Last week’s House episode “Bombshells” left in its path a swath of disappointment among many in the fan community. In addition to feeling that the House-Cuddy (played by Hugh Laurie and Lisa Edelstein) story was far from being over, some felt frustrated that House seems to be left back where we first met him: back on drugs and alone. (Others were frustrated feeling that the series creative team had abandoned House and Cuddy’s relationship before the end of its shelf-life.)
In this week’s “Out of the Chute,” House tries to bury whatever he’s feeling in the aftermath of the breakup. Trying to lose himself in pleasures in the flesh—a self-indulgent, self-pitying bender complete with Vicodin, hookers and a lot of alcohol, he finds by the end that none of these things, either alone or in combination can sufficiently numb him.
House is in as bad a place as we’ve ever seen him—and he’s been to hell and back at least twice! At the end of season two House is shot by a patient; mid-Season 3, he nearly overdoses on Oxycodone. At the end of Season 4, House is nearly ready to let go of life after a horrific bus accident leaves Wilson’s girlfriend Amber dead, and at the end of Season 5, House breaks from reality entirely, admitting himself to a psychiatric hospital. Dark places he has been in. Very dark. And as fans of the show, we follow gladly. We know that House has a resilience—a refusal to finally give in to the easier answer of simply giving in and following the “white light.” He always “chooses life.” Always.
Why do we follow him? Do we all follow along waiting to see the crash as bystanders to a terrible car accident? Or do we feel House’s pain as he tries to take baby steps forwards before sliding backwards—only to climb again? I think it’s many of us are on House’s side; we want him to succeed. We want him to come to terms with his life, his pain and his emotions—even when we know that it’s inevitable for him to fail in the short term. Some watch for the sarcastic and cranky genius who lambastes anyone and anything with the whiff of hypocrisy; some for all these things.
Of course some of us watch for the relationship stuff, and we’ve seen House in love and hurt from it; striving and conniving to connect with those he loves and avoiding at all costs the commitment that goes with it, even while he tries tirelessly to be the most romantic of lovers.
Is House, at the end of last week’s “Bombshells” back to “square one” as David Shore is quoted as having said in response to a question about the House-Cuddy breakup? I’m not convinced. On the other hand we don’t know to which “square one” Shore referred in the comment. Is he acting as he did after Stacy left him? Is this why Wilson is so worried about him? Is that “square one?” That all remains to be seen, but Wilson is there as he was after Stacy to “pick up the pieces.” He sees House falling apart, and even if House doesn’t see it (yet), he is falling apart. But the collateral damage of House’s crash may be spectacular (hey, we still have seven episodes to go!).
There has always been the suggestion that perhaps House doesn’t have it in him to care about anyone but himself. And, although that is an incredibly harsh assessment, House is grieving about his loss, in an insanely destructive manner, with little or no thought to anything but his own pain. House is self-absorbed; he’s selfish.
The writers call him a jerk. David Shore and Hugh Laurie have also talked about House in those terms. And he is. A jerk. There are lots of House fans who see House as nothing but a genius jerk who can say the things they only wish they could. (I actually sat on a panel with two professors the other night who would argue that House’s humanity is the minutest aspect of his character—and yes, they are both fans—and one was a physician!)
But I don’t believe that’s all he is, because if that’s all there is to him, we wouldn’t give a flying frack about him after one year, much less seven! (At least I would not!) Underlying the self-centeredness, the narcissism and the neediness is a person of deep humanity and not an insignificant romantic streak.
It is clear from the many conversations I’ve had with the series writers over the past three years that there are differences among them in how they perceive the character. That difference of opinion helps to texture the character, keeping him from getting to be either too much of an ass—or too nice.
There are, of course, basics they all seem to agree on: he’s brilliant, he’s emotionally damaged, he has an addictive personality, he is self-absorbed and he suffers from depression and narcissism. But I believe that where they differ is in the question of House’s humanity. Is it, as House says to Daniel the priest in “Unfaithful” that the good he does is “collateral damage?” Or that “people can do good things even if their intentions are not good?” Or is it that House responds to Hugh Laurie’s suggestion that “House has seen a great deal of human suffering in his lifetime?” Do we believe what House says, or what we see when no one else can?
In an interview at the start of Season 5, I asked writer/producer Doris Egan about whether House’s abrasive exterior extends all the way to his heart. Egan noted “on one level you want to say that under that hard shell of a man there’s a hard shell of a heart. But he’s clearly a guy with a lot of problems. And a lot of deep feeling that he’s not going to tell anyone about.”
And that’s one of the big challenges in writing the character like House. How do you illuminate his humanity, but keep him in character—without making him a “nice guy”—something David Shore has long contended House is not.
“The tricky thing about the character, writer/executive producers Garret Lerner and Russel Friend told me in a 2008 interview, “is that we have this sort of misanthropic, drug addicted guy. We want to preserve his edginess. Not betray that. But,” they explained, “we always want to see that humanity. There’s got to be something in him that is human; otherwise why would he be saving all these lives?”
In addition to some disagreement about whether House has any humanity at all, there is also the question as to whether House has a romantic streak. Although in our interview last week, Liz Friedman said she doesn’t see House’s occasional “desire for companionship” as evidence of a romantic streak, other writers may indeed believe it’s there.
(I’m not sure that Friedman and I don’t simply disagree on the semantics. What does “romantic” mean for a character like House?) In my opinion anyway, several of Friedman’s episodes suggest both the humanity and romanticism lying somewhere deep within House’s layers. Something with which she certainly disagrees. But she wouldn’t be the first writer whose characters don’t behave, and instead do what they want, disobeying their dismayed creators and frustrating their designs.) Famously, Chris Carter has said that he never intended Mulder and Scully to be fall in love, but the fans (and the actors—and the characters, evidently) begged to differ. But how can any of the writers suggest a lack of romanticism when you consider his behavior in episodes from “Love Hurts” in Season 1 and “Need to Know” in Season 2 to “Let Them Eat Cake” in Season 5?
In a 2009 interview executive producer/showrunner Katie Jacobs acknowledged House’s romantic streak, but added that it’s “covered in fear and pain and a desire not to make himself vulnerable. I think he’s deeply romantic,” she said. “As romantic as he is wounded, and that’s part of the problem.” Is it also why women viewers seem so attracted to someone who is, on the surface, such a jerk? “I think,” she elaborated, “we see the pain behind the eyes…the fact that he has a soul; that’s where this all comes from.” But that comes from beyond the page; it comes from the performance. And sometimes the directing (although not as much in television as in the movies.)
And she’s right. Some of House’s humanity is seen, not necessarily in the pages of script, but in the unspoken moments of little (or no) dialogue—in Hugh Laurie’s brilliant (and often brave) performance. Forgive me the indulgence of quoting from my book about the series:
…Try taking a page of random dialogue from House and just read it out—then watch the performance on screen. Magic happens to make the words come alive, the dialogue sing and the words between the lines resonate. It’s called acting.
On the printed page, House comes off as a jerk, sometimes such a complete ass that it would be hard to find him at all sympathetic. But take those same lines and put them into an episode—with Laurie ‘reading out’ the lines (as he calls it), and everything else he puts into his performance: body language, inflections, rhythm, and perhaps most importantly, those gloriously expressive, tragic blue eyes. The transformation from page to screen is astonishing. (Chasing Zebras, “Writing House”).
I spend a chapter in Chasing Zebras talking both about the writing and what Laurie adds to printed page. I’m not going to quote extensively from the book, but will I draw your attention to what I wrote about the fifth season episode “Simple Explanation (5.20), in which House’s fellow Lawrence Kutner commits suicide:
House accompanies Foreman and 13 to visit Kutner’s adoptive parents. Foreman and 13 are content to sit with them, offering whatever comfort they can. But House tries to make sense of Kutner’s death.
“It was his name. He was conflicted, didn’t know where he fit in, being ripped out of his world and stuck into yours,” he tells them, almost accusingly. “All his Anglo name gave him was the illusion that he was someone he wasn’t. . .You didn’t understand him.?”
Harsh, cold, unfeeling: how can you talk like that to the parents of someone who has just killed himself? House sounds like an unsympathetic bastard arguing with Kutner’s unsuspecting parents. How could anyone relate to such a jerk?
But watch the performance, and you discover the rest of the story. House is really talking to the Kutners, he really talking to himself, as he tries to make sense of the senseless. He is trying to understand Kutner’s feelings of isolation and loneliness within an outwardly loving, family. But at the same time, you perceive that House is talking as much about himself and troubled upbringing as he is about Kutner.
It’s in his tone of voice—House is barely holding it together. There is a haunted quality to it that makes you suspect he’ll fall apart if he doesn’t keep talking through this extremely inappropriate rational analysis. He is saying terrible things, but with such pathos, you can’t help but feel for him” (Chasing Zebras, “Writing House”).
It’s just one example.
In a novel, a page of narration would describe what House is going through. In a television show, it is but a brief moment of seeing into the soul of a character through the actor’s craft (Chasing Zebras, “Writing House).
In another actor’s hands, House would not be nearly as sympathetic as Laurie makes him, infusing him with a gravitas (when necessary) and a pathos that viscerally connect with us.
So is what we’re seeing just the performance and the idiosyncratic interpretation of the character by a few of the series writers and directors? Do we as viewers put too much of our own interpretation and our predisposition to like House, and see him as a sympathetic character, when he’s not intended to be one? I would disagree with that assessment entirely. As Liz Friedman told me, she writes, but it’s up to us to interpret intent. And that is true of any art, whether writing, music or painting, etc.
So here we are, heading into the final seven episodes of the season. House has hit bottom after finally opening himself up to the possibility of love and having it fall apart.
The final scene of “Out of the Chute” is chilling for what it says about the level of despair House is suffering. Teetering shakily on the balcony railing, House has hit a point where he’d do anything to feel anything. Nothing is working for him—nothing gives him pleasure or joy. “My body is a cage,” says the song playing over the final sequence. It’s a brilliant choice, and it allows you to interpret House’s cannonball dive into the swimming pool eight stories below that railing in several ways.
To House, everything goes back to the leg: the drug use, the trust issues, his inability to open up. It’s the origin of both his physical and emotional pain. If he can find an answer to overcome that, life would be better. (I still remember the final scene of season one and House trying—and failing—to take a normal step, hoping that if he could be “normal,” life with Stacy might be possible.) Can successfully diving into a pool from eight stories up provide him with a clue that he can overcome his pain? That is the most optimistic way to interpret that scene.
More logically, House, who is only going through the motions all through the episode needs to know that he can feel. Even the things that would thrill him, aren’t. Does it take a life-risking jump into a pool for him to feel anything at all? That’s a scary thought, and doesn’t bode well for him. He will live life on the edge, taking greater and greater risks just to feel “normal.” Does that also mean the ride will get even bumpier?
You don’t suffer like that if you don’t care about anything. You don’t suffer like that if all there is to you is a self-indulgent asshole of an automaton. You don’t suffer like that if all you are is an uncaring jerk with no humanity and a Rubik’s cube where your heart should be.
I have always contended that it’s not that House feels too little; it’s that he feels too much. Throughout the seasons, House has managed to protect those feelings behind concrete and steel pretty effectively most of the time. And now I wonder if he’ll be able to stuff them back in their place (yeah, I know, he’s a fictional character!).
The writers of House, M.D. have created a complex character: flawed, tragic, resilient, even noble. And whether they realize it or not (and I think they do), they have also created a character of deep humanity. If they hadn’t, I’d have stopped watching by the end of season one. What about you?