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Vicodin - by emymsm

The Road to Mayfield (House Meta)

(posted publicly to allow external response)

A while back, I rather portentously remarked that I had spied what could be a glimmer of genius in House: one element – one persistent theme – that I believe the writers, whatever their flaws, have pursued in a consistent and honest manner. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that the close of the fifth season was a quite logical culmination of a process that began in the early second season – that Stacy Warner touched off an existential crisis that through subsequent events has snowballed into House’s current madness.

 

“I got one thing, same as you.”

“You apparently know me more than I know you.”

“I know that limp. I know that empty ring finger. And that obsessive nature of yours – that’s a big secret. You don’t risk jail and your career to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved unless you got something. Anything. One thing. The reason that normal people got wives and kids and whatever is that they don’t have that one thing that hits them that hard and that true. I got music. You got this: the thing you think about all the time. The thing that keeps you south of normal. Yeah, it’s what makes us great. Makes us the best. All we miss out on is everything else. No wife waiting at home with the drink and the kiss. That ain’t gonna happen for us.”

“That’s why God invented microwaves.”

- Giles & House, DNR

It is illuminating to put the first season Gregory House beside his later evolutions and examine the differences. We do on occasion see him reflect wistfully on what he is missing (e.g., his standing alone on the lacrosse field at the end of Paternity), but overall, this House has made a sort of peace with his singularity, defining himself according to his genius and conducting his life accordingly. He puts the kibosh on Cameron’s well-meaning advances with a minimum of angst on his part (Love Hurts), has a halfway reasonable handle on his Vicodin use (as demonstrated by his willingness to drop it and suffer withdrawal to win a bet in Detox), and while his bedside manner still leaves much to be desired, we do see him occasionally connecting with his patients – even treating them with respect (e.g., his unwillingness to declare Rebecca incompetent in the pilot). House in the first season is, while not exactly happy, in a state of existential equilibrium.

Stacy is the first element to upset said equilibrium. When she returns, House is suddenly forced to confront a past he thought he had left behind - and desires he thought he had quelled. Acting every bit the role of the creepy stalker, House pursues Stacy relentlessly, harassing her husband, gossiping about her “pissy” moods, and ultimately breaking into her therapist’s office to Xerox her patient file. Against her better judgment, Stacy reciprocates House’s dysfunctional displays of interest, kindling in House – who is, seemingly paradoxically, an idealistic romantic – an ephemeral hope that they will be able to start over. This hope is dashed, however, by Stacy’s reluctance to break the news of her affair to her husband, which House reads (probably correctly) as signifying doubts about his own fitness as a partner. He responds by telling Stacy to go back to Mark for her own good – but the damage has already been done (Three Stories to Need to Know).

House after Stacy is not at his previous set point. Whereas before the chances House took were on behalf of his patients, House post-Stacy takes chances with his own person and does so for the sake of settling personal scores. In Distractions, he injects himself with nitroglycerin to induce a migraine in order to prove than an old arch nemesis is a lousy scientist, then takes a cocktail of drugs – including LSD – to rid himself of the migraine. Wilson sees this stunt as House’s attempt to get his mind off Stacy – an insight the writers and House appear to acknowledge at the end of the episode when House calls a hooker and tells her he needs a distraction. Post-Stacy, we also see the first manifestation of House’s conversion disorder. In Skin Deep, House’s pain takes a drastic turn for the worse, and he pleads for Cuddy to inject morphine into his spine. Acting on a hunch (as we discover later), Cuddy injects House with saline. The placebo works, indicating that the increasing pain is partially psychological. This pain continues to intensify as the second season draws to a close, to the point that House resorts to injecting morphine directly into his veins (Who’s Your Daddy?). We additionally know, based on the events of No Reason, that House also begins to research the ketamine alternative. Somewhere deep in the recesses of his heart, he is no longer satisfied with the rewards of his brilliance.

“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. It’s because you can’t measure them. It’s because you don’t want to measure them. Doesn’t mean it’s not real. (…) Do you really think that your life’s purpose is 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 take the one decent thing in your life and you taint it – strip it of all meaning. You’re miserable for nothing. I don’t know why you’d want to live.”

- House to Himself, No Reason

As long as we remember that the dream sequence in No Reason is House talking to himself, we come to realize several crucial things about House at this stage. First, we see that he still believes his mind is his only asset and is profoundly afraid that pain and misery are the true fuel for his genius. “WHAT DO I HAVE?” he rages at Wilson and Cuddy in his dream. “I HAVE MY BRAIN! THAT’S IT!” And yet, we also recognize that he is not so confident about his proclamations on human nature, the universe, and himself as he consciously believes. His subconscious, for example, chides him for his rudeness, raising the possibility that humans are polite to each other not because they are cowards, but because they realize they are liable to make the same mistakes. “Why do you want so bad not to be human, House?” And that same voice inspires an even more crucial doubt, as evidenced by the quote above, by pointing out that there is no rational reason why pain should be connected to intelligence – that such a connection can only be imposed by personal philosophy or superstition. In tears, House apologizes to himself and decides to ask for ketamine to explore the possibility that there is more to life than the puzzles it presents to solve.

Initially, the ketamine works, and House gets a transitory taste of a pain-free life – a taste he quite clearly relishes. On his first day back after the events of No Reason, he runs to work and enters Cuddy’s office triumphantly reeking of sweat. As it turns out, however, being pain and drug free does not lead to the overall change he subconsciously expected. He tries to be caring, but realizes, disappointed, that this still interests him less than the thrill of a mystery. He further discovers that the others do not feel any more inclined to trust his judgment despite his newfound sobriety. He receives the message that he is still fundamentally defective.

It is at this point that Wilson and Cuddy make what is perhaps their most bone-headed blunder. The trouble with Cuddy and Wilson here - especially Wilson – is that they apparently assume, at base, that House is constitutionally unable to behave appropriately unless he is gamed in some way. They also have difficulty differentiating between justified pride and reckless arrogance. Thus, believing that this is the opportune time to infuse House with a dose of humility, Wilson and Cuddy lead House to believe he has blown a case (Meaning/Cane and Able). What they do not bank on is exactly how tenuous House’s desire to improve his life really is – or how House’s self-definition still hinges on his talent. Thereafter, perhaps predictably, the ketamine apparently wears off, and House gives up and goes back on the Vicodin with a vengeance.

I don’t believe, however, that House ever forgot his one glimpse of the sky. This explains, in my opinion, his behavior in the Tritter arc. In Detox, as noted above, House voluntarily gives up the Vicodin and endures the withdrawal symptoms in quiet agony while competently handling his case; when Cuddy tries to curtail his dose in Finding Judas, on the other hand, House suffers publicly, screaming for drugs in front of his young patient, cruelly and gratuitously insulting Cuddy, and very nearly cutting off the aforementioned patient’s limbs before Chase comes up with the correct diagnosis. The difference almost certainly speaks to a new emotional component to House’s Vicodin dependence. So too does House’s almost absolute refusal to go to rehab despite the threat of imprisonment and his Oxycontin overdose. He is not consciously trying to self-destruct here; he is clawing for the good life, clinging to the one thing he knows for sure takes away some of his pain.

After Tritter and before the bus accident, House’s crisis – his doubting – takes a back seat, but we still see some signs that it is ever present. He acts quite the rascal Words and Deeds, but the fact that he continues to pursue alternatives to Vicodin belies his unapologetic veneer. He tries to biopsy a CIPA patient’s spinal nerves in Insensitive in the hopes of doing his own research on her pain insensitivity. And in Half Wit, he sets up a cancer ruse so that he can enroll in a pain management trial in which electrodes are to be placed in the pleasure center of his brain. These are both wild (and unethical) long shots; it’s telling that he is willing to go to such lengths. Moreover, he continues to put himself at unnecessary bodily risk. In 97 Seconds, for example, House electrocutes himself to prove to a clinic patient that there is no heaven.

Meanwhile, House’s best friend gets involved with a girl. This is something House has a lot of trouble abiding, as it requires that he share someone on whom he unconsciously depends - and also highlights in stark colors his own stagnation. To House’s credit, however, he does concede that Wilson may have made a good choice and tries to negotiate with Amber because, as we shall see, he cares about Wilson and wants him to be happy (No More Mr. Nice Guy).

"Am I dead?"

"Not yet."

"Should be."

"Why?"

"Because life shouldn't be random. Because lonely, misanthropic drug addicts should die in bus crashes, and young do-gooders in love, who get dragged out of their apartment in the middle of the night, should walk away clean."

"Self-pity isn't like you."

"No, well, I'm branching out from self-loathing and self-destruction. (…) Wilson is gonna hate me."

"You kind of deserve it."

"He's my best friend."

"I know."

"What now?"

"I could stay here with you."

"Get off the bus."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because... because it doesn't hurt here. I let it... I don't wanna be in pain. I don't wanna be miserable. And I don't want him to hate me."

"Well, you can't always get what you want."

- House & His Mind, Wilson’s Heart

If any set of episodes makes the argument that House has a core of decency somewhere in his supposedly cold, misanthropic soul, it is House’s Head and Wilson’s Heart. House resorts to genuinely heroic measures to retrieve what he knows he must remember: he battles against every attempt to keep him – and his battered brain – quiet and resting; he doses himself with physostigmine to jog his memory and goes into cardiac arrest; he submits himself to brain stimulation and nearly dies a second time. All of this he does to save Amber. All of this he does for the sake of friendship. And all of this turns out to be tragically futile; his desperate gestures save neither Amber nor his friendship with Wilson.

House can now see, with the clarity of polished glass, how much Wilson means to him – that his life is also framed by his friendship’s bounds – but despite Cuddy’s prodding, it takes him a great deal of time before he can bring himself to say what he really feels. Wilson’s response is devastating: “You spread misery because you can’t feel anything else,” he says. “You manipulate people because you can’t handle any kind of real relationship. And I’ve enabled it – for years. The games, the binges, the middle-of-the-night phone calls. I should’ve been the one on the bus, not – you should’ve been alone on the bus.” He finishes: “We’re not friends anymore, House. I’m not sure we ever were.” (Dying Changes Everything) Although House eventually succeeds in harassing Wilson back into the fold (Birthmarks), their relationship from this moment is noticeably different. Though Wilson still sometimes interferes in House’s affairs (e.g., his hitting on Cuddy to make House jealous in The Itch, or his trying to reassure House post-Kutner by mysteriously “changing” his diet in Saviors), in other episodes, he is strangely distant. In Lucky Thirteen, Wilson hides from House his own involvement in Cuddy’s plans to adopt a baby. In Emancipation, a dominant subplot involves Wilson’s unwillingness to tell House what to do about his burgeoning attraction to Cuddy. This disengagement clearly worries House.

Simultaneously, House is disturbed by Cuddy’s attempts to move on. In Joy, when it looks very likely that Cuddy’s adoption will go through, House is relentless in his attempts to dissuade her, splashing her with baby vomit, knocking over and breaking her lamp, and, overall, questioning her desire to be a mother. Then, when the adoption falls through, House, in a desperate move, visits Cuddy at home and kisses her. True to his dysfunctionality, however, House cannot take it to the next level. He tries to visit Cuddy at home again, but chickens out before ringing the bell (The Itch); when Cuddy starts to evince some reciprocal attraction, he sabotages it by grabbing her breast; he retrieves Cuddy’s old desk in a stunningly romantic gesture, but then gets friendly with a hooker he hired to scare Kutner (Let Them Eat Cake). Through all of this, we plainly see once again House’s desire for a different life, but he is unable to follow through in any meaningful fashion.

As the assaults upon House’s status quo continue, he takes another stab at a pain free life: he switches to methadone. The methadone works spectacularly well – so well that in an unprecedented move, House elects to quit rather than stop the regimen. Unfortunately, this moment of happiness proves illusory as well as House’s prime insecurity regarding his genius resurfaces when a case goes awry. A finally supportive Cuddy watches sadly as House dumps the dose she gives him (The Softer Side).

Let’s stop the summary here and review: House at this point is unhappy being alone. He is unhappy being in pain. Subconsciously, he wants his life to be different, but every attempt he has made to change has thus far failed due to his own insecurities – due to his own internal masters. What’s more, he is terrified that the two constants in his life – Wilson and Cuddy – are drifting away from him. In The Social Contract, he tries to convince Chase to perform dangerous brain surgery on his disinhibited patient because, crucially, he sees himself in said patient. “When, he leaves here, he's going to lose his family,” he says to Chase when Chase demands an explanation. “He's gonna alienate the people he works with. And if he ever finds a friend who's willing to put up with his crap, he'll be lucky - until he drives them away too.” There’s a war going on, and so far, everything in House that aspires to happiness is losing. So House makes another astonishing move: he goes to see a psychiatrist (Locked In). For someone so profoundly psychiatry-averse, it is a sign of true panic. House is in trouble.

And onto this teetering camel, Kutner’s completely unexpected suicide is dropped. If House hadn’t had a psychotic break, it would’ve been a miracle.




*****
Previous bits of meta:

The Vogler Arc
Stacy Warner

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Comments

This was a fantastic essay.
Very interesting essay, yes.

At least one of the writer/producers for House (Doris Egan aka tightropegirl) is a first rate SF author so I'm looking forward to the next season.