The Kubler-Ross grief scale first emerged on House in the season two premiere “Acceptance.” At the time, House (Hugh Laurie) had been struggling with the return of Stacy Warner into his life. Stacy, whom House (Hugh Laurie) both loved and resented; he both desired her and was repelled by her presence. It seems so long ago, lifetimes of tragedy and angst for House—seven seasons for us—since that moment in season two.
And here we are at the penultimate episode of season eight—the last season of our beloved House, M.D. And like House, trying desperately to deal with Wilson’s (Robert Sean Leonard, in arguably his best performance to date in the series) decision not to have chemotherapy, we are right there with him, going through the stages of grief, not only for Wilson, but for a beloved television series.
Like the series showrunners must have agonized over whether to end the long-running series, Wilson grapples with whether to die a quicker, but more dignified life, or to die little by little in agony. A prolonged and senseless way to go. And Wilson’s decision would be easy, but for House, who will not take Wilson’s demise well.
Although last week’s episode “Post Mortem” was heartbreaking, this one just broke me, leaving me in tears as I watched House desperately try to get Wilson to see “reason”—or at least “reasons” to stay alive for at least a little while longer. House cannot understand giving in to the nothingness of death; cannot accept that Wilson simply wants it to be over before life gets too maudlin. It is his right to die, and something for which House has argued over and over these many seasons.
The episode opens with viewers learning that Wilson will have only five or six months to live without chemo, which would give him another two or three more years—much of which would be spent confined to a hospital chemo suite and in pain.
But Wilson has decided to die “with dignity,” something in which House neither believes nor accepts. “You can only live with dignity; you can’t die with it.” The passion in House’s words to Rebecca Adler from the series pilot still resonate as his mantra for lo these many years. There is only living; there is only dying.
Although everyone is sad for Wilson, Foreman and everyone else is more concerned about how House will deal with both Wilson’s decision and his death. No one thinks it will end well, prompting Taub (Peter Jacobson) to resign, and Foreman (Omar Epps) to try setting the stage for House’s life after Wilson (and not very gracefully).
House’s tough exterior is a fragile shell, and everyone is aware that he is likely to shatter into a million pieces if his best—arguably his only—friend dies. Foreman buys a pair of hockey season tickets—they’ll go together. Of course House sees through the transparent attempt to replace Wilson as the man who keeps House from falling apart. No one can replace Wilson—and how dare Foreman try, and in retaliation for this affront, House acts out in one of his most stupid and reckless pranks ever. With results disastrous for the hospital—and for House.
Stuffing the tickets down into the hospital plumbing is one of the dumber things House has ever done (and his track record is considerable). He must have known that the backup would cause a disaster and kill the MRI. Had that been retaliation against Foreman’s gesture—or retaliation against the MRI machine that has conspired to take Wilson from him?
Although Wilson has accepted his fate, it still isn’t easy. He needs House, but until he can accept that Wilson is going to die, House will only be a blockade to Wilson’s getting on with his final days, pulling pranks and trying his best to manipulate Wilson into therapy he is unwilling to undergo.
And while House deals childishly with Wilson’s death, this week’s patient continues in denial about his own brother’s death 10 years earlier. Having never been allowed to grieve, the young man still talks to his dead sibling, unable to move past the loss.
This is House’s usual MO—not to deal—until the not dealing has eaten away so corrosively that House emotionally implodes. Is that what’s in store for him five months after Wilson’s death? And no matter how hard House argues that he’ll “be fine” after Wilson’s gone (which, interestingly he doesn’t—at least to Wilson), we know he won’t be fine (especially after viewing next week’s finale promo).
The increasingly desperate House tries everything in his bag of tricks to convince Wilson to “hold on” and stick around as long as possible. Although his methods are over the top and blatant manipulations, designed to show Wilson what his life means to the world (never mind him), they are heartfelt and part of House’s bargaining proposition. Give the world of sick people another two years of your life and see how many lives you’ll save. It plays to Wilson’s need to be needed, but Wilson has moved past that. He refuses to die like he’s seen too many of his patients go.
But a conversation with Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) tempers House’s fury, forcing him understand Wilson’s motives—and look beyond his own needs as he had with Thirteen when he fired her. “The most selfless thing anyone has every done for me,” she tells her former boss, thanking him for forcing her to stop working and find real meaning in the shortened years of her life.
But can House be selfless enough to deny himself Wilson? Not at that point. House continues to try bargaining, this time pointing his own neediness, a virtual plea to Wilson. But Wilson refuses to bite, insisting that House needs to be there for him, not the other way around. “I need you to tell me my life was worthwhile! I need you to tell me you love me!”
But House refuses, insisting that Wilson fight—furious with his dying friend. House, who lives with pain every day of his life, is frantic, unable to understand the difference between them. Explaining that every day he lives his life in pain, he wonders how many times he’s thought of just giving up—just ending his life once and for all—yet he goes on, refusing to give in to it. He is so angry, he takes it out on the patient, trying to prove that it’s not human to just give up.
Ultimately, it is Park (Charlyne Yi) that slaps House virtually on the face, putting out there in unvarnished veracity. “You’ve spent your whole life looking for the truth; sometimes the truth just sucks.”
Her admonition begins to push House past his the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression to a reluctant acceptance (although it still takes a while to work past his manipulation reflexes). And when Wilson ultimately comes to him with a change of heart, now willing to live longer, just for him, House is finally able to step into Wilson’s shoes and accept his decision to die sooner rather than later. A rare moment of maturity, House is willing to come out of himself enough to be selfless for Wilson.
But as often happens in House’s life, his recklessness catches up with him. Nailed by the hospital attorney, Foreman, and his parole officer for vandalizing the hospital by his hockey ticket act-out, House is found in violation of his parole. He will spend Wilson’s final months behind bars—unable to be there when he finally can be.
What a tragic turn of events leading us to the series finale next week. Veteran House writers Garrett Lerner, Russel Friend and David Foster hit it out of the park (don’t they always?) in an intense, emotional episode, fitting for the penultimate outing of this series that has kept us engaged, debating and discussing for lo these eight years. Robert Sean Leonard and Hugh Laurie make Wilson and House’s emotional anguish real.
Over the next weeks, we, too, will go through the stages of loss; many of us have already begun. House has been part of our lives for eight seasons; we’ve seen him go through a lot over those years, and as we both dread and anticipate next week’s series finale, we can only hope that House and Wilson will find a way to spend Wilson’s final days together: till death do they part.
And if “Holding On” caught me teary eyed, the promo for the series finale just about killed me. I can’t imagine what they’ve got planned, but it does not look good for House.
I will try to post an article each day as we count down to the House series finale. So check back daily (or follow me on Twitter) as I take the opportunity to reflect on eight seasons of House, M.D., its stars, creative team and, of course, you, dear readers!
Next Monday night, I will host the final House LiveChat Event—a finale viewing party—right here on Blogcritics. Join us at 8:00 p.m. ET. We’ll watch the FOX retrospective together and then stay for the finale and beyond as we say farewell to the House gang. More details later in the week, so please stay tuned!
The House season finale airs next Monday at 9:00 p.m. ET on FOX following a one-hour retrospective on eight years of House, M.D.