At the end of last night’s House, M.D. episode “A Simple Explanation” (I mean the very end), the producers inserted a public service announcement for the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) about suicide. It’s not the first time in its nearly five-year history that House has dealt with this and other serious mental health issues. The central character Dr. Gregory House (played with a nuanced and exquisite fragility by star Hugh Laurie) is a poster child for emotional problems. Elementally unhappy, a child abuse survivor, and in constant chronic pain, House is addicted to Vicodin (whether or not you believe he's an “addict”), using the narcotic painkiller not only for his physical pain, but also to numb himself again a relentless misery.
In season three, House nearly took his own life (“Merry Little Christmas”) and in other episodes, it is clear that House has little regard for his own life, taking risks that suggest that he doesn’t really care whether he lives or dies (“97 Seconds,” “You Don’t Want to Know,” even “Wilson’s Heart”). This season, House has been bombarded with personal losses and other events that have rocked his emotional underpinnings even more. Amber’s death (and his indirect responsibility for it), the loss of Wilson’s friendship (which although recovered is much changed), the death of his father (and the confirmation that he wasn’t House’s biological father), Cuddy’s drive to motherhood (which has rocked him in ways good and bad) — all have taken their toll.
Much as he has from time to time during the series’ five-year run, House is standing on a precipice, teeter-tottering (without a cane). In “The Softer Side,” we observe that House is trying to find a Vicodin alternative; in “Locked In” last week, we learn that House is seeing a psychiatrist. He’s trying, but the guarded and very private House stands at the brink of emotional collapse. Especially now that he seems to want to “do” something about his situation, he seems at a loss.
“Simple Explanation” is about suicide, but not House’s (of course until the end of the series run, that could never happen — there would no longer be a show). Without a note, without any apparent cause, the outgoing, creative, and almost zen-like Lawrence Kutner has killed himself with a gunshot wound to the head. The episode asks the question “why?” Why would an apparently content, almost zen-like character, outgoing and friendly, fun and with an almost childlike enthusiasm for medicine (especially as practiced by House), suddenly, and with no note, commit suicide? The answer is: there is no answer. There is no explanation. And, as 13 points out in the episode, 25 percent of suicides occur with no apparent reason, with no explanation, simple or otherwise.
Kutner’s death happens not as a cliffhanger to the season (as Amber’s did last season); not even at the end of an episode in which we (the audience) get the clues that Kuntner’s colleagues cannot. It happens abruptly, without warning; out of nowhere. And that’s the point. It is the trigger pulled literally and metaphorically to explore not Kutner, but his survivors.
Many of us have had friends or colleagues who have ended their own lives, leaving us wondering what we might have done differently. What did we miss? Were there warning signs? Could I have helped? The senselessness of the act leaves the surviving circle of associates with nothing but questions, guilt, and anger. But no amount of soul-searching, wondering, or rationalizing can illuminate a reason. Can diagnose a cause. And for the lovable Kutner (he is really my favorite of the all the fellows, old and new) to have committed suicide, no warning, not a note, is a shock, not only to the people at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, but to the series’ millions of fans. The evidence of that has poured out all over the Internet in chat rooms, in discussion forums, on blogs, and on Twitter. Fans are shocked, angry, upset. Even FOX has put up a memorial site for fans to place their thoughts (personally, I think that’s a bit too cloying for my taste).
Each of Kutner’s colleagues searches for answers, though none are forthcoming. Taub, arguably the one closest to Kutner, is angry. In “Painless” it is suggested that Taub may have once attempted suicide earlier in his life. Having survived it, he believes that suicide is a coward’s way out, and he has no sympathy for anyone who tries it. He is angry with Kutner, maybe angry with himself for not seeing the signs. Showing no affect at all during the episode, distancing himself from Foreman’s and 13’s obvious grief, Taub shuts down emotionally. He throws himself into the case, unable to bring himself to even attend the funeral. But even he finally breaks down, in the corridor outside House’s office, allowing his grief to surface in the episode’s final moments.
Foreman needs to grieve alone, neither able to share his sorrow (or his support) with 13, who is herself grieving over Kutner. “I’ve dealt with a lot of bad stuff; and I’ve always handled it alone,” he explains coldly to 13, asking her to allow him space, refusing to understand that 13 also needs to “deal” with her own grief.
The team wants to take a break from the current case and deal with the loss. House, who grieves by refusing to deal at all with grief, wonders “What about the next case? And the case after that? How many cases will be enough to make it alright that Kutner is dead?” House has never known how to grieve and he wears a lifetime of sorrow on his shoulders and in his eyes, while refusing to admit he’s grieving at all. His eyes, moist and filled with anguish throughout the episode, expose his torment and the guilt he feels. House is the man who misses nothing. How could he, of all people, not have seen this coming?
For House, the case seems to be his lifeline, something to hold onto, but his grip is tenuous, distracted, and falling apart. The case turns out badly; without House’s laser-like focus, they are too late to save the patient, Charlotte, who dies in the end.
But more telling than that is House’s apathy about Charlotte’s husband Eddie, who, although not their patient, presents his own medical mystery. Eddie, in a sensitive portrayal by guest star Meat Loaf (who played Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show back in the day) is a terminal cancer patient. After convincing Eddie to donate his liver to his wife by allowing himself to die on the operating table, Cameron notices that Eddie may not be terminal after all. It’s a medical mystery that would be irresistible to House on any other day, and even more, it’s an opportunity for House to prove Eddie’s doctors to be idiots. But House barely notices. The only thing that seems to matter to House is to explain Kutner’s seemingly inexplicable suicide.
To House, there is no such thing as “no explanation.” There is always an explanation, even when it's not within our ability to know it — “yet.” Why did Kutner commit suicide? Was it buried pain from the brutal deaths of his parents, murdered before his eyes when he was six years old? Was it some other hidden symptom? “No explanation” is no explanation for House.
Accompanying Foreman and 13 to see Kutner’s adoptive parents, House continues to seek answers. Ruminating (almost to himself) in front of the Kutners, House seems to blame them for trying to fit Kutner into their world when he was a kid. All they created was an isolated, out-of-place boy who could do nothing else but bury himself under an acceptable persona. As House speaks to the parents, as the words come out almost involuntarily, almost trance-like, he could have as easily been speaking to his own parents, of his own experience as a sensitive, intellectually gifted, curious and creative, yet socially isolated boy. “It’s hard to be Lawrence Choudhury when everybody sees you as Lawrence Kutner,” he tells them honestly. No matter their efforts to help him fit in, nothing can make you fit when you don’t, and by doing that they may have planted the seeds for Kutner’s suicide. It’s a deflection to blame them, because if it’s their fault, it can’t be his. And I think House keenly feels the blame for Kutner’s death — simply by not being able to see it coming.
House’s search for an explanation, growing more and more desperate and exhausted, is heartbreaking to watch. He is a phantom throughout the episode, chasing Kutner’s ghost. Cuddy is worried about him, knowing him well enough to understand that House is falling apart beneath the surface, blaming himself for not seeing it coming, picking up on the signs. She also seems to understand that House sees himself in Kutner — intellectual and even emotional connections that he shares with no one else in his orbit. “Kutner thought like you; pushed the boundaries, like you,” Cuddy reflects to House, understanding that Kutner’s suicide has hit a little too close to home. “If he thought like me,” argues House in return, “he’d have known that living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” Although House is denying the connection between them, it must be tormenting him.
Uncharacteristically, Wilson doesn’t go to House to find out how he’s holding up. Probably still dealing with Amber’s death and the residual blame he places on House, it must be hard for him to “be his friend” — something that Cuddy insists he be. “I can’t deal with this and with House.”
But Wilson, who has always viewed his friendship with House as an “ethical responsibility,” catches up with him while he rummages through Kutner's apartment looking aimlessly for answers. At first House doesn’t even see Wilson standing there, he so absorbed in his own thoughts. “Good to see you,” House says flatly, finally acknowledging and appreciating Wilson’s presence.
When Wilson suggests they get hammered at a local bar, something to which House would normally not be opposed, House ignores the suggestion, continuing to wander through the apartment, looking — for something. “What are we missing?” House wonders almost to himself. Noticing a sci-fi movie collectible proudly hanging on the wall, House insists that Kutner’s suicide makes no sense. “He was hiding. Why?” asks House. “What are we missing?”
It dawns on Wilson that House doesn’t really care about Kutner, but only about the mystery his death provides. But Wilson is wrong; House is carrying megadoses of guilt and House is desperate to absolve himself by finding answers, to makes sense of something that makes no sense.
“But what if I’m not missing something?” he asks. “What if I’m not missing something because there’s nothing to miss? What if Kutner was murdered?” Murder would mean that House, who misses nothing, would have had nothing to miss. It would mean he could stop blaming himself for not seeing Kutner’s death coming. The insane leap stuns Wilson — and clues him in to House’s real emotional state.
Now obsessed with solving Kutner’s “murder,” House argues with 13 and Taub, who have accepted Kutner’s death and want to move past it and focus on the case. House tries to enlist them in the mystery, only to be rebuffed. “You’re not curious?” asks House. “Only about why a man who embraces the rational is suddenly pursuing the irrational,” responds Taub to House’s bizarre behavior, pushing him briefly back into the case. It’s a valid question.
Worried that House is obsessing over his very irrational murder theory, Cuddy tries to console House, tell him that it’s understandable that he’s upset. But it is clear that House has completely rationalized this theory in his mind, making it plausible (if only to him). House knows that Cuddy is concerned about him, and he seems not to push back too hard against it. “You’re worried that this case is the only thing holding me together,” he tells her, understanding her concern.
“Cure your patient,” she says, “and I will find you another patient.” She knows how badly House handles grief and loss; she wants desperately to help him through this by keeping him distracted by the case, and other cases to come until he’s able to handle it. But at this point, he is barely holding it together, his torment over Kutner barely concealed.
However, House refuses to be distracted. Wilson finally postulates that it’s not the mystery that’s intrigued House, that obsesses him about Kutner’s suicide — it’s the fact that he missed it. And what that says about House. For House, the man who misses nothing, it must be a devastating blow to his sense of self. If he can miss clues right under his nose for two years, maybe House is beginning to lose his gift.
“This has never been about what you missed,” argues Wilson finally, “but about why you missed it. You’re terrified of losing your gift, about losing yourself. And I’m terrified about what you’d do then,” he confesses. Is House worried that by opening himself up to life (and to the possibility of happiness with Cuddy) he risks losing himself entirely? Is this what it’s all about? Wilson thinks so, but I think he’s rationalizing, afraid that in the face of Kutner’s senseless suicide, House is losing his grip.
I think Taub nailed it when he told House, referring to Charlotte and Eddie, that it’s impossible to have so much guilt without love. But it is equally clear he’s telling House that he can’t feel that much guilt without caring deeply. And the final scene of House sitting in Kutner’s empty apartment looking through his photos for any sort of clue is as sad as any I’ve seen on House over the years.
Perhaps House is right (but is out of place telling Kutner’s parents) to suggest that Kutner’s early life — being abruptly transplanted from the familiar to the unfamiliar after his parents were brutally murdered in front of him — created a loner. Grateful to the Kutners who adopted him, he buries his pain deeply; so deeply he may not have even been aware of it most of the time. He became a man who hides from everyone, and so good at hiding that no one had a clue about the pain he was in for so many years.
It’s not the Kutners' fault; it’s no one’s fault. Each person in Kutner’s circle — from his closest friend Taub to House himself — wonders if there was something they missed; something they might have done. Each one has a way of dealing with the loss, anger, and frustration of losing someone so senselessly.
I have said too many times to count in this column that Hugh Laurie is a great actor. And as the acerbic, misanthropic ass that House can often be, Laurie gets to exercise his sarcasm muscles, his humor muscles, and his dramatic muscles, sometimes all in the same scene. But he is at his absolute best when he is given the heavy emotional stuff. His ability to underplay, hiding House’s emotional core beneath an icy, rational surface is a real gift, and in episodes like “Simple Explanation,” he lets us see deeply into House’s devastated eyes, letting us see the anguish in his soul, lets House’s torment seep from beneath his rusty armor.
Television series usually leave major events like character deaths for the season finale (as House did last year when Amber Volakis died). It was a gutsy move on the part of the show’s producers to kill off Kutner five episodes before the end of the fifth season. I’d heard that it was a creative decision (yes, Kal Penn, who has been so delightful an addition to the House cast, I must say is just fine), so I wonder where this is all headed. Certainly “Simple Explanation” sets the stage for some very major upheaval in the show, and in its central character. Not an end to a story arc, but its beginning. I can’t wait to find out what David Shore and company have in mind as the season draws to its close.
In less than two years, Kal Penn created a beautifully rendered character in Lawrence Kutner. Both will be missed by colleagues on the set, and most keenly by the millions of viewers who came to know (at least the unhidden part of) him and came to love him. I will miss him. Much luck to Kal as he goes to work in the Obama administration.