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Does House have a conscience? Of course he does, but not so for this week's patient in "Remorse."

TV Review: House, M.D. — “Remorse”

Every deed has consequences for good or ill. When we do something harmful to someone, whether pulling a seemingly harmless prank or something more calculated like swapping final papers in a flatworm genetics class, the potential for damage is unknowable. House (Hugh Laurie) continues to struggle with the notion that when you hurt someone, simple apologies are useless. When he was at Mayfield, his therapist Dr. Nolan tried to help House believe that apologies are not useless; that they do help us move on with our lives. But, like feathers scattered on the wind, the consequences of our actions are often irretrievable. 

Most people, when they do that bad deed, feel bad about it. They regret their actions—feel remorse. From his overt behavior, it’s easy to believe that Gregory House is immune to remorse. He does and says things for shock value; he hurts his friends, and doesn’t really care about anyone but himself. But is he at all like this week’s patient, Valerie, who hasn’t one empathetic bone in her sick body? 

House’s actions, so often taken with little thought to consequences, can be destructive, intentionally or not—whether he’s trying to make a point or not; save a life or not. But he does possess a conscience, and feels remorse. He has a strong—but deeply suppressed—empathetic streak, whether he admits it or not. And we have witnessed it.  For example, in the much maligned season two episode “Who’s Your Daddy,” House felt almost irrationally bad about an incident that happened 25 years earlier; in “House Divided” his guilt over Chase’s severe allergy to strawberries was extreme. 

This week’s patient is a beautiful 27-year old  woman married to a not-so-beautiful man. A psychopath who has no ability to feel at all, she is married to a homely social worker—with a trust fund and a pre-nuptial agreement. She comes to House’s attention after six doctors are unable to diagnose her after an attack of severe ear pain. Ostensibly taking the case because she’s “hot” (or because House is curious about why a beautiful woman would be married to a plain-looking social worker), 13 quickly picks up on the woman’s psychological traits and wonders if the patient’s underlying psychology should be considered a symptom. 

She gets sicker, exhibiting heart, kidney and liver issues along with bones so brittle that 13 breaks her arm by exerting only very light pressure on it. The woman’s coldness is indeed a symptom: she has Wilson’s disease, which made its first appearance on House back in season one (“Socratic Method”). The disease has affected her brain, causing her psychological symptoms. Cured, she’s still a bitch, but one who suddenly can feel emotion. But the only remorse she feels is buyer’s remorse over her marriage, and the cruelty with which she coldly dispatches her husband from her bedside and her life is particularly cruel.

At one point, House visits our psychopathic patient, curious about what makes her tick. Clearly, she’s done her research and knows House’s reputation of not visiting with patients. She finds his curiosity interesting. She tries connecting with him as someone who, like her, feels nothing for anyone. And I think her observation stings House as he argues (clearly upset) about what makes us human. Given what House is struggling with during the episode, her words must cut a bit too close to the quick.

The remorse theme plays throughout this solid mid-season episode as House is trying to address the consequences of a wrong perpetrated years earlier. Months earlier, House’s therapist had urged him to apologize to someone he had wronged. House chose a medical school classmate with whom he had switched papers in a class on flatworm genetics. And now the classmate, Wibberly, wants to have lunch. 

Revealing tragic consequences he’s suffered over the years for House’s callous act, Wibberly tells House that the paper received an F and got him booted from med school. It is a moment in time that irrevocably altered the life of a would-be physician—now a grocery store bag boy. House is stunned at the chaos he has inflicted through that one thoughtless act. He has destroyed a life. House feels terrible, more so after discovering Wibberly is now losing his home, and tries to put things to right (at least a bit) by giving the man $5,000 to help with the mortgage—something Wibberly refuses.

But, it turns out, Wibberly is playing mind games with House. His ruin is his own doing, not the result of the paper switch (he got an A+ with House’s paper). The consequences were insignificant: House has not ruined his life.

Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to matter to House, who still insists that Wibberly, though in financial ruin of his own doing, take the $5,000. Wibberly still refuses and House leaves with the check in hand, his guilt unassuaged by Wibberly’s confession.

But even as he tries to make right this old wrong, House has perpetrated a new wrong—this one on someone decidedly closer to him. Trying to engage Cuddy in a little gameplaying of his own, he defaces two photographs in her office, swapping Lucas’ head for one of a chimpanzee in another picture. It’s a seemingly harmless prank, not unlike the prank he pulled on Wibberly. (After all, House was a genius even then, and it would have been likely that Wibberly would have done all right using House’s paper.) But Cuddy is furious, telling House that the photograph has irreplaceable sentimental value—a last memento of her father, who shot it. (I’m not actually convinced that Cuddy is telling the truth here; it’s entirely possible that she’s trying to teach House her own lesson in unintended consequences.)

In any event, Cuddy is not up to game playing with House. As she told him in “Ignorance is Bliss,” she’s done with it, tired of the games and ready to move on—and away from him. 

Wilson points out that Cuddy has been in love with House for years and he has taken advantage of his position and taken her for granted, and instead of throwing money at stranger, he should be apologizing to her, although the emotional stakes are far greater. We are right back in the same territory he was dealing with in “Broken,” fixing the unfixable. Nolan would tell him to apologize and move on. But this is an emotional minefield for House.

In the end, House takes Wilson’s hectoring and his own feelings to heart and approaches Cuddy’s door. But as he’s about to go in and confront this particular demon, he sees Lucas in her office and loses his courage. This moment parallels other moments (particularly last season’s “The Itch”) where House can’t quite muster the nerve to really cross her threshold. The scene also seems to mirror Cuddy’s loss of nerve at the end of “Let Them Eat Cake” (also last season) when, seeing House with a woman in his office, she loses her nerve to thank him for a generous (and romantic) gesture.

And what are we to take away from the final scene, in which House returns to Wibberly’s home and slips the check into his mail slot? Ultimately, House’s actions in medical school didn’t hurt Wibberly at all. There were no consequences. Yet, House feels compelled to right this wrong anyway. Has he learned that the consequences don’t matter as much as the deed? Wibberly’s fabricated scenario is at least plausible enough for House to have believed it. It doesn’t matter how it all turned out in the end; it only matters that the act was wrong. We have no way of knowing the outcome of our actions except in retrospect. House is atoning for the what he did, not for what might have been.

I liked “Remorse” a lot. I do have a couple of minor quibbles, however. The episode features a fantastic patient. Beau Garrett is almost chilling as Valerie—spooky as hell. I liked the story and the theme of regret and conscience. I also liked the “B” plot of House and Wibberly, and found it incredibly interesting that House could so easily believe that he destroyed this man’s career. And I liked the interaction between House and Wilson. There were wonderful set pieces that made up “Remorse.”

What I think the episode did less well was to integrate House’s story and the medical case. And I think I know why it seemed that way. House made “appearances” during the episode at appropriate moments, not really engaged in the case.  He consulted, he ran the differentials (to an extent), but Foreman seemed to really do much of the medical heavy lifting here. Perhaps it’s just me, but as much as I liked the episode (and the emotional beats), House seemed absent too much of the time from the core of the story. 

The new episode next week is called “Moving the Chains,” written by Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend—and guest starring Orlando Jones as Foreman’s brother Marcus. I will be participating in a conference call later this week with Jones and promise a full report by week’s end. 

And in the interest of some cross-promotion, I’ve started a new feature on SyFy Channel’s Caprica and will be writing about this Battlestar Galactica prequel series as it unfolds over the next several months. So take a peek if you wish (no prior knowledge of Galactica is necessary).

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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