“Bombshells.” I can’t think of a more appropriately titled episode for tonight’s episode of House, M.D. Although the episode focuses on Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) and her health after she discovers blood in her urine, the series core has always been about the journey of Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie, in a fabulous performance). And while Cuddy’s kidney cancer scare provides for her a moment of clarity about what she wants and needs from her relationship with House, it also provides an opportunity to see how far House has come in the past year socially and emotionally.
“Bombshells” asks whether love and happiness have removed enough of House’s barriers to allow him to deal with pain and grief. Is he strong and secure enough to deal with the serious illness a loved one?
Last season, House finds it nearly impossible to “be there” for Wilson when he undergoes a liver surgery. House can only see the potential loss of his best friend through the lens of his own grief. “If you die,” House confesses to Wilson, “I’m alone.” So, telling Wilson he can’t be there during the operation, House can’t face the notion that he might lose his best and only friend. In the end, House does come through, gets over his own pain to focus on Wilson’s troubles.
If Cuddy dies of cancer, however, it might be an even greater loss for House. He has finally opened up to someone again; he’s happy (enough); she is the love of his life; he needs her. Her loss would be a devastating blow to him. He cannot deal with that, so, in denial for the first part of the episode, he worries apart from Cuddy, in his own way. It’s almost as if by saying it—acknowledging it by facing her—her loss might be too real. If he stays away, it can’t be true that she will die. So he stays distant, but plagued by a nightmare: a horrific scenario in which he cannot get to Cuddy in time to save her as she’s being devoured by zombies. (It’s a great homage to horror movies.)
House is great at the grand romantic gestures. But here, Cuddy doesn’t need romance; she doesn’t need Mariachi bands or romantic breakfasts under the bed. She just needs House to be fully present and at her side, fighting her illness together. But,in his subconscious, House realizes, as his nightmare suggests, that he might not be able to be there when she needs him—no matter how much he may want it. And he does want it. No matter how hard he fights his demons (or zombies), they will win in the end. The zombie dream provides a neat foreshadowing of the episode’s end.
When Cuddy is finally diagnosed with metastatic kidney cancer, House can no longer deny what’s now fact: written on scans and in lab reports. His rational mind won’t allow it. Game over.
House knows that he needs to be with her, and he will do what he needs to do to be strong and stay with her and be at her bedside—holding her hand and being the man she fervently hopes he is. “I knew you would come,” she says wistfully when he appears gravely at her bedside late at night. And by her side, he stays, appearing that he has Wilson hopes he has, “gotten over himself,” focusing on Cuddy’s illness and not on the grief and pain her death would cause him. (Knowing what we do about the character, and particularly if she died of kidney cancer, I can imagine it would send him reeling into the abyss.)
He stays strong for her, seeming never to be far out of her sight until after her surgery shows that the tumor is benign—and the lung problems observed on the scan are an allergic reaction. Even then he doesn’t leave until she shoos him away to go cure his patient. Everything, it would appear, goes back to normal. Until it’s not.
Over the course of Cuddy’s brush with death, she, like House processes her fears though dreams—and one big production number of an anesthetic-induced hallucination. The dreams allow us into her subconscious as she considers her life with House. She’s the Sundance Kid to his Butch Cassidy; he’s the idealized (Mr.) Mom from a 1950s sitcom. Cuddy also dreams of Rachel’s fate should she die—and is left to the care of House—and Wilson, conjuring up Two and a Half Men (in a bit of irony, given the news about its star Charlie Sheen).
But from the deepest recesses of Cuddy’s imagination, and under a surgical anesthetic, she is Ginger Rogers to House’s Fred Astaire. But it’s far from light comedy. This dream owes its origins as much to Clockwork Orange as Top Hat. It is a dark, surreal fantasy, with Hugh Laurie (and the Lisa Edelstein) chillingly singing “Get Happy.” In many ways, it’s more frightening than House’s earlier zombie-fest dream.
The recurrent theme in all of Cuddy’s dreams—something she finally puts together—is that in each, House has candy. From his favorite red sucker to a giant candy cane, that’s the thread—the piece of the puzzle niggling at Cuddy’s brain.
In the end, triggered by her sister’s mention of the sleeping pills she’d earlier had on her nightstand, Cuddy wonders if House’s ability to come out of himself and be with her was fueled by “candy.” “Rachel always calls pills ‘candy,’” Cuddy’s sister says, slightly amused. But Cuddy is not amused—not at all. She realizes that the “candy” in her dreams and hallucination were an avatar for House not being able to confront or handle her pain without chemical assistance.
All during her hospitalization, House could not bring himself to be there in the room with her; to hold her hand; to kiss her and tell her it would be alright; to flash her a conspiratorial smile that said they’d get through this. And when she realizes that House could only muster the resources to be at her bedside anesthetized against his anguish, it’s too much for her. Coming on top of the forgivable petty annoyances of “Two Stories” and the big disappointment “Recession Proof,” the bombshell that House needs to take Vicodin to steel himself was too much.
I believe House when he tells her that it was a one-time thing. I do think Rachel got the “candy” nickname for pills from House. We know he takes medicine: antidepressants, non-narcotic pain killers, etc. but I do believe him when he says that this is the first time. He had known he needed to be there for Cuddy, and this (with his limited emotional resources) is the only way he knows how.
Since “Help Me” at the end of last season, Cuddy has tried to tell herself that the drugs don’t matter; that change doesn’t matter. And when we’re in love, that’s what we do: we tell ourselves little lies. But her health crisis is a clarifying event for her (at least for now). And in her fragile state, she now believes that House cannot make her happy beyond the sex, the grand romance and the excitement of being involved with a broken genius.
Despite House’s pleas for her not to leave (Hugh Laurie broke my heart here), she does—but not without regret. And House is left much in the same position we find him at the end of “Help Me.” He’s at the end of his emotional rope, this time not from losing a patient, but from losing perhaps his last chance at happiness and love. What an incredibly sad, sad ending as we move into the last third of Season 7.
I really liked “Bombshells,” and I think that this turn of events had to happen at some point. No journey like House’s (with someone as damaged as he is) can be as linear as it’s been. (And for House, it’s been a road with only minor bumps this year). For every step forward, there needs to be a step (or six) back; House’s emotional turmoil and fragility are so intrinsic to the character they had to come back into high relief in a dramatic way. But nothing is forever (not even breakups)—and we are left with little doubt that Cuddy still very much loves House, so you never know what lies ahead. After all, there are still eight episodes remaining this season!
The series has often used dreamscapes to explore the characters’ subconscious. It’s an especially important storytelling device for a series that features such guarded characters. “Bombshells” had an extremely high mark to hit to come close to “Three Stories,” “No Reason,” “House’s Head,” “Wilson’s Heart,” and the hallucinatory conclusion to Season 5 (“House Divided”/”Under My Skin”/”Both Sides Now”).
The dreamscape sequences in those episodes seemed always to flow naturally from the narrative. Although the “Bombshell” sequences were beautifully done and a lot of fun, except for the “Get Happy” hallucination they seemed more like set pieces stuck into the narrative, instead of flowing out from it. And I think, as powerfully as the episode concluded, this is where the episode didn’t quite make it, in my opinion.
Next week’s episode “Out of the Chute” seems to address what will assuredly be a very messy aftermath of the “Bombshells” ending.