“Open and Shut,” the 19th episode in House, M.D.’s sixth season, is an examination of relationships within the context of the patient’s open marriage. She and her husband have an agreement that allows them to be with other sexual partners based upon the idea that the openness of their marriage will prevent the lies, secrets and misery other marriages. Like Taub’s (Peter Jacobson). Taub is a serial philanderer who struggles with keeping faithful to his wife Rachel. So the episode allows us to observe the two relationships juxtaposed. Is an open marriage the panacea to Taub’s marital issues? Is it really that simple? On House, as in real life, nothing is ever that simple.
And then we have the budding retreaded relationship between Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and his first wife Samantha (Cynthia Watros). Tangling with an ex-spouse can be a minefield in any scenario, but when you add in House (as in Dr. Greg, played by the always interesting Hugh Laurie), “minefield” is almost too gentle a word to describe it.
House plays puppet master in all three relationships, trying to illuminate each in the harsh light of day, tease out what's real and what's hidden behind a smokescreen of lies and deceptions. But is he playing the cynic or the romantic? Is he trying to help, or is he only interested in inflicting misery on the players in these relationships?
House does not believe that truth hurts a relationship. Honesty, whatever its consequences cleans the slate and removes the subterfuge. As House dissects the patient’s relationship with her husband, Hadley realizes that House isn’t the disdainful cynic; he’s the disillusioned, pro-monogamy romantic.
House visits the patient, curious about how she and her husband justify their relationship, especially with a six-year old child. But she disarms him, relating how much better it is to live life openly, without the toxicity of secrets and lies that pollute other, less honest relationships. I wonder if her philosophy resonates with House, himself the product of an unfaithful mother. Was their household tension caused in part by the open secret that House could not have been John House’s son? Would young Greg’s life have been any less miserable?
Buying into the logic of this relationship, however–at least for the moment–House believes he has found “the unicorn,” as Taub puts it: a mythical and honest relationship where happiness is attainable and love maintained by an open sexual attitude towards marriage. But when Chase discovers that the husband, in fact has not been playing around on the side and only agrees to his wife’s infidelity because it makes her happy, House immediately suspects that all is not open and honest in this marriage. Chase calls him on the cynicism that immediately makes him jump from the husband’s assertion to “he must be compensating for his own misdeeds.” He allows it, therefore he must be perpetrating his own betrayal. House unicorn is now a “donkey with a plunger stuck to its face.”
Hadley sees something different in House’s reaction. She believes that House understands the husband’s actions as “evening the score.” He has done something, so he allows his wife the latitude to have sex outside the marriage, so it’s all even. But Hadley calls House a romantic and closet monogamist from what she observes.
Actually, I think she’s right and House is perpetually disappointed by people in his circle who are unfaithful to each other (and I think that’s a reflection of his personal history). He is a romantic who has been disillusioned by experience. Hadley’s assertion is a riff on something she says to House back in season four about what drives his insatiable need to question everything. “If you stop asking questions, you’ll lose hope,” she chides him in “You Don’t Want to Know” (I think). House keeps searching and hoping to be proven wrong, not right. But I heard nothing in that particular scene to support Hadley’s observation.
House is an active participant in his manipulation of Wilson and Sam; and in his nudging of Taub. He encourages Taub to learn at the knee of the patient, who idealizes her situation and the honesty it brings to their marriage. Encouraged by her idealized view of her open marriage, Taub proposes it to his wife. He sees it as a way to have it both ways: keep his marriage to Rachel—and step out on her without the accompanying guilt. Taub can have his unicorn: a marriage made in heaven (for him at least); eventually, Rachel agrees to it.
But nothing is ever that simple. Open and shut; black and white. Life is colored by grays hidden within the creases and whispered between the lines. The patient believes their open marriage keeps it honest and avoids the lies that plague other relationships. Until, that is, she discovers that her husband isn’t enjoying outside sexual games, but has bankrupted them by a risky business investment. Her life of no lies has been destroyed by a big one. And her ideal and idealized marriage threatens to fall apart.
Agreeing to Taub’s request also proves not to be so simple, and Rachel decides she can’t do it. In her heart, she probably realizes that Taub continues to be unfaithful, but perhaps to her the beautiful lie that he’s not cheating comforts her and enables Rachel to lie to herself. Her unicorn is a life lived in blessed ignorance and self deception. She can pretend to be happy and Taub can pretend he's faithful.
To House, his meddling, whether by suggestion as with Taub or by sabotage as with Wilson, is his way of helping. (At least that's what he believes in his own bit of self-deception.) If they can withstand whatever storms he may perpetrate directly or obliquely, then their relationships are strong enough to thrive. For some reason (again, perhaps going back to his personal experience), House feels a need to test others’ relationships as much as he tests the solidity of his own. But how much of House's testing and pushing is fueled by his own insecurity and misery as he futilely seeks to prove that there is no such thing as a unicorn (or an ideal relationship)?
House envisions only disaster in the future for Wilson and Sam. He knows Wilson well enough to understand that he will suppress any feelings of annoyance and resentment for the sake of his partner’s happiness. As House might say, “that’s Wilson’s pathology.” But he also knows that if pushes hard enough, Wilson will snap and say what’s on his mind instead of letting it simmer and boil over. So House speeds things up by annoying Wilson on Sam’s behalf. It causes a confrontation between the former spouses and (so House thinks) ends their relationship before it can make Wilson to miserable (and has the side benefit of letting House keep Wilson all for himself).
House thinks he’s done Wilson a favor and is so delighted with himself, he buys Cuddy an espresso machine? Hmm. Cuddy is as perplexed as we are. But, House explains that he has realized doing nice things for people has payback. He helps Wilson and Sam ends their relationship. Buy Cuddy an expensive gift with no ulterior motive and perhaps he will be rewarded in some way with regard to Cuddy. It’s twisted logic, but hey; this is House we’re talking about.
In the end, our patient is dying from something outwardly beautiful and sweet smelling: lilacs (my favorite flower in the world). But lilacs bring bees, and bees sting. And in our patient’s case, can kill. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
House often treads a fine line between character drama and medical mystery. The show usually does a spectacular job treading that line, framing House’s story within the structure of the medical case while illuminating the other characters in a more tangential, but significant way. But what to make of House episode in which House, himself seemingly plays an almost marginal role?
“Open and Shut” improves on a second viewing, but is (in my opinion) one of the weakest entries of season six. Taking the focus off House never helps an episode, and despite his pivotal role as puppet master playing behind the scenes, I found the episode disappointing, something very rare for me. Too many episodes have been “House-light” this season, particularly in the second half of the year. And although I enjoy each of the characters, I enjoy this series as a character study of House and his universe. And in my opinion it suffers immensely when the "powers that be" forget that. Of course your mileage may vary.
I won’t even talk about the timeline again. Two weeks in a row Samantha asserts that she and Wilson have only been apart for 10 years. We all know that makes no sense at all. Is Samantha delusional? Did she somehow lose 10 years? Or is it just sloppy writing? Last week’s goof could be attributed to a simple writing gaffe, but two weeks in a row? Oy.
Next week we have “The Choice” followed by “Baggage” and then the season finale “Help Me.” I am sure the intensity will pick up as the show moves toward the season finale, so stay tuned.