House, M.D.: "Humpty Dumpty"

After the emotional intensity of last week’s episode, this week’s “Humpty Dumpty” injected some welcome lightness into the doctor’s demeanour. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) is back to picking on Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) instead of little girls with cancer, and making remarks like “I can be a jerk to people I haven’t slept with. I am that good.”

In another Six Feet Under-ish setup, the episode opens with a jogging Cuddy in obvious discomfort. She guilts her handyman, who wants to leave early before fixing her roof, into staying to finish the job before she heads inside to choke on some water. If I hadn’t read the one-line description that was printed in the television guide and plastered all over the Internet, or seen the preview after last week’s episode, I would have thought Cuddy was the patient of the week. Since I did, it was no surprise when Alfredo fell off the roof and Cuddy was fine. But the real puzzle is that his fingers are slowly turning purple, and the team must find out the underlying cause before he loses his hands or his life.

The episode cleverly uses the bait-and-switch tactic the show loves, making us believe initially that we are seeing a role reversal with Cuddy as the aggressive maverick and House as the cautious naysayer. Instead, administrator Cuddy is the anti-House, making decisions solely based on guilt and an emotional attachment to the patient. Typically, House asks dismissively: “Do I get bonus points if I act like I care?” and solves the puzzle through deduction not just of the medical clues, but by discovering what the patient is hiding.

Written by Matt Witten, “Humpty Dumpty” showcases some of the best elements of House and some of the worst: the best being character development, and the worst being character development. Confused? I’ll start with the best.

Despite my misgivings that the character’s purpose had already been wrapped up in the season one finale, the introduction of Stacy (Sela Ward) is used effectively here to humanize other characters, particularly House and Cuddy. We know that Stacy and Wilson were friends, and that Stacy and Cuddy shared some responsibility for making the decision that left House with a limp and Vicodin addiction. Stacy is the only one in the inner circle to call them by their first names, and here she acts as confidant to Cuddy and, to a lesser extent, Wilson, and voice of conscience for House.

Unlike last week’s episode, which featured Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) in a central role but revealed little about his character, “Humpty Dumpty” finally sheds some light on Cuddy’s personality and her relationship with House, while introducing some additional mystery – much more than the “did they or didn’t they” question House’s team ponders, but more fundamentally how the events of House’s own medical crisis linked them professionally and personally. House‘s deceptively simple episode titles often have dual meanings, and here, Alfredo is not the only egg man.

Now the worst. There’s Cameron (Jennifer Morrison). I want to like her. I do like one of her. But like a reverse soap opera, it’s as though the character has a sappy twin wreaking havoc in sassy Cameron’s life. In previous episodes, we’ve seen an earnest Cameron unable to deal with telling patients difficult news, and unable to deal with her feelings for House without turning into the kind of 12 year old girl I used to make fun of as a 12 year old girl. Last episode, as she has been in many others, she was competent, compassionate, and funny without crossing those lines.

In “Humpty Dumpty,” when the patient’s mother complains that she looks too young to know what she’s doing, Cameron replies very much not comfortingly: “There’s five doctors working on the case. The others are older.” This is not a med student, intern, or resident. This is a fully qualified doctor, who specialized in immunology and is now undertaking a fellowship for an additional speciality, who might as well have said “well, yes, I’m stupid, but the others are pretty smart.” She then goes on to do a very stupid thing just to highlight the point – tells House the patient is dying while standing outside the door to the patient’s room, in earshot of the patient’s mother. Way to get over breaking bad news, Cameron.

And then there’s the character development I’m undecided on. A circle of jealousy was revealed in “Humpty Dumpty,” with Cameron quizzing Cuddy on her past with House, Cuddy calling her on her interest, and Stacy quizzing Wilson on the possible chemistry between House and Cuddy. It’s amusing so far, and House’s interactions with Cuddy and Stacy crackle with the possibility of entertaining attraction, though I worry about the romantic entanglements getting too, well, tangled. It’s also a bit puzzling that it seems perfectly normal to me that every woman on the show might be attracted to a man who is so caustic, cruel, and only occasionally kind. But when that kindness is wrung out of him, as it is in this episode, its uneasy honesty is worth more than anyone else’s easy platitudes.

For more of the best and worst, the plot entertained me, increased my love for most of these characters a little more, made me think, and frustrated me in equal parts. The patient of the week tied in to Foreman’s clinic patient this episode to bring up questions of race and class, but more than usually, the case itself faded into the background. That in itself is not a bad thing, and neither is the show’s uncanny ability to raise issues from different sides and let the viewers decide on a point of view for themselves. What felt dismissive this time was the enormity of these issues compared to the lack of time devoted to them, and the easy outs we’re offered to let us dismiss their importance.

After enduring blatant racist remarks for more than a year – taken in stride because they are no more meaningful than House’s blatant sexist, ageist, anythingist remarks that are designed to shock – Foreman (Omar Epps) accuses House of a more insidious, latent racism. There is truth in Foreman’s speech, though House’s actions that prompted it have their root not so much in racism but in his philosophy that all people are stupid, and his method to ignore a patient’s autonomy when he thinks they’ve made the wrong choice.

Between that and the bitter truth House throws out to Cuddy when they are ostensibly talking about Alfredo (Cuddy: “He’s not like us.” House: “Can’t work as a cripple?”), the writers have dropped a couple of elephants in the room and left the viewer to deal with them or dismiss them. Much as I love the grey areas the show introduces, and the complexities of the already complex central character we’re discovering, sometimes I want it to either say something deeper about its issues, like race in medicine and the unfair privilege of class, or at least not treat them as minor throwaways in search of that admittedly wonderful character development.

(As with many Fox programs, House gets thrown off the air for baseball in October. The next new episode is scheduled for November 1 – but check your local listings. I will not be responsible if you miss it.)

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)

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“Guilt is the very nerve of sorrow.”
– Horace Bushnell
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