I really loved Monday night’s House, M.D. episode “Last Temptation.” That is, until the final moments when “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” played over the departure of newly minted doctor, Martha M. Masters (Amber Tamblyn). That’s House’s (Hugh Laurie) musical avatar, and even though he never hears it, we do, and it usually signals a moment of harsh realization in his life. He will (almost) never get what he wants (happiness, freedom from pain, lack of misery—take your pick)—but he usually gets what he needs. I believe that the song is such an important metaphor in House’s world, I devoted an entire section to it in Chasing Zebras.
The Rolling Stones’ classic has been used since Season 1; since the very first episode when House quotes the “philosopher Jagger,” telling Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) that he’s not going to do clinic duty. “You can’t always get what you want,” he tells her. But Cuddy’s no slouch herself when it comes to the Stones, and later comes right back at House, telling him that she’s “looked up that philosopher Jagger.” Sending House to the clinic to make up for years of missed clinic duty, she reminds him that according to the song “you just might get what you need.” Touché.
Fragments and themes from the song find their way into other musical moments in the series as well. So, how could the show’s musical mavens (who are usually flawless in their use of things musical in House) use that song to play over Masters’ departure? Sacrilege, I say. I know why the writers did it; And I understand; I’m just not sure I agree with the decision. Writers/co-executive producers Dr. David Foster and Liz Friedman discuss it in the episode’s V-Log.
That said, I thought that “Last Temptation” was a good “farewell to Masters” episode. At first blush, the placement of this episode seems odd, right in the middle of 13’s return as House still deals with the turmoil of his breakup. In a way, it takes the energy from story threads without furthering them. But where else to put her departure? There are four more episodes to Season 7, and those final four will likely form an intense trajectory toward the season finale. So in many ways, “Last Temptation” is transitional. Masters and her big transition; Hadley (Olivia Wilde) transitioning back into her medical career, and House transitioning back to the hospital and his new reality.
But where else would they have put Masters’ departure episode? Place it later, and it interferes with the build to the finale; put it earlier, it’s in conflict with the immediate fallout from the House-Cuddy breakup. So here it sits.
I enjoyed seeing the end of Masters’ tenure as a medical student and the choices she has to make—life altering choices—as she embarks on her career in medicine. The other players on House’s team came to him board certified—specialists in their own rights. They are not interns or residents when they come onto House’s service. But now House opens up a internship position, and the thrust of the episode is experience the interplay between House, who is trying to lure the young doctor into the position (presumably created for her anyway) and Masters who wonders whether she is interested in House’s method of play, no matter how fascinating and challenging. It’s a tempting proposition, but at what sacrifice does she take him up on the offer?
This week’s patient, a young, teenage sailing expert (Michelle DeFraites) is also at a crossroads. With an eventually-confirmed diagnosis of sarcoma (a type of bone cancer) in her arm, she faces amputation, something potentially career ending, but at the very least will, if performed immediately will quash her chances at a breaking a world sailing record. Refusing to consent until after she has her chance to do this one thing, Masters tries to convince her that her life is more important. But the patient argues that it’s not breaking records as it is about who she is and what makes her exceptional.
Drawing a parallel between herself and Masters (and reflecting House at the same time), the young woman explains her exceptionalism: it’s not just that she’s good; it’s that she is so in tune with the wind, the dynamics of the boat, the rhythm of the race that it’s what keeps her going. It’s her “one thing” (which has me recalling John Henry Giles, House’s patient in Season 1’s “DNR”).
We can see Masters internalize this argument as she struggles with whether to stay on House’s team or do something more ordinary, like joining Dr. Simpson’s surgical team, where she can be a fine doctor, just not exceptional. Like the patient, and like House, Masters doesn’t think so much as feels; where others have to do the math and show their work, people like House, Masters and the patient arrive at the answer sometimes without even knowing how they know—they just do.
But Masters is frustrated and bewildered that the patient is refusing something that will save her life. She is stunned when she realizes that House isn’t committed to doing whatever has to be done to get the girl into surgery. “I have my diagnosis.” If the patient refuses, there’s nothing else to do. Is House really satisfied? Or is he badgering Masters, pushing her to the brink, and then over it?
Certainly, House badgers patients (and lies to them) to do procedures to get to the diagnosis. However, once they are there, he is usually fine with letting the patient decide.
Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) explains it in terms of House’s own experience, when surgery on his leg was performed without his consent and against his will (“Three Stories,” Season 1). House has always been conflicted about whether Stacy did the right thing or whether she destroyed him. She broke the rules and “did the right thing” in her own estimation. But was it?
“She did the right thing,” Masters declares to Wilson of Stacy’s actions. “Depends on who you ask,” Wilson relates. Indeed.
House tells Masters that if she wants to do what she believes is the “right thing,” the only way to do it is by breaking the rules. It’s a quandary, and one with no straighforward answer after all she’s learned from House.
Following “House” rules, Masters creatively changes the girl’s meds to simulate an emergency. Finally able to obtain the consent of the parents to perform the amputation, she has done “the right thing.” And now both she and House know the answer to whether Masters is cut out for the sort of exceptionalism that has made House a legend.
What’s the cost of following House? Pointing out that “doing the right thing” is not designed to make you happy and get a good night’s sleep,” Masters is disappointed that she doesn’t feel better about her decision. And in the end, she decides that she’s just made for House’s style of medical practice.
So Masters compromises, deciding to turn to something else—probably something less exciting, less challenging, more “normal.” She gets to keep her ideals, and sleep better—but for now won’t take House up on the opportunity to be “exceptional.” And House doesn’t argue with her; she has the diagnosis; she has the complete picture. It’s her decision.
Although she leaves to pursue another specialty (or perhaps another PhD), Masters is changed by her experience with House. “Nothing will ever again be simple,” is House’s fare-thee-well to her. And he’s right. She will always wonder which is the greater good: breaking the rules to “do the right thing” or remaining honest and forthright with patients, whether or not it results in a worse medical outcome. Can this exceptional young doctor be conventional knowing what she now knows and having been left with House’s imprint? It’s a great send off. I liked Martha Masters and I’ll miss her. She added a unique perspective to House’s team. I think House will miss her too.
The entire story plays against the backdrop of a bizarre bet between House and Wilson: who can keep a chicken at the hospital longer before being caught by security? Okay, so what’s that about? Here’s my take.
House needs a distraction. Continuing to process his breakup with Cuddy, House needs something to divert his attention from brooding self-destructive behavior. So, as Wilson often does when House is especially troubled, he concocts games for House to play. The chicken bet is prime, Grade A Wilson friendship.
Note that it was Wilson who initiated the next bet: “ferrets next week!” House probably realizes what Wilson is doing, is, in his own way grateful for the distraction, and Wilson’s gentle manipulation of House’s mood is much more constructive than lecturing him. (And I wonder if even Cuddy is aware and privately sanctioning the shenanigans.) Besides, how much fun was it to watch Wilson’s discomfort trying to talk to Masters while a chicken pecked at his shoes? And how much fun was it to watch House play fetch the chicken with that gorgeous Golden Retriever?
House is off next week, but then returns for four consecutive weeks to finish off Season 7. Negotiations between Fox and Universal are ongoing (despite passage of last Friday’s deadline). The real deadline, of course is May 16, when Fox is scheduled to formally announce its Fall 2011 schedule.
I have a couple of new interviews in the works for over the next few weeks as well, so stay tuned!