I’ve finally had the time to re-watch House, M.D.‘s seventh season in its entirety, no breaks or commercials). I tried to understand the arc of the House-Cuddy relationship—where and when it is good for them, and how it falls disastrously apart.
Do I wish that House and Cuddy had stayed together longer?Yes. There were many ways the narrative might have gone. Their relationship might have played out behind the scenes to the final episode of the series, with only an occasional reminder.
The story might have ended less abruptly—a mutual understanding that “it will never work out.” House might have chosen something less physically destructive to finally “express his anger.” On the other hand, as both Cuddy and Wilson fear throughout the finale, House’s emotions are so intense and so internalized they simply explode recklessly and dangerously.
The breakup seems arbitrary, considering Cuddy’s deep feelings for House. On the other hand, Cuddy is not good with relationships, and maybe that’s her pathology. She certainly ended it with Lucas quick enough!
There are many ways the story might have gone, and the creative team at House chose a path with a lot of risk and much controversy. They made Cuddy seem arbitrary and cruel, stomping on House’s heart, justifying to herself that she “has a right” to break up with him, even as she acknowledges that she hadn’t been fair, and that he deserves another chance. The breakup leaves House broken and pining much as he had with Stacy (we surmise), though we only understand that through Wilson’s eyes.
The relationship is doomed from the start. Cuddy enters into the relationship with an ambivalence that really never goes away, and House is too often driven by fear of losing Cuddy, and of his own happiness. The combination cannot bode well.
As Season 6 ends, Cuddy is in love with House despite her best efforts. She knows she shouldn’t be in love with him, or maybe even love him. “I wish I didn’t,” she confesses, explaining to House that she’s jettisoned her engagement to Lucas in order to be with him. And as she tells a police officer in this season’s finale, she’d been waiting for “something to happen” for months. Expecting House to disappoint or hurt her (of course the last thing she was expecting was for him to crash his car into her living room!).
At the beginning of Season 7, Cuddy is living a fantasy fueled by having seen the best and most noble in House in “Help Me.” Yes, House can be noble, self-sacrificing (despite what he says), romantic, and compassionate. But House can also be selfish (and often is), petulant, play endless games that can drive any sane person of the edge. He can be dismissive of others’ needs, sarcastic, mocking and even mean, and even cruel in the right situation. He’ll lie and obfuscate when it serves what he believes to be a greater good, including self-preservation. He’s a complicated guy.
When you get deeply involved with someone that complex (because you never know when the bad behavior is really bad behavior or just a glorious cover-up for actually-noble behavior; whether the game-playing are gratuitous mind-fucks or have some greater nobler reason behind them), you are letting yourself in for a challenging time.
He is high-maintenance, and Cuddy believed that she was ready for all that entails. Clearly she was not.
Cuddy can’t only think of herself here. She has a child, and what effect does her relationship have on Rachel (for better or worse)? When people fall in love, they put blinders on their eyes to see the good, and not expect the less good. But the blinders fall off sooner or later. And, Cuddy knows House well enough to understand his complexities, troubles and personality. Trying to ignore something you’ve known for years, trying to convince yourself “it doesn’t matter” when it has to eventually, is Cuddy’s biggest misstep during the months of the relationship.
But Cuddy never really lets go of her reservations, her “I wish I didn’t” feelings. She’s waiting and watching, expecting House to disappoint her or embarrass her. It’s not constant, and there is a time during their relationship when she seems to forget her ambivalence (particularly mid-season). The time she spends with House is clearly joyful for the most part, and there’s no question that she deeply cares for him—and loves him. But her ambivalence seeps through, and as the months go by, she wonders what she’s gotten herself into.
By the time we get to “Bombshells,” her dreams tell us just how deep that ambivalence goes; how much she doesn’t trust House to “be there.” Combined with her illness the provide her with the clarity to sever the tie between them—and not to listen to any second thoughts. “I wish I didn’t” becomes “I no longer can.”
Cuddy is also a complex person. Decisive and savvy enough to head a hospital, she also is one of the few doctors really commanding House’s respect as a physician. Emotionally, however, Cuddy is far from decisive. Her path to motherhood is fraught with indecisiveness (something that House calls her on in Season 5’s “Joy”). She’s had three romantic relationships we know about: a marriage that ended after a few days, an engagement to House’s flakey PI friend Lucas Douglas, and her relationship with House. All three end abruptly.
Cuddy recognizes her love for House when she observes him at his most noble. She witnesses him overcome his deepest fears, transcend his own issues in a raw encounter with a dying girl. He is deeply affected by her death, even allowing others to see his usually hyper-guarded emotions. For the moment he is a hero to her, and given the emotions that she has also experienced during the episode, and the natural comparison to her flakey fiancé Lucas, this House is a revelation to her.
That’s enough for her despite the ambivalence until she sees him at his weakest: the unreliable man who can’t be “there” for her without numbing himself to the gills. It’s enough to break the spell. It’s not that she no longer loves him, because that’s nothing she can control. But it’s enough to maintain her resolve despite the terrible hurt she’s inflicted on House.
So while Cuddy’s emotions are tempered, and even guarded by her ambivalence, House is driven by fear. House fears not living up to Cuddy’s expectations, of losing her once she takes off those rosy glasses and shakes off the romantic endorphins and sees him as he is. And he’s afraid of losing himself to emotion. He needs to guard against that inevitable breakup and the pain it will cause him. He’s afraid of happiness, something it’s long-been established he feels he doesn’t deserve. Maybe he’s also terrified of the disastrous swan-dive to come should things not work out. House never enters into anything casually. I don’t believe he even takes sex casually, which is likely why he uses hookers. Relationships are all-in for him, and while he might soar while in love, an inevitable (certainly in his mind) break up will send him crashing to the ground.
One of House’s mantras is, “Words don’t matter; actions matter.” And in season premiere “Now What?” House tries to get his head around the idea that “this” is not just a casual one-night stand. As much as House wants this relationship—has craved it for years—he is terrified of where it’s going to go, and that enters into his calculus of how willing he is to put his whole foot in the water. Can he even utter the “L” word seriously, no matter how deeply he feels it.
Certain that once Cuddy comes to her senses and leave the honeymoon haze of being in love, House believes that she’ll realize he’s “insane for choice for someone with a kid—a small jump to the inevitable conclusion that this was a huge mistake,” he tells her. “I’ve done horrible things to you,” he reminds her. “I’ll do them again,” he warns. It’s inevitable.
But Cuddy tries to assure him that it’s not necessary for him to change; she accepts him as he is. “I know you are screwed up, but you are the most incredible man I’ve known.”
And she means it—in the moment, and House believes her—enough for him to declare his love, earnestly and honestly. But as they part company to go back the there “real world” and into this uncharted territory, it is clear that they both have deep reservations. You can almost hear Cuddy say as she stands outside House’s door, leaving him and the fantasy of their weekend together that she wondering what she’s gotten herself into. This does not bode well.
Over the course of Season 7, they are confronted with a series of crises—professional and personal—that test both the boundaries between their respective jobs as employee and boss or the limits of their trust in each other on a much more personal level. Her ambivalence and his fear of losing her nearly sabotage their relationship more than once.
For a while both walk on eggshells, reluctant to create conflict, which gets in the way of their professional relationship. But they overcome it when the inevitable blow up over patient care leads to an epiphany about their personal relationship, which finally clears the air. Painful, brutal honesty, acknowledges Cuddy, will give their professional and personal relationships a chance at some harmony.
But neither actually lets go of their main stumbling blocks. House never stops fearing that Cuddy will come to her senses and end the relationship, although he grows more comfortable in his new status. But as he settles into it, he also begins to take the relationship for granted, which annoys Cuddy and adds to her ambivalence.
But Cuddy continues to fight against her reservations, taking a tentative step deeper into a serious relationship after House wonders why she’s guarding Rachel from him. House is clearly hurt that after months, Cuddy has still not brought Rachel into their relationship. And Cuddy responds by letting him in. (“Massage Therapy”).
The first real crisis in the relationship begins in “Office Politics.” House wants to use an experimental treatment without first being able to confirm the illness, something Cuddy forbids, insisting that House get proof, something the patient’s condition won’t allow. Circumventing Cuddy is nothing new for House, and it’s something she’s accepted as the way he practices medicine. She may not especially like it, but she’s always tolerated it for the good of the patient, especially when House gets the desired patient outcome. But now things are complicated. House is boxed into a corner: either he defies Cuddy’s directions, risking his relationship with Cuddy—or he follows Cuddy’s directive and watches his patient dies.
Wilson lays it out for him. “Be honest and face the medical consequences or lie and face the personal consequences.” Although House tries to compartmentalize his relationship with Cuddy (“I’m not lying to my girlfriend; I’m lying to my boss”), and he’s lied a thousand times before, he knows the consequences are dire if Cuddy doesn’t see it his way.
Agonizing over the choice, House finally provides a falsified positive to Cuddy by testing the patient’s associate, whom House believes has the same illness. Cuddy allows the experimental treatment and the patient is saved.
I have to wonder if Cuddy would have allowed House to obtain the indirect confirmation his test provided, and not caused all the problems that ensued for the relationship. It’s not an unreasonable request, and House can be pretty persuasive. But he never tries, opting instead for the lie.
Perhaps he doesn’t want to reveal his cards in case she balked at that too. Her suspicions would have been aroused if after she said “no,” House came up with a positive result out of the blue. His choice is riskier to the relationship, but only if he gets caught, which is less likely. Although he has an opportunity to ‘fess up after the fact, he never does, choosing instead to perpetuate the lie.
His usual arguments after he’s been caught do not have any power: “I lied to save a life.” But Cuddy, who has previously understood, if not accepted, House’s “necessary” lies and obfuscations, suddenly no longer does. “You can’t lie to me at all.”
Although House is all for compartmentalizing love and work, Cuddy can’t or won’t. Cuddy wants an apology; House doesn’t believe he’s done anything he hasn’t before, and what does she expect? She accuses him of having “no respect for authority,” but what has he done differently?
On the other hand, House owes Cuddy an apology for lying to her. He can coat it all he wants with good intention and “for the good of the patient, no matter the consequences,” but he not only lies to her, but then doesn’t own up to it before she finds out. She’s insulted—and hurt—and rightly so.
But House is terrible at this, and instead of apologizing, he plays games, trying to catch Cuddy in a lie. And when he finally hits on one, it’s hurtful, and far from evening the score, it digs him deeper in the hole.
I don’t think this crisis diminishes how House and Cuddy feel about each other. In “Small Sacrifices,” as they continue to bicker about whether House’s actions demand an apology, they attend a wedding, dance and he still does those mundane “couple” things for Cuddy: he zips her dress, holds her purse. They are a couple in the midst of an argument, not a divorce.
In the end, House folds, and apologizes telling her that “he’ll never lie to her again.” Cuddy is satisfied, although she obviously knows that’s a lie. As I said several times during the season, it’s not the lie, it’s the lie about the lie—that’s where it becomes disrespecting her, and no longer about the patient.
But they get through the crisis, and their relationship seems on more solid footing for the next three episodes. Cuddy seems confident of House’s love and trust, and her ambivalence—the expectation that House will fail her somehow—has dissipated. House seems more confident as well; his fear of losing Cuddy seems to have vanished, and he seems more settled in.
The mid-season episodes “Larger than Life,” “Family Practice,” and “You Must Remember This” are probably the high point of House and Cuddy’s relationship. They seem more on the same page, they’re affectionate and comfortable with each other. When Cuddy’s mom comes on the scene in “Larger than Life,” Cuddy is not at all happy to see her, seeking House’s support to get through the encounter. House is reluctant to expose himself to an evening with Arlene Cuddy, but does it anyway after Cuddy insists: “You will spend two hours in hell, but I will feel better having you there. We average our misery.”
She’s not concerned he will embarrass her or behave badly, and House is quick to come to her defense when Mama Cuddy begins to insult her daughter. It is clear from this episode just how much House is trying to live up to what he thinks are Cuddy’s expectations, which takes its toll on a guy not used to being as social as he’s had to be lately.
In “Family Practice,” House acts much like he does when Amber’s life is on the line in “Wilson’s Heart” (4×16). He follows his heart and not his mind here, trying to save Arlene’s life. His brain tells him not to be involved in her care at all, but he allows himself first to be sucked into treating Arlene, and after she fires him, he continues treating her—behind her new attending’s back. When it backfires, he grows irritated with Cuddy for not confronting her mother. He knows where this will end if Arlene dies—even if it’s not his fault. “Maybe next week, maybe a year from now,” House argues, Cuddy will look at him as the one who killed her mother.
He wants her to stand up to her aggravating, manipulative mother; confront her instead of playing her game. It’s good advice.
And as the season begins to build up to the its biggest crisis point, “You Must Remember This” hits on themes that will come into play for the rest of the season, particularly loneliness and acceptance. But most importantly for House and Cuddy, it asks the question, “what are you willing to give up to have peace of mind and a social relationship.”
The episode’s patient is confronted with giving up her gift of a perfect memory to be “normal” and have a relationship with her sister. Shortly House will ask himself a similar question, and Cuddy will have to reconcile just how much of “House being House” she can accept.
Stay tuned for Part II, which will take a closer look at the breakup and its aftermath. House returns for Season 8 October 3 at a new time, 9 PM ET on FOX.