In six-plus years of House, M.D., the first season penultimate episode “Three Stories” still stands as the series gold standard: the episode against which all other House episodes are judged. There have been brilliant episodes in the years following as—or dare I say—even better than “Three Stories,” but this episode still stands as the benchmark.
So, it was pretty certain that the episode “Two Stories” would contain some echoes back to “Three Stories.” And is through this lens that I watched this week’s episode—with great anticipation. It’s a daunting benchmark to try and hit, but Tommy Moran has been with series since season one, and knows the character very well. And although “Two Stories” doesn’t quite hit that gold standard, it’s nice off-formula episode with House learning a lesson about relationships from two precocious kids.
“Two Stories” is a non-linear episode (like “Three Stories”) and as in that iconic episode, House is faced with teaching a class about medicine. Then, it was medical students, in “Two Stories,” his students are in elementary school. But the real heart of the story involves House’s efforts to address a conflict in his relationship with Cuddy.
As the episode gets going, we understand that Cuddy is very upset with House. She tells him that she’s had enough of his self-centeredness and she’s done with the relationship. It’s over! House is baffled, and although he realizes she’s angry, he really has no idea what’s triggered this extreme reaction. He is stunned and hurt (Hugh Laurie is quite amazing in this episode expressing House’s emotions throughout.)
Discovering that his sins are (in his estimation) petty infractions (using Cuddy’s toothbrush, leaving up the toilet seat up and avoiding taking out the trash), House doesn’t understand why these small things have blown up into “I never want to be with you again.” These are slightly stereotypical “guy” things that “girls” get angry about—petty annoyances. But petty annoyances can escalate long after the actual irritant is forgotten. The garbage incident is a tipping point for Cuddy after six months together (by my count). The honeymoon is over, and while one might easily overlook toilet seats (and even toothbrushes), when one of those petty annoyances happen at a particularly vulnerable moment, everything else that the guilty party has done—ever—can emerge into high relief and then some. They all add up to taking her for granted and “not caring.” I’ve known marriages that have fallen apart over such seeming trivialities. And although parts of this episde are a bit over-the-top, House and Cuddy’s conflict has a lot of truth to it.
Actually this is a moment in their relationship that House predicts in the season premiere “Now What?” We know that one of House’s most deep-seated concerns about being in a serious relationship has been a nagging fear that he will one day revert to himself (despite his best efforts), causing his partner to run for the hills. It’s something he’s expressed to Stacy (“Need to Know” in Season 2) and to Cuddy (“Now What?” this season’s premiere).
“I’ll do something insensitive, and at first it’ll be ‘that’s just House being House, but eventually…I don’t want to go there again,” he tells Stacy in “Need to Know”). He’d rather do that than subject himself to the inevitable hurt of her conditional love.
Now, five years later, his fear is realized. And after opening himself up to the possibility of love—and being comfortable in his relationship with Cuddy—Wham! No wonder he looks shell shocked after Cuddy sucker punches him with her news. That is the power of “Two Stories.”
If “Three Stories” is tells us something of the origin (although certainly not all) of House’s trust issues, “Two Stories” explores what it means for House to be in love and transcend those issues to keep this relationship going. Where “Three Stories” explores why House trusts no one but himself, “Two Stories” challenges the trust he’s put in opening himself up to Cuddy, eventually learning something about the nature and rewards of that trust. House acknowledging how much he needs Cuddy in his life is an enormous step, and he proves just how much he cares about her misguidedly and awkwardly—but honestly.
Of course, House often expresses his caring in misguided ways—leading to occasional disaster. In “Broken” (Season 6), one of House’s misguided attempts to give another human being some happiness nearly leads to a young man’s death. But the more important message for House in that episode is that you can’t always fix things; sometimes you do the best you can to make amends; you apologize and move on. In “Two Stories” it takes awhile for House to remember that, but eventually he does.
So what does House do to make amends for annoying Cuddy to the point she thinks he doesn’t care about her? He learns (by elaborate and illegal means, naturally) that Cuddy really wants Rachel to get into a particular prestige private school, and House makes a deal with hospital’s CEO to pull some strings in exchange for participating in a career day. But after a run-in (literally) with another participant enroute to the school, House turns what would have been a disaster into a catastrophe.
I suppose I could have done without House’s presentation in front of the classroom. We all know that House can be inappropriate (even in front of children), but I think even House is aware enough to have navigated that minefield a bit more elegantly. I did like the way House describes the current case with his patient who (literally) coughs up a lung. His stylized telling eventually endears him to the kiddies, while ticking off the adults in the room.
But the real interaction is between House and two children caught kissing on the playground. The three (all in trouble with the principal) sit waiting on Avatars for House and Cuddy, House begins to view his relationship ills differently, and eventually deals with the problem in a constructive and actually pretty endearing way. He apologizes, asks nothing in return from Cuddy, while hoping she’ll give him another chance not to screw up.
House’s patient in this episode is a pretty secondary character, whom he finally diagnoses when glancing at a poster for The Princess and the Pea. Now, I’m going to take a leap here, and suggest that Princess and the Pea is actually the main metaphor in the “Two Stories.” If you don’t know Hans Christian Andersen’s famous children’s tale, read it. Or better yet, rent the wonderful musical production Once Upon a Mattress starring Carol Burnett as Winifred, the princess (1964).
Relationships are much like Winnifred. She is a klutz and awkward and hardly what you might think of as princess material. Although she might be a stand-in for House here, I think she represents relationships in general. They are messy and clumsy. But relationships are also delicate creatures, and the least little thing, no matter how incongruous it might seem, might be so irritating that it causes pain—and perhaps—destruction.
In the end, House recognizes a tiny object, practically unseen, is causing his patient’s dire symptoms. But he also recognizes that the tiny irritants in his relationship have been just as destructive. Of course we know that House will always be House. So how long he internalizes this essential relationship lesson remains to be seen.
Note: I had a wonderful conversation with “You Must Remember This” writer Kath Lingenfelter yesterday. She is the new House writer on the block, and later this week, please look for my interview with her to appear here at Blogcritics. We talked about a lot of House things, including the relationships, the process of writing for House—and writing “You Must Remember This,” and what is ahead for the remainder of Season 7 (and maybe Season 8!).