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There is a notion, popular among fans of serialized television, that the conclusion of a story is the single most significant factor in determining whether the episodes leading up that conclusion are any good. It’s a notion that I have been known to mock, as it seems to me this takes the concept of a television series as a single unit past its breaking point. No matter how serialized a show is, it’s still composed of individual episodes that can be enjoyed or not enjoyed on their own merits. While it’s true that a strong conclusion can improve a story, there’s no reason a story can’t be enjoyable even if it’s followed by a weak conclusion. Alas, House is doing its best to prove me a hypocrite.

There’s a lot to like in “Fall From Grace.” It’s  a very broad episode–some would say too broad–built largely around House being a wild and crazy guy. Even the case of the week is especially absurd, featuring one of the most gloriously ridiculous twists I’ve seen in a while, in which it turns out that the patient–with whom Masters has developed a nice little patient-doctor relationship–is a serial killer. And a cannibal. A SERIAL KILLING CANNIBAL.

House, meanwhile, does not kill or eat people, but he does try hard to give the impression that he’s losing control. Last week he holed up in a hotel with a troupe of hookers and then jumped off a balcony into a swimming pool. This week he’s riding around in a monster truck, bringing a big-screen TV into his office, playing ping-pong while diagnosing a patient, getting foot massages from a Russian prostitute, and, oh yeah, marrying her in return for services rendered so that she can become a United States citizen. When Wilson expresses consternation over the marriage, House explains it will save him $30,000 a year. It’s hard to argue with math like that.

I can completely understand why some would find this too broad by half, but I found it all to be quite a lot of fun. Now we have to talk about why it’s quite a lot of fun, though, given that it’s putatively the story of someone letting go and giving in to all his worst, most self-destructive tendencies. If that reading is right, playing House’s self-destruction for laughs basically makes House the Charlie Harper/Sheen of medical dramas.* If this is the case, we can find it amusing because, as in the case of Two and a Half Men, we have the benefit of the barrier of artificiality protecting us from having to deal with the darker implications of House’s behavior. But unlike Two and Half Men, House has always mixed the wackiness with genuine, even melodramatic consequences. While House can act like an escapist hero at times, the show is ultimately very much not pure escapism. And generally when House is in full-on meltdown mode, the show goes to the melodrama more than the humor.

(*This would give that dream sequence from “Bombshells” just a little more significance.)

Additionally, House’s behavior here isn’t actually all that self-destructive. At worst, he’s risking an investigation by the INS. Riding around in a monster truck, playing ping-pong, getting a TV–these are all things that could happen in any episode. It’s just that House is doing them all at once and they’re slightly more outlandish than his usual fare. Even marrying a Russian prostitute isn’t particularly far removed from House’s usual behavior, especially given his financial calculations. The end of the episode–when House declines the opportunity to sleep with his new wife–more or less makes clear what’s really going on here. This isn’t House losing control at all; this is House being spiteful and trying to hurt Cuddy. Which is dickish, but not existentially horrifying. Despite Wilson’s concerns–he tells Cuddy House needs someone to tell him “no,” which I would argue is precisely what House wants Wilson to tell her–House is actually in complete control of his actions. So he can ride around in a monster truck, and we can laugh and not worry he’s going to drive it off a cliff.

That everything that happens in “Fall From Grace” is about House’s relationship with Cuddy is the source of my concern, however. Though House and Cuddy broke up a couple of weeks ago, thus ending the ungodly abomination that is Huddy, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. I want to believe that “Bombshells” offered the definitive take on the relationship and that all that remains is fallout. But I can’t help but fear the writers have other ideas and are just setting the stage for a big reconciliation.

This is, of course, intentional on the show’s part. Huddy has been, for better or worse,* the central conceit of the season, and what happens to House and Cuddy now is likely to remain the central tension in the show until at least the season finale. Basic storytelling rules demand this be so. Indeed, if they simply dropped the story to return to the pre-Huddy status quo, it would feel abrupt and unsatisfying. So I don’t really want them to do that. And yet my disdain for the relationship is so great that the mere possibility of it reconstituting itself in the end has an adverse effect on my enjoyment of the episodes currently airing.

(*Note: It has been for the worse.)

But I still don’t think that’s an entirely fair way to evaluate an episode. While “Fall From Grace” is a part of the Huddy arc, it is not solely defined by the arc. It’s full of over-the-top humorous set pieces and sensationalistic twists and is just in general a lot of fun. And though the arc it belongs to has been badly mismanaged this season and could very well end poorly, it’s actually handled pretty well in this particular instance. Whatever dissatisfaction I have with the episode is more dissatisfaction with the season than with the episode itself. Which means that if I ever come across it in reruns, I’ll probably enjoy it a lot more than I did Monday night.

Loose Ends:

  • When the team found bone fragments in the patient’s colon, I made a joke about the guy being a cannibal. I didn’t think they’d actually go there. But then they did! And it was kind of awesome!
  • House’s new prostitute wife, played by Karolina Wydra, is fantastically charming. She and House should run away together.
  • One of the funnier aspects of the show is the way the members of House’s team become desensitized to his behavior as time goes on. Masters is a wreck in this episode, but Taub, Foreman and Chase take it all in stride.
  • Taub’s reaction to being left out of the wedding party is both sad and amusing. That he complains to House and winds up as the ring bearer is even more amusing.

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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.

Loose ends:

  • 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.

Late Update:

  • 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.

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