It’s incredibly easy to not like Dr. Gregory House in “Lines in the Sand.” He’s obnoxious and more rude than usual to his colleagues; he’s manic about and obsessed with his carpet in an apparent power play with Cuddy. In addition, he seems to respond to (or at least not take seriously) a flirtation from an underage female, the daughter of a patient. Is he, as Cuddy tells him, “a pig?” Everyone seems to chalk his behavior up to House having completely recovered his status as a grade-A jerk along with his limp and cane.
But balancing this obnoxious behavior is the fragility (which Hugh Laurie subtly lends to the portrayal) that frames and gives context to House's actions, his situation, and his connection to this week’s young patient, Adam.
House is living on a precipice. He is back to square one with his pain; and his unresolved issues regarding the shooting could not be more suppressed. He envies his severely autistic patient, who doesn't have to conform to the norms of society, in a way that none of his colleagues can understand in ordinary terms. At the same time, and in a self-loathing frame of mind, he is flattered by the pursuit of an underage young woman, who seems to like him for himself.
House comes to work at the episode’s start to learn that Cuddy has finally replaced the blood-stained carpet in his office. She has removed the last physical evidence from the room that House had been nearly mortally wounded; at the same time she has erased the cruel reminder that House had tried to make a change in his life and failed. The room is back to where it should be — just as House has returned to his physical status quo.
House is angered by Cuddy’s decision to replace the carpeting and spends much energy (and several temper tantrums) in an effort to get the old carpet restored to its rightful place. The bewildered team, Cuddy, and Wilson all believe that House is trying some sort of power play to exert his willfulness.
But what’s really going on with the carpet? Does House want to have a nearby reminder that (as much as one might wish it) you cannot change reality? Is it a reminder to never again attempt it because it leads only back to more disappointment? Or is the carpet a reminder that the changes brought by the ketamine were real? And tangible? And might be achieved again? In the season’s later episodes, we learn that he has continued to find ways to recapture the physical changes (and to a degree the emotional changes) that the ketamine brought (especially in “Insensitive” and “Half-Wit, and to a lesser degree, in "Fetal Position").
Cuddy and Wilson have conspired in the last few episodes to get House "to change." Rather than doing him good, they have sent him ever closer to the edge (or to use the episode’s metaphor, the line). In the season premiere, "Meaning," House comes into his office and sees the spot where he was shot; where he had the hallucination; where he set in motion the steps that brought him an all too brief and torturous look at what might have been. Is the carpet a reminder, a talisman, about what’s possible? I think that it is exactly that.
As House diagnoses the severely autistic young Adam, he observes that the parents live an unrewarding and unfulfilled life. As with his patient's wife in “Meaning,” they don’t “like” what they’re doing, but to not do it would make them miserable. So they trudge onward. The best they can hope for (in House's view) with their ill son is a return to the status quo — a difficult and unrewarded life.
Needing to run an invasive procedure, the team needs to administer general anesthesia to Adam, who is (to say the least) uncooperative. None of the team really know how to deal with the frightened and difficult child. Entering the boy’s room, the perceptive House immediately picks up on the boy’s fear and settles the kid enough to perform the necessary procedure. He does this by "eating the berries" — showing Adam that the procedure is harmless by submitting to it himself. (Hugh’s great physical comedic skills and flawless timing made that scene go from one of great emotion to one of absolute hilarity as the very loopy House stumbles around and later — still high on the anesthesia — uninhibitedly tells Cameron he likes her hair. Bravo for that, Hugh!)
House has accomplished a minor miracle here, but he is completely unaware that he has done something “special” or praiseworthy. The whole gratitude and how it relates to happiness continues to confuse House in this episode, and I’m delighted that the show’s producers continue to explore it.
Interestingly, House feels the happiness scale “10” when he solves a case and saves a life. But Wilson and Cuddy dismiss House's sense of fulfillment in those cases as "a high,” and therefore, something bad, something that Wilson and Cuddy seem to want to deny him. They seem to want him to appreciate that happiness comes in shades of gray. But is House's "all or nothing" approach to happiness invalid? Clearly from both this episode and "Meaning," we can see that House derives little satisfaction from simply “fixing” a problem, as he has here with Adam. As he watches the family leaving the hospital at the end of the episode, House contemplates their still bleak future. House has not bettered their lives, only returned them to their “normal.” His intervention has not changed anything for them. And House derives nothing from it. House cannot be feel happiness about the outcome.
“First tongue kiss,” House reflects upon observing the parents, “an 8. Bringing a kid back from the brink of death? That’s a 10. Those parents register barely a tepid 6.5.” But then something extraordinary happens. The boy turns to House and presents him with a gift. It’s a stunning gesture of gratitude by the boy who no one believes has the capacity to express it. This is not lost on House. He is caught completely off guard. He accepts the gift, stunned. The kid’s eyes wander until they find House’s eyes and they lock. House doesn’t look away, as is his usual response to emotion. He returns the kid’s gaze and holds it. Another miracle.
The parents are changed by the exchange; are changed by their interaction with House and House’s interaction with their son. “Now that… that’s a 10,” remarks Wilson to House, who sits speechless and emotionally affected. Was Wilson referring to the parents or to House? Or to both? Is this, in fact, what Wilson’s point has been all along? That happiness, fulfillment, whatever, isn’t an all or nothing proposition? To the young autistic boy, House has made a difference. He has taken away the boy’s pain and returned him to his “normal.” And House’s interaction with him has caused the boy (for a brief moment) to come out of himself and interact with another human being. And for his parents (if not for House), it is an extraordinary moment, something life-changing.
As is so often the case, one of the most revealing moments occurs in the final moments of the show. House, now back his office, stands vigil as his carpet is restored to him. Despite what Cuddy and Wilson may or may not believe about House’s tantrum about the carpet, House’s insistence about it is not as simple as “he’s being a jerk.” That carpet meant enough to him so that in the silence and isolation of his office, he watched, clutching the boy’s gift in his hand, as everything was put back the way it had been. Even Cameron’s presence at his side failed to move him from his spot or from his thoughts.
As to the question about whether House has Asperger's Syndrome (I know someone's going to ask it!), I just don't know. I've read the comments in various fan forums by fans who have it; by fans who are professionals in the field and by innocent bystanders. It's not canon; and if he has it, it's undiagnosed. Clearly. In the BBC series Wire in the Blood, the main character, a criminal psychologist named Tony Hill does have Asperger's. It's part of the series canon. And that character has much in common with House, so…
So much else to love about this episode. I loved the way in which the teen stalker B-plot played out. As perceptive as House is, he never fails to miss danger to himself. And she was a danger. House was flattered by the attention, as it was, coming at a particularly low moment for him. It was easy to understand his disappointment as he rebuffs her only to realize that her attentions were driven by illness not by attraction to him. The Casablanca references were fabulous, and I think Hugh Laurie would make a perfect Rick if the film were ever remade (not that it should, mind you — just sayin'…)
Like many of the series’ episode titles, “Lines in the Sand” had multiple meanings. The squiggly lines the kid drew of the worms combined with the sandbox, helped House hit on the diagnosis. House also drew his own line in the sand, expressed by his irritation at Wilson: “When does constantly lecturing someone make them into a jerk?” Of course there was the line that House could not cross with the girl. But most importantly, House himself reached a line, symbolized by Cuddy replacing his carpet without his permission. House's life has spun badly out of his control in such a short time frame. Coupled with the manipulations of both Cuddy and Wilson, this final act crossed a line with House’s psyche. So we get the manic and angry House — even his usually carefully guarded emotions crack badly (and in public) at the end of the episode. “Lines in the Sand” left House standing right on the edge, and in a much darker place than he has ever been. Alone and isolated.