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Is ignorance really bliss? A genius physicist believes so in this episode.

TV Review: House, M.D. – “Ignorance is Bliss”

Happy New Year to all, and big apologies for getting this review up so late. It’s been a hectic end of the year, and there was much to mull over with “Ignorance is Bliss” (6×09) especially after feeling somewhat negative about “Teamwork” (6×08). So, better late than never…

Is ignorance is bliss? Is it something to long for when plagued with the isolation and loneliness of genius? It’s a question debated by this week’s patient, Jimmy, in “Ignorance is Bliss,” the ninth episode of House’s sixth season. Jimmy, prodigy physicist, who has quit a famous life to become a deliveryman, comes to Princeton Plainsboro after falling ill while delivering packages to a bookstore.

The team lands on a simple diagnosis (for House’s service anyway): TTP—thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a blood disease. (Trivia question: name the episode when TTP is the final diagnosis.) It’s a straightforward diagnosis—perhaps a little too straightforward. As Taub notes, the case must be more complex, and House is simply waiting for them to catch on and catch up to his thought process.

But in actuality, House doesn’t a different diagnosis in mind; he’s too preoccupied with interfering with Cuddy and Lucas’ relationship, planning to first endear his way into a Thanksgiving dinner invitation from Cuddy and then breaking up the relationship entirely. I’m never enamored of House when he’s so overtly scheming about something apart from the medicine itself, and I found myself slightly cringing at the prospect.

In any event, a spelenectomy should cure the TTP, but it doesn’t. There is more going on with Jimmy than meets the eye. House eventually realizes that Jim is using drugs to tamp down on his intelligence: a legal, easy to obtain drug—he is “Robo-tripping.” Dextromethorphan (DXM) the active ingredient in cough suppressant (like Robitussin), lowers the IQ when taken in high enough doses. It also can cause brain damage, unless tempered with alcohol, which the team has found hidden in Jim’s apartment. Turning his brain on “low” makes life less miserable and more bearable for him, he explains as House tells the team to clear the drugs from his system.

Jim’s genius is quickly restored, but no longer buzzed, his wife—a woman of mere average intelligence—is suddenly no longer attractive. He cannot even picture himself making love to her. It’s hard to feel sorry for Jimmy, however, because he’s an incredible jerk, comparing his loving wife to a gibbon. No wonder he was miserable; his feelings of superiority probably isolated him more than his sheer intellectual gift. Sober, Jimmy is a grade-A jerk. And no wonder he wanted so desperately to leave that behind.

The answer to the medical mystery does lie, however, in Jimmy’s dissatisfaction with life—and the reasons behind taking the DXM. After years of loneliness, Jim had suffered enough loneliness and misery—the isolation he felt as an intellectual outlier. He had his gift but wasn’t happy.

Jimmy asks House whether he’s ever tried killing himself. House answers enigmatically “not quickly,” which is an interesting acknowledgement. Jimmy explains that he had tried committing suicide years ealier, hurling himself off an eight story building but failing. Instead he landed in the hospital with broken ribs. Meeting a woman there while buzzed on painkillers, he experiences something life-altering. He’s happy; he’s in love—and the drugs keep him foggy enough to turn down the volume on his overactive brain.

And as he explains this all to House, he realizes that his first diagnosis was correct; it’s TTP. Jimmy’s fall damaged his spleen, and the one splenectomy didn’t get all 16 accessory spleens resident in his body. Cured, Jimmy decides to continue taking the DXM and go back to his happier, but less intellectually supercharged, life.

Taub doesn’t understand why House accepts Jimmy’s decision so passively. No comments, no mockery, no derision: House simply sends him on his way. “Ignorance is bliss,” House explains to Taub.

This theme was explored last season in “The Greater Good,” which featured a cancer researcher who gave up a professionally fulfilling but empty life to live a happier, albeit more ordinary, life. What is more valuable if you have to make a choice: genius or happiness? Fame or happiness? It is a prominent theme in the series, and one with which House has struggled at various times over the past several seasons (and was, the focus of his decision to undergo the Ketamine treatment at the end of season two). Of course with House, it’s not only his genius that isolates him, but his physical disability and his past. But Jimmy’s conflict resonates with House.

When House restores to Jimmy the bottle of cough medicine, he understands that he has made a choice and taken an active, albeit arguably treacherous, decision to make his life better. Perhaps in Jimmy’s case, ignorance is, after all, bliss.

But what of the other relationships explored in the episode: House and Cuddy, Cuddy and Lucas, Taub and his wife Rachel, Chase and Cameron? I suppose it’s true that if you don’t overanalyze, love and relationships are simpler, devoid of games, stripped of subtext, and taken on their own merit.

Taub and Rachel

Perhaps the simplest is Taub’s relationship with his wife, who doesn’t understand why he would go back to working for House after resigning and going back into private plastic surgery practice. His non-compete agreement is by now certainly fulfilled and plastic surgery is a lucrative practice. Why resume a fellowship with a brutal, albeit genius, boss? Taub would rather keep Rachel ignorant of his reasons. He loves the thrill of high-risk medicine (as House reminds him in “Teamwork”), and perhaps, as House points out, it actually keeps him from philandering. “Maybe I don’t love my wife as much as I thought,” Taub confesses to House when coming back on his service at the end of that episode. But House, in his wisdom, suggests the opposite is true. Maybe working for House is all the adventure he needs without cheating on Rachel. And as long as Rachel doesn’t know his real reasons—and as Taub lies to her at the end of “Ignorance is Bliss,” that he has established some ground rules for his work on House’s team, she’s fine with that. As Taub said last season, he and Rachel don’t do “fairy tale.” They don’t meddle with each other and their relationship works out just fine—for them. A little ignorance never hurt any marriage. Of course that depends on the marriage—and the nature of what’s withheld. Last season, Foreman kept a medically crucial secret from 13 and it almost killed her and destroyed his career (“Lucky 13”).

Chase and Cameron

As for Chase and Cameron, it seems to be over. (And I will not rant here about why the end of their relationship simply does not ring true to me. It played out too quickly and with too little real exploration of the end game for a relationship that took three seasons to build. Fans of that relationship—and fans of Jennifer Morrison—are justified to be upset with the short shrift given to that end of the storyline.)

But can we understand the ending of their relationship within the context of the episode? Chase withholds the nature of his actions for weeks following Dibala’s assassination (“The Tyrant,” 6×04). His silence—and his mood—leads Cameron to believe he’s having an affair. Even had Cameron remained ignorant of Chase’s murder of Dibala, the tension between the couple would have become increasingly corrosive, so perhaps she is much better off knowing.

Knowing Chase’s culpability in the Dibala affair isn’t what drives Cameron away. Not really. It’s Chase’s lack of shame about it. Cameron can live with Chase’s actions if she understands that he’s ashamed of what he’s done. But Chase isn’t ashamed, and tells her, taking ownership of the assassination, whatever he may have done—for better or worse—it was his action and not House’s that killed Dibala. 

But House’s shadow looms large particularly where Chase and Cameron’s relationship is concerned, and Cameron views House’s “damn the consequences” attitude as the real poison here. Would Chase have been better off to just kept his mouth shut and let House take the heat? But for a long time, Chase has tried to extricate himself from House’s shadow in his relationship with Cameron. So, Chase’s pride really makes that an impossible choice for him.

Cuddy/House/Lucas

And then there is the complexity of House’s relationship with Cuddy. It would all be so much simpler if House could sit down and talk to Cuddy—cut through the intricate games and complex one-upmanship. But House is afraid. And no amount of antidepressants and therapy will change that in the short term. There’s simply too much at stake between them.

He tried that in “Known Unknowns” (6×07)—rather tried to try. And Cuddy responded by running from his sight. Rather than pursuing it further, House reverted to type and the familiar (and less emotionally treacherous) ground of game playing. House’s agenda here: drive a wedge between Lucas and Cuddy, much like he did between Cameron and Chase. If he’s successful, believes, the sooner they break up the better. If he can’t break them up, then their relationship is strong and he’ll back off.

House’s plan? Wrangle a Thanksgiving dinner invitation from Cuddy by endearing himself. For this he sacrifices 45 minutes in the clinic, seeing six patients and winning his coveted prize. Except Cuddy knows him too well and sets him up to drive three hours to the supposed dinner at her sister’s house only to find that, yes, he’s been sent to the right house, but no there’s no Thanksgiving dinner going on—at least not there. The only bit of Thanksgiving he’s offered is a turkey sandwich by the house sitter, who’s been given a heads up about House’s visit. Touche, Cuddy.

But House ups the ante, appearing at Lucas’ home playing drunk and pathetic. House confesses that’s he’s not worthy of Cuddy’s love. (The scene didn’t ring true to me. First, because I don’t think—given how House really does feel about Cuddy—he’d use his feelings as a ploy. It’s giving too much away to Lucas, even if he’s play-acting. And second, as good an actor as House is, he’s not that good—and we had no “tells” at all). But all it accomplishes in the end is for Cuddy to tire of the game entirely. “There is no us,” she tells him. “There never will be.” And here, too, House’s reaction is too gleeful when he tells Wilson about it—like it doesn’t really matter to him at all. (which we know isn’t true).

Most importantly, House learns a hard lesson: that he’s pushed too far. Cuddy no longer finds the fun in their games. Having found the happiness in a less complex relationship, she is tired of the energy it takes to engage with House. “I’m not doing this, House. It isn’t fun anymore,” she tells House wearily, She’s done with the games; done with him. His playfulness falls flat; his games no longer appeal to her sense of adventure.

Realizing he’s lost Cuddy, House apologizes with a simple act. He offers her tickets to a circus so she can take Rachel—no strings attached. It’s an act of kindness that Cuddy slaps down, underscoring that there is nothing any longer existing between them—a clean and final break. (And no, I don’t believe it’s that final).

This is the point at which I actually felt bad for House. I didn’t feel bad that Cuddy had mistreated him sending him on a wild goose chase within their elaborate game—and House’s ultimate scheme to intrude on House and Lucas’ relationship. But I did feel bad that finally, House was acting out of remorse and generosity and Cuddy couldn’t recognize it. But it’s not Cuddy’s fault. How could Cuddy know that it isn’t more game playing? How is she to know when House’s actions are honest and when there’s an agenda—and whether that agenda is good or naughty?

In the final analysis, this is the real collateral damage of House’s history. And maybe as he gains more confidence himself, he’ll better learn how to cope in social situations. The games are corrosive, especially when they’re unilateral. That’s when the fun stops.

Cuddy she has opted out finally of the complexity and game playing for (what she believes will be) a simpler, happier life for her and Rachel with Lucas—at least for now. Perhaps in the end, that’s the lesson House has learned: to keep it simple. Wilson asks him about his next scheme to break up Cuddy and Lucas. As House tells him: there is none. Game over.

New episodes of House return January 11.

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books.Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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