TV Review: House – "Sex Kills"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired March 7. I prefer to think the episode aired early rather than that I wrote this late.)

Wilson: “It’s not all about sex, House.”
House: “Really? When did that change?”

“Sex Kills” could be the title of a very unsubtle public service announcement, but instead it is the title of an equally unsubtle House episode, in which it is all about sex, killing patients literally and Wilson’s marriage figuratively.

Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinnati) is very un-Johnny Fever-like in this role as Henry, a sweet, bridge-playing divorced father whose sweet, bridge-attempting single daughter is alarmed when he has what they discover is an absent seizure. Combined with his other symptoms, House and his team believe Henry might have a sexually transmitted disease. “A disease that attacks his brain, heart and testicles. I think Byron wrote about that,” our Byronic hero muses.

Though Henry initially claims he hasn’t had sex since his divorce, House is skeptical. For validation, he calls to Wilson across a crowded waiting area: “How long can you go without sex?”

“How long can you go without annoying people?” Wilson retorts in a comic if ill-advised rejoinder that would seem to indicate he is seriously addicted to sex.

When his daughter is out of the room, Henry decides to fess up. He didn’t want Amy to know about his latest dalliance with her mother, his ex-wife, since she would think he was foolish for still loving the woman who cheated on him. Their date at a cheese tasting resulted in a bacterial infection that is destroying his heart.

“Cheese is the devil’s plaything,” House intones when Henry explains the fateful date. (A bit of trivia for you: Hugh Laurie named that as his favourite line at the Paley Festival Q&A, after first attempting to ingratiate himself with creator David Shore by saying all lines were his favourites.)

“If you’re not prepared to look stupid, then nothing great is ever going to happen,” Henry says wistfully, which provokes some compassion from the man who stalked a rat in his ex-girlfriend’s attic in order to win her back. House lies to Henry’s daughter in order to preserve his patient’s dignity.

Unfortunately, the bacterial infection was caught too late to save Henry’s heart, but the 66-year-old is too old to be considered a good candidate for a heart transplant. House appears before the transplant committee in a futile attempt to try to get a scarce organ for his patient. He gives an impassioned speech that older people should not be less worth saving than younger people, that if longevity is a criteria for transplant candidates, women should be considered over men, and white people over black people.

When he later tells Cameron they made the right decision in rejecting Henry, she is confused about his motives. “I was advocating for my patient,” he explains, demonstrating a consistency in his philosophy of always doing what he thinks is right for his patient, even if it’s not right for the greater good, even if he thinks it’s futile, acting like a defence attorney in an adversarial legal system.

Stymied by the transplant committee, House turns to extreme measures to get a heart for Henry, and begins to look for an organ that has been rejected by the organ procurement system. Enter Laura Neuberger, a soon-to-be-deceased ER patient whose bewildered husband Donald (Greg Grunberg, Alias) is soon to be part of House’s game of manipulation.

In talking to the grieving man to assess the viability of her organs before he even knows his wife is dead, House demonstrates the lengths he’ll go to for a patient, and also the complete insensitivity that oddly doesn’t translate into a complete lack of compassion.

When he tries to stop Neuberger from pulling the plug and refusing to allow her heart to be transplanted, House says: “It’s just her meat we’re dealing with here.” But House understands emotions enough to know how to manipulate them. Neuberger stomps out of Cuddy’s office, only to be confronted by a grateful, angelic-looking Amy (the angelic-looking Keri Lynn Pratt) thanking him for donating his wife’s heart so her father can live.

“Don’t you think that’s a little manipulative?” Cuddy asks. “No, it’s hugely manipulative.” House responds. When he implores Neuberger to take out his anger on him, not Amy, the man knees House in the groin, causing him to collapse in a heap as Neuberger tells Amy her father can have the heart.

House doesn’t hold a grudge, apparently recognizing that while that wasn’t the “take it out on me” he meant, it was deserved. Now that his dead wife is House’s patient, too, he even treats Neuberger with as much compassion as he can ever muster.

House and his team must use their investigative methods in order to cure the dead woman of her mysterious infection in order to use her heart. When the husband discovers his wife dyed her hair and took medication he knew nothing about, he glumly says “I guess you never really know someone.” House shows some kindness by pointing out the insignificance of those lies.

When the team determines that they can’t rid Laura Neuberger’s body of what they believe is an amoeba infection without destroying her organs, House is ready to move on and try to find another donor. To Cameron, he raises that challenge women everywhere dread hearing from the object of their affection: “If you really cared about me, you’d find me a better corpse.”

Donald Neuberger, however, insists that they persevere in trying to use his wife’s heart, and House agrees. I’m not sure if he’s inspired by the husband’s passion – doubtful, since he trusts no one’s judgement but his own – or if he senses Neuberger knows something he’s not telling, but uncharacteristically doesn’t prod him to reveal it.

Whatever the reason, they are right to persist, since they discover that Laura actually had gonorrhea, presumably from an affair, which probably caused her to pass out and get into the car accident that killed her. And we see that House’s kindness to Donald is purely circumstantial. When House lies in order to protect him from the fact that his wife had a sexually transmitted disease, Cameron is astonished: “That was kind of you.” But no, House wanted to delay the news so the husband would keep his knees to himself until the heart was in Henry’s body. He orders Cameron to tell him once the operation is underway.

But Neuberger has a secret of his own: he was the one who had the affair, but kept quiet about his gonorrhea in the hope that he’d discover his wife’s accident and death weren’t his fault. With House’s focus on sex, he seems to have missed out on the fact that it is the relationship secrets that kill, rather than simply the sex, which causes him to not quite dig deep enough. Just as well, since “Relationship Secrets Kill” would be a really bad episode title.

Entwined throughout the patient of the week story are House’s encounters with Creepy But Sweet Clinic Patient, a young man who wants a prescription for Depo-Provera to chemically castrate himself, in order to curb his attraction to cows. “Make love, not belts. Beautiful,” a skeptical House says. We learn that CBSCP’s secret is that it’s his sexy step-mother he’s attracted to, and he’s desperate to restrain his impulses until he can move out of the house.

“Sex Kills” shows a richness to the many patients and their loved ones we are introduced to, with broad strokes giving us some depth to the father-daughter relationship of Henry and Amy, the love and issues of Donald and Laura, and the twisted but almost noble desperation of the clinic patient. This episode is better than many at spreading the show’s focus, with so many characters, most notably Wilson, getting time to shine.

House is not a true ensemble show, unless your definition of “ensemble” is that there is more than one actor in the cast. Almost everything we know about the secondary characters is in relation to the title character. Chase’s daddy issues? Brought out by House. Cameron’s dead husband? Informs how she relates to House. And that’s fine with me. With a character like this, I’d be OK with Dr. House being on screen every second, as long as I wasn’t aware of the whimpers coming from Hugh Laurie’s direction. But I do get occasionally frustrated that some of the other characters are neglected, despite their intriguing relationships with House.

So “Sex Kills” writer Matt Witten has now earned my Season Two Wilson-Cuddy Memorial Award for giving us more of a personal glimpse of my favourite non-House characters: Cuddy in “Humpty Dumpty” and now Wilson here. (I hear Foreman is getting his turn soon – yay.)

Wilson and House’s verbal sparring bounces from being about the patients to being about the affair House believes Wilson is conducting, so that even they are often confused about which topic they’re currently talking about. As usual, what we learn about Wilson also illuminates House’s character. No surprise, House is House even when dealing with his troubled only friend. It’s not that House doesn’t care about the people closest to him, it’s that his caring comes in the form of highly intrusive and insensitive curiosity, which might make them wish he didn’t care.

“Does it occur to you that … maybe a friend might value concern over glibness? That maybe I’m going through something that I need to have an actual conversation about?” Wilson pleads, as Robert Sean Leonard gives a heartbreaking performance of the doctor at his most vulnerable. You know he must be hurting deeply if he’s looking for sympathy from House.

“Does it occur to you that if you need that kind of a friend, you may have made some deeper errors?” asks House, to which I can only add: “No kidding.”

We know Wilson knows House better than anyone, since the character often acts as the House interpreter. We know they’ve been friends since before House’s leg infarction, but we don’t know why. Is Wilson crazy to put up with him? Maybe that can be the medical mystery at the heart of a future episode, but for now, we’ve been shown often that House’s friendship speaks in actions more than words.

Good thing, because House’s words are nasty. He prods mercilessly at Wilson about his marital troubles, using his reasoning skills on his annoyed friend to come to the conclusion that Wilson is having an affair – a theme House has nagged at since early in season one – and offering questionable advice based on that deduction.

“You always want to simplify everything,” Wilson says, “boil it down to nice easy equations, nice easy answers.”

“Go home and have sex with your wife,” House says, proving him right.

After all the prodding, Wilson finally talks. Despite his plea for compassion over glibness, Wilson knows House’s limitations and still turns to him in the end. He arrives at his doorstep, bags in hand, to reveal that his wife is the one having an affair. With no smart remarks, just a stricken look on his face, House opens the door to offer Wilson his lumpy couch and a beer – manspeak for support and concern, I suppose.

The next new episode airs on March 28 at 9 p.m. on FOX, or Global in Canada. And not to rub it in that I’ve seen it already or anything, but it’s a good one.

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