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the rebirth of Gregory House

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

(Spoilers for pretty much the whole series of House M.D.)

Over the last few months, I’ve been watching “House M.D.” It’s a bit amazing how quickly I moved through this one; I usually work through old TV shows, but at a rate of one episode or two a night. And I followed this show at about that pace for the first three or four seasons, where it really did act like a medical analog of the cop shows I find so fascinating. Shows like The Closer, Monk, and Law and Order – heavy on the mystery and the themes, light on character development. I almost always get bored and give up when these shows try to go the more character-driven route. This time, for whatever reason, I didn’t. The last season was a bit of a let-down from the first seven, but even then, I found House’s character to be compelling in spite of all its gruffness – indeed, probably because of these things.

If you don’t follow the show, House is a doctor at a smallish hospital specializing in diagnostic medicine – essentially, he cracks medical cases that other doctors can’t solve. He’s a bit like what Sherlock Holmes would have been like if he’d had an M.D. (Fans of the show have pointed out several literal similarities, and I think there’s a thematic similarity between these characters at a deeper level.) He’s brilliant to the point of obsession at this work, but also (as Wilson pits it at what he believes to be House’s funeral) “an ass”, “a bitter jerk who liked making people miserable.” As the seasons progress House’s character gets darker and darker as he struggles against pain, his need to be free from it balanced against the edge it gives him and his own narcissism. The second half of the show has a strong undercurrent of House trying to break through his own pain and addiction, spending time in a mental hospital and in jail, but also falling in love with Cuddy and developing the beginnings of a real friendship with Wilson.

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It’s these last two developments that make the season finale work so well for me. Cuddy had a cancer scare in the previous season and House didn’t turn up for her biopsy, dulling his pain with Vicodin. This inability to endure pain, more than not being there for her, is what drives Cuddy to break up with him. And there’s a definite echo of that break-up in this finale, though Cuddy is really the only cast member who didn’t come back for it. When Cuddy breaks up with him, House claims he can change but Cuddy refuses to believe it. At that point, I don’t think he could change. But House uses those same words to shake himself out of his stupor in the final episode, to move past a kind of passive suicide to a life beyond the hospital. And it’s not a promise to someone else, so much as a promise to himself. It’s a hope, a trust that he can become a more whole person.

house wilson hospitalWhich brings me to Wilson. Over the last  episodes leading up to this one, Wilson’s been dealing with a cancer diagnosis and a failed treatment, with House’s help. That’s actually the driving conflict of this episode: Wilson has at most five months left to live, and House is about to be sent back to jail after a stunt gets his parole revoked. He’s tried to get the jail term put off until after Wilson dies, but mainly by manipulating his friends and to no good consequence. Throughout the episode you think House is pushed to suicide or at least a drugged-out euphoria that results in his accidental death. That the choice he was faced was either a stint in prison and a future without Wilson or no future at all. But in typical House fashion he’s actually opting for door #3: five months more with Wilson, in exchange for no future as a doctor at all. He’s giving up the high of puzzle solving for more time with Wilson. Actually, that’s not quite right: he’s killing off the person he was, not so he can get something he considers more important (time with a friend) but so he can be there for that friend.

The House/Wilson friendship has really intrigued me because of the way House has changed through it. And for that matter how Wilson has changed. In the first half of the show, when it was more mystery- than character-oriented, Wilson was very simply a Watson to House’s Holmes – a sidekick, someone to normalize and steady him to some small degree. But in the second half Wilson realizes that he’s become an enabler, and tries to buck that role. We see hints of this even back in House’s initial trial over Vicodin abuse, when he tries to get House in prison as a way to address his drug problem. We saw it after Amber’s death, and even more after House’s stint in prison – Wilson very nearly ends the friendship in both places, but instead he gets angry and through that anger takes their friendship seriously. It is authentic. It is, in some ways, the very definition of authenticity: rather than turning away, giving up or just pretending there’s no real problem, but confronting it. This is why I wanted to cheer when Wilson refused to go through more radiation, why he wasn’t willing to do it for House’s sake.

More than that, House and Wilson are becoming more like each other over the years. I know I prattle on a fair bit about Aristotle, but these two really do seem to capture the Aristotelian friendship quite well. You have two men who are virtuous in different ways – Wilson through his compassion and loyalty, House through his authenticity and raw intellect. Both shoot a bit excessive of true virtue, actually, but the point is they have virtues the other more or less lacks. House teaches Wilson how to embrace the idea that the world isn’t just and live with that, actually to live full-stop. When he eulogizes House, Wilson is brutally completely honest which I can’t see him doing at any earlier point in the series – and I can’t help imagining House would approve. And House, for his part, gives up first his Vicodin to take away a friend’s pain and then ultimately his life as a doctor.

So where does this leave House? The finale offered House three basic choices, I think: to die through suicide and end his pain, to go to jail and eventually come back to his half-life without the lives that gave him a stepping-stone to something more meaningful… or to find a fuller life free from his addictions. House was definitely moving in that direction, I think. He gave up his Vicodin for Wilson and risked going back to jail for his sake. Even before the cancer he forged a meaningful relationship with Danika, and he actually skipped out on medically interesting cases (mentally + physcially) to look after Wilson. His final case even involved a sort of doppelganger for the younger House we saw in “Three Stories” (the drug-seeking behavior, the illness that couldn’t be treated inside) – and House killed that person or at least allowed them to die in a way that let him start his new life. He’s even been limping a little less. All of this makes me hopeful House is finally ready to make a go of it, even once Wilson dies. On the other hand, though, he does go over the edge when people close to him die in ways he can’t explain or make sense of. I have a hard time seeing him going back to the hospital, but I can see him killing himself. He may simply be too screwed up to salvage his character, particularly without Wilson to help him.

Still, I’m optimistic. And even if things don’t work out, I find it really very encouraging that he sacrificed his life in medicine for time with wilson. There’s a glimmer of virtue, and a moment of a good life that I don’t think House ever experienced up until this point, certainly not since his infarction. That seems good on its own, whatever else comes after.

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