Something done on the “down low” is done in secret, on the “QT.” But it’s also sexual slang for a man secretly sleeping with other men (you know, on the “down low”—get it?). In this week’s House episode, the expression has multiple meanings in this light offering with a very sad ending for the patient. But this week’s episode could just have easily been titled “The Sting” because it seems as though nearly everyone is involved in one — either on the giving or receiving end. Or both. But of course being on the down low (non-euphemistically speaking) is what you have to be to properly “sting” someone. But of course the writers (Sarah Hess and Liz Friedman) make good use of the euphemistic meaning as well.
“The Down Low” is one of those House episodes that can feel at home seen out of order in any season. It’s a real standalone, requiring no prior knowledge of the characters to appreciate it. However, if this was your first House episode, you may come away thinking that the series is more comedy than drama. It’s not especially deep, despite the tragic end for the patient, but a good mid-season diversion with some interesting insights into House (Hugh Laurie, using his comedic gifts to the max), Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard showing off his deft comedic timing), and a surprising turn from Foreman (Omar Epps), showing that he’s quite adept at pranking. And pranking good.
And, wow, it’s good to have House back after more than a month of winter hiatus. The team is treating Mickey (Ethan Embry), a drug dealer who went down while a drug deal was going down. He has “loud-noise induced vertigo” and House wonders if his symptoms are connected with his “business” activities.
But Mickey, it turns out, is on the “down low.” He isn’t actually a drug dealer; he’s a cop, undercover for 16 months to bring down a drug kingpin. He can give House and the team no information about his work, who he is or what he’s been doing, which of course they need to diagnose him. He sacrifices much for the noble cause of cracking a cocaine ring, but as House astutely notes, the guys waiting to take over the drug operation will be happy to see the competition eliminated.
Mickey’s business activities do not have anything to do with his illness, which is an untreatable autoimmune disease causing multiple aneurysms, any one of which will kill him — and does by episode’s end. All the time he’s in the hospital, Mickey is cared for by Eddie (Nick Chinlund), his associate in the drug ring who’s a pretty bad guy (he killed an informant a week earlier). But incongruously, he rarely leaves Mickey’s side, staying with him even as he lays dying — and making Mickey wonder perhaps if this very bad dude is really as bad as he seems.
It’s a compelling “A” story with a great patient, well performed by guest star Embry. Chinlund (who indelibly played the chilling Donnie Pfaster on the X-Files episode “Irresistible” years ago) does a fabulous job imbuing Eddie with enough layers to make you understand why in the end Mickey regrets busting him. And for an evil guy, Chinlund underplays him just enough to make him almost sympathetic.
Wrapped around Mickey's story, we find 13 and Taub (and Chase) trying to take the arrogant Foreman down a peg or two, creating an elaborate prank to make him think they’re being paid more than he is. It seems to work—until, that is, Foreman tells them he’s going to resign over the injustice of it. They feel bad enough to offer a cut of their own salaries to give their colleague a raise. But it turns out that Foreman’s staged a reversal, getting back at them very impressively. Seems he has learned a thing or two from his mentor House after all these years. Epps does a great job in the end revealing Foreman’s satisfied (but not self-righteous) glee at having given as good as he got. It's a completely improbable subplot, done more for comedy than to serve the series or the episode.
But nothing tops the interplay, pranking and one-upsmanship between House and Wilson as they vie for the affections of Nora, their new neighbor in the condo procured out from under Cuddy’s nose in “Wilson.” Of course Nora thinks the two middle-aged men moving into a condo together spells G-A-Y.
Wilson thinks this is a negative; for House, it’s a means to getting into her bed. Wilson saw her first and resents House’s play for Nora’s affection. But instead of whining about it, as he has done in the past, Wilson gets even, pushing Nora’s assumptions past where House might effectively use them by proposing—publicly and in front of Nora in a crowded restaurant (much to House’s dismay). Only Wilson can outmaneuver House in quite that way.
The episode obliquely approaches assumptions and presumptions we have about each other as individuals. Nora pigeonholes Wilson and House as a closeted gay couple, but she’s wrong. The fellows pigeonhole Foreman as a stuffy, self-righteous, and arrogant jerk (and they’re right). But what they got wrong is that Foreman is not too stuffy to fight back using stealth with precision.
The team’s presumptions about Mickey are wrong. He’s no drug dealer; he’s an undercover cop. And as soon at that’s revealed, Mickey goes from being barely deserving of treatment to a hero. Mickey’s presumptions about Eddie are wrong. He’s right in that he’s a bad guy: someone who killed an informant for snitching. But he also turns out to be a devoted friend, having worked closely with undercover cop Mickey for 16 months. And when Mickey is on his deathbed spewing blood, Eddie is right there dabbing his face with water and offering to forgo a big deal (and at some risk) to stay at his bedside.
“The Down Low” features two of the funniest scenes in the series history. Wilson’s marriage proposal to House is brilliantly played by Leonard and Laurie, who makes House look like he wants to crawl beneath a rock (but is at the same time highly appreciative of Wilson’s move). The episode’s final scene with House and Wilson relaxing on House’s new and incredibly orange recliner sofa is a delight as well.
I really liked “The Down Low,” but I’m wondering at the same time where House’s (and House's) gravitas went. Are the antidepressants making him all fun and games, acerbic wit and jackass behavior? I like House’s rarified jerk to be counterbalanced with some of his more serious, introspective aspects. And those seem to have disappeared for the moment.
Breaking News! Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn (Good Night, Good Luck), who has starred in numerous films as hero and villain (he makes an equally good villain as hero) has been cast by Hugh Laurie to star in episode 17, according to Katie Jacobs. I am looking forward to the intense Strathairn sharing scenes with the equally intense Laurie. It should make for an amazing episode this spring.