House, M.D. executive producers and writing partners Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner have penned some of the best and most significant episodes during the five seasons they’ve been with the series. “Skin Deep,” “97 Seconds,” “Broken,” and “Locked In” are but four of the episodes with which they are credited. Co-executive producer Peter Blake, with the series since season one, has written such memorable episodes as “The Mistake,” “The Itch,” and “Remorse.” All three writers collaborated with David Foster and Doris Egan on the stunning season four finale episodes “House’s Head,” “Wilson’s Heart.”
In the midst of preparing for season seven (the writers are not currently on hiatus), the three writers took a few minutes out of their packed schedules to talk to me by phone about the stunning season six finale and planning season seven.
Forgive me for starting at the end of the episode, but what an ending. And it was an ending no one knew about — it wasn’t even on the media screeners (which ended as House sits on the bathroom floor contemplating the events of the day — and his Vicodin). Why all the secrecy?
Peter Blake: Obviously, it was a big change… a big development in the direction of the series and we just didn’t want it to leak out.
Garrett Lerner: So we took a lot of effort not to let too many people know about the ending. None of the scripts that we handed out to the cast and crew or the writers included the final scene.
Russel Friend: Unfortunately the crew didn’t know the ending and thought they were going to be able to go home finally, and then we brought out those pages at around 2 a.m.
Was the final ending always a part of the original plan? Russel, your video blog (available in the iPhone/iPad InHouse app) caused quite a stir in the fan community because some interpreted what you said as meaning the final scene was added later.
Russel Friend: It wasn’t, although it sort of seemed that way on the video blog. When we first recorded the video blog, we still hadn’t told many people about the ending, so it couldn’t be on the video blog. But this had always been the planned ending for the episode. But we didn’t tell anyone except a very few people. Of course Lisa [Edelstein] and Hugh [Laurie], knew about it. And then after we filmed the ending, I did another video blog talking about the ending.
But the truth is that it was the planned ending for the season for months and months. We knew we were going to get to that point when they get together. It was just a question of how we were going to get there
Where did the idea for “Help Me” originate?
Russel Friend: I had this idea a couple of years ago. I’d read about a crane collapse on a townhouse in Manhattan, and it struck me that this could really be an episode of television, but didn’t seem at the time to be an episode of House because we don’t do those sort of ER type episodes. But then I wondered about having the crane operator being someone with a mysterious illness. And then we trap someone under the building as the person House has to take care of. Then, together, we came up with putting House through this whole emotional story series of things.
Garrett Lerner: I’ve thought for a couple of seasons that this would make a good season finale if we ever had to get House into a really dark place and then pull him out of there. I think it was around Thanksgiving that Russ presented it in the writers’ room, it was formally decided.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition: a big disaster scenario for this intimate personal story…
Garrett Lerner: This was always part of the pitch. That House is stuck with this woman. Her leg is trapped and we draw the parallels there.
Russel Friend: It almost forces House to really bond with a patient, which is also something we never do. House always has this objectivity about these cases and situations and it just felt like a great way to do it.
The way Hannah dies seems to add to House’s emotional torment. Does he blame himself for her death?
Russel Friend: Not for her death, but because he does everything he could — everything he is supposed to do — and she still dies. It still doesn’t work out well for him, which is reflected in House’s conversation with Foreman [towards the end of the episode]. This has been a common theme in the last few episodes of season six. If you do the right thing in the world, good should come out of it. House is trying to learn that lesson, and it hadn’t worked out so well for him. And here, he does everything right, and she dies anyway.
Until now, every season of House has ended on a downbeat note (except, arguably, season three). Why the change for season six?
Garret Lerner: The question answers itself, doesn’t it? We just decided it was time. I think it was Katie Jacobs who said we really earned it after five seasons of very downbeat endings, which is very unusual for a network series. We had earned the right to have a happier, more hopeful one.
The end seemed to parallel to the end of last season’s “Under My Skin” and “Both Sides Now.” How much were those episodes in your minds while you created “Help Me?”
Russel Friend: That’s why we had that last couplet — the last two lines of the season. House asks Cuddy, “How do I know I’m not hallucinating again?” She asks him if he’s taken the Vicodin and he throws them on the ground. We wanted to mirror that [scene in “Under My Skin”] and even have the audience speculate a little bit about whether he was hallucinating — and whether or not he had taken the pills. And then to that couplet to know we really are ending on a hopeful note, believe it or not.
But no cliffhanger…
Garrett Lerner: The only cliffhanger is in what’s this relationship going to look like? We are going to pursue this relationship. So, can it work? Has House changed enough? Will Cuddy be able to tolerate him? After all, House will still be House. Hopefully all those questions are cliffhanger enough that people want to see those questions answered.
The series usually plays out in “real time.” Autumn in the real world is autumn in the House-verse. Of course that wasn’t the case at the beginning of season six, where we do follow House from where we left off at the end of season five. So, where does season seven start? Will it pick up from the next moment, or leap ahead in time two or three months?
Garret Lerner: We’re interested in what happens next. So we are pursuing the story from the angle that we don’t want to skip the “good parts.” That being said, it’s still being written (Doris Egan is writing the season premiere), so we don’t have the exact answer, but we’re not going to cheat the audience of experiencing what happens next.
How did it feel to be the writers anointed to give House his moment of happiness?
Garrett Lerner: It felt great. But I don’t think we’re actually lucky to give House a happy ending because it’s so different than what we usually do, but I’m really psyched we did it. Because it so different — it is something we did. David Shore and Katie [Jacobs] are always pushing us to try something different and unusual, and for this series, giving a happy ending is unusual. So now the people who hate happy endings are going to hate us now.
Russel Friend: House is not a different person. He is the same person. He is going to be a similar House the next weekend. There will be some changes, but his personality will not change. As Peter (Blake) said, we earned this happy ending by really putting House through the wringer this season. Through the psychiatric hospital, this emotional angst with Cuddy, and finally — literally — having a building fall on top of him. And then he has to crawl out from underneath this thing. It felt like he really deserved it.
Peter Blake: In the episode “Lockdown” which Hugh [Laurie] directed, House confesses to [dying patient] Nash [David Strathairn] that he wants to be happy and feels he deserves human connection. Finally, for the first time he feels ready.
Garret Lerner: In the first episode of the season [“Broken”], House also explains to [his psychiatrist] Dr. Nolan that he wants to be happy.
In “Help Me,” House reveals something very significant about his leg. What triggers that? Or is it something he’s been thinking about for awhile?
Garrett Lerner: I would argue that this also goes back to “Broken” and his statement that “I want to be happy.” It’s an admission that he’s not a happy person and he wants something to change.
Peter Blake: He was probably already beginning to doubt whether he’d made the right decisions [all those years ago]. And then this conversation with Hannah really prompted him to realize that he really had made the wrong decision.
Russel Friend: He’s probably known this awful truth somewhere in his subconscious for a long time and not admitted to himself. But he’d been on drugs for so long and doing other abusive things to himself. Finally when he got cleaned up in “Broken,” he started evaluating his life and being honest with himself. And finally, now, by the end of the season he is able to admit it aloud.
Peter, this episode feels a bit like a nice bookend to your season five episode “The Itch” in which House longs to make a connection with Cuddy, but can't quite bring himself to knock on her door. In the finale, she knocks on his. Are the parallels intentional?
Peter Blake: I actually echoed “The Itch” more in another episode. In “Remorse” [this season], House tries to apologize to Cuddy for having defaced a photo of her. At the end of that episode, House goes to her office door and sees her with Lucas. He’s so hurt seeing them together that he just walks away and gives money to this guy whose feelings he’s hurt years before. But absolutely [there are echoes in “Help Me”]. But it’s not just “The Itch.” There are so many other episodes in which House and Cuddy almost get together, so hopefully it echoes a lot of episodes in “Help Me,” where they finally kiss and hold hands.
Tell me about the special camera used to film “Help Me.”
Peter Blake: We were all just blown away by what [director] Greg [Yaitanes] did with the episode. He used digital SLR [DSLR, a Canon 5D high definition still camera].
Russel Friend: It’s not the first time this camera had been used. In the opening scene of “Lockdown,” directed by Hugh Laurie, we see an infant being born. There were several shots Hugh wanted that he couldn’t possibly get in the time allotted for working with infants. And, the only way to get an overhead shot he wanted was to suspend a giant film camera over the baby, which would be too dangerous. So cinematographer Gale Tattersall had a 5D and used it for just those shots of the baby and they came out beautifully. So when this episode needed to be shot in small spaces and low light, they brought in the 5D for just those scenes. But they decided that the camera rendered such a good documentary look, they decided to use it for the entire episode.
What are the challenges of writing House going into the seventh season?
Russel Friend: The challenges are on the medical front. House is a medical procedural at its heart, and keeping it fresh and new after a all these episodes is very hard. We attack each episode fresh and new and try to come up with the best stuff we can. The characters continue to grow and change so that stuff is easier and fresher to deal with. We’ve already come up with a bunch of what we think are good character stories based on what we see at the end of this one.
Care to share…?
All three writers (simultaneously): We're not allowed to.
How do you think the show’s fans will like “Help Me?”
Garrett Lerner (who confesses to visiting the fandom from time to time): It’s hard to predict what the fans will like. But in this episode we get to see a cool medical case, see House open up and be emotional — and obviously see House and Cuddy get together.