There was a legitimately exciting scene in tonight’s solid episode of House, and it demonstrates in the exception one the show’s biggest problems. After her Alzheimer's suffering husband disappears from the hospital, Natalie Tavares (Melanie Lynskey) yells at the staff and tries to storm out of the building. House stops her with his cane, and calls her on what’s really driving her anger—she’s guilty because she spent the night away from the hospital with another man. This is typical House, using hard truths to bludgeon people as a way of establishing dominance, and also because, hey, that’s his shtick, so if he doesn’t keep doing it, he doesn’t have a character. What makes this scene exciting is that, this time, he has a reason for calling her on her behavior. Yeah, he does it in a not so nice way, but he needs her to calm down so she can answer questions about her husband. Running around like crazy people trying to track the man down isn’t going to solve anything; House cuts directly to the point, defuses the situation, and almost certainly saves the patient’s life.
It’s an effectively thrilling moment, and it does something the show’s writers so rarely bother with these days: it grounds House’s behavior in logic. Part of the premise of the series is that its main protagonist is often a surly, arrogant jerk, but the other part of the premise is that his surliness stems from intelligence. He does things for a reason, and while that reason may not always be immediately clear, and while it may sometimes be tied up in some self-destructive need, he can’t be a jerk just to be a jerk. Oh sure, once in a while a stray bit of sarcasm is fine, but as the show has gone on, House has more and more often become simply a delivery device for whatever mean-spirited comment the writers can think of. It can be a tough line to draw, admittedly, given that the character brilliance can often make his motives obscure, but we need more scenes like the one in “Better Half” where his willingness to speak directly without bothering much with tact or empathy is immediately beneficial. House needs to be a good guy every once in a while, and not just via curing patients. Hugh Laurie’s likability is one of the few reasons this show has been watchable even in its worst moments, and he could use a little support.
Thankfully, the support in “Better Half” wasn’t limited to a single scene. While the episode followed down familiar paths, and while it at times suffered from the talking head style of debate and diagnosis which has become so tedious over the years, it managed to invest some actual drama in a few character dynamics, clarifying some conflicts and heightening others in rewarding ways. Aided by a good guest turn from Lynskey, and a not-completely-boring patient of the week storyline, this was an episode that didn’t rely entirely on the cast’s charms and the occasional funny joke to get us through to the end credits. A satisfying, though temporary resolution to the Foreman/House feud, some surprisingly emotional stuff from Chase, a goofy enough subplot with Wilson, and a legitimately great sequence between House, Lynskey, and her husband, all came together to make for an enjoyable, and occasionally moving, hour of television.
The Foreman/House face off was probably the most unexpectedly successful; the characters have been sparring off and on for years, and while the power level between them has shifted, that fight has essentially stayed the same. Will Foreman become the next House? Will the student eclipse the master? And so on. In theory, this has potential, but in practice, it generally led to a lot of frowning and vague threats and Foreman trying to quit. Tonight, thankfully, the stakes were clear: House’s ankle bracelet was up for review, and Foreman needed to prove he could still control House without it. So there was some back and forth squabbling (including a funny runner with House setting predictive cards everywhere), and, in the end, Foreman cures the patient and decides to let House go free. It worked better than that particular storyline generally does, because it was relatively self-contained, and the ending worked well on both characters, allowing Foreman some measure of dignity, and reminding House that people could still occasionally surprise him.
House’s quest to disprove aseuxality wasn’t too terrible, although it was predictable enough that it probably didn’t really need to exist; as soon as Wilson decided to share the details of the case, everything that followed was basically rote. Chase’s monologue was the sort of character beat the show occasionally throws its ensemble, and it helped turn the usual “I’ll pick position A, you argue position B” conversations between the younger doctors into something with a bit more weight. (It also had a nice little pay-off at the end.) But my favorite part of the entire episode was the scene between House and Natalie, with House translating her husband’s whispered Portuguese. It’s a blatantly manipulative scene to be sure, but that didn’t make it any less effective, as it both provided House an opportunity to once again not be a complete ass, and also neatly summed up Natalie’s dilemma: the man she loves is still there, but he speaks in a language she can’t understand, and he doesn’t always know who she is. It’s encouraging to see House getting two things right in the same episode: understanding its protagonist, and realizing, if the show wants to keep going with the patients of the week, we need to have some reason to remember them.
- “If I have to plough that furrow myself, so be it.” House/Wilson ‘shippers take note: the writers have been reading your fan-fic.
- “No, if they’re having sex, it’s probably with their genitals.”