There are many ways of being “broken”: a broken mind, a broken body, a broken spirit. Dr. Gregory House’s body has been broken for years. Never healed, his leg a constant and ever-painful reminder of what he was and can never again be, he has never learned to move on from that defining moment.
Over the course of last season, House's fragile psyche was bombarded with loss upon loss, that wound deepened, bringing along with it first his mind and finally his spirit. And it is only from that point, that House, in a brilliantly nuanced and dynamic performance by Hugh Laurie, can House even begin to heal. Like a misshapen bone that needs breaking before it can be set, is it sometimes necessary to reach a point of such brokenness that you can begin to heal?
“Broken,” the feature-length season six premiere of the hit television series House, M.D. is arguably the best episode (technically, two) to come out of five-plus seasons of the series. And that’s saying a lot. It's a major departure for the series, even more (much more) than the first season's "Three Stories."
In a lot of ways, “Broken” resets the series, lyrically and seamlessly. You can enjoy it whether you’ve been watching since day one or have never seen the series before. If you are new to the show, it will set you off trying to find the DVDs from the first five seasons. (Make sure you watch from the beginning.)
When House comes to Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital at the close of season five, he is having delusions (including a sexual encounter with Cuddy), which he believes are the result of long-term Vicodin abuse. Admitting himself to the hospital in the final scene of last season, "Broken" opens with House going through narcotics withdrawal.
Within the first five seconds, you are aware this is not a typical episode of House. Gone is the teaser. Gone is the familiar “Teardrop” opening theme. The anatomical drawings. The boat on the river. The credits roll over the opening sequence: House alone in a small cell, in agony—deep in the throes of narcotic withdrawal. Neither as pretty or as fast as his imagined detox in “Under My Skin,” the penultimate episode of season five, it is almost painful to watch the agony through which House must go to have his body finally clear of opioids.
With the meds cleared out of his system over a period of several days, the hallucinations are gone. And House is ready to fly the coop. He wants his walking papers, but is shocked to learn it’s not all that easy, even though his commitment is voluntary.
And that’s where it begins. How to get out, House-style? Make everyone else so miserable that the powers that be, most importantly the director, Dr. Nolan (in a great performance by Andre Braugher), say enough and let you out the door. But Nolan is as stubborn as his patient, and is unwilling to discharge House, at least not with his medical license recommended for reinstatement.
If you’ve been watching the promos on FOX, you may be expecting the premiere to be a sort of “Housian” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest complete with Nurse Ratchet and House in the Jack Nicholson role. Never trust the promo guys.
All the promo antics, hijinks and mischief as they play out in the episode make sense in context. This is not “House Goes to the Loony Bin.” The writers and producers have taken their subject very seriously, particularly with the show’s partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
In an interview covering the premiere and the new season, executive producer-writers Russel Friend and Garret Lerner explained to me that director Katie Jacobs and the writers did pretty extensive research on psychiatric facilities and programs. In addition, they have brought in a psychiatrist to consult on this story line. (By the way, much more of my interview with Lerner and Friend next week).
More feature film than a television episode, “Broken” is a journey towards redemption: the first step in a very long and non-linear path. One I’m not sure House will likely stay on, but one upon which he seems genuinely interested in embarking. Eventually. Set entirely in Mayfield, the episode follows House as he begins this arduous path. A brief appearance (by phone) of House’s best friend Wilson is the only other familiar face in the entire two hours.
It is not until a terrible tragedy, that House begins to understand how much deeper his emotional problems lie than simply with Vicodin. But one thing this episode does not let you forget is that despite House’s screwed-up life and his dysfunctional, sometimes reckless and misguided way of living, he is fundamentally a healer. It is his blessing and his curse, but it is simply who he is. It is what really defines him: more than the leg; more than the drugs.
“Broken” has some genuinely moving moments (bring tissues) and some flat-out funny scenes. Sometimes it’s slightly goofy, and maybe just slightly hokey. But the episode should not be missed. The performances are uniformly excellent from star/executive producer Laurie himself to Braugher (for whom the role was written) to Franka Potente as Lydia and the energetically charismatic performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alvie, House’s roommate. Katie Jacobs' direction always seems to bring out the emotional beats to perfection, and the writing team of Lerner and Friend, along with House creator David Shore and Dr. David Foster, have come up with a deep and intricate script. Kudos to them all.
Speaking of which, much luck to Hugh Laurie and the entire House team Sunday at the Emmys. Much more on the premiere and the Emmy Awards early next week, including my interview with premiere writers Lerner and Friend.
"Broken" airs Monday night in a two-hour special presentation at 8:00 p.m. ET. Please note: the episode runs over by one minute, concluding at 10:01 p.m. Set your recorders accordingly.