Sunday , September 20 2020
Amy Irving and Hugh Laurie face off as Dr. House and his children's author patient in "Unwritten" on House, M.D.

TV Review: House, M.D. – “Unwritten”

“Unwritten,” the third episode in House’s seventh season features Amy Irving as the author of a popular young adult book series. Finishing her last book about “Jack Cannon, Boy Detective” Alice puts a gun her own head, intending to commit suicide; a seizure throws off her aim and lands her at Princeton-Plainsboro.

Although her book series seems to appeal mainly to adolescent girls, House (Hugh Laurie) is a huge fan of the books and their central character Jack. Chronically curious House must know Jack’s fate in Alice’s new book. But if she manages to commit suicide, the book
series will end, so curing her—and persuading her not to kill herself in the meantime becomes an act of pure self-interest—or so he says. He starts by issuing a 72-hour psych hold on the suicidal Alice, which gives the team some time to diagnose the extremely uncooperative patient, who is determined to get out of the hospital so she can commit suicide.

But why is she suicidal? Is life so painful (physically and emotionally) for her, she’s ultimately decided that life is simply no longer worth living? And is that connected to some underlying illness that, if cured, will give her a less dire view of life?

In the meantime, Alice resents being kept under psych hold, dismissing the team. She “hates doctors” and assumes all they want is to get her to “open up about her pain” so it will all go away. And she wants nothing to do with either their platitudes or tests.

Much of what she says might just have easily come out of House’s mouth in any season (but this one, perhaps). House is equally stubborn in trying to manipulate her, into more tests. And although Alice probably doesn’t know it, House probably understands (and empathizes with) Alice more than he realizes. 

“I know pain,” he says, explaining why he understands her position. “One day you wake up and you can’t handle it. And you either find a way to go on–or you don’t.” I can only imagine House having this very conversation with himself on so many mornings during the years we’ve known him. 

When she reveals to House that she has kills off her hero before his life’s journey is resolved, House is at first stunned that she would do that–cheat her readers. But he realizes that the book may give them answers more honestly than Alice, who has no interest in cooperating. 

Having stolen the unpublished manuscript (rather inventively, I admit) via Alice’s used typewriter ribbon to satisfy his curiosity about Alice’s forthcoming book, House now looks to the book for clues that might explain Alice’s physical–and emotional–condition. Is Jack’s mentor Helen an avatar for Alice? Do symptoms suffered by Helen suggest what’s bothering Alice (if she “writes what she knows”). 

In many ways this is a classic House case: a patient whose secrets and lies obscure the proper diagnosis, but also a patient whose own story deeply resonates with House on some level. We have House being House, stealing a copy of her latest book on her typewriter ribbon and going to extremes to uncover the words. Obsessive as ever. 

“Unwritten” pits the uber-perceptive House against his equally perceptive patient. House must understand his patient through her unwritten, unspoken language. What is she hiding? What is she not saying—and what is she saying through her characters—about her own life. Does it relate to her illness? Can it give House a clue big enough to save her life before she ends it on her own?

There have been many, many episodes in which House and his patient connect on some level: perhaps the patient is a social outcast (“Lines in the Sand”), perhaps the patient is in such pain (physical or emotional) he (or she) wishes to end it all (“Painless”), perhaps they are both geniuses out on a lonely plane that few understand (“Ignorance is Bliss”). Some might argue that it happens too often—so often that it loses impact after a while. I liked this particular Housian parallel. I think making House a fan of kids’ book series, as incongruous as it sounds, is completely in character for House.

What attracts House to Alice’s books? Why is he horrified knowing that Alice has killed her protagonist, and more so, when Alice admits that she didn’t kill him off, but instead left his story unresolved: a cliffhanger without an end, with no resolution. Jack’s story will remain unwritten. Of course this upsets House, who likes no loose end left untied. But does Jack resonate with House on a deeper level? If Jack’s story remains unresolved does House feel it on a more visceral level? 

Does House identify with Jack, the curious detective who seek has yet to discover his real father? Who bears a disfiguring physical scar? Or does House more closely identify with Jack’s mentor Helen–or perhaps with the author herself?

Like House, Alice has her “one thing”—her writing. (By the way, I love how she types on an old-style typewriter, which is analogous to House’s collection of antique medical instruments and his occasional use of low-tech and antiquarian ideas in medicine.) Both are off-putting and brusque to the point of rudeness, but like the other things about them, they tell an unwritten side of the story: a story that you have to work for by reading sometimes obscure clues.

Alice has House’s perceptiveness, as you might expect in a mystery writer—even a kids’ mystery writer, but her hyper-awareness allows her to read House’s fellows–even as House reads her. Refreshingly, Alice doesn’t psychoanalyze House. She never identifies with him as have other patients with whom House connects. Is that an effect of House on his way to recovery? Is he no longer the wounded spirit to whom those in pain have reached out? 

And how does the episode’s main story intersect with House and Cuddy’s story line? While they continue to pursue a relationship, House worries that things are going to well. Happiness probably both confuses him and sets off alarm bells. 

Concerned that they have nothing really in common (besides great sex), House fears that after their honeymoon period, Cuddy will come to her senses about him and leave. “Everybody leaves” and “everything changes” are two of House’s most deeply held beliefs. Of course House’s fears are completely normal—and understandable—but with House it becomes a point of anxiety, and something to obsess over. 

House cannot know the outcome of his relationship with Cuddy. There are no sure things, as the rest of the story is yet to be written. House worries: what if they have nothing in common—not the same music, taste in art, film or board games? 

But relationships are not about what mundane things we have in common with our partners—although they may help any relationship. Ironically, House finds that he has more “in common” with Wilson’s significant other Sam Carr (Cynthia Watros). They are both Jack Cannon fans; they both like go-karting. 

So what? Things in common lead to camaraderie and friendship. Butt here is something intangible—unwritten, as it were, that makes a relationship click, and it has nothing to do with “things in common.” Cuddy recognizes this unwritten thing between them and is happy to go with it, explaining that it makes their relationship far from “common.” Their relationship is unique. House needed to hear that.

There is much to love about “Unwritten.” Amy Irving is great as the depressed, miserable Alice—a mirror image of House. She has more scenes than most patient’s–many of the with House, which helps give the episode a slightly different feel. We are also inside House and Cuddy’s relationship as they try to navigate their work/non-work interactions. House is still very much House, from pilfering flowers for Cuddy from a comatose patient to conniving her into breaking into the patient’s home. In the end, a chance occurrence during their go-karting outing gives House the final clue to the puzzle of Alice’s illness. 

Cuddy tells House that he makes her “better”–a better doctor, a better thinker, a better person? Maybe all three. And maybe part of that is that he makes her a more spontaneous person, more willing to take risk or step outside her comfort zone. She helps him more directly in “Unwritten” than in any other episode I can recall (and without him requesting it). 

Maybe she makes him better as well: her influence is clear (if perhaps a little obvious) when House begins to revert to type at the end of the episode, threatening to reveal a truth to Alice that will only bring her pain and turmoil. 

The House-Cuddy relationship stuff was not intrusive; it was well handled and I feel confident that the show’s writers will be able to integrate the relationship into the show, eventually easing it further and further back into the weave as new subtle bit of shading. This can work, and work well. 

After all the ratings discussion going on (and the huge number of comments on my article) last week, House gained three percent over last week’s numbers, which is great news. And I will be interviewing TV By the Numbers ratings guru Robert Seidman next week to demystify the entire process and what the numbers mean for television series in this age of video on demand, streaming, DVR-ing and other forms of time-shifting. 

Thank you all for your kind comments, emails, tweets and Facebook notes about Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. I’m thrilled so many of you have enjoyed it (and let me, and others, know about it). Don’t forget: House returns next week with “Massage Therapy,” Monday 8 p.m. ET on Fox.

So, stay tuned! 

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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