“The Greater Good” is House, MD’s 100th episode — a milestone achievement (at least in series television terms) for the four and half-year old series. Few thought that House would catch on when it first debuted in 2004. Who’d’ve thunk it? A series about a disabled, surly, angry-at-the world doctor — middle aged, not conventionally handsome or sexy, rumpled and looking like he’d be more likely be the patient in a hospital free clinic than that hospital’s most brilliant and distinguished physician. A misanthropic, quintessentially American doctor played by (of all people) Hugh Laurie, a British comedy legend who specialized in playing witless and guileless (but lovable) dandies and fops.
Yet here we are, more than four years later, still fascinated by Gregory House, MD; still unable to completely peg him or know him. Some see a jerk with a brain and a wicked sarcastic muscle; some see a man brutalized by a tough life, wounded and haunted — but with a fundamental humanity buried beneath. Some see a good man; others someone barely above evil.
Without even considering it as an episode title, “The Greater Good” is an appropriate theme for a milestone House episode. The series continually asks whether House, for all of his antics, his bluntness, his refusal to suffer fools (at all), serves the “greater good.” Are his behavior, occasional recklessness, and attitude forgivable because in the end, without them, more patients die? Patients that other doctors have dismissed as un-diagnosable?
This week’s patient, renowned cancer researcher Dana Miller is enjoying life in early retirement. After suffering a life-threatening illness eight months earlier, she quit her important research, which had the promise of curing a particular pediatric cancer, realizing that she had never been happy. Making a decision to do “what she wants to do, and not what she’s expected to do,” she values a happy life over a life of serving the “greater good,” no matter how “fulfilling” that might be — self-interest above the public interest.
Miller has an interesting exchange with Wilson, who is an oncologist “in the trenches.” Wilson cannot understand why she would have left research when babies are dying. He is angry with her, frustrated and wondering how everyday oncologists like him can keep going when brilliant researchers hang it up. Not at all apologetic, she spouts the wisdom of taking control of one’s own happiness, of “doing” rather than remaining in a “rut.” Throughout the episode she serves as the avatar for people reevaluating their priorities and giving more thought to their own happiness and their place in the greater good of both family and the world.
Are happiness and fulfillment the same thing? House suggests that his staff are there not because what they do makes them happy, but because either their jobs make them feel good — or they have no other choice. Or, in 13’s case, it’s a chance to find meaning before Huntington’s kills her. “Are you happy to be here?” asks Kutner of House. All is relative, and although House is a fundamentally unhappy person, his job does something for him. Whether you call that happiness, fulfillment, or meaning doesn’t really matter. To House, it’s who he is — and something that defines him without it being “about the leg.”
But House also says that everyone acts in their own self-interest; no one acts purely out of the “greater good.” When the two intersect, fine. But it’s not what motivates people.
Her message resonates deeply, especially for Taub and Wilson: Wilson, because he cannot move past Amber’s death, still living in her flat and refusing to wash her coffee cup, still stained with her lipstick. I would venture that Wilson has never revealed this to House, nor would he, fearing that House would simply mock him, then give him a good dose of needed but bitter-tasting medicine.
Working for House, Taub feels fulfilled and that he’s “helping” people – to a much greater extent than when he did tummy tucks and nose-jobs. My guess is that he feels more alive than he has in years — and Dr. Miller’s push has also got him thinking about an agreement he made with his wife never to have children. Is he happy without children? Was it the right decision, and for whom? And his wife now wonders now if Taub’s serial affairs are due to resentment.
Even those who do not directly intersect with Dr. Miller are finding themselves at crossroads, intertwined with significant others and circumstance, wondering “what’s next?” This is, interestingly enough, an apt theme for any series' 100th episode.
Cuddy has reluctantly returned to work and sits in her office, watching baby Rachel on her computer through a webcam. Innocently, as she has sabotaged House in a particularly cruel and physical way.
Using Blue The Janitor (previously mentioned in season four’s “Ugly”), she first hangs “out of service” notices on the elevators, causing the disabled House to use the stairs. (Hugh Laurie does a phenomenal job of showing just how difficult and humiliating it is for the fiercely proud House to haul himself up the hospital stairs.) By the time he reaches his office, House is out of breath and exhausted, checking his racing pulse and badly in need of his pain meds. Next, Cuddy plants a tripwire at the House’s office door, causing him to fall and skin his knee. She steals his cane, and finally she has his heat and water turned off.
All of these actions are for pure vengeance and mean-spirited; both Wilson and Cuddy assume that House is going to strike back. But he doesn’t. Explaining to Wilson while tending to his bleeding knee that he simply wants things to return to “normal” between them, he is willing to let Cuddy “punch herself out.” She needs to take her revenge, and I’m guessing that a big part of him thinks she’s justified to be upset. He even goes so far as to rationalize for her that working moms are better moms; happier moms.
I am not, by the way, justifying Cuddy’s actions; neither does Wilson, who calls her on causing him actual physical pain — and the fact that she’s actually happier being back at work than being a stay-at-home mommy. In a sense, Cuddy being back at work also serves a greater good: she can enable House to better and more effectively do his job (knowing when to trust his judgment and when to question it), thereby helping the hospital and serving the greater breadth of humanity (okay, so I won’t quite go that far!). But I will say that she – and her child – will be happier for her staying fulfilled and satisfied in her job as administrator and as House-minder. House, himself, simply wants things to go back to the way they were before baby (maybe even before kiss).
I actually loved House in this episode, taking an interest in Foreman and 13’s medical and ethical issues. Foreman, who has potentially ruined a promising clinical study by switching 13 from the placebo to the real stuff, now faces a huge problem. 13 has begun to show serious side effects from the drug, including vision loss. Having risked both his career and the “greater good” of the clinical trial for his own interest in helping 13, he now finds himself in the position of going to the drug company and sacrificing himself to save 13’s life.
House advises Foreman not to go to the drug company because by reporting his screwing up the trial, he loses his license, which he’ll need if 13 is really in trouble. He advises them to wait and see if taking her off the drug will reverse the effects.
House tells Foreman that “you did it because you love her; ironically you never took her into consideration.” I think this is an incredibly important reveal for House to make to Foreman. House has often said that everyone does what they think right. But “right” for whom? Like Foreman, Stacy, too, did something she thought would save the life of someone she loved (House). She did it no matter the personal sacrifice, knowing that her very action would kill their relationship once House discovered the deception. Both Stacy and Foreman are (I think) guilty of what I would call selfish selflessness.
Is Taub, too, guilty of selfless selfishness (try saying that 10 times, fast)? He gave up on the notion of having children to win and keep the love of a woman that he’s cheated on time after time. He wants her love, but does he resent her?
Taub, Cuddy, Wilson, Foreman — martyrs in one way or another, all. For some notion of a “greater good:” to preserve a memory, a life, a marriage, for the sake of motherhood.
To me, the only down part of an excellent exploration was the lack of House in the final sequence of the episode. I always think that the final scenes have to involve House somehow, and that’s now two episodes in the last several where he’s been missing. But I got it. The final sequence dealt with people changing, reevaluating, and moving on. Trying to make peace and move past the things that have gotten them into a rut or into trouble. House has gotten his resolution. Allowing Cuddy to do what she needed to do (despite the physical pain it caused) was something he viewed as necessary to get things back into balance. And by the ending sequence, he and Cuddy have found that balance again. But I did miss him.
Yes. I know. Chase and Cameron were MIA. I don’t think they were necessary to the story and did not miss them. I like them. But I did not miss them.
Next week, “Unfaithful.” Stay tuned.