylan Crandall is a writer and friend from House’s college days. Having betrayed Crandall’s confidence with a woman “back in the day,” House has never quite forgiven himself it, treating Crandall with a protectiveness that House generally has reserved for his more victimized patients. Of course he views the gentle Crandall as naïve and a victim of the street-wise Katrina victim claiming to be his long lost daughter, something that House fails to believe. In the end, however, House is convinced that Crandall really wants to be a father to the girl and in a quiet way ensures Crandall’s happiness and fulfills his dream of parenthood. To House, it's repayment for having wronged Crandall years ago.
At the same time, Cuddy continues her efforts to find a sperm donor, undergoing in vitro fertilization and enlisting House’s help with both the injections and selecting a donor. House’s point of view is surprising, as he eschews the cold, objective, scientific route Cuddy prefers, telling her to instead “pick someone you trust… pick someone you like.”
House is also suffering increased and unexplained pain in his leg, causing him to break out his morphine rescue kit. The increasing pain, and his escalation from Vicodin to morphine, I believe, sets up the context for his “No Reason” hallucinations and his ultimate decision to try the experimental ketamine treatment.
“No Reason” – The shock of seeing House shot twice by an intruder is enough to put this on anyone’s list of “essential” episodes. But the hour unfolds as House lies in shock, bleeding to death on his office floor entangled in a labyrinth of hallucinations. He considers whether his life is worth living, delivering a scathing indictment of himself in the guise of the shooter, who he hallucinates in an ongoing conversation about humanity, self-worth, and finding meaning. Using reason to fight his way out of his self-made hall of mirrors, House decides ultimately that he wants to live, and to be healed. His instructions to Cameron in a brief moment of lucidity at the end of the episode set the stage and gives context for much of season three.
Read part two for the rest of the essentials!