Caveat: mild spoilers ahead
The great actor Brian Cox (Coriolanus) recently explained that drama is more about empathy than sympathy. You can hate a character for what he’s done, but ultimately if you understand his (or her) actions, the character will endure. I believe that really is the key to why so many have loved the character of Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) on House, M.D. through seven seasons. However, at the end of last season, House snaps and crashes his car into ex-girlfriend Lisa Cuddy’s (Lisa Edelstein, who has left the series for The Good Wife) home. With that rash action, he has lost the sympathy of not only of his friends and allies in Princeton, but a considerable number of fans in the online community.
So the question coming into season eight is whether the audience can still empathize with House after the events of last season’s controversial finale, whether or not they find him sympathetic at this point.
We find House at the start of season eight facing a parole board, one year into a longer sentence at the East New Jersey Correctional Facility. He’s become eligible for parole (not because of anything he’s done to merit it, but because there is a space issue—and he’s had “good-ish” behavior during his year-long stay in the slammer).
He has five days until his parole is effective and House basically has to stay out of trouble during those last five days—easier said than done. He makes an effort though, and for the most part plays it straight, even giving in to the intimidation of some antagonistic prison bullies who intend to collect an “exit tax” from him before he goes. Part of their price? Twenty Vicodin.
But the prison gang is just the least of House’s worries when an inmate exhibits some strange symptoms that House finds irresistible. While trying to navigate the prison (and prisoners’) rules, House’s curiosity gets the best of him, and along the way he meets the young, earnest, but very bright Dr. Jessica Adams (Odette Annable), a prison doctor as intrigued by House’s medical skills as she is by the patient’s mysterious symptoms. But ultimately, she is faced with making a choice (and risking her job) between following protocol with the patient or trusting House’s instincts and unique observational abilities.
I really liked “Twenty Vicodin.” Peter Blake, who is great at diving into House’s character, has produced a terrific script that never excuses House’s rash behavior in “Moving On,” and suggests that as I’ve always believed, that no one is harder on House than House himself. Like the season six opener “Broken,” this episode takes place completely outside the world of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. The pace is slower than much of what we saw during season seven and there’s more of a focus on character.
The medical case is relatively straightforward but it serves as a fulcrum to explore what “the puzzle” means to House’s inquisitive mind. It also serves as a framework for exploring House’s relationship with the prison doctor.
House’s environment is populated with a lot of folks who either don’t like or don’t care about House. They don’t know him; aren’t impressed by him and couldn’t care less about his pain or his reputation. He does have one friend, an older chess-playing prisoner whom House seems to have taken into his confidence. But their relationship, too, is less friendly than convenient. Neither of them seem like they belong with hard core criminals.
We learn that during his year in the pen, House hasn’t had any visitors or phone calls; it’s not clear if he’s refused to see anyone—or if he’s been completely shunned by everyone he knows. His post-prison plan is to leave medicine and pursue a PhD in dark matter physics—the last big mystery, with a bonus: no human contact necessary. Human contact, House explains, is what got him into trouble in the first place.
I realize that season premieres, like season finales, are not necessarily indicative of the season as a whole. “Twenty Vicodin” is certainly an episode apart from House’s real world. But I’m intrigued and it provides an excellent starting place for taking House in a new direction post-Cuddy. I’m curious about how House will interact with his former team and Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) after not having had any contact with them for an entire year—a year, as he notes, during which they’ve all had a chance to move on with their lives. I doubt House even knows about Cuddy’s departure.
So when House returns to Princeton-Plainsboro (whenever that happens, since I assume it will happen at some point), he will be in a different reality than the one in which he’s existed and that will affect all his relationships. How will they react to him—and how will he interact with them? It’s likely to be strained in any event for a while to come. And my curiosity is piqued.
I think that’s all I’m going to tell you for now, other than to answer my original question. We are never meant to be sympathetic to what House had done in “Moving On,” yet I couldn’t help myself in feeling a strong empathy for him at this extremely difficult place in his life. After seeing several of the promos for season eight, I wasn’t sure I was going to like “Twenty Vicodin” or the post “Moving On” House. Only goes to show you: never trust the “promo monkeys.” They are only out there to obscure and obfuscate; confuse and frustrate.
I plan a more extensive preview of the episode the weekend before it airs, so do stay tuned! The season eight premiere of House airs Monday, Oct. 3 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.
(Photos courtesy FOX)