Promos are sometimes misleading, and I don’t mean that as a knock. Promos don’t exist to accurately represent the episode to come, but just to get people to watch it. So they tend to latch on to the flashiest part of an episode and throw it on to the screen with little to no context. The House promo that aired during the Super Bowl, for example, made it look like “Family Practice” was going to be an especially eventful and important episode, all ambulances and driving rain and yelling and whatnot. In reality, it was a pretty standard-to-poor episode, albeit with Murphy Brown as a patient. That kind of thing–good promo, bad episode–happens all the time. The promo for “Bombshells,” on the other hand, was of a somewhat different type: outright disingenuous.
Fortunately for the quality of the episode at least, this was for the best. The promo made it look like “Bombshells” was going to be a surreal musical episode of some sort. Upon seeing the promo, I thought the likelihood of abject, hilarious failure to be tremendously high, and expected “Bombshells” to be unfathomably awful, but entertainingly so. History’s greatest monster that I am, I was even kind of rooting for that outcome. Instead, it was, well, pretty good and surprisingly light on the weird shit promised us in the promo.
All that weird, promoted shit in fact came from dream sequences that were scattered throughout the episode. These sequences took up maybe ten percent of the episode and were for the most part pretty fun. The Two and a Half Men spoof was, if nothing else, timely, and I will never object to House and Wilson hugging.* The zombie sequence, meanwhile, was the best of the night, with House fending off undead versions of his team members with his ax-cane in a failed attempt to save Cuddy. Following this came a Leave it to Beaver-esque sitcom fantasy in which Cuddy imagines House as a helpful father-knows-best sort. Then came a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reenactment in which House abandons Cuddy just before she steps out to face her death at the hands of the Bolivian calvary. And only then do we get the musical number that featured so heavily in the promo. Devoid of the episode’s context, the promo made the number look silly. Within the episode, it’s still silly, but it’s also impressively creepy. As a result, I am never going under anesthesia. I will instead chew on a strap or bite on bullets or whatever it is people used to do in the good old days.
(*This blog will soon turn into little more than a dumping ground for all my House/Wilson slashfic.)
In addition to these dream sequences, “Bombshells” featured a standard case of the week and character drama. In most episodes, the case of the week is the dominant A-plot and the character drama is relegated to subplots, but every year there’s a handful of episodes that alter this structure, either by reversing it or by letting the character drama completely subsume the case of the week. This is generally accomplished by giving a main or recurring character some sort of ailment that House needs to solve. Sometimes this accounts for the whole episode, while other times this occurs in addition to a more standard, all be it abbreviated case of the week. “Bombshells” utilizes the latter structure.
The case of the week subplot here is Taub bonding with a depressed teenager only to learn that the teen in question is deeply disturbed. Taub first suspects the teen of cutting himself, and then discovers that he’s been selling drugs. Upon searching his home, Taub finds a yearbook with horrible things written in it and a video of the boy setting off pipe bombs while threatening his classmates. When Taub confronts the kid’s parents, they brush him off, and he has to decide whether he should go to the police. In the end, he mails the tape to the police anonymously.
The A-plot, meanwhile, centers around Cuddy discovering that she has a tumor and the cancer scare that follows. Long story short, the tumor’s benign and Cuddy’s just fine. The dreams are all connected to this story and have to do with Cuddy’s concern over whether House will be there for her to see her through her ordeal. Throughout most of the episode, however, they felt very much unnecessary, as though they were tacked on just so the promo people could make that ridiculous preview. Likewise, the case of the week, while serviceable (and the focus on Taub welcome for all those Taub fanboys out there), seemed to be almost entirely unconnected to Cuddy’s situation.
But then there’s that last act, in which the whole episode comes together and Cuddy finally realizes that her relationship with House simply isn’t going to work. All of her worrying earlier in the episode that House wasn’t going to be there for her had seemed to be unfounded, what with the way House came to her bedside and held her hand and basically did all the stuff she was hoping he would do. But then when Cuddy is back in her house recuperating at the end of the episode, her sister mentions finding a bottle of pills laying around and putting them back in the medicine cabinet, at which point she realizes that House had taken Vicodin before coming to see her at the hospital. When she confronts him about this, House objects that he did it for her, so that he could be there for her like she wanted. But Cuddy responds that if he was stoned, he wasn’t really there for her anyway, that the Vicodin was just another way for him to avoid the inevitable emotional pain of a relationship with her. So she ends the relationship and House slinks off to the bathroom to pop some more Vicodin and begin what looks to be another downward spiral.
None of this is terribly new material. House’s Vicodin addiction is a frequently recurring motif and the inability of people to change for the better is the dominant theme of the whole series. But that doesn’t make the execution of the episode and the sheer balls-out rapidity with which it completely unravels the central storyline of the entire season any less impressive.
The Huddy relationship has always felt somewhat false, like a fanfic abruptly imported into the series proper. It has trafficked in the well-worn and problematic trope of a good, nurturing woman being all a troubled man needs to change, with Cuddy (her character reduced even more than it had been before to little more than a sexualized mother figure) stepping in like a deus ex machina in the season six finale and House repeatedly attempting to convince her that he could be better. But when House repeats that mantra at the end of “Bombshells,” Cuddy rightly points out that no, he probably can’t, and that whatever changes he’s exhibited in their relationship to date have been little more than a wishful illusion.
Narratively, this is effective because it changes the way we view what came earlier in the episode. Having seen the end of the episode, the case of the week is now clearly about wanting to see the best in somebody, but ultimately recognizing that they’re not who you wish they were, and then following through to the inevitable painful conclusion. Cuddy’s four dreams, meanwhile, remain manifestations of her doubts about House, but the food he was eating in each of those dreams becomes an obvious marker for Vicodin. By the end of the episode, Cuddy realizes that she subconsciously knew all along, but just didn’t want to let go of her illusions. Yet more impressive is what the ending does to House’s zombie dream. Earlier, it seemed like a basic hero story in which House is simply trying to save Cuddy against impossible odds. That he fails to do so is interesting and representative of his limitations as a doctor and how he was feeling about Cuddy’s prognosis. That reading remains valid, but the ending presents a second interpretation. The zombie dream is how House sees the world: a constant battle in which various dying, stupid creatures launch themselves at him demanding he solve their problems. His ax-cane is his crutch–his Vicodin, his sarcasm, his misanthropy, his pain–the defense mechanism that he uses to isolate himself from the pain of the world. It’s not the zombies that kill his relationship with Cuddy. It’s his trusty ax-cane.
While the last act effectively saves the episode, I’m less sure as to whether it saves the season. Fourteen episodes of Huddy was pretty tough to bear, though I wouldn’t be shocked if they play better retroactively, given that is seems the relationship is supposed to be seen as a bad idea (which unfortunately wasn’t obvious at the time). Of course, that depends on where the show goes from here. If “Bombshells” is simply a blip, and House and Cuddy get back together next week, well, that would be extremely frustrating. Here’s hoping Huddy was more like a misleading promo leading to more episodes like this one.
- The subtlety of the connection between the case of the week and the character drama here is well done and very welcome, given the many episodes over the past couple of seasons in which the connection was painfully on the nose.
- “Good thing I brought my ax-cane” is just a great, great line, even more so for having a darker relevance later on.
- In my Charlie Sheen post, I wrote that shows obviously about soul-crushing despair don’t often become hits. House might be an exception to that rule.
- It dawns on me that I never really said much about the musical number, beyond calling it surreal and anesthesia-induced. But it too lends itself to an alternative reading in light of the ending. On a perhaps superficial level, House demanding that Cuddy (and/or the television audience) “get ready for the judgment day” obviously foreshadows the Huddy break-up to follow. On a less superficial level, “Get Happy” is a religious song inspired by old Negro spirituals, but given the show’s presentation of religion, within the world of House we should probably consider it a song about illusions. The only way House can get happy (or, more aptly, achieve the illusion of happiness) is by taking Vicodin, whereas Cuddy remains happy in her relationship with him by ignoring his Vicodin use. What happens at the end of the episode is that all of this illusory happiness comes crashing down, and the reality we’re left with is pretty miserable. There is no Holy Spirit in House.