Tuesday, May 23, 2006

TV Review: House Season Finale - "No Reason"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired May 23.)

I have no use for Emmy predictions. Voters for any awards are an unpredictable bunch, and I hate to be wrong. More importantly, and slightly less egocentrically, I don't watch enough of the likely candidates to have an informed opinion. So I wasn't trying to make a prediction back when I wrote about "Autopsy" and kept referring to the Emmys. But as the season comes to an end and the nominations approach, if I were to make predictions, I'd put money on that episode by Lawrence Kaplow as the show's best bet for another writing nod. (Hello Canada Revenue Agency. I'm speaking metaphorically. No actual bets were placed in the writing of this review.) Now, 22 fine episodes later, there's an additional contender for my wager. That is, if I made predictions. Or bets.

"No Reason" was written by last year's winner for best dramatic writing, House's creator and executive producer David Shore, who also earns his first-ever directing credit with the episode. But the information I mentioned last week was incomplete. I hadn't realized that both Mr. "Three Stories" and Mr. "Autopsy" participated in "No Reason" - Shore gets credit for story and teleplay, while Kaplow is named for story. Greedy.

Though it doesn't touch the brilliance of "Three Stories" - but then I've never been under the illusion that I'll be that amazed by an episode of any show for a long, long time - this episode bends the House rules in similar ways to that Emmy-winning one. "No Reason" breaks free of the show's normal formula while still staying true to the concept, mines previously explored themes in unexpected new ways, and reveals shades to House's character that arise naturally from what we already know but are surprising all the same. It depends on an unreliable narrator. And it puts House in a hospital gown again.

Just a couple of weeks after we saw Foreman as a patient, we get House as one. Unlike Foreman, he's not in need of his team's diagnostic services, since even I could pinpoint his condition: he was shot. The bullets were my first clue.

Elias Koteas, whose credits include appearances in many of Canadian director Atom Egoyan's fascinatingly disturbing films, plays the fascinatingly disturbing Jack Moriarty, a disgruntled ex-patient who shoots House ("Shocking, isn't it? Who'd want to hurt you?"). The name is another Sherlock Holmes reference for our medical detective, but was it mentioned in the episode, or just the press release?

Now here's where I bury my disclaimer: there's no way I can do justice to the ideas in this episode in these instant-reaction reviews I do. This is a very talky episode, full of ideas, not actions (except exploding eyeballs and scrota, but I'll get to that), and those ideas could fill a very, very writey review. At some point, I do have to go to bed tonight.

Before the shooting, we see House admitting he's an ass after doing the most thorough patient history ever on a man with a grotesquely swollen tongue, because he found it amusing to watch him try to talk. The expression on poor Vince's face when House asks him what dessert topping he prefers is a perfect blend of despair and exasperation. "You never know what fact may prove the key to saving your life," House says coyly. Mitigating his assiness, that's actually true on this show. It could one day be some obscure detail about Cool Whip that will crack the case.

After the shooting ... well, there's also no way I can write in any semblance of chronological order and still have it make sense anywhere outside of my own mind. So I have to reveal this now, though the episode waits until the very end: everything after the shooting occurs in House's mind.

We get clues that that's the case along the way. Some are actual clues and some might just be me looking for strict medical accuracy where none was intended (and since I'm not strictly a medical expert, my judge of accuracy is suspect at best). Despite the clues, since we know that House is hallucinating at least part of the time, the fact that nearly the entire episode is a hallucination was not a foregone conclusion, though not a shock, either.

A possible clue that the episode is not what it seems is that after his surgery to repair the bullet damage, House's leg no longer hurts and he can walk with ease, despite the fact that he's supposed to have lost much of his thigh muscle, so I presume pain isn't the only thing making him limp. Plus, he's both weak and confused in an ICU bed and wandering around the hospital, running up and down stairs, going for fish tacos at a roadside stand, and generally confusing me with just how ill he's supposed to be, anyway. A severed jugular? Seems that would have you leaning more towards the ICU bed or the morgue than the fish tacos.

The absence of pain is explained when he analyses his operative notes and discovers that Cuddy authorized a procedure using ketamine that has been used experimentally to "reboot" chronic pain sufferers. House's angry reaction is a poignant reminder of the last time he was treated against his will, in "Three Stories." This time, he fears he's traded his intellect for the mobility he lost last time.

An actual clue that the episode is playing with reality is that more than usual, Wilson and the diagnostic team act as fairly obvious extensions of House's will and thoughts. Most amusingly and literally, Wilson and Chase perform some of House's physiotherapy for him. Most tellingly, Cameron, Foreman, and Chase understand and agree with his every convoluted metaphor, his every far-fetched diagnosis ("You're always insane and you're always right," Foreman points out when confronted at the end. "I'm almost always eventually right. You have no way of knowing when eventually is," House counters.) House tries to work on Vince's case while recuperating, but finds that he suffers from blackouts and hallucinations and makes errors in basic anatomy and medicine, and must trust his team to stop him from making any fatal mistakes.

If there was any doubt, House obviously enjoys the sexual tension between himself and Cameron. Before knowing that everything but the framing scenes occur only in House's head, Cameron comes across as she often does - the woman with the sweet but ill-advised crush on her acerbic boss, who flirts with her while mocking her. But with the reveal, that's flipped on its head. In House's hallucinations - or, I suppose I should say now, subconscious - he imagines Cameron sitting by his bedside for two days while he's unconscious, trying to force him to take care of himself, proving her complete trust in him, all with erotic-lite overtones (hey, it's not cable).

She proves her trust by acting as the guinea pig in his experiment to show Vince that his best chance at a successful surgery is a robot. To introduce another animal-related cliche, Vince is a red herring, and my brain will explode as surely as his eye and scrotum did if I try to write out all the twists and turns of his case. I swear it's a testimony to how much I love this show that I didn't stop watching when his eye popped out of the socket, though. I have a thing about eyes. So does this show, unfortunately.

While I (mostly) never make Emmy predications, I do know that Hugh Laurie will win one at some point. This episode is further proof of why that's not a prediction, but a fact. (You might be thinking it's opinion, not fact, but work with me here.) He handles this talky episode beautifully, where House is as nasty, miserable, witty, and charming as usual, while also questioning who he is and what matters to him. He is as off-balance as the audience, both asking the same question - what's going on here? - and House is most compelling when his doubt and despair are allowed to creep through the hostility and facile jokes. Koteas is his equal here, too, with both men reciting paragraphs of beautiful writing without making it seem like words on a page - they're words from deep within the character of House.

What is House, stripped of his reason and intelligence? He's this floundering man we see in "No Reason" who still clings to logic to explain the illogical. Our biggest clue to the episode is Moriarty, who at first subtly, then more obviously, is not only part of House's hallucinations, but part of his conscience.

He brings up the philosophical questions this show has raised since the beginning, and tears down some of the certainties that House lives by. Moriarty's reason - unreasonable though it may be - for shooting House was revenge. House had treated Moriarty's wife, and using his usual investigative method of probing for every detail, convinced the man to confess to an affair. House cured the wife, exposed the husband, and is now told that she committed suicide.

Moriarty blames House, whose truth in this case was as deadly a weapon as a gun. We've seen before, in episodes like Failure to Communicate and Skin Deep, that the information House uncovers about his patients, the caustic words he uses to them, can have damaging consequences. That realization might have nagged at the audience, but it rarely seems to bother House. Here, he's forced to accept the consequences of his actions and examine his philosophy of considering only the biological and intellectual at the expense of the emotional.

Moriarty gives a speech that cuts to the very core of this character and expresses House's own doubts about his own worldview:
You pretend to buck the system. Pretend to be a rebel. Claim to hate rules. But all you do is substitute your own rules for society's. And it's a nice simple rule: tell the blunt, honest trust in the starkest, darkest way, and what will be will be. What will be should be. And everyone else is a coward. But you're wrong. It's not cowardly to not call someone an idiot. People aren't tactful or polite just because it's nice. They do it because they've got an ounce of humility. Because they know that they will make mistakes, and they know that their actions have consequences, and they know that those consequences are their fault. Why do you want so bad not to be human, House?
House says the things I might think I want to say, but never would, and could never forgive myself if I did. And I love him for it because it's liberating to hear those thoughts vocalized, without risk to any feelings but fictional ones. But I also love the show for exposing that they are not wrapping his philosophy up in a flag, or at least they are showing the crumbs on that flag.

In a scene where all participants and viewers know that House is puzzling out his thoughts in the guise of puzzling them out with Moriarty, this meaty philosophical morsel is thrown out as fact, at least in House's mind:
Moriarty: Information is incapable of harm in and of itself. Ideas are neither good nor bad. They are only as useful as what we do with them. Only actions can cause harm.
House: That sounds like me.
But if that's true, then would House be even partially responsible for Moriarty's wife's suicide? Then why does House apologize to Moriarty?
Moriarty: You don't care if you live or die?
House: I care because I live. I can't care if I'm dead.
Moriarty: I don't want to hear semantics.
House: You anti-semantic bastard.
OK, that quote doesn't get to the part that makes my point, but it just might be my favourite punchline in the show's two-season history so I had to throw it in. Here's the point that forces House to examine the choice he's made to discount emotion over reason, expressed after the scene where House tries to determine what's real, literally:
Moriarty: You think that the only truth that matters is the truth that can be measured. Good intentions don't count. What's in your heart doesn't count. Caring doesn't count. A man's life can't be measured by how many tears are shed when he dies. Just because you can't measure them, just because you don't want to measure them, doesn't mean it's not real. And even if I'm wrong, you're still miserable. Did you really think that your life's purpose was to sacrifice yourself and get nothing in return? No. You believe there's no purpose to anything. Even the lives you save, you dismiss. You turn the one decent thing in your life and you taint it, you strip it of all meaning. You're miserable for nothing. I don't know why you'd want to live.
It's too bad House's season finale came after that other medical show I watch that had a shooting in its finale. And that other other medical show I used to watch that also had a shooting in its finale. (Hey, Scrubs, where was your shooting? I suppose creator Bill Lawrence did warn me he was focused on babies, not bullets.)

I'm not saying there was a meeting of medical dramas to decide how their genre should end the season, but in addition to all the other non-medical shows with shootings in their finales, it's a sad indication of the perceived need to ramp up the drama during sweeps, and that the options appear so limited.

None of that should matter much when judging the episode on its own merits, and it didn't detract from the viewing experience, just the writing-about-the-viewing-experience a little. Yet the coincidence also demonstrates one of House's strengths - even a storyline that suggests a ratings stunt arises believably from the premise of the show, with an appropriate TV level suspension of disbelief, of course. House was no victim of a random shooting. We expect the man to engender rage in ex-patients (and current patients, and coworkers, and friends, and random passersby, and ...), so it's almost surprising he hasn't been shot before.

It can be a slippery slope. That kind of dramatic escalation is hard to sustain without getting into helicopters and tanks crashing into the hospital. It could also devalue one of the most important strengths of the show - its reliance on the lure of intelligent explorations of character and theme, rather than frenzied plot. However - and it's a big however - the shooting is a setup for that very type of exploration, so any complaint I have about another shooting is minor, and one more centred on a dislike of continually ramped-up plots than on this single episode.

"No Reason" breaks another House convention by ending on a cliffhanger. When House realizes his entire experience is a hallucination, he forces himself to push it beyond reason in order to return himself to reality. He takes control of the robot that is operating on Vince, gutting him like a herring of any colour, while his team looks on in horror. When after a very long moment, a bullet drops from dead Vince's hand, I could breathe a sigh of relief that he was right, and next season wouldn't need to bring Stacy in as a criminal lawyer to defend him on murder charges.

Wilson had explained House's fury at having his leg pain cured by saying House has come to terms with his disability by "dismiss(ing) anything physical, anything not coldly, calculatingly intellectual." So when House comes to in Emergency, asking for ketamine, we're left hanging as to what it all means. Presumably he's always been aware there was an experimental treatment for his pain, and he needed this opportunity to use the drug. Presumably, he's decided to wager his intellect against the use of his leg, after screaming to Cuddy and Wilson: "What do I have? I have my brain. That's it. I can make people better. And you two decided to trade that for jogging shoes." Presumably, after his Moriarty-defined epiphany, he has realized that his "one thing," his medical brilliance, is not worth the sacrifices he has made, physically or emotionally.

I hate cliffhangers. Really hate them. I'm a loyal commitmentphobe. If I love a show - the kind of love that transcends simply enjoying entertaining fluff, like that other medical show - I must watch every week. But I can't love a show that requires me to watch every week. Even with season-ending cliffhangers, it's not that I'm too impatient to wait to find out what happens next, but I want writers to trust me to tune in next year because I like the show, not because I desperately need a resolution I know is doomed to disappoint after I've mulled it over for months.

Sadly, TV writers do not cater solely to me and my delicate sensibilities. Happily, the House writers usually satisfy them anyway. And this cliffhanger is more intriguing than shocking. Will House die? Only if the show is going to mimic Prison Break and be forced to choose between changing its name or having an irrelevant title (I'm going to lobby for Cuddy, M.D.). Will he lose his intellect? Only if FOX has decided the recent 20+ million viewers isn't enough and they need to dumb down the show. But ... will he be a different House next year, one free of leg pain, free of the cane, burdened with the knowledge that what he says matters? I'm doubtful it will be that simple, and trusting that whatever the resolution is, it will not solve anything without raising other problems.

Despite all my Emmy talk here, I don't need nominations to validate my own opinion that House is consistently terrific. I'm just grateful to have had such a thoughtful, entertaining, well-crafted show to merrily pick apart all season.

The next new episode airs ... not for a long, long time. But FOX is keeping it on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. starting in in the fall, pre-baseball chaos, and will replay the entire second season over the summer in back-to-back Tuesday episodes.

Oh, and Emmy nominations come out July 6, with the awards announced August 27. Not that I'm placing any bets.