Tuesday , April 16 2024
Part two of this essential guide to House, MD.

House, MD: 20 Essential Episodes, Part 2

Part two of this article covers seasons three through five; If you haven’t already, please read part one, which covers seasons one and two.

Season three moved immediately from one character arc to the next. Each episode moved the story forward, adding detail and meaning. It made it very difficult to isolate the hallmark episodes. Season four was really two arcs: the "survivor arc" followed by the Amber/Wilson/House triangle. Season five also has blended the episodes into story arcs. So here goes…

Meaning” – Imagine that House is physically healed. Running, smiling, and pleased when his pulse hits full-on aerobic levels. Add to that House’s desire to add meaning to his professional life after his brush with death in “No Reason.” In the aftermath of being shot and then trying a radical pain therapy, House is no longer in pain and stable enough for physical therapy. He takes on a patient — a quadriplegic — not for the diagnostic challenge, but for the simple pleasure of improving his quality of life. House’s admission to Wilson that he didn’t even know how to feel when his patient’s family thanked him is a sad comment on House’s self-esteem. Wilson is correct in telling him that House needn’t do anything different with his practice or with his patients, just to acknowledge that he has changed lives and made a difference — something he does anyway, but fails to accept or consider as meaningful to him.

Despite the family’s gratitude, House believes that he’s really done nothing for the patient. He hasn’t healed him; he’s no better off than he was before. House re-examines Richard, looking for alternate explanations for his paralysis in the hopes that he can cure his patient and really make his life better. The team believes that House is trying to make Richard’s seemingly straightforward case into a Housian puzzle simply to amuse himself, to create a puzzle where none exists. When House diagnoses Addison’s disease and recommends a simple cortisol injection, Cuddy refuses to allow the procedure, insisting that House is simply grasping at straws and trying to create an interesting medical situation where it doesn’t exist. Unbeknownst to House, Cuddy impulsively tries House’s idea, knowing that House’s hunches have an eerily good track record. When it works, Wilson prevents her from telling House, who is brooding in the dark of his office. Depressed about his patient, the pain beginning to return (and Wilson refusing to prescribe for him), House steals a prescription blank from Wilson’s desk, setting off a chain of events with nearly tragic consequences by mid-season.

Cane and Able” – This episode can almost be viewed as the second part of “Meaning.” House’s pain begins to return to pre-ketamine levels, and as much as he tries to deny or suppress it, come back it does. Wilson and Cuddy continue their deception, and Wilson reinforces House’s insecurity several times during the episode, as do Foreman’s jibes about House’s track record since returning to work. Wilson suggests to House (like he did in “Meaning”) that House’s pain is merely muscular and that he should push through the pain (albeit this week with the aid of Vicodin). Observing the lone figure of House trying to push past the pain and continue to run on a hospital treadmill despite being in agony is one of the series' most heartbreaking moments. It’s impossible not to weep for House and his loss of the hope with which the season began. House finally discovers the deception as Cuddy confesses it to him (only after Cameron threatens to reveal it) and angrily confronts Wilson about it. “I was afraid you’d think you were god and your wings would melt,” Wilson admits, referring to the Icarus of Greek mythology. “God doesn’t limp,” replies House bitterly, reminding Wilson that he needs no reminders, wing clippings or admonitions to make him more humble.

Son of Coma Guy” – When the too-cute title of this episode was first announced, I was thinking it had to be a “light” episode. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Set in the middle of the Tritter arc, during which House has been accused of drug fraud and is being pursued by Javert-like detective Michael Tritter, this episode has some light moments (don’t they all?) But the subject could not be more serious, nor the conversations more significant. Gabe has lived in a vegetative state for 10 years and is revived by House to help him diagnose Gabe’s son, now lying in a coma. Strangely detached from his son’s dire medical condition, Gabe refuses to cooperate until he scores a trip to Atlantic City to get a hoagie. He will only answer House’s questions if House will answer his. One for one. It’s a mind game that engages and intrigues House and Wilson (who has tagged along for the ride).

The situation grows more dire as it becomes clear that Gabe’s son needs a heart transplant. In an episode during which House and Wilson argue about the existence of unconditional love, House gets a rare opportunity to actually witness it. Gabe offers his own heart, arguing that the quality of life to which he’ll surely return after House’s drugs have worn off will be worthless to anyone. House understands Gabe’s point of view and when Cuddy refuses to allow something so patently unethical and illegal, House agrees to assist Gabe’s suicide. As House sits with Gabe in the room alone, he asks him if there’s anything he should tell his son. Turning the tables, Gabe asks House what he would want to hear from his own father, to which House replies: “I’d want him to say I was right; I did the right thing.” Doing the right thing is such a part of House’s persona, it’s tragic that he had never heard those words from his own father.

Not only an essential episode but one of the series' best, it features a great confrontation between House and Wilson over the prescription blanks stolen in “Meaning.” Even more importantly, it contains House’s emotional explanation about why he became a doctor. The final act of the episode almost has the feel of a tension-filled stage play involving the three men, during which Wilson confronts House about his motivations in stealing the prescription blanks and the nature of their friendship.

Merry Little Christmas” – The penultimate episode of the Tritter story arc, House has been offered a deal from the district attorney to enter a drug rehab program in exchange for dropping the drug charges. House outright rejects the deal, arranged after Wilson admits that House forged his name on several Vicodin prescriptions. To force House into accepting the deal, Wilson convinces Cuddy to cut his access to Vicodin completely, causing the increasingly desperate House to try scoring drugs from a local ER and from a dead patient of Wilson’s — and to intentionally “cut” himself. He refuses to diagnose his current patient until Cuddy restores his meds, but relents when it becomes clear that Cuddy will not fold. Even strung out and very ill, House is still able to diagnose the young patient, causing Wilson to re-evaluate House’s medical gifts, finally understanding that it isn’t “luck” but true genius that his friend possesses. Stealing a bottle of oxycodone from the pharmacy, House is at the end of his emotional rope by Christmas Eve. Placing a brief but emotional call to his mother’s voice mail, he hangs up quickly before taking several of the remaining oxy pills chased with a very full tumbler of bourbon. It is never clear whether House intended to commit suicide, but it is clear that House does not really care whether he lives or dies at this pivotal point in the series. Wilson finds House collapsed on his floor, where he leaves him, angry and disgusted at his friend’s self-destructive actions. When House comes to, he decides to take Tritter’s deal, but it’s too late. Only Cuddy’s lie to the judge in “Words and Deeds” saves House from certain jail time and the loss of his medical license.

One Day One Room” – (I’m going to take so much heat for this one, I can see it now!) Coming right on the heels of House’s stint in rehab (“Words and Deeds”), a rape victim is drawn to House “to talk.” Initially disinterested and believing himself to be completely unequipped to deal with her problem, House tries to withdraw from the case. But Eve will only speak to House. She slowly draws him into a conversation, and by the time that House can finally be freed from her, he chooses to let her stay and continue their discussion. She is drawn like a moth to flame by his wounded spirit, seeing in him a kindred spirit, even as he would not. Although he begins with platitudes, telling her all of the things he “should,” House eventually confesses something he probably never had until that moment — that he had been abused by his father. The sincere admission finally draws out the young woman, getting her to “talk about it.” But even House doesn’t know whether “talking about it” is the “right” thing to do. “Maybe all we’ve done is make a girl cry,” he wonders aloud to Wilson. Although the episode is flawed, it still stands in my mind as one of the most significant for its revelations and character reveals (and not just about the abuse). And for House’s wistful “sitting, watching, and imagining” in the jogging park, observing the runners do what he could only a few months before, but may never do again.

Half-Wit” – After the experimental ketamine therapy failed in “Cane and Able,” I don’t believe that House really stopped thinking about finding some way to address his pain. Highlighted in episodes “Insensitive” and particularly in this one, House seemed to be searching for something to recapture what he felt at the beginning of the season. In “Half Wit,” House surreptitiously enrolls in a clinical trial for terminal brain cancer patients. The trial is designed not to treat the cancer, but to alleviate depression in the terminal patients by implanting a drug into the brain’s pleasure center. When Cuddy accidentally learns that House has enrolled in the trial, soon everyone is convinced that House has cancer. House’s own drama is set against the medical drama (with a fabulous guest turn by Dave Matthews) of Patrick, a brain-damaged musical savant who doesn’t even understand what it means to be “happy.” House proposes a treatment for Patrick that would address his brain damage, but at the expense of his musical ability. “He has his music,” argues his father/agent. “I’m offering him a life,” counters House. “It’s up to you.” I think this scene gets to the core of House, the man who lacks the ability to be happy. He is offering his patient (and so many other patients) something that is beyond his own grasp — something that he is seeking by way of the elaborate clinical trial scheme.

Eventually, the team learns that House has faked having cancer, accusing him of concocting an elaborate scheme just “to get high.” Of course, House would rather let them believe that than to really understand how desperate and trapped he feels. Wilson, who does understand the dark place in which House dwells, wonders just how depressed he might actually be. He encourages his friend to take a just a small step out into the world again. House considers Wilson’s suggestion, and in a poignant closing scene, House wanders past a pub full of people enjoying themselves. House considers going in, hesitating and wary. The episode is important to understanding House’s state of mind at this point in the series, and his desperation to recover what he lost at the beginning of the season. As season three winds down, House continues to try recapturing the sense of "normal" that he refers to in "Insensitive," even considering a vacation ("Fetal Position") and a flirtation ("Resignation").

The Right Stuff” – The end of the third season sees Foreman resign (“Family”), fearing that he has become too much like House (or, as Wilson says, too much like House appears to be). House impulsively fires Chase, too long in the nest (and unlikely to leave it voluntarily) and really ready to fly on his own. Cameron’s quickly filed her own resignation from the team (“Human Error”).

By the start of season four, House is without a team of fellows, an unacceptable state in both Wilson and Cuddy’s minds. To Cuddy (and Wilson), House’s fellows act as a check and a filter on House’s thought processes, challenging his ideas and forcing him greater rigor and increasing his effectiveness. But also, I think Cuddy and Wilson fear that without a team, House will be much more likely to retreat back into his shell, the state in which we first met him (pilot episode). Now forced to select a new team of fellows, House rebels against what he considers the uselessness of mere interviews. Instead, he sets up an elaborate “reality show” trial run in. In “The Right Stuff,” the “games” begin starting with 40 candidates as House observes the fellow-wannabes in action. He sees how they think, watches how they work individually and in teams as they diagnose a female astronaut “off the books.” (And — kept secret from her superiors at NASA.)

But House is seemingly haunted by all three of his former fellows. Although Wilson knows that at least two of the old team have returned to Princeton Plainsboro, he taunts House about his “visions,” trying to (so what else is new) get him to admit his regret at their departure. And until House realizes that Wilson has lied and Cameron and Chase have come back, House is genuinely spooked. (Of course House also saw Foreman, who has not returned!) To me, “The Right Stuff” is most noteworthy for what it reveals about House’s unique romanticism. With the new fellows potentially unwilling to keep the patient’s secret, House lies to them, saying that he’s already ratted her out to NASA, and they’ve no need to do it themselves. The patient’s secret is safe as is her dream of becoming an astronaut. House, himself, cannot say why he did it; but Cameron, who sent the patient to him in the first place, understands that House would be unable to destroy the young woman’s dream. It’s an important facet to House’s character that is rarely expressed, but here it’s expressed a second time as he can’t quite bring himself to dismiss Henry, a wise and very bright older man who is trying to pass himself off as a doctor. “You break rules,” he reminds House. “I thought you might break one for me,” says the older man with the dream of becoming a doctor. Unable to keep him as a doctor, House offers him another option. But does so with neither destroying his dream, nor humiliating him. Of course, the survivor story arc plays out for several more episodes during which House’s new team is established. (Other noteworthy episodes in this arc include “You Don’t Want to Know” and “Games.”)

House’s Head”/”Wilson’s Heart – Whatever one might have thought about the rest of season four, I think it’s pretty undeniable that the season ended spectacularly with the breathtaking dual episodes “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart.” Truly a defining moment in the series, the events causing a rift in House and Wilson’s relationship that lasts well into season five. House’s misery over Wilson's relationship with Amber finds him drunk in a bar, unable to drive himself home, and of course, he calls Wilson, who is on call. Amber shows up in his place, setting off a fateful chain of events that eventually lead to Amber’s death in “Wilson’s Heart.” Season four ends with House recovering in the hospital from his ordeal and a grief-stricken Wilson dealing with this sudden and terrible loss. By the start of this season, Wilson has returned after a two-month leave of absence, only to resign his post as head of oncology. The conclusion to the season five premiere “Dying Changes Everything” is a sucker punch to House’s gut (and ours) as Wilson reveals that he plans to sever his ties with House. “We’re not friends anymore, House; I don’t think we ever were,” Wilson says coldly, no longer willing to participate in what Wilson now believes to be a toxic relationship.

Birthmarks – Wilson returns (slightly reluctantly at first) to House in a pivotal episode that also has House dealing with the death (and funeral) of his father. We’ve known since early in season two that House “hates” his father, and until the season three episode of “One Day One Room,” we could only guess at why. Although we’ve known since then that House’s father was abusive, in “Birthmarks” we learn more about their troubled relationship. House’s revealing and raw eulogy (punctuated by an amusing and utterly House-like move) is surpassed by the concluding scene of the episode with House and Wilson’s reconciliation and House’s emotional acknowledgment of his father’s death. Although House only briefly encounters the patient, their parallel stories about nature vs. nurture offer a compelling contrast. In what could rightly be termed as House’s season of upheaval, House’s world again is rocked by Cuddy’s renewed interest in motherhood at the end of “Lucky 13.” Her interest in adoption, long after the failed IVF three years earlier, brings out the best and worst in House as he offers counter-arguments (in ways only House can) to motherhood, but eventually revealing his deeply held (and just as carefully buried) feelings for Cuddy. (“Joy”). The series went on hiatus in December with Cuddy finally having a glimmer of hope, becoming foster mother to a newly orphaned infant.

So? What are your 20 significant episodes? Knowing my readers, I’m sure you’ll come up with your own lists. Remember, this isn’t a list of my favorite episodes, but a tracking of what I think are the most significant episodes and moments for the series as a whole (admittedly they often coincide!).

What about a list of your favorite — and least favorite — episodes? I’ll start you off on that by revealing my own list of 10 “expendable” episodes:

“Fidelity,” “Cursed,” “Heavy,” “Spin,” “Sleeping Dogs,” “Whac-a-Mole,” “Airborne,” “Family,” “The Jerk” “Whatever it Takes.”

About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org).

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