“Does it bother you that we have no social contract?” House (Hugh Laurie) asks Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) regarding the unique nature of their relationship in this weeks’ House, M.D. episode, appropriately titled “The Social Contract.” While exploring the necessity of the social niceties and collaborative lies we sometimes need in order to survive in society, the story provides a framework for examining House and Wilson’s personalities and their deep friendship — and their own somewhat perverse “social contract.”
Towards the beginning of season two (“Daddy’s Boy”), House confides in Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), telling her about his difficult relationship with his parents. He tells her that John House was the kind of person who “never lets anyone lie to anyone about anything.” This, House laments, is “great for police witnesses and boy scouts, but not so good for a dad.” But people sometimes lie for good, even noble, reasons. “Collaborative lies,” as Wilson calls them in “The Social Contract,” help people delude themselves to make them happier (or not so sad), more self-confident, or whatever. “Good job!” we assure our children, even when we (and they) know they’ve utterly failed at something.
Is it any wonder that House, so influenced by both his recently-deceased father and his “lie-detector” mother has a perverse relationship with truth telling? Like his father, House can’t resist exposing the harshest unvarnished truths about people in his orbit; yet he lives his life by lies, and none more vital to him than the lies he tells himself: about his leg, about his emotional well-being.
It has long been said that Dr. Gregory House lacks the ability to filter his thoughts. His blunt commentary and seemingly relentless abrasiveness suggest a sort of disinhibition — a refusal to adhere to the social contracts we make with each other that have been part of polite behavior since God lied to Abraham in the Bible. (In Genesis, Sarah laughed at the idea of her aged husband being able to father a child, and God told Abraham a white lie to protect his feelings.) Unlike House, most of us try to spare others’ feelings, even if to do so is a bit hypocritical and sometimes emotionally dishonest. In the season four episode “Lines in the Sand,” House envies his autistic patient Adam because he is exempt from having to participate in the “niceties” that society imposes upon us. It is hard for House to resist exposing the worst truths, to play nice and reside within the accepted norms of society. But he can, and has, do it.
This week’s patient, Nick Greenwald, is a book editor who suddenly loses the ability to self-censor. He spares no one — neither his wife nor his young daughter, exposing his deepest (and most concealed) feelings about them both. As he listens to himself helplessly and ruthlessly say every single thing that pops into his head, he hurts those closest to him. Although House’s bluntness is a familiar and dear character trait, Nick’s abrupt personality change makes him miserable.
He tearfully begs team to put a stop to his behavior and let him go back to normal. In an absolutely brilliant and funny scene, Nick finds himself unable to stop himself from lewdly objectifying 13’s body as she attempts an MRI. He punctuates each rapidly-fired crass and lewd comment with a heartfelt, and desperate apology. It’s a wonderful acting moment for guest star Jay Karnes, who will go down (in my opinion, anyway) as one of this season’s most memorable guest patients.
Into this scene walks dean of medicine, Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein). And when Nick beholds the curvaceous Cuddy (who has been paged by House), Nick turns his eyes (and his comments) towards her. Realizing that House has set her up just to be sexually objectified, she stalks from the room, with House following closely behind. Absolutely certain that Nick would find Cuddy more attractive than “young hottie” 13, House wanted Cuddy to become the object of such honest appreciation. “You’re not even a little flattered?” he asks her as she disappears into an elevator. Although she rejects the very idea, we get to enjoy Cuddy’s appreciative smile, something she denies House. But her broad smile was surely for House’s silly (and uniquely) romantic gesture.
But none of this is fun for Nick, who is desperate to get back to his old life; his old personality and the comfort of his familial social contract. However Nick’s brain damage is too close to the brain stem; repairing it could be fatal. Told by the team he is to be discharged, Nick patient appeals to House directly, asking him to perform the dangerous surgery that will either reverse the personality changes or kill him in the process. “So I’m either better or dead? I could live with that,” Nick admits to House.
The admission hits House hard, right in his Achilles heel. From the time of his initial injury (season one’s “Honeymoon”), House has always been willing to gamble those odds with himself. Throughout the series’ run, House has always viewed having even a “shorter but normal” life worth risking his death for (“No Reason,” “Half-Wit,” “Insensitive” “The Softer Side”). But Nick’s plea, coming at a time when House’s own abrasiveness is again on the verge of driving away his best friend, evokes House’s considerable empathic streak.
Understanding (better than most doctors would) Nick’s position, House visits Chase (Jesse Spencer), who, while not a neurosurgeon, works for one. But Chase challenges House about why he would care about a patient after the puzzle is solved. (I suspect Chase already knows the answer but wants to elicit the admission from House.) An emotionally naked House tells Chase that the patient will “lose his family; he’s going to alienate the people he works with. And if he ever finds a friend who’s willing to put up with his crap, he’ll be lucky — till he drives them away too.”
House knows well the path upon which Nick will tread. He understands all too well that if Nick can’t be helped, he is condemned to life in hell—a hell in which House has resided for a long time. This is a crucial moment of introspection for House—and one not reflected upon brooding in his darkened office, but in the bright light of the surgical locker room.
House knows that he drives away everyone who matters to him through his abrasiveness or annoying intrusiveness. But is it a choice for him? Is it something created in his chaotic formative years as a defense against a brutal father and his social isolation? Or is it something in his intrinsic nature? In any event, he understands the toll it takes, and that he would not wish it on another person, even if it means going to great lengths — and risks — to be spared. And for House, the most recent toll has been in further straining his relationship with Wilson.
Since the end of season four (“Wilson’s Heart”), the close relationship between House and best friend Wilson has withstood a lot, but it still lies on somewhat shaky ground. House must always test his relationship with Wilson (and everyone, actually). He believes that all love is conditional (“even though we can’t always know the conditions,” “Son of Coma Guy”). And House seems always to test whether those conditions are close to breaking. At the end of season four, House learned the limits of Wilson’s love and patience when Amber Volakis was killed in a bus accident, the indirect and tragic result of House’s “testing.” In “The Social Contract,” House’s relentless invasion of Wilson’s boundaries and his constant brutally honest analysis of Wilson’s state of mind nearly drive him away again.
Wilson has finally had enough when House refuses to accept his reasons for declining an invitation to a “monster truck rally.” Egged on by House’s relentless prodding, Wilson finally verbally smacks House by telling him that he doesn’t like monster trucks, has never liked monster trucks, and has only indulged House’s interest in them to be nice. Like his negation of their friendship at the end of “Dying Changes Everything” (this season’s premiere) by telling House “We were never friends,” Wilson’s unvarnished admission hurts House as it is meant to do. Always “Mr. Nice Guy,” Wilson has now broken their social contract by destroying House’s (albeit minor) illusion about their friendship (and monster trucks).
As House continues to prod, he learns that things are much more complex than monster trucks. Wilson has concocted an elaborate scheme to keep the obsessively inquisitive House off the trail. But of course House discovers the true reason that Wilson has pushed back.
“There’s only one thing that makes you snap: loss.” House has discovered that Wilson’s “long lost brother” (as Daniel Wilson is called within the House fandom) has been found and now is being treated for schizophrenia in a New York City hospital psych ward. Personally, I believe that Wilson may have wanted House to find out about Daniel, and that his elaborate scheme, beginning with the monster truck admission, was set out for House to follow like cookie crumbs. Maybe it was done subconsciously. Wilson would know that the secrecy would be like catnip to the relentlessly curious House.
Daniel was first introduced in the season one episode “Histories,” and has never been again spoken of until “The Social Contract.” His absence has been the source of much speculation among Wilson fans, certain that the story line about Wilson’s brother had been dropped into an abyss never again to be addressed. Last May, House executive producer/writers Garret Lerner and Russel Friend assured me that Wilson’s brother had not been forgotten. All viewers knew of Wilson’s brother was that he was presumed homeless and living in Princeton.
Surprising Wilson, House approaches the question of Daniel with quiet compassion, friendship and sympathy that we rarely witness in House. House is there for Wilson from the small gesture of getting him a cup of coffee to his assurance that this is not Wilson’s fault. Daniel had disappeared 13 years earlier after Wilson hung up on one of his schizophrenic brother’s crazed and incessant phone calls. Wilson has always blamed himself, but House reminds him that it wasn’t necessarily (or only) his fault. “You made your one attempt to live a normal selfish life, and the universe immediately smacked you down. And because we’re wired to find meaning in random events, you’ve never let that happen again.” Guilt over Daniel has not only haunted Wilson for 13 years, it undoubtedly informs all of Wilson’s significant relationships. In the season one episode “Detox,” Wilson tells House that their “friendship is an ethical responsibility.” If Wilson views House as a troubled man on the verge of disappearing into the margins of society, as his brother has, it is no wonder that Wilson sees their friendship through that lens.
Ultimately, House makes the choice to return his focus to the patient after Wilson sparks an epiphany about Nick that will lead him back into his social contract. And Wilson is left to confront Daniel alone. House made the choice he needed to make for the good of his patient. And after last week’s experiment with methadone (“The Softer Side”), House is unlikely allow himself the luxury of completely taking his focus off the puzzle.
At the end of the episode, House asks Wilson if it bothers him that they “don’t have the normal social contract?” But as their conversation continues (Nick’s life resumes as if it had been merely on “pause”) it is clear that House and Wilson do have a social contract. It’s a bit perverse certainly, but it exists. Although House cannot tell Wilson beautiful lies to make him feel better, he can tell him beautiful truths. And for someone who beats himself up out of guilt, beautiful truths can be much more effective — especially coming from House.
Sorry this one was so late, dear readers. Blame holidays, house remodeling and lack of sleep. New episode on Monday.