TV Review: House – "Merry Little Christmas"

(Excuse the delay on this week’s review. I was out having a merry little Christmas on Tuesday. A real one, not the House kind.)

Take one cup Vogler and two cups “Detox,” sprinkle with a case of the week that for once I wish had taken more airtime from the character drama, and we have “Merry Little Christmas.”

That might not be a very generous description, not fitting for the holiday spirit, but there is an air of familiarity to the Detective Tritter/withhold the Vicodin/define House’s addiction storyline the last few episodes have been milking. The patient story and the more-stunning-than-usual performance by Hugh Laurie redeemed this one for me, but only after I shut off the logic centres of my brain that were challenged by the rest of it.

This episode starts with House striding to his office to the cooler than cool sounds of “Zat You Santa Claus?” and jolly Detective Tritter (David Morse) starting things off with an ominous “Merry Christmas.” “And a happy go to hell,” is House’s rejoinder. Wilson and Tritter are bestowing a lovely gift on House: a two-month stint in rehab in exchange for a guilty plea for that thing he’s guilty of, with no jail time and no sanctions from the medical board.

“I did this to help you,” Wilson insists. “Next year, get me a sweater,” House replies.

Tritter tries to sell the deal with the choice: “Your principles or your life,” but I can’t quite figure out what those principles might be. The principle to break the law, implicate his best friend, not take responsibility for any of it, and then decide on the one means of reparation that will ruin the career that means everything to him and will still result in withdrawal from Vicodin. Unless they hand out unlimited pills in prison? But in any case, at least he’d have his principles. Whatever they are.

House runs to Cuddy, who’s examining the patient who will distract him momentarily from his outrage – so you know it must be an interesting case. Abigail is a young dwarf recovering from a collapsed lung. Cuddy has no idea what caused it, and after a snarky sparring match with 4’1″ mom Maddy (Meredith Eaton-Gilden), which involves many short jokes from House, take-no-guff sass from her, and a whole lot of sexual innuendo that ends with House proposing they “go for a spin,” House determines to find the cause. That was fun. This episode could have used a little more fun and a lot more Maddy.

Cuddy is not impressed with her “best doctor,” but she’s possibly even more unimpressed with Wilson, pointing out that House will never take the deal “because he’s a child.” Wilson’s solution, since there’s no way to undo the past, is to treat him like a child and take away his candy until he takes the deal. Cuddy warns that House needs the pain medication to function. “That’s the point,” says Wilson.

I feel like I need an Excel spreadsheet programmed with some highly complex formula to make sense of the characters’ ethical stances, so I’m not even going to try to untangle them with my tiny little brain. Yeah, yeah, he needs pain medication to function. We get it. We got it two years ago. But is that the point? If he’s out of control, which the forged prescriptions and every one of the other doctors’ suggestion that he’s taking too much Vicodin suggests, and no one did anything that made any difference, the outrage at Wilson now seems pretty hypocritical.

Cameron and Foreman debate the merits of withholding the pills to force House into rehab instead of jail.

“It might not work, but it’s not wrong,” Foreman says.

“Just because it’s effective doesn’t make it right,” Cameron counters, saying the ends don’t justify the means. Huh? Was that a non-sequitor or did I miss something there?

All the moral outrage in this episode was pretty outrageous. Jennifer Morrison in particular hits the tone of moral superiority waaaay too hard for my taste. When Cameron aired her grievances with Wilson, the logic centre of my brain just about short circuited.

“It was the right thing to do,” Wilson says about telling the truth to the cops and forcing House’s hand.

“You pretending your motives are pure is why I have a problem,” Cameron says in that voice dripping with superiority.

But … wait. Isn’t the stronger argument that she doesn’t think it was the right thing to do? Let’s hear that argument, because that’s what’s missing in this episode. Why on earth are his motives the most important question to her, and not the question of what’s best for House, whatever she thinks that is?

Wilson later tries to back out of testifying, since no one is allowed to have the courage of their convictions in this episode.

Wilson: No matter how much of an ass he is, statistically, House is a positive force in the universe. The pills let him do that.

Tritter: Vicodin does not make House a genius. Whatever he does on the pills he can do off.

Tritter menacingly informs him that he’ll be subpoenaed and his statement admitted, so not testifying isn’t going to make House’s choice go away, and could result in House and Wilson being cellmates.

The show, not usually known for playing it safe, is particularly brave to write a story arc where there’s no one to root for. As much as I want to appreciate the daring, I prefer it when I can root for House at least on some level. While he continues to insist “I’ve done nothing wrong” despite forging prescriptions on his best friend’s pad, I continue to think rehab or jail is the place for him.

This episode definitely proves House is out of control now, if he wasn’t before (but, c’mon, he was). Cuddy cuts off his Vicodin completely and cuts off his privileges at the hospital until he agrees to rehab. While Abigail gets sicker, the team operates as usual, bickering over the differential diagnosis and breaking into the patient’s home.

In addition, the ghosts of Christmas detox visit House to get information on the case. Foreman trades a medical clue for breaking into Cuddy’s desk drawer, which sadly doesn’t end up holding his precious pills. Cuddy visits him in desperation, pleading for the patient’s life, only to have House slam the door in her face. Cameron wrings a clue out of him and bandages up the arm he’s been cutting to relieve the pain of his leg and the detox.

Cameron gets the diagnosis of Still’s Disease from him, but after a brief period where it looks like he’s solved it, Abigail gets worse. The team argues whether it’s cancer or an autoimmune disease. Maddy wants House on the case because she recognizes that idiot though he is, he’s the one doctor who can solve the mystery.

Her saviour, however, is insulting Wilson and a grieving widow so he can steal pills from the body of her dead husband. When that doesn’t work, he steals that patient’s OxyContin prescription from the pharmacy, signing the log book in a scene that screams “bad move, House.”

Vicodin might not make House a genius, but Oxy apparently does. Cuddy confronts him while he’s bantering with a little girl who has spinal muscular atrophy – hey, it’s the disease House writer/producer Garrett Lerner has raised awareness and money for, finally making an on-screen appearance.

The little girl’s insistence that her stuffed bear is a dog results in House’s epiphany. Calling a bear a dog doesn’t make it a dog, and calling a girl who has cancer and an auto-immune disease that results in suppressed growth doesn’t make her a dwarf. Not only can they cure her illness, they can give her growth hormones and allow her to grow to near-average size.

When Abigail balks at taking the hormones out of fear of losing her identity and what makes her special (shades of House earlier this season), House and Maddy have their long-awaited sparring reunion.

House: You and I have found out that being normal sucks, because we’re freaks. The advantage of being a freak is it makes you stronger. How strong do you really want her to have to be? You told her what you had to tell her. Now you tell her you lied. Even if you didn’t.

She does a great job of convincing her daughter that she’ll always be special and will be able to have what Maddy didn’t, and the adorably rueful smile she gets from Abigail makes me wish we’d seen more of actress Kacie Borrowman in this episode too.

After that heartwarming scene, we get the anti-heartwarming scenes of Wilson inviting House for some “people over pills” on Christmas Eve, House calling his mom for an uncharacteristically nice “merry Christmas,” and then downing some pills with a very large chaser of alcohol.

Wilson still cares, and still knows House pretty well. He storms over after not getting an answer to three phone calls. When he finds his friend half passed out on the floor next to an empty pill bottle, he walks right out again. Cold. But I suppose the pile of puke and the fact that House was conscious were his clues that he wasn’t in imminent danger. Maybe he even did some math to figure out how many pills House would have ingested, since it was his patient’s prescription, after all. And it’s not like House hadn’t put him through enough to earn his disgust. I can come up with many justifications for him walking out with his friend dazed on the floor next to an empty pill bottle and a pile of puke, but still. Cold.

That finally does seem as low as House can go, inspiring him to go to Tritter to accept the rehab deal. Only, what a surprise, Tritter wasn’t really acting in anyone’s best interests, he was after an eye for an eye all along. The deal is off the table now that he has the pharmacy book evidence of House’s narcotics theft.

“Jesus walks, huh?” he smirks. And as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays ironically in the background, he ends as he began: “Merry Christmas.”

Merry frickin’ Christmas to you too, depressing House people. Not that I’m complaining about that. The year the show tries to do a House version of A Christmas Carol is the year I root for the original Scrooge to prevail.

House is scheduled to return Tuesday, January 9.

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9 Responses to TV Review: House – "Merry Little Christmas"

  1. Nancy says:

    Wow. It never occurred to me that they were doing “A Christmas Carol.” I hope they were; makes it a better episode.

    I love the way you describe the shifting moral-stand lanscape. You really put your finger on something that was bothering me.

    I know we’re supposed to think that House was out of control with/on Vicodin, but I actually don’t. I just think he’s functional. And I think he stole Wilson’s perscription pad because he didn’t want to admit he needed it again after his pain-free month. More reasons for this plot line to make so sense to me.

    Merry frickin’ little Christmas indeed. And God friggin’ bless us, every one.

  2. Diane Kristine says:

    Oh, I don’t think they were doing a Christmas Carol. I meant that if they ever do, I won’t be happy. And I was just being silly with the reference to the ghosts of Christmas detox.

    I don’t buy any rationalization for him forging a prescription. He had his reasons, and any crime can be rationalized, but that doesn’t make it right. Plus, he did admit he needed it but wouldn’t submit to an exam. Not to mention at the point he forged the prescriptions he was barely limping, which apparently is supposed to be our indication of how much pain he’s in, since we now know there’s nothing “structural” to make him limp. At that point, he wasn’t in as much pain as he normally is even after taking all that Vicodin, then.

    He’d hardly exhausted all his opportunities, and wasn’t apparently in mind-altering pain, before resorting to something that goes that far beyond right. To me, that’s out of control.

    And instead of seeing a doctor about his leg pain in this episode, he makes up an ailment and tries to scam the system again. Tritter’s right, but for all the wrong reasons – House needs to be stopped – so I’m having trouble caring if he is forced to pay the price that any other person would for forging precriptions.

  3. Suldog says:

    Let me play House for a minute…

    (Play House – heh)

    House believes that he should have access to any pills he desires, at any time. He sees no reason to keep medication out of his hands since he feels he functions perfectly well while on the meds. Whether this has anything to do with his addiction is secondary to it being one of his principles.

    His insistence that he’s done nothing wrong, when he’s obviously done something wrong insofar as the law is concerned – not to mention morally, within his relationship with Wilson – is based on that principle.

    The other principle he is standing up for is the right not to be bullied by authority. Obviously, House has never been one to give in on this before, and Tritter knows this, so that’s the principle Tritter refers to.

    I am probably in a very tiny minority of viewers, but I happen to agree with House, for the most part. He should not have to give in to even a single bit of Tritter’s bull.

    Having said that, however, House has been a complete and total ass**** towards Wilson. Just about anything Wilson asks of him, he should have done at this point.

    And AAAARRRGGGHHH. Four weeks until the next new episode? *growl*

  4. Anonymous says:

    This episode, along with its immediate predecessor “Finding Judas,” were by far the best in this strong season.

    If the Emmy voters need any further evidence of the celestial talents of Hugh Laurie, I urge them to watch the scene in “Merry Little Christmas” when House returns to the hospital and confronts Wilson. Laurie’s face shifts effortlessly from sarcasm, to sincere imploring, to fury, to desolation in the space of a few seconds.

    This is a remarkably courageous performance by Hugh Laurie, one that never mitigates the bleak outlook of David Shore’s creation.

    I heartily agree with you that we needed much more of the sassy and sensuous Maddy in this episode and lots less of the strange and sanctimonious Cameron. Preaching does not become her.

    Wilson’s agony, so brilliantly played by Robert Sean Leonard, is now intertwined permanently with House’s degradation in a spiral of devotion and destruction that is unparalleled in television.

    This is great stuff indeed.

    Carol

  5. Annie says:

    Quoting Diane Kristine:
    “Oh, I don’t think they were doing a Christmas Carol. I meant that if they ever do, I won’t be happy. And I was just being silly with the reference to the ghosts of Christmas detox.”

    But you know, it got me thinking. Foreman helping House look for the Vicodin in Cuddy’s office — ghost of Christmas past (as in the Vicodin is now in his past, not his present.) Then Cameron as Christmas Present tending to his cut arm while he’s in the throes of a present-tense detox. Lastly the overdose — the ghost of a Christmas yet to come if he keeps on his current path?

    Or is this wayyyy to much overthinking? I’m desperate to find something to make me like this episode because on first viewing it really put me off.

    Annie

  6. Diane Kristine says:

    Suldog, all very valid points. I’d like to see House do something like what he did to Vogler in his speech about Vogler’s company’s new drug – something at least vaguely noble while screwing authority, like turning himself in elsewhere and reporting Tritter’s abuse of power or whatever. I dunno. I’m more frustrated at the muddiness of all the characters’ motivations when they’re being so vehemently “moral”. I say lock ’em all up and make them shut up. 😉

    Annie … weeell, if it works for you, that’s all that counts! It definitely doesn’t work for me. Seems to me if you have to stretch that much, and none of the other elements of the story fit, it probably wasn’t their intent. And if it was – they failed in my book.

  7. Renee says:

    Daine, I can understand your hesitation to write this review. This episode, more than any other, left me unsure. I was as confused emotionally and morally as the characters. But, I think that my reaction, and I will argue the reaction of the characters, toward House is appropriate. Wilson, Cuddy, and the kids all love House. If they do not out and out love him like Cameron, they love him as a friend as Wilson and Cuddy do. At the very least they respect him as Foremen and Chase do. All that to say their confusion stems from their involvement with House. People who are close to addicts are the ones who enable them. It is not that these people want the addict to continue on destroying himself, but they find that they are unable to make clear choices about the addicts condition because of their attachment. In order to make clear choices, they must be objective, and any emotional connection means they are subjective. So, where does that leave them and, by extension, us? Leaves all of us confused.

    I understand why Wilson felt he had to go to Tritter and rat on House. The second to the last scene in “Finding Judas” revealed Chase’s intension to go to Tritter and bury House. Wilson knew he, if anyone, could manipulate the situation and somehow save House. I also understand Cameron’s position. Wilson was not acting completely out of his desire to protect House; he also wanted to save himself, and he knew going to Tritter was the only way. There is nothing worse than someone who claims they feed the homeless because it is the right thing to do when really it also about making themselves feel better. Cameron is redirecting the frustration she has for the situation (no pills for House) on Wilson. She wants House to take the deal, but she also wants him to continue to be the way he always was. She doesn’t want to see him suffer through pain and detox. She just wants the uncomfortable situation to be over. I think many of us can relate. We don’t want to see House suffer, and yet, we know he must. It is inevitable that he will.

    I was struck dumb by this episode. Prior to Tuesday, I had spent two weeks trying to justify House’s position on the meds. I didn’t want him to be an addict. I wanted him to have pseudo addiction, which is the condition where by people exhibit signs of addiction but are acting out of improperly dealt with pain rather than an impulse to get high. I was actually preparing my notes to write a paper on the matter, and I was prepared to argue pseudo addiction over actual addiction. Then this episode. I was forced to determine that House’s problem, which had thus far presented itself with the attributes of pseudo addiction, is addiction. Whether it came from a pseudo addiction or not, it is full blown addiction now, and it is scary. When Wilson came over to his apartment and he was “whacked out” (to use a Foreman phrase) on the floor, I was scared for House. He had done some stupid things, like take LSD and antidepressants, but he had never been so stupid as to mix pain medication with alcohol in such large amounts. I mean, really, he is a doctor. He should know better. He is a music fan. He should know what killed Hendrix and Janis.

    Wilson’s reaction to finding House on the floor bothered me too. I felt like it was out of his character to leave his friend lying on the floor in a puddle of his own vomit. My husband and I had a talk about it, and he made some good points. He explained Wilson had been dealing with a lot from House, yet he still tried to do what he could to help him. When Wilson saw House on the floor he knew House would be okay because House was somewhat conscious and House looked at him. Wilson left him there because, at a certain point, there is only so much a person can do for another person. Wilson was disgusted and outraged that House would use him again to get his fix. House’s actions make Wilson appear to be condoning of the theft. Wilson just couldn’t take anymore of House and his games, so he gave up on House. Honestly, I love House, but I wanted to give up on him too.

    I watched the previous Christmas episode on DVD, and the difference between this year and last year is sad. Last year, House was bickering about faith with a nun, joking about epic poetry with Wilson (Dante to be exact), and exchanging gifts with Cameron. Last year, he spent Christmas evening eating Chinese food and laughing with Wilson. This year, he spent the days leading up to Christmas in agony from pain and detox. He tried his best to ruin his friendships and his career by letting his pills come before his patient, stealing from Wilson, and pushing Cameron and others who care about him away. Then, House spent Christmas evening taking way too many pills and drinking way too much booze.

    As far as Tritter goes, I knew he wasn’t done with House. Even if House had taken the deal, Tritter would not have been done with him, so it does not surprise me that Tritter took the deal back. Now House is totally screwed. It will be interesting to see how the writers get him out of this one. First blood will go to Tritter, but House, if he can get his support team back (Wilson, Cuddy, and the kids), he might win the fight. He is in a low place right now, but I think House might have hit bottom. Going to Tritter definitely indicates a bottom. I guess we will just have to wait forever (or until January, which ever comes first) to see.

  8. atara says:

    Hmm, lots of random points to make:

    Wilson walking out on House: Cold, but entirely understandable. I think Cam is full of shit; Wilson’s motives may not be “entirely pure,” but whose motives are? We almost always have mixed motives, even when we do something that appears totally altruistic–at the very least it does make us feel good. Cam “feels good” by taking care of those who are “wounded”–to the point of manipulating/blackmailing House into a dinner date–as in, leaving the team if he won’t go. Even if our motives aren’t entirely selfish, and even if they don’t go so far as enlightened self-interest, I really don’t think people act from purely generous motives when they do something for the good of others.

    And Wilson has to give away his fucking practice–the patients he takes care of. He’s a doctor–it’s his calling. How is that a selfish motive? And he’s right to be furious w/ House and kick him out of his office in “Finding Judas” b/c House is utterly indifferent to that. He couldn’t care less about Wilson’s patients, Wilson’s calling–he just didn’t want to back down to Tritter. But I think he literally doesn’t have the empathy to understand why Wilson is mad at him; really seriously fucking mad in “Finding Judas.” He rides by in his bike at the end to offer Wilson a ride and seems puzzled when Wilson refuses it.

    House is an asshole, and he doesn’t have the capacity for seeing the world from anyone else’s POV; I think that’s why he thought it was OK to forge Wilson’s Rx pad and to allow Wilson to lose his practice in order to defeat Tritter. House doesn’t care about patients; he just wants to save the life of the one patient he’s got at a time. He doesn’t understand that Wilson does care about patients. I think House goes to Tritter after Wilson walked out on him–all of a sudden it was real to him that he could lose Wilson, and “Maybe [he doesn’t] want to push this ’til it breaks.” I think that’s the first time he really gets it that he’s gone too far, that Wilson might have given up on him for good.” Clueless, yes, but clueless in a larger-than-life way. He’s not really human; he’s quasi-superhuman in his genius, which makes him disfunctional in his dealings w/ human beings. They’re another species to him; his self-absorption is all.

    But he has a kind of integrity and moral code that’s his own. In “Son of Coma Guy,” for instance, he sticks to the deal made with John Larroquette’s (sp?) character, even when he asks personal questions that House would rather die than answer–esp w/ Wilson listening. But he made a deal and sticks to it. Maybe there’s actually a connection there. If he makes a deal, he has to stick to it; that’s part of his moral code, no matter how painful it is to him, no matter how painful to his ego. Making a deal w/ Tritter could be really frightening to him b/c then he has to stick to it, and his deal w/ the dad in “Son of Coma Guy” was painful enough. I think he’s terrified of how much of himself he’ll have to reveal in rehab, how vulnerable he’ll have to be. With his Vicodin he can create his own self-sufficient (mostly–he needs Wilson) universe; he doesn’t have to surrender parts of himself, not even to Wilson. But in rehab, he’s the patient, and I think having been a patient himself (after getting shot), he knows how helpless he’ll be, when his whole world is built on being the one in control. (Ooh, more Byronic stuff–I’m saving this for my essay!)

    Anyway, Wilson obviously cares about him–that little leap over the couch shows that. But he must have known that House wasn’t going to die or be permanently impaired by his little Oxy/alchohol cocktail. For one, he was already throwing up–thereby getting the drugs out of his system. And he got cleaned up and to Tritter’s office pretty quickly.

    House and the Oxycontin:
    First of all, this is a plot point that really pisses me off. The series is hardly medically accurate; but hanging such a major plot development on something really stupid annoys me. Since when would a dying cancer patient be getting bloody pills? He’d be on a morphine drip. Hello? I’ve had oncology nurses tell me that depending on their level of functioning, such patients do sometimes get pills if they’re able to swallow them, but I suspect that’s rare. I’ve never heard of a dying patient who wasn’t on IV morphine by the end.

    When House got the Oxy from the pharmacy, he was definitely out of control. I think a lot of that is intense pain. Intense pain makes you crazy. I’ve had certain types of intense pain from my Multiple Sclerosis that, instead of curled up in bed in a fetal position sobbing, I could do something sort of unethical (a dead cancer patient doesn’t need the pills any more), I’d do it. I’d do pretty much anything to stop the pain short of violence. And House is in w/drawal, which is further screwing w/ his mental state.

    I’m also a firm believer in the idea that if you can function on opiates, then who cares if you’re addicted? “Addiction” gets thrown around like it’s the most awful thing that could happen to someone. I function to the degree that I function b/c of Percocet–it doesn’t make me euphoric or sleepy. When you’re taking it for real pain, it heads for the pain centers of your brain. No euphoria. Just the ability to concentrate on what you’re doing. Granted, House takes a frightening amount of Vicodin; he’s a larger-than-life character who simply doesn’t operate by the rules. That’s how he saves lives. He’s kind of like the Bride in the Kill Bill movies; she can’t be judged by society’s rules b/c she’s simply outside of them. (They’re both Byronic, but I won’t digress there.)

    I actually don’t know how pain pill rehab works. Does the patient just learn to live w/ the pain, but the pain is still there? I mean, not everybody can learn biofeedback and meditation and such; I know I can’t. I’ve tried. When I went to a pain clinic (a hoop I had to jump through to keep getting Percocet), the dr. there gave me an Rx for Methadone! Seriously. Which didn’t work. I got my Percocet.

    Yes, Tritter’s a sadistic bastard. I read an article (TV Guide, Nov. 27-Dec. 3 issue), in which Morse says of his character (comments in brackets are mine), “Tritter truly has empathy for the doctors. He doesn’t want to hurt them, but he has to use their weaknesses to get to the heart of things. [Wilson’s medical practice is a weakness??!!] He even sees House’s value and keeps offering him a way out. But House doesn’t take it.”
    You play on a murder suspect’s weaknesses perhaps; but depriving a doctor of his practice? And he’s offering House a way out b/c he knows House won’t back down and take it; he knows this b/c he’s similar in some ways and wouldn’t back down from his quest for revenge after getting a thermoter up his butt. Or if House does back down, it will be devastating to him (more on that below), just as it would be for Tritter (although Tritter can only understand House on certain levels; House and Tritter exist in separate dimensions even if Tritter is both stubborn and terrified of being vulnerable). It can’t have hurt; we put thermoter’s in babies’ butts, and the opening is a lot smaller. So b/c he was humiliated, he’s willing to destroy some of the most valuable parts of a medical staff.

    I wonder if House can plead temporary insanity in re the Oxycontin thing . . .

    I thought Laurie’s acting was spectacular. He does pain-and-withdrawal-afflicted really well. Comparable to Helen Mirren’s drunk in the last Prime Suspect

    I think a lot of this whole plot is that we like our heroes superhuman and self-sufficient and utterly individualistic. But we also want to see them humanized (think of the Terminator in T2) and vulnerable–we can relate to them more. This story arc is humanizing House by taking away at least three of the support beams of his superhumanness and the self-created universe he lives in (Vicodin, being able to ignore society’s rules, and never giving up or giving in–this last being the quality that saves his patients). His wall of superiority to society and being sufficient unto himself is cracking, and he must be terrified. Hence desperate. And desperation is never pretty.

  9. Oscar Russell's Crack Rock says:

    I find it hilarious that none of the “pain experts” here could even consider the possibility that House is demonstrating pseudoaddictive behavior, or behavior that mimicks that of addiction due to undertreatment of pain. It’s quite the common phenomenon.

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