The broken man sits on his bathroom floor: a mirror image of a year past. In pain, adrenaline rush gone, tormented by a happiness always beyond his grasp. And in his hand are two pills. A year away from Vicodin, he could take just two, and the pain in his leg and the pain in his heart would have faded to gray in a light narcotic haze. Just how long has House been sitting there, reflecting on what had transpired over eight hours?
As “Baggage” ends with the book, “Help Me” begins. What is the meaning of the book? Like the desk he restores to her in “Let Them Eat Cake” last season, the book is a sentimental gift, something deeply personal, quite unlike the cappuccino machine given to Cuddy a couple of weeks ago.
So why now? Why give it to her now? Is he resigned to Cuddy being with Lucas? There is no more “special occasion” for which he can hope? Or is it a last ditch effort to court her, something that is too late by far? Because in the end, the gesture is irrelevant. It isn’t the book that snaps Cuddy out of her Lucas fog, allowing her to look at House unfiltered and clear in the ironically filthy, dust-filled cavern of a crushed building.
What is it about House that makes it impossible for her to evict him from her mind? What does she see that had been obscured? Is it that he’s changed so much? He hasn’t. Is it that she had forgotten why she was in love with him in the first place?
“Help Me.” Help me what? A young woman with her life ahead of her cries out for help. House helps in the most cursory way he can. She is a cipher; a number; a nameless patient — just like all others that enter his sphere. But then again, Hannah doesn’t know that about House. She only knows that House is the only one she trusts. With subtle echoes back to season three’s “One Day One Room,” House answers that call. But this time his question is not “why me?”
Sucked into this tenuous relationship despite his best efforts not to connect with this patient who risks losing a leg or suffer what he did in “Three Stories.” Her muscle is dying, deprived of needed oxygen and when they finally lift the tons of concrete from her leg, she might suffer crush syndrome — just like what happened to House when the doctors removed the clot from his leg. All the poison rushed back into his system causing a heart attack.
House is right as the battle begins. They have time to save the leg if they can get her out in time. But as time goes on, a secondary structural collapse makes rescue much more of a shot in the dark. But House stands firm that cutting off Hannah’s leg is the wrong choice. Cuddy assumes his intransigence has to do with his anger over her engagement to Lucas, about which he has only just learned. But House’s attitude has little to do with Lucas and much to do with history — his and Cuddy’s.
“I’m the only one here who knows the value of a leg,” he insists when he’s double teamed by both Cuddy and the rescue team’s chief. He will not allow the amputation until every other possibility is exhausted — exactly what did not happen in his case.
But then there is the cutting cruelty of Cuddy’s words, reminding House of what keeping his leg has done for him. But her words have a purpose, intended or not, and they propel the rest of the story. They are a slap across the face, and in the face of a cold, hard truth told aloud, unvarnished, Cuddy, like House has so many times, provokes a response. (And no, I’m not saying she does it intentionally).
And in this dark hole of a place where his patient Hannah is trapped, House musters probably every bit of bravery he has, and confronts himself. In a way, it is his dark night of the soul. Telling Hannah, haltingly and with great emotion, about his leg, he gently persuades her to allow him to amputate. It is an admission made before Cuddy, with whom he lies shoulder to shoulder. It is the answer to Dr. Nolan’s question in “Baggage” — what did you screw up? And the answer is not about a patient, not about Cuddy, not about Wilson. In House’s mind, he screwed up long ago and lying in a hospital bed. A decision made ages ago changed him profoundly, eating away at him for years, corrosive and more poisonous than anything else might have been. For Cuddy, to hear it is transformative; for House to say it, we want to believe that it is cathartic: a pivot point in House’s life, but it is not to be.
How difficult must it have been for House to perform the emergency surgery himself after all he’s gone through? The House we as viewers are sometimes privileged to see, but who keeps himself so completely under wraps that no one else does? He’s serious and single-minded. He explains to Hannah step by step what he’s going to do and does so with great skill and compassion. This isn’t the genius doctor, this is simply House, the great doctor.
After he finishes, House and Cuddy exchange long looks, the hurt still deep in his eyes as he follows Hannah and her husband into the ambulance. With Hannah now in the hand of the EMTs, House sits and reflects on everything that had just happened: from Hannah to Cuddy’s news, and likely to the pain creeping quickly back into his leg as the endorphins and adrenaline rush begin to wear off.
And then Hannah dies — a fat embolism and one of the things House warned about when arguing against amputation. Had he not done the amputation, it would not have happened. House’s anguish at the loss of his patient is stunning, unchecked and, significantly, in front of Foreman.
“This is not your fault,” Foreman tries to reassure his distraught boss. But House is inconsolable.
He has pushed a procedure on a patient to “do the expected thing” and she has died as a result. House should not reasonably blame himself, yet he does. He does “all the right things,” yet Hannah dies. “How is that supposed to make me feel any better?” House rails back at Foreman’s attempt to reason with him.
Something we know about House, but of which he’s in perpetual denial: he is often harder on himself than anyone else can be. On top of the physical pain he must be in, on top of the emotions he must be feeling after Cuddy tells him about her engagement to Lucas, the emotional nakedness he must feel for having internalized Cuddy’s words to — believing them with all his heart — on top of all that, he must feel that he’s betrayed himself and betrayed his patient. A million “what if’s” must be churning in his head as he makes his way through the darkness of his apartment and looks into his own face in the bathroom mirror. But it’s not only his face he sees, but Hannah’s.In her face, House sees only accusation (imagined), for that’s what he sees in his own eyes: he has betrayed a fundamental trust in both himself and Hannah. And he is devastated.
No longer able to look himself in the face, he smashes the mirror and views behind it a sort of salvation: Vicodin awaits. Two bottles, hidden for God knows how long, waiting and ready to make it all go away: the pain and suffering. But there’s a cost.
House has come far in a year; this from the man who insists that people don’t change. And where a year ago after his world came crumbling down around him, he anesthetized himself with Vicodin, now he has to think twice. I have said several times this season that one of the things keeping House from Vicodin was his fear of the returning hallucinations; it’s greater than his physical pain — greater than his fear of pain. It has been, for him, the most effective deterrent. But as he sits there on the floor of his bathroom, an eerie mirror image of his “Under My Skin” delusion, he has a choice.
“You have nothing,” Cuddy tells him. They’ve all moved on: Wilson, Cuddy, even Lucas. Is he thinking “what’s the point?” But he agonizes over it. Hugh Laurie is simply amazing in conveying every emotion and every thought going on in House’s mind and heart.
And then she’s simply there. A vision in pink scrubs. Full circle. Is she a dream? A fantasy? A hallucination? It is clear that House isn’t sure she’s really there. He’s lost a lot of blood; he’s beyond exhausted, in terrible pain, and has been through a physical and emotional minefield. And it’s Cuddy to the rescue? Is it shell shock? It’s improbable as Hell; yet it’s not.
What is going through Cuddy’s mind in the hours after her last words to House? She is surprised to see him come back into the hole, certain that he’s going to sabotage any attempt she makes to persuade Hannah. She is ready to pounce, ready for the imminent confrontation between them.
“Hannah,” he begins softly, “we have to amputate.” But he had earlier done his job too well. She refuses. House knows what he has to do, and whether he completely believes it himself — he tells her about the leg. There is no anger, no bitterness in his telling except as directed towards himself; it’s not the doctors’ fault, not Stacy’s fault, not Cuddy’s fault. This is his own burden, and one he has carried with him for many years. Cuddy hear this, sees this, and knows that — as she listens to Hannah’s screams and the drone of the electric saw — although this is impossibly difficult for House to do, it is courageous and more fearless than crawling into a deep hole. She remembers with absolute clarity why she cares about this man. And that she loves him.
But not even we are certain that this hopeful ending to season six is actually real, because nothing on House is ever quite as it seems. Which is why I’m interviewing the writers this afternoon. So bring on your finale questions, folks.
Hugh Laurie and Lisa Edelstein are both great. But I cannot say enough about Laurie’s performance. He hit every note (doesn’t he always?) with perfection. Amazing to watch.