Liz Freidman has been writing for House since season two. (She is also a co-executive producer on the series.) “Hunting,” which explores House’s (Hugh Laurie) relationship with Stacy (Sela Ward)—and triggers Chase (Jesse Spencer) and Cameron’s (Jennifer Morrison) relationship was her first House, M.D. script. It was an auspicious start, and Ms. Friedman has penned such standout episodes as “Forever” (Season 2), “Merry Little Christmas” (Season 3), “Frozen” (Season 4), “Softer Side” and “House Divided” (with Peter Blake), both in Season 5. For the last couple of seasons, she’s collaborated a lot with Sara Hess, co-writing several episodes, including House’s first post-Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital experiences in “Epic Fail,” and the just-aired “Bombshells.”
“Bombshells” has proven to be quite the bombshell of an episode, and within the fan community there has been a huge amount of debate about it. The unforeseen-by-many, but perhaps inevitable breakup of House and Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), especially within the context of Cuddy’s serious health threat added to the intensity of the episode and the reaction among fans. In the three and half years I’ve been writing my “Welcome to the End of the Thought Process” House feature, I have never had a comment thread extending to the well more than 300 (mostly well thought out and intelligently argued) comments in a very wide range of opinion.
I was able to catch up with Ms. Friedman the other day by phone to talk about the episode, writing, and the character of Dr. Gregory House. She even turned the tables a bit, asking me a few questions herself, noting along the way that she’d read my “Bombshells” review (Yikes!)
Liz, You mentioned in a post-episode video piece you did with Sara Hess the other day that you were sort of given the marching orders to write the House-Cuddy break-up episode. Can you tell me how you approached that?
We approached it from the idea of going, how do we break House and Cuddy up? And at the end of it, obviously, you know, you want to evoke an emotional response from the audience and you want people to feel sad and heartbroken. But our ideal, which I don’t know if we hit, was, we wanted you to totally understand what everybody was doing and specifically, what Cuddy was doing.
We wanted people to understand that this is something Cuddy feels she has to do. But she’s not happy, you know, she’s not happy about it. She’s not even righteously angry about it. It’s just a dawning of what feels to me like a very real thing, when you come to a point in a relationship and you realize, “I may love this person but this just isn’t right for me.” And so we wanted it to feel in some ways inevitable. That’s always been my take on this relationship. I mean, in a lot of ways for a woman who’s where Cuddy is in her life to even decide to be involved with House in the first place is… I think there’s a real argument to be made that this was not a great choice [for her]. You know, he’s a jerk.
He’s deeply messed up and quite fond of his own problems. And doing the work [involved in making a relationship work] for him is very hard. And so I think that it was always a questionable choice [for Cuddy]. As much as I know there were people who really wanted to see them together, I think this is the way that it would have worked out in reality.
How did you and Sara decide on the genres for the dream sequences?
There were some ideas swatted around in the writers’ room when we were talking about the episode generally. And then when Sara and I went off to break the episode, we really had a list of probably 15—or maybe even more—genres up on the board that we might want to do. We would have to have done an animated sequence, but we really just didn’t have the lead-time to do that, for instance. [There was also] a soap opera scene, but that felt redundant to what Sara and I had done with the “Prescription: Passion” stuff in previous episodes.
Right! You wrote that episode with the soap opera guy (“Living the Dream,” Season 4).
Right, right, we wrote that together. And some of the most fun I’ve ever had was writing those soap opera scenes. I just sat in my room and laughed as I wrote. So, it was like, “well, we’ve kind of done that already.” So we started “spit-balling” ideas: soap opera, film noir, musical, throwing out everything we could think of, and then sort of looking at that and going, “okay, what do we like the most, and what can we use to tell specific parts of this story?”
So then we decided to use the horror film [genre], specifically zombie films, to show, to show House’s, fear, which is in contrast to how he’s actually acting. So we thought’s we’d do a little House hommage to Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, which are, key, key films for me. From there we just started whittling it down to decide what’s going to tell the story best?
Okay. How did you select the song “Get Happy?” I loved the subverting of the classic Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler movie musical song (Summer Stock, sung originally by star Judy Garland). It’s like so happy on the surface of her performance…but then in the context of Garland’s life… there’s really a tragic edge to it as well. That’s really well echoed in a different way when Hugh Laurie sings it in “Bombshells.” It was really chilling. And then within the dreamscape of the episode…we had Hugh seeming to channel Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange …
I hadn’t thought of it that way, actually. That’s a very good angle on what he was sort of playing there. You know, it was interesting. We really wanted to do a musical portion of the episode, but it had to tell the story. We certainly didn’t want to be in a position where Sara and I were trying to write a song [ourselves], because that seemed impossible. And we talked about some other sort of iconic, you know, iconic movie musical moments that might correspond to House. One very early passing thought was to have House as the Tin Man [from The Wizard of Oz] sing “If I Only Had a Heart.”
That would have also been an appropriate choice…
We thought that it was an interesting idea. But we also realized that a House musical [production] number can’t be anything like Glee. It can’t be happy and buoyant. Even if we’re playing with a song that has “happy” in it, we need to do [it as] something darker. So we thought about the great darker movie musicals, like All That Jazz. We also were thinking a lot about, “Bye Bye Love,” but that is, in a way, so classic, we wondered if we wanted to touch that? Then we came up with the idea of setting the number in the operating room. Suddenly we just had the idea of Cuddy’s vision going black—and then the spotlight coming up on House. We decided to put the musical number there. And then it was really strange, for some reason I started hearing “Get Happy” in my head without even realizing. It wasn’t until then that I went and looked at that song. “Get Happy” is not a happy song. I mean, if you look at it lyrically—
Oh, you’re right; it’s not at all.
It’s about dying, right? So then we thought, “This is exactly what we want.” I think, all of us would say it was definitely inspired by “Bye Bye Love,” but it makes it its own sequence.
As the number was being performed I was reminded of Amber sing “Enjoy Yourself” in House’s “Under My Skin” hallucination near the end of Season 5.
Yeah. When you take a monster or something else that’s hideous and you make that creepy—it’s like, well, okay, that’s what’s it’s supposed to be: text and subtext working together. When you take something that’s supposed to be cute and cuddly—or fun and happy, and you use that to terrify, that’s just really fun.
It’s a certainly more interesting to watch something nice being turned on its head. And I love when the show does that. The episode has almost the feel of a finale episode to it, actually in very specific ways, calling to mind the finales from the past couple of seasons. You know, House sitting on the bathroom of his floor with the Vicodin bottle in his hands. Was that intentional?
I am not a believer that intent really matters, because I think you have to be, as a writer, willing to put your thing out there, and then people take how they take it. I don’t get to say, “But that’s not what I meant!” But yes, the echoing of those endings was completely intentional and designed by everybody.
So, but if there are eight episodes left this season, right?
The final scene of “Bombshells” recalls for me the final scene of “The Softer Side.” At the end of that episode, after trying to deal with his pain using methadone as alternative to Vicodin, House says to Cuddy, “This is the only me you get.” He’s saying to her that he’s always going to be flawed and he’s going to be in pain. Is Cuddy answering House’s declaration from that episode at the end of “Bombshells?” Although she seemed to have already answered it in “Help Me” by telling him that his issues didn’t matter?
Cuddy’s saying, maybe I don’t want that?
I believe the point of view of our show is weighted towards the idea that people don’t change, which I think is a very real message. I think people can work tremendously, tremendously hard and make tiny incremental changes. But, you know, a lot of times, people may change what they’re obsessed with but they generally do not change being an obsessive person.
What I hope we’ve shown this season is that, yes, House was off Vicodin; he was really working to try to be a decent partner for Cuddy, but that’s not really in his make-up. He had to try tremendously hard to do [simple] things like taking out the trash and not using her toothbrush. This is not a man for whom caring and being empathetic comes naturally. But I don’t think, he would be the great character that he is, if it did. House is fantastic and brilliant and funny and absorbing, but then think about whether he’s the person that you’d want to come home to and rely on to be your rock every night. That’s not a choice I would make. And I totally respect Cuddy. This is ridiculous, because I’m talking about her like she’s a real person. But I totally respect that choice.
Somebody asked me once, would I like to have House as my partner? (Never mind the fact that I’m happily married to my own complex, brooding, brilliant man.)
I’d have to confess that I’d love to sit down, and talk to him about everything from science to music; he’s fantastic and fascinating and complex as a fictional character. But I’m not sure I’d want to spend my life with him. But that’s true of probably all the tragic heroes that have ever been written in the history of literature.
Sure. Hamlet…what a pain in the ass!
Wilson and Cuddy, for all they try and for all their efforts to get House to change, do they understand him as well as they think they do? They like to do what’s best for him, in their opinion, at least. Is that, I mean, is that what you think as one of the show’s writers?
Hmm. I guess I might, my tweak on what you just said would probably be that they may not accept him quite as much as they think they do.
Okay, I would buy that…
Because I do think that they understand him. I think they see his impulses—his destructive impulses; they’re right about that. I think that, at moments, they are both very optimistic for him to have some degree of minute change—that his desire to change will actually result in something, or that if encouraged he can manage that. I certainly think that Cuddy getting involved with House was, in one way of looking at, an incredibly optimistic endeavor. But [neither Wilson nor Cuddy] don’t always really accept the depth of his pathology. The intractable nature of, as you know, the things he identifies himself with are very hard to shake.
Is the aftermath of House and Cuddy’s break up the jumping off point for the season’s final narrative arc?
I absolutely think that particularly House’s emotional state after having made this attempt at having a grown-up relationship is significant. You could argue that it’s the first attempt since he’s had the problem with his leg—and it didn’t work. And he tried his hardest, and it wasn’t enough. And I think that’s going to put him in a tough place—and now he’s back on Vicodin
Right. That leaves a lot of places for you to go with him…
I think this is definitely a key moment for the character, and that’s going to inform where we’re going. House and Cuddy’s relationship has sort of ebbed and flowed, but there have been key moments of friction for them. And, to me, if you look at the end of “Recession Proof,” with that completely tremendous speech of House’s—what a wildly messed-up thing that was! And what’s so great—and John Kelley (the episode’s writer) did it so well, is for House it is the biggest declaration of love that he can make.
Absolutely, that’s true—but you’re right. How screwed up is that—from that perspective?
“People are going to die because of you. You make me a worse doctor. And I am okay with that,” he say. And, you know, and that’s your boyfriend’s idea of paying you a compliment? I think, we made a deliberate decision in that. We didn’t want to have House and Cuddy have a fight at the beginning [of “Bombshells”], have them discussing all their thoughts about that fight, and end with the decision to break up. To me, that would be much less interesting storytelling.
One of the things I like is that even though it’s an episode about House and Cuddy’s relationship, there’s a very heavy plot about Cuddy’s health crisis and, so that they’re both dealing with those emotional issues through that lens. And as a result I think what the break-up does, is dramatically surprising.
Yeah, it, yeah, it was, I really, that ending was a sucker punch to the gut. And the fact he’s on Vicodin again is stunning. The episode was very controversial in many parts of the fan community, but I think the episode was really, really well done.
Thank you. But you didn’t like it, I think you said in your column…You didn’t like the dream sequences?
I actually was very complimentary to the episode as a whole, and I thought it did the emotional/character beats perfectly. But I did say that I thought the dream sequences didn’t seem to fit in as organically as they have when the show has used those devices before. And maybe that was by design, but they to me personally seemed a little abrupt. (In my review I noted that compared to episodes like “House’s Head”/”Wilson’s Heart,” the dream sequences didn’t work quite as well.)
Right, right. I totally agree. And, you know, for me if I had to choose the pinnacle of our show, it would be a very, very difficult choice between “House’s Head” and “Three Stories.”
Both are very, very high benchmarks in the series history…
I think [you have] a totally valid point. And I hope that people liked this episode. I’m really proud of the work that Sara and I did on this, and also the production team—and, of course [director] Greg Yaitanes and [choreographer] Mia Michaels absolutely killed it. But I don’t think it’s as good as those other two episodes. You know, I think those were pure, unadulterated brilliance.
Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend wrote “House’s Head” from Doris Egan’s story. They often write episodes ‘round the end of the season, but they’ve not been listed as writers on any of Season 7’s episodes thus far. Anything coming up for them, being as we’re drawing to the end run of episodes?
Yeah, they’re just about to start prepping an episode, I believe (Episode 7×22). They are writing it with Seth Hoffman (who wrote “Office Politics”). Their names have not been on as many scripts [this season], but their pawprints are still all over them. Nobody should have any doubt of that. The way things worked out, it was a more doable workload for them to supervise than to actually write as many originals this year.
Who’s writing the finale?
When I’ve spoken with some of the other writers on the show, they’ve noted to me that they sometimes come at the characters, especially House, from slightly different perspectives: he’s a jerk, he has a deeply buried humanity, he’s an ass, he has a romantic streak…
He has deeply buried humanity; he has no deeply buried humanity. Those are two different perspectives.
When you write with someone else do you ever disagree on how the characters would act or feel in a situation? And how do you resolve that, if that’s so?
Yeah, that absolutely happens. We had a debate about that a lot in one scene [in “Bombshells”]. We both brought our own personal experiences into the break-up scene—how much of it had to do with House’s addiction, how much of that was representative of a deeper emotional thing. When you get into the stuff that’s so personal you are pulling it out of your past. Sara and I are writers, so [of course] we had vaguely messed-up childhoods as such. But then again I should actually say, we’re human beings, so we had vaguely messed-up childhoods. Both of us had stuff really important to us. So we hashed it out, we argued, and we tried to find a way to make sure everybody felt comfortable with what was there.
Does being on network TV as opposed to cable hinder you in telling the stories you want to tell? Are you hindered by the nature of network TV versus, say, being on HBO?
I have to say what’s really remarkable about House is that I really don’t feel hindered. I mean, once in a while, sure, it would be great to be able to, you know, write the word “fuck.” You know, you have those moments where you just, it’s like, well, this, you know, what does this person say here? Well, they would say, “Fuck you.”
Yes, they would.
But I can’t write that. When I was writing “Hunting” [Season 2], I was thinking about what I wanted to do with Cameron’s identification with this patient (Cameron strongly connected with the team’s AIDS patient in that episode). I was hashing stuff out with Larry Kaplow and said, “Well, what I really want her to do is take meth and have sex with Chase, but I can’t do that.” [Kaplow’s response was,] “Well, why not?”
And that’s exactly what Cameron did!
I think, David Shore doesn’t believe in caving to TV convention. And, you know, this is when it’s good to be on a really big hit. We have always been about doing things that aren’t expected. And Fox has been very, you know, supportive of that.
Many of your scripts you do such a great job at getting at House’s turmoil and his angst, and that’s probably why I like your episodes so much, because they do really tend to tap into his internal pain. Do you think House has inner romantic streak? Is he pining for something he maybe just can’t attain?
That’s a good question. Yeah, you know, I don’t. I really have a very hard time seeing him as a romantic. I know I’ve had this debate with people on staff. And, you know, maybe he’s a romantic through a certain point of view.
Sometimes part of the underlying reason people take a cynical stance on things is, you could argue that it’s a win-win situation. You know, when the bad thing happens and people act cravenly and in their own self-interest, you get to be right. But [when you’re proven wrong] and the good thing happens and someone is actually nice and giving, well, then you get to have the nice thing happen [which is a good thing too]. House, I think, has a fairly bleak view of humanity, but I guess the question is, would he mind being wrong about that?
Right. And I think a lot of the episodes suggest he wonders about it. Or at least people who encounter him suggest to him that he wants to be proven wrong.
Do you have a favorite episode of all those that you’ve written?
That’s a good question. Well, I would say, I do really, I love “Merry Little Christmas.” I loved Meredith Eaton, who played, you know, the patient’s mom in that. She was just so great.
Oh, yes, yes. Great chemistry with Hugh Laurie!
And I also, I really loved “Frozen.” That was a great experience for me as a writer. Although a slightly odd one in that we only, I think we filmed two, maybe three days of that episode before the writers’ strike started. And so it’s the only episode that was mine that I was not on set for a good chunk of it.
It was was right at the beginning of the strike, and it was very weird, literally, to be picketing outside the studio and knowing that something that I wrote was, happening in there. People were so fantastic and respectful about doing it. I remember they actually, there was something that there was a mistake in the script. It said “right leg” or something, but it was actually going to be the person’s left leg, and out of respect they didn’t change that [when shooting]. They said, “we’ll fix it in ADR because we’re not going to mess with your words.” I loved that. And I also really, I liked “The Softer Side” a lot. I really liked that methadone story, so think—I can get it down to three. How’s that?
That works! Those episodes you mention all get under House’s skin enough to pluck at his humanity—at least to me they do! Talk about House’s humanity…or the lack thereof we were discussing before. Is it there…or absent? Some would argue that House has, so little humanity in him that it would be an impossible thing for him to even feel. He’s just an ass…that’s all there is; something your episodes would suggest isn’t true.
Well, I would say that if that were true he wouldn’t hate himself so much. I mean, that’s the thing. And I think that is like why, part of the reason, you know, why as a character we love him is that he does all this stuff, but he’s not Charlie Sheen in a manic phase.
No, he’s not totally comfortable with what he does and how he acts. He’s not completely, you know, he’s not completely capable of necessarily changing how he is, and he’s not even sure he wants to. But I actually think for House, that comes out of an insistence on not being a hypocrite—and being honest. His thing is like, yeah, you can want it all you want but you can’t do it, so shut up already.
I have a relatively random question about “Merry Little Christmas,” the stunning penultimate episode in Season 3’s “Tritter” narrative arc. I wanted to ask you, all these years later, what is in House’s head at the end of the episode, having taken a bottle of Oxycodone pills and a not insignificant amount of alcohol? What’s House’s emotional state at that low point? Is he suicidal? Or had he just stopped caring or wanted the pain to stop? And then he phones his mother… It’s a heartbreaking moment for the character.
I don’t think he was suicidal at that moment. I think he felt really crappy. I think he felt really vulnerable and wanted a moment of connection with somebody who he could be vulnerable with. It’s nice to think that maybe that there was this primal need for him; sometimes, you just need your mom. That’s what I saw it as.
And that makes complete sense. I think people can interpret that scene in all different ways.
Right. And then in the midst of that, I think he was being incredibly careless with all the booze and medication. Can you make the argument that—yes, he’s a doctor; is he somewhere in his subconscious aware of what he’s doing? If you made that argument I would say, well, I couldn’t really tell you you’re wrong. And that to me is sort of interesting.
I think that’s probably why people interpret that scene so many different ways and why it still—what is it, four years later? People still debate it.
What are some of the different interpretations you’ve heard?
(As I take a deep breath, having had the tables turned, and the questioner becomes the questioned.) Some people say maybe he was thinking, “let’s end the pain, we’re done.” Others have suggested that maybe he wasn’t actively suicidal but maybe he got to the point where he was just sort of past caring about what he was doing. Or maybe he was just being careless, stoned was stoned out of his mind, “so let’s take more.” On the other hand, perhaps he was looking at all this time in prison coming up and was just trying to just numb himself. So there have been a lot of interpretations of that one scene through the years. But I know that it’s something that’s still discussed.
That’s good. Lots of thinking. Lots of thinking—and no clear answers is, I think that’s kind of how the world works too, so…
And that’s how writing works. I mean, obviously, you know, you’re sitting down to write something, you need to get to point, from point A to point Z, but a lot of times the characters kind of, you know, take that power away from you as you write.
Well, yeah, as all of a sudden you realize, uh-oh, they’re not going to do what I thought they were going to do.
Yeah, right. But that’s the constant struggle of a writer.
So, when to let your characters be wild and reckless and when to say, okay, you know what, I’m in control here.
Right, and cut it out.
Thank you so much for taking the time and looking forward to seeing what’s coming up next on House!
House airs Monday night with “Out of the Chute,” and the aftermath of House and Cuddy’s breakup…oh, and the team treats a bullfighter. Tune in on FOX 8 p.m. ET.