All season, I’ve been waiting for an episode to leave me (at some point) breathless. And this is the first time in a while that I’ve been transfixed by the show (and not breathing — much anyway), cursing the television between commercial interruptions.
Brilliant acting by Hugh Laurie (literally in every single scene — this has to be his Emmy submission!), who conveyed nearly every possible range of emotion, taking us with him on House's nightmarish journey. Lisa Edelstein was terrific as well, bounding from sensuous to caring and protective to frustrated and angry. In fact the entire cast put all into this hour. A stellar script by Garrett Lerner, Russel Friend, David Foster, and Peter Blake from Doris Egan’s story and exciting direction and editing created an intense and harrowing journey for the series’ hero. These are the things that make House great.
“House’s Head,” season four’s penultimate episode (part one of a two-part season finale), allowed us access to House’s mind as he tries to make sense of fractured bits and pieces of his memory after serious head injury leaves him with retrograde amnesia. “Someone is dying because I can’t remember,” House agonizes at one point.
At the episode’s start, House finds himself in a strip club, dazed and confused. A lap dancer struts her stuff and it barely registers with him; he has no idea how he came to be in the club in the first place. Leaving before he has his lap dance, bleeding and unable to remember, he wanders aimlessly into the street. All around him, people run and lights strobe — a chaotic scene. As the camera pulls back to reveal a serious accident scene we, along with House, realize that he was somehow involved in it.
As he is treated in the Princeton Plainsboro emergency room by Cameron, House insists that he had noticed a serious symptom in one of the passengers. And he is compelled to find out who it is, and what is wrong.
Wilson is doubtful, telling House that he can’t be certain that this person even exists; that the symptom he spotted may simply be a figment of a blurry imagination. But House is insistent, driven to reconstruct his memories to save a dying person, risking his health — and his life — in the process.
“Why is this so important to you?” both Cuddy and Wilson ask him. But House is at a loss to explain; he doesn’t understand it either. He only knows that he must do this, whatever the risk.
Reality merges with fantasy, visions, dreams, hallucinations as House tries to complete the picture — and save an anonymous victim — using everything from medical hypnosis to sensory deprivation and Alzheimer’s drugs. Along the way, he is haunted by the presence of mystery woman. Part seductress, part spiritual guide (I thought briefly of Nimue from Arthurian legend), she teases House’s memories, seducing him with clues, always just beyond his grasp.
“Who am I?” she asks him over and over again. “What is my necklace made of?” she taunts. And even when the symbolism of her amber necklace becomes obvious to every viewer, it still eludes House. Why? Is his mind trying to suppress the fact that Amber is who he’s trying to remember? Even as he relentlessly pushes his traumatized brain past the point of reason, his subconscious refuses to accept that Amber is the one he hasn't been able to recall.
The seductive mystery woman weaves in and out of "House's Head," and House's head. But she is not the only seductress invading House's subconscious mind. And of course there is that stripper from the opening scene (she is real — we think, anyway).
Cuddy, too, appears to House as a seductress/guide in one of his fantasies. As he sits at the back of the bus, it slowly morphs into the strip club we saw in the teaser. As Cuddy strip-teases, in a suggestive dance that mirrors and expands on the episode's opening scene, she and House debate the case. And the differential is nearly as seductive and sensual as the strip routine itself, the thrust and parry of their discussion mirroring Cuddy's bump and grind. But House knows in the end that Cuddy's dance is too distracting, and while a part of him wants Cuddy to continue, his mind won’t allow him to get carried away by the moment.
A third, thwarted, seductive scene occurs in House’s flat in House’s dream as Cuddy sleeps in the living room. “I’m not sleepy, Mommy,” he says quietly to the sleeping Cuddy. It is not Cuddy who emerges from beneath the blanket, but again the dark-haired mystery woman. She takes his hand, caressing her face with it. House, who is almost a passive spectator in this, wonders where it will lead. Suddenly noticing that she's wearing a red scarf, he tells her, “I need to tie this on you.”
As he ties the sash around her thigh, you wonder if this is sensual game-playing. “I’m cold," she tells him, beckoning him. “Just stay with me,” he replies, gently, caressingly. But the fantasy is turned on its head, and made macabre as blood drenches the scarf. House, startled from his dream, knows this must be a signpost to his lost memories.
"A dream is an answer to a question you have not yet learned how to ask" is my favorite quotation from the X-Files. But what is the elusive question? When House's memories come flooding back, in heart-stopping (literally) clarity, we (and he) are only left with more questions.
And how does the bus driver figure into the mix? He certainly keeps popping in and out of House’s subconscious. What is his purpose here? I think the bus driver is a diversion, created by House's mind to keep him distanced from a truth that House is too emotionally raw to deal with. House has concocted around him a conventional medical mystery: What are the symptoms? What are the possibilities? What treatment do we try next? Very straightforward for House. As his mind stays busy with the driver, House is unable to tap into the real clues and cues provided by the mystery woman. “I know what’s really bugging your subconscious,” she tells him. She is trying to lead him past his own emotional blockades. And as insistent as he is about getting to the truth, his subconscious won't allow him access.
And what about the time line of events? House leaves his office. Presumably he ends up in a bar, drinking. Getting drunk — drunk enough that the barkeep confiscates his keys. Why would he get blasted at five in the afternoon? Was he drinking alone? Drowning his sorrows? If so, why? Wilson astutely asks him what he’s running away from. House responds by getting defensive and evading the question.
Was he brooding about Wilson and Amber, or did something happen before House left his office? Is Amber in the bar, as House imagines in one of his visions? Or is it a hypnotic suggestion caused by Wilson’s presence in it? More questions. No answers, lots of possibilities (this will teach me to never again try to write a coherent review of the first part of a two-part episode).
There were so many moments that made this episode memorable, seamlessly brought into the whole. But I have to make special mention of the crash itself. Intense and tension-filled, it was heart-stopping and heartbreaking as House's memory comes flooding back. We experience it along with him as tries desperately to reach and then aid the badly injured Amber. We experience the real meaning of House's dream as he ties the tourniquet — the red scarf that had appeared in a dream to him. Finally losing consciousness himself, House awakes to see Amber being removed from the bus as he reaches out toward the light. Or is it Amber he’s reaching for?
House has his answer, at least a small part of it, but at what cost? Collapsed and heart stopped, House is resuscitated by Cuddy (another sensual image, the kiss of life she imparts to him) and Wilson (who is violently pounding on his chest). Sigh. Is it Monday yet?
In the end, we are left with the answer to only a small part of the mystery — the “who.” We don’t know why House and Amber were together on the bus; we don’t know if they were together elsewhere (like the bar). And we certainly do not know “why.” And clearly those are the questions impelling us to next week’s episode, “Wilson’s Heart,” and what will be certainly a summer’s worth of discussion and debate (and fanfiction).
One final note: I spoke with episode scribes Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend Tuesday afternoon, who gave me a couple of nice tidbits for next season and maybe a very, very small taste of what to expect next week. And told me about a very, very exciting addition to the House team. (Nothing really spoilery, if that’s what you were thinking. Sorry.) I look forward to publishing the interview on Monday morning.