“The C-Word”—cancer: this week’s episode on House, M.D. Not so unusual; it is a medical show after all. But our cancer patient this week is far from usual.
For years Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) has been treating the young and the old with compassion, caring and kindness. But unlike his best friend House (Hugh Laurie), who has suffered for years in constant chronic pain, has not had the misfortune to walk in patients’ shoes.
House has a native understanding of what pain—what serious illness—does to a person. It has always informed his treatment of his sickest patients, whether anyone else is privy to it or not. House understands what it means to be at the end of your tether—living with pain every day. In some ways its made him harder, in others—more significantly—its given him a sort of empathy that he reserves for those most in need of it. It is one of the things, probably the most important to me, that keeps House human, sympathetic and watchable.
In an ironic turn of events, last week we’d learned that Wilson has cancer, and this week, we learn early on that it’s growing. The cancer doctor is dying (perhaps) of cancer, and unwilling to die a slow death surrounded by pity and the beautiful lies people tell, Wilson wants to try a risky procedure; something he would never advocate for his own patients.
The procedure has as much chance of killing him as does the cancer, but Wilson, schooled for years not in both witnessing his own patients die, and by House’s success rate with risk, believes he would rather die trying than condemn himself to the sort of a death he only knows from the safe distance of a lab coat and telemetry. The procedure will either work or he will die.
Knowing that House would do everything he can to thwart him from going this risky route, Wilson keeps his plan secret as long as he can. But he should know better; House is nothing if not resourceful—particularly in medicine—and he sniffs out Wilson’s borderline suicidal treatment plans pretty quickly. With Wilson still insistent, House agrees to help, both risking his freedom and his career to administer the treatment himself in his apartment—away from the prying eyes and piteous expressions of comfort Wilson wants to avoid.
House creator David Shore has famously said (over and over again) that people don’t change—even if they want to. That rule applies most of all to House, who has tried (and failed) so often to change his story. But here we are as the series nears its own end, wondering if there is something House can take away from his eight-year journey. Has all that’s happened to him and around him these eight seasons made any difference in his life? Has he learned from his successes and failures? Can he, indeed, change?
The answer is “yes.” The change is less what’s inside House and more about what he’s willing to unguard and allow himself to feel. We know he feels (too deeply, sometimes, in my opinion), but he would almost rather die than allow anyone into his emotional life.
“The C-Word” is a perfect example of why I have tuned in week after week since back in 2004. It’s a beautiful episode, with Emmy-caliber performances from both Laurie and Leonard.
I loved the parallel storytelling two doctors, each desperately afraid of losing a loved one to illness. One, the mother of the sick little girl, is too close to the case to be objective. She wants to be mother and doctor—and it’s nearly impossible to be both at the same time; something she eventually realizes. Perhaps intellectualizing her daughter’s illness is the only way she can cope with it—and maintain her sanity. But in the end, she learns her role in this illness.
And then there’s the uber-objective House, for whom medical distance and cold science are virtually religions. He realizes that what he is doing is crazy dangerous, and a risk to both Wilson and his own career (but when has he cared about his career when it comes to the medicine). But he also knows he must be there for Wilson—all the way.
Will he be doctor or loved one? Will he listen to his brain or his heart? And in the end he listens to his heart, no matter what his brain is screaming at him. But he also does something he rarely does—and that is to lift himself from his narcissism and put Wilson above any other need. It is such a simple thing in this beautiful, emotionally intense episode. House puts the needs of Wilson to have pain relief above his own need for it—he even lies about it, assuring Wilson that he has lots of Vicodin, when, in fact, he’d been rationing it—to Wilson and denying himself relief. It’s an act of pure unselfish love; it is a gorgeous moment.
Wilson says some terrible things to House, hurtful and mostly untrue things, but I believe they are things that House believes about himself, particularly in his more self-loathing moments of depression.
Wilson comes through this dark night, and in the end, not only can Wilson proceed with the needed surgery—much sooner than he otherwise would have, but he, too has learned something about walking in another’s shoes. But it’s not only his patients’ shoes in which he is walking. Suddenly he understands what it is to be House—a man in terrible chronic pain—constant agony. It’s an important lesson for Wilson in both respects. Perhaps moving forward his compassion and empathy will come from the heart naturally; perhaps he will take more risks and fight more desperately for his patients the way House is so often willing to do.
House is there for Wilson through it all—a selfless caretaker; a friend. And in the end, the gift House gives to Wilson is perhaps the best thing of all, giving Wilson something to laugh about as he embarks on this uncertain path through the C-word.
Three more episodes to go. Phew. What’s next? Stay tuned next Monday 8:00 p.m. on FOX.