Whew! That was a long hiatus… and it was just the warm-up. It was a gift to simply have a new House episode to chat about. By this time next week, we are back in the deep freeze of hiatus land again. With any hope, the WGA strike will be settled by this time next week as well, and we’ll have some idea as to how long this next hiatus will be. And hopefully the answer will not be “See you in September!” I so believe that Hugh Laurie has deserved and hopefully has enjoyed his extended time off, but…
So, now, finally, to episode 10, “It’s a Wonderful Lie.” Originally scheduled for airing as the Christmas episode, its title is a play on the name of the Jimmy Stewart Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. (The episode title is a sort of double irony because, as many Hugh Laurie fans know, Fry and Laurie did a fabulous parody of the movie for their sketch comedy show A Bit of Fry and Laurie during its fourth season! In that parody, Laurie plays Rupert Murdoch, adding to the irony because Murdoch owns, via Newscorp, FOX Broadcasting and makes House, MD possible!)
It's a Wonderful Life ponders what the world would be like had the main character (whose world is crashing down upon him) carried out his intended suicide. The world is shown to be much worse off for it. Stewart’s “wonderful life” has value and he is a force for good. The House episode, “It's a Wonderful Lie,” poses the question (obliquely) of what a world without lies might be like. It’s a subtle theme, not the main one, for sure. But I thought that it was a nice bit of irony on the original.
When House invokes his maxim, “everybody lies,” we are led to believe that House holds lying as a great evil meant to be uncovered at all costs, feelings be damned. But this episode plays with that notion, putting House in the position of defending lies as having value. To House, “everybody lies” is presented as a fact, implying no value judgment, no derision; it is an obstacle to the diagnostic process that must be overcome. Although most often used in connection with his medical philosophy, House also applies the dictum to his attempts to understand everything and everyone around him. It is the one great truth in which he believes, and an important tool in his defensive armor. “Truth begins in lies,” House once told Foreman. To understand the truth, in House’s world view, you need to uncover the deceptions that keep it hidden.
This week’s patient is a Maggie, a woman whose genetic defect makes her susceptible to breast cancer. But she’s had a prophylactic radical mastectomy (and no reconstructive surgery) as insurance against the disease. When she presents with symptoms that would suggest breast cancer, the team dismisses that diagnosis since she is unlikely to have it. But we eventually learn that, not only does “everybody lie” but things, too, can “lie,” including breast tissue. Despite her mastectomy, some breast tissue remained – and in an unlikely place. Realizing, ultimately, that even the most likely assumptions can obscure the truth, House properly diagnoses the patient, performing a bit of a Christmas miracle through his particular genius. New mantra: “Everything lies!”
I really loved how the episode played with the series’ overarching theme of truth and its place in House’s world. When the patient’s daughter, Jane, claims that mom never, ever lies, House doesn't believe her. And he’s right. Because there are all sorts of lies: lies of commission; lies of omission (what you don’t know won’t hurt you); white lies (also often to avoid hurting someone); rationalizations (lies to yourself).
House has an intense love-hate relationship with the truth. We know from season two’s “Daddy’s Boy” that House’s father never let anyone lie, and never lied to young Greg. “Great for boy scouts and witnesses, but terrible for a father,” he reflects darkly to Cameron, brooding in the dark of his office after his parents’ visit. Being being truthful to the point of hurtfulness is "child abuse,” he quips to Wilson in "Lie." It's a throwaway line, but one that has greater resonance if you know the character and his family history.
House lies all of the time, and to no one more than himself; he lies to those closest to him to maintain a stark emotional distance. Even his sex life, one gets the impression, is one designed to minimize any emotional connection. When Jane discloses that her mother now prefers sex lying on her stomach so that her partners can’t see her scars, resonates with House, who, like the patient, has his own physical (and emotional) scars. House is adept at hiding from them, lying to himself that they don’t define him and don’t matter. But we know they do, and he hates himself even more because they do.
Failing to understand why the patient insists on complete truth with her daughter, House argues to Wilson that lying can be a virtue. Wilson disagrees, bewildered that he is taking House’s usual default position:
W: When you care about someone –
H: You lie to them. You pretend that their constant ponderous musings are interesting, you tell them that they're not losing their boyish good looks or becoming worn out and … [Referring, of course to Wilson]
W: I stand corrected. Loved talking with you. [But clearly annoyed, thus lying to House]
Late in the episode, Jane confronts her mother, telling her the cold, unvarnished truth that she was dying. House views this as a sort of once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. “Pure truth,” he called it — a hard truth told out of caring and for good; not used as a weapon, to beat down, break or control, as we might imagine his own father did, but to help her. To allow her to be a bone marrow donor. As her daughter, she should be a good match. But Jane is not aware of her mother’s lie of omission: that Jane is adopted. It is an ironic twist of a lie. Maggie lied to keep a promise made to Jane's birth mother.
I enjoyed the two side plots to the episode and how they tied into the overall theme of “a wonderful lie.” House’s subversion of Secret Santa was intended to insert conflict into his newly constructed team. The hiring process had built-in conflict, which, in House’s opinion, made the team sharper. So, seeing how chummy and secure they’re getting, he seeks to break them apart. House’s game gives us some additional insight into how he feels his team can best successfully work together.
Putting his own name on all of the cards, he is certain that after they figure out his ruse, they will conflict with each other as to how to approach it. Should they cooperate and gang up on House? Or should they compete for House's good graces, trying to outdo each other? Either way for House, it’s a win-win. As much as thriving on conflict within his team, House also operates best when his team challenges him. The last thing House wants or needs is a team of sycophants.
The second side plot involved a clinic patient, a woman presenting with a sore throat and a St. Nicholas medallion! House believes the patient to be a hooker (amused with the irony of a hooker who wears a St. Nicholas medallion around her neck). His assumptions about her dubious career are bolstered in a hilarious second clinic visit. Now presenting with a rash and darkened lips, he asks her if she does “donkey shows.” She admits to it, not mentioning the donkey show she does is not of the porno variety, but has a more sacred purpose. Leaving him a flyer for the show, she assures House that that he will enjoy it. House is delighted by the delicious irony of watching the prostitute carried by her donkey, as she plays the Virgin Mary in her church Christmas pageant.
I also loved the exchange outside the hospital where the solitary House quickly evades the office party, trying to escape it — not even taking the time to make a lewd comment to Cuddy or a sarcastic one to Wilson — only to have Wilson stop him outside. Wearing a reindeer hat. Or, as House says, a moose on a Jew. But it is this funny exchange that leads House to the correct diagnosis of breast cancer.
I have to add that this week’s musical score was just lovely. The jazz arrangements of several Christmas songs pervaded the episode, capped by House’s lovely singing. Hugh Laurie has a really nice voice. He way too often only uses it to comic effect — putting on a goofy accent, making you laugh at it rather than appreciate it. You get a strong sense that he is self-conscious about it, and as long as he’s “acting” while he’s singing (and the more comedic the better) he’s fine. But his rendition of the Christmas song, really for the first time that I can recall, highlighted what a really fine singing voice he possesses (Americanized accent and all), a beautiful baritone.
Next episode is "Frozen," airing directly after the Superbowl. The episode guest stars Mira Sorvino in what promises to be an emotionally powerful episode. I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Sorvino last week. You can read my interview with her.