It’s been about a year since I last caught up with House, M.D. Executive Producer/Writers Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend. We last spoke after the Season 6 finale “Help Me,” which they wrote along with Peter Blake. This time we spoke less than 24 hours after the news that Lisa Edelstein (Dr. Lisa Cuddy) is leaving the series.
Everyone on the House creative team was still processing the news. “Obviously, we’re upset about it. It’s not a happy day,” said Lerner, although he didn’t feel he could comment officially until Executive Producers Katie Jacobs and David Shore make a more formal statement. “It’s very disappointing,” added Friend.
The creative team at House, of course, has not yet begun to think of the impact on Season 8’s storylines. “This is all fresh news, noted Lerner.” Friend mentioned that the writers are still on hiatus for another week. Once everyone’s back “We’re going to pick up all the cards and look at them,” he said.
The long-time writing team has penned (sometimes in tandem with other writers) several of the series most outstanding episodes over the six seasons they’ve been with the series, including “House’s Head,” “Wilson’s Heart,” “Broken,” “Under My Skin,” and “Help Me.” Last week’s “After Hours” was the first Lerner-Friend script of the season after a taking on a “more managerial role” in Season 7.
The idea “After Hours” was to do an episode taking place during the characters’ off hours. They also wanted to pursue a story idea of Peter Blake’s to have a prison mate of 13’s (Olivia Wilde) show up in some fashion.
The creative team had also been discussing the idea of House trying to fix his leg since early autumn, and to ultimately do it “in a real scientific way,” explained Lerner. They also thought it might be interesting to have House use an experimental medication “that isn’t even supposed to be used on humans yet. And then what happens if that goes horribly wrong?” Friend added, “We just felt that would be really cool and a really great way to explore all the stuff that House (Hugh Laurie) has been dealing with this whole season. And it culminates in this insane thing he does. And then, of course, he realizes afterwards just how insane.” The payoff, of course is House’s understanding in the end that something has to give. “He has that great line at the end,” noted Lerner, “where he just says, ‘I have to change things. Something has to change.’”
I wondered if the writers had intended to echo back to other seasons when House had also contemplated things equally crazy, like transplanting nerve fibers into his leg taken from a patient with the inability to feel pain (“Insensitive,” Season 3) or the brain implant he almost succeeded in having in “Half Wit” that same season. They were aware of this part of House’s history, of course, but didn’t want to repeat themselves.
“You know, it’s hard, because, obviously, we have this incredibly interesting character, and he’s got this huge problem with his leg, and he’s got the problem with the drugs,” offered Lerner. “Sometimes [to the point where] it’s almost like drug abuse, but then, of course, he does have pain problem.”
But how many times, they considered, can you explore that over and over during the course of the series. “We wanted to make sure it was different than anything we’ve done before,” Friend added. So they wondered, “What if House actually gets these tumors and then he decides he can take care of them himself?”
Lerner suggested that House “was in such a terrible mental state from breaking up with Cuddy and obviously being through this whole drug trial that doesn’t work.” Of course the story had built up to a point as well when House’s usual minders Cuddy and Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) aren’t really paying attention. Cuddy is distant and angry, while Wilson by the time of “The Fix” is just happy that House is engaging again. So House’s state of mind just slips under the radar. “There was a lot of lead-up to that in the previous episode,” said Lerner, “where Foreman (Omar Epps) kind of sounding the alarm bells and, basically, nobody’s listening.”
House’s state of mind by the time we get to “After Hours” is pretty shaky. It would have to be for him to try something so insane. “His ultimate goal is to find this elusive—he’ll deny it—but to find this elusive thing called happiness. He talks about getting through his leg pain, but they’re connected.”
Friend noted that they’re both at this point “connected to his heartbreak after losing Cuddy—focusing immediately back on fixing the leg, because he’s hurting right now. And it’s not rational.”
But because it’s House, maybe he’s thought it through enough to make it work? “Our approach,” continued Friend, “was that it shouldn’t be crazy at all. He will go to great pains to [do everything correctly and objectively.] That’s why we had the scene play out so long in such a montage where he creates a surgical field.”
The self-surgery scene, I learned, is not as far-fetched as we might think. “House finds himself more qualified than these lesser surgeons, and he has everything set up, from the towel taped to the wall that he can wipe his own sweat, you know, to all the equipment he needs within arm’s reach. They’d wondered if the idea was actually too insane. But doing a little online research, the writers discovered that doctors have been known to perform surgery on themselves. “We actually found real cases of doctors that have done surgeries on themselves,” explained Lerner. Friend added, “In House’s mind this was very rational. These tumors were just below the surface, and he could do this on his own, in his mind. But Cuddy, who discovers him, and then Wilson, correctly think this was completely insane.”
The self-surgery scene was very graphic, even by House standards. But even watching it from behind splayed fingers, it was an amazing performance from Laurie. Friend was on set the day they shot the scene. “In person it was amazing. Even knowing everything is fake, it was still tough to watch when you add in his performance, how real everything became, and how intense it was. And something I’ve never seen before in all my years in TV was when the director yelled, ‘Cut,’ there was applause, spontaneous applause, among the crew. And I have never seen that before.”
One of the episode’s big payoffs is House’s reveal that he’s terrified of anyone (other than himself, obviously) touching his leg with a scalpel. That reveal echoes directly back to the first season episode “Three Stories.”
“We were overtly referencing that,” noted Friend. “That was a big reason why House wants her in that room with him. You know, for him, that was a big emotional moment. That’s a lot for him to reveal on an emotional level. He needs her; he wants her there. And we thought that was a moment we definitely wanted to see: House in this vulnerable state, not only physically, but emotionally, and having Lisa there.”
I thought it was an interesting idea bringing Rachel Cuddy (Kayla and Riley Colbert) back into the picture at this moment. “The reason we wanted to bring in Rachel,” explained Friend was to expand on this story of House and Cuddy breaking up, and the effects it’s had, not only on them, but also on Rachel.”
They wanted to show the audience that House and Rachel have a connection. “They would watch this crazy pirate cartoon together. They have this bond, and she misses House. And, obviously, she’s sort of a surrogate here for Cuddy. Cuddy misses House, and we thought that could be a nice way to tell that story. It could be this really sweet moment. And then, basically, we could hear Cuddy say what she’s feeling through Rachel.”
“After Hours” also picks up on a story thread from Season 6 (“The Tyrant”), when Chase (Jesse Spencer) kills a genocidal dictator under his care. Lerner explained, “we realized that we were going to use the opportunity of 13’s prison stay coming back to her to dig a little deeper into what she went through in euthanizing her brother. And then we realized that Chase has to be there with her, because he basically went through the same things.”
All the characters in this story have had their lives profoundly affected by a single event, the writers noted. “The patient this storyline where she as a police officer had to kill somebody who was wielding a gun, and it was justified, but it ruined her life,” explained Lerner. “Thirteen might be heading down the same path. And Chase was the other character who’s been through something similar. So we knew we needed to put him in as part of this storyline.”
Chase and 13 seemed to bond at the end over their shared torment. So, I wondered whether this might be the start of a closer relationship between the two. “It definitely is,” replied Lerner. “I don’t know if it will be romantic or not. But, definitely, the fact that they confided in each other, and the fact that 13, who’s defined as a character by the walls that she puts up, allows them to come down. Chase is there for her and is able to share and make himself vulnerable in kind, I think that there’s just a new bond that’s formed there that we won’t be able to ignore.”
Spencer really sold those scenes, which packed a powerful emotional punch. “I really felt all the actors were absolutely amazing,” noted Friend. “Chase had a lot to do in this episode,” added Lerner. “He had a lot of vulnerable moments.”
It had been rumored in the fan community that “After Hours” had been originally intended as the season finale, but when FOX ordered a 23rd episode, it became the penultimate story of the season. “It was not intended as a season finale,” Lerner noted. Although it is true that FOX ordered an extra episode, that happened in January, so they’d known for awhile that there would be 23 episodes this season. The writers told me that “After Hours” really builds to what they hope will be a really surprising, cool, great season ender. It plays off the ending of “After Hours” and House’s acknowledgment to Wilson that something has to change.
According to Lerner, they “wanted to end [“After Hours”] on the feeling that House does finally agree that he has to change. Wilson is helping him to the bathroom, and it was kind of this pathetic moment, and House realizes, ‘Okay, I did go too far.’ I don’t want to give anything away about the season finale, but where it does lead is (without giving too much away) is to this emotional place where House realizes he is going to try and make a change; he is going to try and make things better for himself. He essentially says, ‘I can’t go on like this.’”
The character has been at this point before—a low point in his life. Lerner agrees. “He’s hit rock bottom so many times, but we really wanted this to feel like he’s really hit rock bottom. Maybe this is the worst shape he’s been in, and he’s really literally and figuratively and emotionally really hurt himself and could have died. And I think he realizes that, and he’s going to try and change.”
I wanted to get the writers’ impressions of how the season has gone overall. Season 7 has been hugely controversial in the fan community, and the ratings have taken a hit. Lerner said that he’s personally enjoyed this season.
“I’m aware of the ratings, and I’m aware of what some of the fans have said. It’s obviously controversial whenever a show gets two main characters together. We knew that going in, and we were concerned about it. And then we thought, ‘Well, this is where the story seems to be taking us. This seems like the right story to be telling.’ We did our best to tell it honestly, and especially honestly for these characters and, you know, not suddenly make him sticky sweet or change who House is fundamentally. And I personally felt that we succeeded. And I’ve read some other opinions on that. But I was happy with it.”
I asked about House’s Green Card Wife Dominika. “It was obviously a marriage of convenience, explained Friend. “I think it was also a marriage very much to stick a needle in Cuddy.”
Lerner noted that it “succeeded in that front. He saw her get upset and walk out of the room. And ultimately, he didn’t feel great about that. As evidenced by that final scene. But she served her purpose as far as House was concerned. They’re still married, I believe, but she has a boyfriend. She’s theoretically in the background still, and we’re definitely open to seeing her reappear.”
House has now been renewed for one more season at this point, and Hugh Laurie’s contract is up at the end of Season 8, so it’s easy to wonder whether next season will be House’s last. I asked the writer/executive producers whether plans are on the table for how to take the series into what may be its final season. Lerner offered, “I think that’s going to be the first order of business when the writers all get back together. You know, the roles are very different if we know it’s our final season or if we think it’s our penultimate season. We need to make a plan one way or the other.” If this will be the final year, Friend noted, “we’re going to produce a series finale season—really build to the end.”
And, I noted, sadly, without Lisa Edelstein, Dr. Cuddy, in the picture. On that, both writers replied almost simultaneously. “It sucks.”
I asked the writers if they had anything else they might like to say to the fans. They replied, “We’ll just say thanks. We’re obviously always blown away and appreciate the fans, and that people still are sticking with the show. I think the show is still strong, and it’s going to continue to be strong, and that they should, hopefully, keep watching—stay on the ride. It’s going to be fun.”
With that, we made a plan to speak again next year about this time, in what has become an annual tradition at Welcome to the End of the Thought Process. The House season finale airs Monday night at 8PM ET on FOX.
I will be chatting next week with Katherine Lingenfelter and Peter Blake, who wrote the Season 7 finale “Moving On” to wrap up Season 7, so stay tuned!