Emancipated is not a word I would use to describe any of the central characters in House, MD. Each character is locked away, repressed by fear, anger, and circumstance. The most emancipated character on the series at this point is a tossup between Kutner and Chase. Both of them have been able to reach beyond bad circumstances to some sort of acceptance, which has enabled them to become the most unfettered of the House-bunch.
So it was with interest that I tuned into this week’s episode called, ironically for this series, “Emancipation.” On its surface, the title describes this week’s patient, an emancipated child — divorced from the guardianship of her parents, who are purportedly dead.
But it also refers to Foreman, who finally “gets” what House has been trying (through his uniquely Socratic methods) to teach him for the past three years. And, it also describes (to a lesser degree) Wilson, who has decided that his relationship with House is best served by not meddling — neither enabling nor manipulating. To a lesser degree, “emancipated” also describes the new team, who are sent to diagnose the patient using their own skills, with House giving them just enough rope, with his input. And they succeed to greater and lesser degrees.
Sophia, a foreman in a factory falls ill, unable to breathe. Coming onto House’s service, the team tries to diagnose her; but they are hindered by Sophia’s lies about her past and her family relationships. When Sophia reveals that her parents died when she was young, Kutner immediately identifies with the teenaged patient, empathizing with her, trusting her based on their shared experience. He’s walked in her shoes, having lost his own parents tragically when he was six. But she is caught in a big lie (the FMRA machine never lies). The lie about her parents’ death was only to serve the more humiliating “truth” that she was raped. By her father.
Eventually, the team determines that Sophia suffers from leukemia. She needs a marrow donor, and the best donors are blood relatives — like parents. The team tries to convince Sophia to allow them to contact her parents, something she quickly refuses. And with good reason.
Ignoring her wishes (and against House’s insistence that they honor the patient’s wishes), 13 contacts goes to the girl’s given address, only to find that the patient is not who she claims to be. She has even lied about her identity!
I found it an interesting bit of subtle commentary about House that he was “the only one who cares about the patient’s rights” in telling the team to use the donor bank and not try to find the parents. Of all the team, House is the only one really to have come close to walking in Sophia’s (alleged) shoes. He understands most of all that being forced to confront parents who were abusive (or who ignored the abuse) is something not to be lightly considered — and something that the patient has a right not to do.
So now, with no good donor match to be found, and another red herring regarding Sophia’s past, the team is at a loss. But the patient’s rational, unemotional explanation about contacting her parents makes House suspect that she’s even lying about this. House to confronts the girl: “You’re scared and stubborn and you don’t want people feeling sorry for you,” he tells her. “Why?”
This is not only the patient, it’s House, himself, who deflects his vulnerability with toughness and his wounds with sarcasm and misanthropy. And while Kutner and 13 both could claim to empathize with Sophia, only House really cuts to her core.
“I just want to be normal,” she says to him. “You need people to see how independent you are; how well you’re coping, so they won’t see the lost little girl.”
In a scene that reminds me of so many such wonderful one-on-one scenes between House and his patients (“Forever” comes immediately to mind, along with “Babies and Bathwater,” the Pilot episode, “Euphoria 2,” “Merry Little Christmas,” and “Autopsy”) House learns that Sophia was responsible for the death of her brother — not by anything she did, but by circumstance.
“I was supposed to be watching him.” House’s momentary speechlessness as he takes in the girl’s terrible secret — something that’s been hurting for a long time — is a classic House moment. House's stunned expression (Hugh Laurie is an acting god.) leaves you wondering whether Sophia’s confession resonated so deeply because of Amber’s death, and his own feelings of responsibility (again, circumstantial) for it. House is at his absolute best when he relates to patients on this elemental level: not sympathetic, not soft pedaling, but honest and non-judgmental; empathetic and understanding, without negating the impact of their actions. House does this better than anyone else at Princeton-Plainsboro, and, to me, it’s as an important a gift as his diagnostic skills.
He tells her that nothing’s going to make it better — or easier. But by allowing herself to die, she will only hurt her parents even worse: by taking their only other child from them. Sophia is the only one who has the power to make a bad situation “not worse.” House’s non-judgmental honesty resonates with the frightened, hurting, but fiercely independent Sophia, and she finally phones home. Hugh Laurie allows House’s profound humanity to shine through as he listens to her confession, pauses to reflect on the burden this young lady has been carrying for so long, and give her a way towards absolution. This will go down as one of my favorite scenes in the entire season, if not the entire series.
The final scene of the episode, showing the reconciliation between Sophia and her parents was emotionally powerful. (I rarely cry during House — this was one of those times I felt the tears prick at the corners of my eyes.) Kutner looking in at the tearful reunion speaks of his inner turmoil, and very much resonated with so many scenes in earlier seasons with House looking in on patients’ families, watching them heal, while he is incapable of it. Lovely.
This episode really took me back in a lot of ways to the episodes of the first two seasons: straight-on procedural, but one, which through the patients, told the stories of the central characters. And it’s interesting to see how the characters have grown (or at least changed) over the five years we’ve known them. Chase and Cameron have both moved beyond House, comfortable with what they learned from him (to be much more critical thinkers than they otherwise would be) and just as comfortable to be out from beneath his wings. Foreman is still stuck, not having made the break that House will not make for him.
With Chase, back in season three’s “Human Error,” House acknowledged that Chase had matured as a physician and diagnostician and had nothing left to learn from him. He kicked Chase out of the nest. Cameron left of her own accord, and on her own terms. Foreman, for all his arrogance has always lacked the confidence to think entirely for himself; to stand up for what he believes and to trust his own judgment — without seeking the approval of his superiors.
Theirs is a high stakes game; when patients come to House’s service they are often out of time and out of answers. Hesitant doctors and doctors who only want to play by the rules have not helped them. And Foreman’s position of simply hating House, feeling oppressed by him, while trying to seek his approval is something that House has seen as a problem for Foreman. “You’re not ready,” he tells Foreman when he resigns at the end of season three. And House is clearly disappointed then — and throughout the intervening year and a half.
Realizing that Foreman’s not going to do it any other way, House has manipulated a situation in which Foreman can finally learn to fly. I completely buy the idea that the entire plan — the pediatrics case, even the offer of clinical trials; House’s disengagement — was House’s rather nobly Housian way of pushing Foreman from the nest.
Foreman comes into House asking to do a clinical trial (my guess is that this is a set up — and House really knows that Foreman’s going to be asked — Cuddy would never do it without House’s consent anyway.) House says no, of course. The question (and Foreman’s test) is whether he will stand up on his own two feet and just do it — without seeking House’s permission. Or approval.
Cuddy gives Foreman a pediatric case when he decides to strike out on his own without House’s permission. I would even venture to say that House was completely aware of the pediatric case from the beginning and may have even urged Cuddy to give it to him!
But mid-case Foreman has a crisis of confidence, going to Chase and Cameron for a consult. It’s interesting that the guy who was really the senior doc on the old team seems like the younger brother going out to play with the big kids without daddy’s permission.
But even Chase and Cameron may not be able to help, and suggest that Foreman consult House after the patient takes a downturn. But House refuses to be involved in Foreman’s case. Foreman calls House a hypocrite and willing to let a kid die, blaming House, rather than taking responsibility for something House didn’t want him to do in the first place.
“You wanted a case on your own; now you’ve got it,” declares House. Foreman goes back to Chase and Cameron to whine about House and blame him for his patient’s condition.
“You liked this case because he wasn’t looming over you. Decisions were yours. Only difference now is that he’s decided not to loom. Doesn’t change the fact that the patient is dying.” This is a great wake-up call for Foreman. This is not House’s fault. But Foreman does figure it out, after bouncing things off Cameron and Chase a bit more.
In the end, Foreman solves his case, and Wilson congratulates House on his scheme to push Foreman from the safety of the nest. “You knew Foreman would figure it out; you just needed to prove it to him,” acknowledges Wilson. “You’re an ass; but you’re a noble ass,” he says. Truer words have never been spoken.
But the parallel tale to House’s scheme with Foreman is Wilson’s attempt to disengage from House’s Cuddy issues. Perhaps if Wilson backs off, House will fly on his own and try his wings with Cuddy. But poor House really doesn’t know what to do about her.
No longer getting it unrequested, House now craves Wilson’s advice; his help in knowing how to act and what to do. At the end of last week’s episode, all House could bring himself to do is gaze at Cuddy from her front lawn.
Wilson is driving House crazy by his lack of insight and opinion. “Do you want me to tell you what to do?” Wilson asks. But House won’t outright admit that the answer is “yes.” House is at a loss without Wilson’s input, he thinks, but that’s not true, and Wilson finally knows it (yea!). By refusing to engage him in his angst over Cuddy, Wilson is forcing House to deal with his feelings — confront them and act (or not). And at the end of the day, when Wilson asks House if he does, indeed, want to talk about her, House declines (naturally), gazing (slightly longingly) at Cuddy from behind the closed doors of clinic.