“There are known unknowns. That is to say, things that we now know we don’t know." — Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq, 2002
First, I cannot believe I’m quoting Donald Rumsfeld. The very thought makes me cringe. All I can say is Doris Egan and Matt Lewis made me do it. They wrote this week’s wonderful House, M.D. episode, “Known Unknowns.”
Taking steps into the unknown requires leaps of faith most of us try to avoid. It takes courage and belief that what you are doing is the right thing to do, consequences be damned. Forays into the unknown are risky, whether you’re going to war, giving a controversial speech, taking a bold step with your heart or attempting something life-changing. “Known Unknowns,” this week’s episode of House, M.D, did a good job of exploring courage: moral courage, simple courage, the courage to change, and the courage to understand that the status quo, no matter how comfortable, is no longer valid.
Egan is the queen of the House road trip. “Son of Coma Guy” (3×07), “Birthmarks” (5×04) — even that long, silent road trip to “Mayfield” that concluded last season (“Both Sides Now,” 5×24) — are all her writing. She also is noted for her special care of the House-Wilson dynamic. “Known Unknowns” did not disappoint.
Treating a teenager after a wild night leaves her appendages swollen, the team is baffled, but learns that the girl is lying about her “wild night.” Chase, Cameron, and Foreman try to wend their way through the girl’s tangle of lies to arrive at a truth that will save her life. And as the team works the case, Wilson, House, and Cuddy travel to a medical conference in the Adirondacks on pharmacology and public policy.
Since he’s come back to Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, House has been living with his best friend Wilson, trying to put his life back together. In the last episode “Brave Heart,” House took a hesitant step towards Cuddy, telling how she makes him feel. This week he seems resolved to pursuing a relationship with her, something for which he lacked any sort of courage last season.
This is a brave step for House. He knows he can’t hope to win Cuddy by maintaining his heavily guarded façade, and perhaps his confidence is bolstered by his affair with Lydia while at Mayfield. His affair with Lydia ended with him getting hurt. But House is resolute to venture into the unknown, hoping, but not really knowing, where it all will lead. At first refusing to go to the conference, he changes his mind when he learns Cuddy will be there.
Wilson is attending the conference to give a controversial paper on euthanasia — one that could end his career. Hoping to bring the controversial subject out into the public sphere for much-needed discussion, he intends to talk about his own experience enabling terminal patients to die. House knows this paper will make Wilson an outcast in the medical establishment — and effectively render him unemployable. No hospital would risk hiring a doctor — a director — known to actively assist in patient suicide. Not to mention the potential he could be indicted for murder.
Chase, too, tangles with the unknown, his murder of the genocidal Dibala tearing him apart. It’s driving him away from Cameron, who is at a loss to explain Chase’s distance and mood. Chase has no idea how Cameron will react, given her usual moral stance. She would likely support him, but even then, if he were found out and Cameron is aware, she would risk being an accessory to murder. It's a heavy burden with which he would saddle her.
Cameron has her known unknowns as well. She knows something’s up, and assumes (not ureasonably) that Chase is having an affair, despite his reassurance. But the secrets and lies are toxic to the new marriage.
In a way, the moral courage required by Chase to assassinate Dibala and Wilson’s moral courage to do what he feels is right by exposing medicine’s secret are both at least partially attributable to House’s influence. As Wilson puts it as he and House argue, he has learned from House that sometimes you have to do what is right without regard to consequence. But, as House points out, it hasn't worked out all that well for him.
As House, Cuddy, and Wilson dig in at the conference, we're aware that Wilson and Cuddy are in uncharted waters with regard to House. Is it possible that House has begun to really get his life together? Can they trust him to begin to be more open after so many years of friendship played out as guerrilla warfare? As House asks Wilson, how can he expect Cuddy to believe he’s changed if even his best friend won’t? He’s asking Wilson to take a chance on him.
But House is House, even when he’s trying to change. Knowing that Wilson is about to self-destruct, House drugs him and saves him from himself. House gives the speech under an assumed name, getting Wilson’s words out there, but protecting his career while at the same time validating what Wilson is trying to do — validation sorely needed and well expressed in Wilson’s paper.
At first Wilson reacts through the prism of a “known known.” He is furious with House for subverting his delivery of the paper — taking his choice away and, well, being “House.” It’s a comfortable prism for Wilson. House is a wild child who screws with people simply to screw with them.
But after further consideration, Wilson better understands the gesture. One made, despite House’s assurances to the contrary, with some professional risk of its own. And Wilson, in the end, appreciates it for what it is, and understands that House, if not completely changed, is allowing his better angels more freedom to fly a bit more out in the open.
For House, every step towards being more social and more outgoing is a step into the unknown. He is slowly beginning to trust, beginning with his innermost circle of friends, where he thinks the risks are mitigated by history and friendship. He unexpectedly charms Cuddy at an '80s party, eschewing the conventional (did we really dress like that?) garb and going for the something a bit more traditional — say 1780s traditional. Looking like an extra from HBO’s John Adams miniseries, he appears courtly — fitting for the courtship upon which he’s about to embark.
First he saves Cuddy from a lounge lizard by asking her to dance. House is obviously uncomfortable, and he brushes aside Cuddy’s concern about his leg. But his discomfort turns in another direction as the music switches to something slow. The conversation turns personal as they recall the first time they danced more than 20 years earlier back at medical school.
It’s an echo of their “morning after” conversation in “Under My Skin,” except this time it’s not a fantasy or delusion. But House discloses he never considered a med school one-night stand to be just for one night. But only circumstance — an unexpected call from the dean expelling him from the university — prevented him from pursuing anything more with her.
Suddenly Cuddy is the uncomfortable one. House’s deeply personal disclosure catches her off guard and she runs away. House is confused by Cuddy’s reaction, expecting something different. But as she tells Wilson, she needs a more family-friendly suitor now that she's a mother. House doesn't qualify.
House would know that Cuddy wouldn’t wait forever, and his timing is substantially off. He could not have foreseen Cuddy becoming involved with his connivingly genial friend, private investigator Lucas Douglas (whom you might recall from early last season). Known unknowns. But House has risked being open with Cuddy, and his reaction to Lucas is surprisingly gracious. Perhaps House has known that being with Cuddy is a pipe dream.
Equally surprising, shocking actually, is Lucas’ stupidity at breakfast the next day as they sit in the resort restaurant. House is speechless and Cuddy cringes as Lucas openly discusses House’s institutionalization and his delusional sex with Cuddy. House is stunned and hurt at both the unnecessary invasion of his privacy and Cuddy’s concern about his fragility. Although we don’t know that Cuddy told Lucas (who is a very resourceful man), House’s reaction — hurt, not anger — as he looks disbelievingly into Cuddy’s eyes, is unexpectedly passive.
House is resigned to Lucas being in Cuddy’s life. He’s too late and too much has gone on between them for Cuddy to take him seriously as a real partner. How House deals with the news is another known unknown.
And then there is Chase. Killing Dibala in “The Tyrant,” he could not have foreseen the impact it has had on him and his relationship with Cameron. But he has finally told her, and they, too venture into unknown territory and an uncertain future.
Although the patient story wasn’t nearly as compelling as the drama surrounding the regular characters, it did lend an opportunity for a little bit of meta commentary on fantasy, the fandoms surrounding television series, and the Twitter world. It’s a particularly amusing commentary given that over the last several weeks, House director Greg Yaitanes and actor Omar Epps (Foreman) have been tweeting to the fans almost daily, as have several of the writers, including Ms. Egan.
Timeline quibble: When we first meet House in season one, he states that he's been practicing medicine for 20 years. He is 45 at the time, and would have gotten his M.D. at 25, which is pretty standard. But we now learn House was expelled from two medical schools: first Michigan and then Johns Hopkins (both prestigious schools). How is it possible for House to have finished medical school in four years having been booted out of at least two schools, unless he is Doogie House-er's evil twin and started college very, very young.
Personal note: I'm doing a survey of the fandom over on my personal site, and would appreciate your participation. It's for a project down the line, and the response thus far has been great.