Tuesday, May 20, 2008

TV Review: House – "House's Head"/"Wilson's Heart"

This is not an episode review. I'm retired from episode reviews. This is a two-episode review. A friend, the friend who gave me that damn ball, pleaded with me, and some of you blog readers requested it too. But she gave me a ball, people - I couldn't turn her down. This is on Blogcritics too and normally now I only post things in one place, but this one's for those House fans who haven't given up on me here even though I'm not writing regularly about the show, so I'm putting it here too.


Forget House's head and Wilson's heart – my head is swirling and my heart is breaking after the House two-part season finale. Enough so that some entreaties to share my thoughts and feelings were enough to bring me temporarily out of review retirement.

We get inside House's head every week, when his thinking processes are made visible with every case. It's also hard to imagine there's an unexpressed thought in there when the man lets escape socially inappropriate utterances like: “Trust me, I want to do very nasty, demeaning stuff to your girlfriend.”

Wilson's heart is likewise usually on display, right there on his neatly-pressed sleeve within easy reach of House's mockery.

Yet we've never seen either body part quite like this before. House's rationality is confounded by his injuries and his emotions, and Wilson's heart is trampled by House's irrational self-destruction.

The power of these episodes comes from an understated but riveting performance by Hugh Laurie; from searing ones by Robert Sean Leonard and Anne Dudek; from the non-linear narrative mixing hallucination, fantasy, dream, and memory; and from the disquieting sense that, like House, if I only taxed my addled brain I should be able to fit the puzzle pieces together.

But mostly, the power comes from the emotional depth of the story and of the character at its centre. House is always one of the most intelligent shows on television; it's at its best when it allows House's heart to see a tiny glimmer of sunlight before returning to its burrow. In this pair of episodes, it gets the airing fans have yearned for but never thought we'd see (and probably – even hopefully – won't see this much of regularly, or next season will be Marcus Welby, MD: The Next Generation, or In Treatment).

The cleverest twist of the finale is that despite a doozy at the end of "House's Head," there was no shocking twist at the end of "Wilson's Heart." I spent two hours wondering if I was reading clues to indicate some mind-blowing revelation, which distracted me enough that the quiet despair of House snuck up on me.

We've known his misery all along. It's never been clear he knew it. The ultimate theme of the finale, then, is facing the issue he's been denying all along, a misery partly of his own making, one that seems insurmountable by the end of "Wilson's Heart."

The driving force of "House's Head" is House's attempt to reconstruct the events of his missing four hours, from when he left work to when he found himself in a strip club with no inclination to ogle the strippers. Clearly he has a brain injury.

Why he was on a bus is a mystery that's cleared up quickly: "I used to drive home after getting drunk but some mothers got mad-d." (i.e., MADD – boy, writing that joke down ruins it, doesn't it?) However, a few alternate explanations cast doubt on whether that's the whole truth.

He's less concerned with his own health than with the belief that he saw a deadly symptom in someone prior to the crash, and must now find and save that unknown person with the unknown ailment. Since House conflates hunch and absolute certainty about three times in an average episode, his team and therefore the audience can't be sure if he's remembering or hallucinating that detail in the far-above-average "House's Head." Kutner is the only one to have faith in him – or to humour him – with a flash of his former unconventional problem-solving skills. This time, no setting fire to a patient or dosing them with tequila, but he does suggest hypnosis.

We journey into the mind of House -- unsurprisingly populated with scantily clad women, copious amounts of alcohol, and a limp-free stride -- via his own efforts to dig around his injured brain. He tries to access his forgotten memories through hypnosis, smell (the most powerful "evokerator"), sensory deprivation, and a re-creation of the crash, fueled by too much Vicodin and Alzheimer's drugs, as House risks his life to save this hypothetical patient.

Because he always needs people to bounce ideas off of and theories to ridicule, his hallucinations and fantasies provide those in the guise of the bus driver, a smoking-hot-even-to-a-straight-girl stripper version of Cuddy (until: "You'd rather fantasize about finding symptoms. How screwed up is that?"), and a Mystery Woman who represents the answer that's nagging at his subconscious (Ivana Milicevic of the late, lamented Love Monkey).

I'd seen the Jesse Spencer interview where he compared the finale to "Three Stories" (Spencer obviously doesn't believe, as I do, in the credo of lowered expectations). I wouldn't make that comparison myself. I think the season two finale, "No Reason," is its closest sibling. Though "No Reason" was a more fundamental examination of House's personal philosophy, it too used characters representing House's subconscious reasoning with itself.

But in a way I'm glad I heard the "Three Stories" comment, because it completely misdirected my expectations of where the story was going just as much as the details of the story did. I stay away from major spoilers and don't generally love speculation (though "House's Head" made it impossible not to indulge). So I have developed this characteristic when watching television and movies or reading books that makes me ... what's the word? Stupid. Or the more generous interpretation is that I have cultivated the art of shutting off my brain's attempts to predict what's going to come next, because I don't want to know until the writers choose to reveal it to me.

With the "Three Stories" comparison, despite my efforts to suppress it, my mind kept trying to make the pieces fit into the explanation that House himself was the patient, that it was a symptom he noticed in himself that triggered his insane risks to find the missing information. I'm glad that ended up not being the solution – not just because I wouldn't have wanted to predict it so early on, but because as cliffhangers go, "will the titular character die" is not the highest cliff to hang from. Spoiler alert: No.

House's hallucinations, fantasies, and memories were presented in a way to clearly distinguish them from his present-day reality, unlike "No Reason," which was constructed in order to blur the line between fiction and ... well, it's all fiction, isn't it? But between fictional fiction and fictional reality. Yet it was difficult to tell if the show was taking dramatic license with the medicine, or if they were providing us with clues.

Turns out the "clues" and House's dramatic symptoms amplified the tension and the stakes without relying on the low-lying cliffhanger. House doesn't get treatment when he should. He collapsed in the hospital after his sensory-deprivation bath and then regained consciousness at home. Then there was the blood that kept dripping out of his ear, the searing headaches, and his ever-expanding skull fracture, and his brain swelling ("how much bigger could it get?!"). I haven't recovered from the first time this show made me see a head explode and feared I'd have to start the therapy sessions all over again. Cuddy asked him to come back to the hospital when the bus driver is about to go into surgery for a clot, and yet she ignored House's alternate diagnosis.

The focus on his health was both a distraction – they weren't setting up a health crisis as the final twist – and the entire point. In "Wilson's Heart," it shows the depths of his friendship with Wilson, but in "House's Head," House's willingness to sacrifice his life to that degree in order to solve the puzzle points to a man who is pushing even his nearly limitless capacity for self-destruction to the limit. And the uncomfortable truth he has to face about himself is that in so doing, others end up in his wake. He's faced those consequences before, almost getting Wilson fired or jailed, for example, but this time the consequences are deadly. Just not for the man with the death wish.

But before we discover that, even his confusion was deliciously confusing. Did he really forget it's 2008? When he makes an Altered States reference to Thirteen before getting into sensory deprivation bath, she tells him she hasn't seen the film since it was released before she was born. He scoffs that she wouldn't be old enough to be a doctor then. She retorts that 1980 was 28 years ago.
House: "No it wasn't, shut up."
Thirteen: "Did you just forget what year it is?"
House: "No, I just remembered how old I am."

It wasn't a clear clue about his memory even when I was looking for clues. I'm not quite as old as House, but I'm with him – a doctor who wasn't born in 1980 gives me Doogie Howser flashbacks until I do the math. Besides, perhaps he should turn his attention to what's wrong with Thirteen's brain; it's possible to have seen a movie made before you were born. Someone should introduce her to the concept of DVDs. Sounds like a job for the AMPTP, or the estate of Paddy Chayefsky if they're desperate for the 3 cents (yes, that's a lame post-strike joke). Taub doesn't seem quite old enough to remember Fantastic Voyage, either, yet he made the mini-submarine joke. Maybe he's the natural choice to explain Netflix to his colleague.

But this isn't yet about Thirteen's impairments, it's about House's. Did he forget he'd already taken some Vicodin? It's not as though he needs an excuse to overdose. Did he forget Taub's name? I frequently do too. He does remember Thirteen's, at least after a moment, as well as the salient-to-him fact that she's bisexual.

Of course, he doesn't exactly remember her name, but that's not a clue since he never has. When he solves the mystery of the bus driver's ailment – before realizing thanks to the fly in the ointment that he saved the wrong person – he traps Thirteen in the patient's room and asks her to stab the air bubble in his heart. She balks as the others try to break through the door. "Shut up and make a decision" is House's directive, echoing his usual theme that there is an absolute right and wrong, but if you can't be certain which is which, commitment to your chosen action is the only absolute right. It's how we know House is too close to the case in "Wilson's Heart" – he starts from the premise that his theories are wrong.

When Cuddy calls Thirteen "Dr. Hadley" in that battle for her soul – or at least her decision – it's the first on-screen utterance of that surname. House hilariously responds: "See, she doesn't even know your name." The NBC/Universal PR people and the props people didn't keep the secret as well as Thirteen herself did, so fans who wanted to know her name already did. But it's a fun Easter egg, even if it doesn't exactly qualify as the revelation of how they got the caramel inside the Caramilk bar, or a coherent explanation for what those Lost numbers actually mean. Maybe in another season or two we'll hear her first name, too.

The distinction between hallucination and memory was less clear in "House's Head" than between fiction and reality, or I would really have been an idiot for not being sure Amber was really in the bar with House. I did suspect it, but because of all the misdirection the episode and in my own "Three Stories" influenced brain, I never clued in that she was on the bus, or was the one with the symptom. Though in retrospect the amber necklace was a glaringly obvious clue, the conversation about it being a fly in the ointment was enough of a red herring to make me blind as a bat.

Because of that sensual-before-turning-bloody scene with the Mystery Woman and the red ribbon, and Wilson's comments to House in the MRI, I did think, as I was supposed to, that it was obvious House had inappropriate feelings or even an inappropriate relationship with Amber. Well, all his relationships are inappropriate, aren't they? I mean inappropriate in the "bros before hos" way. Therefore, it was obvious to me that House did not have inappropriate feelings or a relationship with Amber, because obviously the writers would not set it up that obviously if that were true.

Though we could put it down to the brain injury, period, I believe his attempts to recall what the Mystery Woman represents were stymied by his conflicting motivations, of wanting desperately to solve the puzzle until he got close enough to suspect the price of truth. I mean, come on, "resin"? Not only does no one call that type of necklace anything but amber, but by that point even I got it, and as I've established, I'm no Sherlock Holmes. Amber was on the bus. Amber was the one with the deadly symptom. But as long as House doesn't remember, it didn't happen, nothing changes between him and Wilson.

Chuck Klosterman wrote an article with a passage that stuck with me:
"How big is your life? That is neither a rhetorical nor impossible question. The answer is easy: Your life is as big as your memory. Forgotten actions still have an impact on other people, but they don't have an impact on you; this is the entire point of Memento. Reality is defined by what we know, and we (obviously) can't know what we don't remember."

Yes, that's right, I'm sourcing a pop culture author writing in Esquire as a scientific authority. Give me some leeway here, since we're talking about a pop culture version of medicine. My favourite movie title ever (perhaps aside from a certain classic released long before I was born) captures the idea in fewer words, stolen from Alexander Pope: "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind."

Forgetting for a moment that House's mind is neither sunny nor spotless, he faces a Memento-like dilemma that the closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he might discover something he doesn't want to know. And if it's so dire that the man who forged prescriptions on his only friend's pad and who experiments on unsuspecting patients doesn't want to face it, you know it's even more shocking than FOX could ever express in one of their breathless promos.

I don't remember my Film Studies 101 vocabulary enough to describe the visual style properly (maybe I should call Chase the hypnotist), but the episodes were beautifully shot by directors Greg Yaitanes and Katie Jacobs, particularly the scenes within House's head. Slow motion drew out the drama, as did the pulsing, blue-tinged lighting. The grainy faded colours, almost black and white with the blue of House's eyes or the red of Amber's scarf popping from the screen, or the overexposed whiteness with only the brightest colours popping, added to the surreal effect, as did the pulsing, blue-tinged lighting in earlier memory and hallucination scenes and the bright white of the afterlife-ish scenes.

Picking sombre rather than frenetic music during the climactic crash scenes -- terrifying scenes with flesh and steel tumbling in slow-motion chaos -- infused them with poignancy. The bus crash stunt didn't serve to merely pump up the action, but the emotion, hitting our hearts rather than our brains, triggering an empathetic reaction rather than an adrenaline rush.

The heart of "House's Head" is palpable in those crash scenes between House and Amber, between Hugh Laurie and Anne Dudek, especially their hands reaching for each other. I don't mean romance or sexual tension, but a tenderness and concern we have so rarely seen in House's expression, and never in Amber's.

House has reason to reach out to her above the other passengers in danger -- he knows her, she's his only friend's girlfriend -- and yet he would be the first to point out that it's not a rational action. Would clasping hands accomplish anything? I'm not saying House has fatherly feelings for Amber either (if he did, those sexy dreams in "Wilson's Heart" would cross that ick line even further) but it seems akin to a parent's instinct to reach a frail human arm across their seat-belted child during an abrupt stop in traffic: useless, but instinctual. Rationality only goes so far, even in a man who denies his own emotions as well as the "evolutionary incentive to sacrifice for our offspring, our tribe, our friends -- keep them safe" to quote this finale's co-writer Doris Egan's "Son of Coma Guy" episode.

Sharing some imagery with the typical near-death experience, House follows the light to emerge from the tunnel of the bus wreckage before waking to Cuddy – not kissing him, as first appears, but providing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as Wilson performs CPR, with Cameron crying and others hovering worriedly over his collapsed form until he utters the answer: "Amber."

But House does sacrifice for his friends. Before that realization, Cuddy asks him the question "Why is this so important" and he doesn't have an answer. Maybe he's risking his life to solve the mystery because subconsciously he knows he cares deeply about this one – but it's not Amber he cares so much about, it's Wilson. House risked his life with the deep brain stimulation even though he thought he had all the pieces of memory he needed, simply because Wilson asked him to.

The answer isn't that simple, of course, and House's feelings about himself are mixed in there, too. It takes deep brain stimulation to trigger the final memory that reveals nothing inappropriate happened with Amber – he wasn't more inappropriate than he is with any other attractive woman, that is -- except that her life was put in danger because she tried, in Wilson's stead, to ensure House got home safely.

It's a solution that allows us sympathy for House, because he didn't sleep with her, he didn't knowingly endanger her, and yet allows us empathy for Wilson's anger, because he's tried to help House avoid the figurative crash for so long, in so many ways, to no avail. House realizes the weight of his actions in that moment of recall. I never would have believed I'd ever see House apologize and cry, or that if I did, it would be so tremendously affecting instead of tremendously out of character.

We've had four seasons of watching House's balancing act between expressing misery with his actions and denying it with his words. The episode prior to the finale, "Living The Dream," dwelled on the theme of misery in general without much resolution. That theme is picked up with a vengeance in "House's Head"/"Wilson's Heart." It's Thirteen who's the catalyst for bringing it out in the open. House calls her on her identification with the dying young doctor, and chastises her for ignoring the issue of her possible Huntington's Disease. "You are the champion of not dealing with your problems," she rightly counters.

The tension throughout the medical case of "Wilson's Heart" is again choosing a course of action without knowing which is right and which is wrong. Wilson advocates for keeping Amber on heart bypass, so House bows to his wishes, but Foreman and Cuddy believe they must restart her heart in order to know if treatment is working, or diagnosis her properly if not. Turns out, the right and wrong came way before Amber's heart stopped – about the time House called for a ride, tried to get her drunk, then wandered to the bus without his cane. The final diagnosis allows them to know what's killing her, not to prevent it. It never mattered what they did; she was dead.

But the dilemma is also the metaphor: keeping Amber on ice is delaying the inevitable, not dealing with it. Thirteen, Wilson, Amber, and House all have to face the problems confronting them. Thirteen takes her Huntington's test; it's positive. Wilson and Amber have a final heartbreaking goodbye.

And House, in a coma after the deep brain stimulation provoked a seizure, meets up with a sensual and wise Amber in a(nother?) near-death experience in the bus (though I'd call it another example of House's subconscious talking to itself). The setting is stripped bare of anything but white light, where the mantra "everybody lies" is transformed into "everybody dies." Just not yet, or they'd have to change the show's title to Wilson. They have a conversation that is stripped bare of any of House's usual sarcasm and rhetorical flourishes, starting when he says he should be dead:

Amber: Why?
House: Because life shouldn't be random. Because lonely, misanthropic drug addicts should die in bus crashes. Young, do-gooders in love who get dragged out of their apartments in the middle of the night should walk away clean.
Amber: Self-pity isn't like you.
House: I'm branching out from self-loathing and self-destruction. Wilson is gonna hate me.
Amber: You kinda deserve it.
House: He's my best friend.
Amber: I know. What now?
House: Stay here with you.
Amber: Get off the bus.
House: I can't.
Amber: Why not?
House: Because it doesn't hurt here. I don't want to be in pain. I don't want to be miserable. And I don't want him to hate me.
Amber: Well you can't always get what you want. (Hmm, where have we heard that before?)

"Get off the bus," Amber directs him, echoing House's own transportation-as-life-path metaphor from "Living the Dream," when he told the miserable actor to figuratively jump out of the plane. Is happiness a choice, is how you feel a choice, is how you act a choice? The man who has stubbornly, gleefully resisted all but the most infinitesimal changes until his acceptance of Amber for Wilson's sake in "Don't Ever Change," seems to be facing his profound desire to make different choices. What now? Whether he can change or not is a whole other question, as is how the writers manage that without destroying the show and the character, but it's a question for next season.

A slew of House writers are credited on the two-parter. Beyond Egan, there's David Foster, Peter Blake, and Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend. It's like they wanted to spread the joy, or push the WGA limits of how many writers can be credited on a single episode. Or like they were scrambling to get two ambitious hours of television completed after the strike and needed all hands on deck.

I hope they have stock in Kleenex, because they gave Amber a farewell that doesn't rely on viewers like me who genuinely loved the character for it to be heart-wrenching. Wilson's reaction, and the medical team's reaction, were beyond touching.

So Kutner isn't just a goof; he's a guru of dealing with death, leading Thirteen and the gang into saying goodbye simply with their presence. Then Taub takes comfort in his wife, Kutner in television (hey, nothing wrong with that), and Foreman, Chase and Cameron get together as friends and colleagues. House seems to take little comfort in Cuddy sleeping beside him, holding his hand.

Wilson presumably fails to take his lead from his girlfriend, who doesn't want the last emotion she experiences to be anger. He still has time for anger, visiting House but not able to bring himself to say anything. Instead, he goes home to find a note from Amber, apologizing for not being there because she went to get House. Where's that Kleenex again?

I'm reaching my limit of how long I've avidly followed a single show – previous champ The West Wing started losing me after the fourth season – and yet I find myself anticipating season five of House and trusting the instincts of the creative forces behind the show as much as ever. Sadly, I won't be able to test that faith for another few months, but "House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart" are the type of episodes that allow me to conflate hunch and certainty; I'm confident they won't fail the test.