Annnnd we're back. Quick recap for those with short memories: when we left off in December, Cuddy had become foster mother to a dead teen's newborn daughter, 13 and Foreman had given in to their throbbing biological urges, and House was, well, pretty much still House, although with a bit of extra mopiness around the edges now that Cuddy had a new baby to worry about. In addition, there was some concern on the general direction of season five. The show seems to have lost the thread, lacking in the urgency that made the best episodes so distinctive, and things aren't helped by clunky, unconvincing plot-lines focusing on the on-again, off-again relationship between Doc Savage and his career-driven-but-still-goes-floppy-at-maternal-prospects boss.
"Painless" isn't a return to form, but it's not too bad. As seems to be par for the course for this season (and, if we're honest, a large part of earlier seasons as well), the episode raises any number of intriguing issues—House's struggles with pain management, the nature of suicide, the responsibilities we have to the people in our lives—without ever really getting in depth. There are a few attempts to connect House's leg trauma with the PoTW, a thirty-something father and husband who tries to off himself after years of non-stop physical agony, but the attempts, as is often the case with PoTWs, come off as too calculated. No one's asking for a resolution to any of the questions asked, but something more is required than the shallow attention those questions got here; the writers are going through the motions without ever bothering to justify themselves.
Still, as an hour's entertainment, this did all right, largely because the mystery behind the PoTW's suffering was actually pretty cool. Jeff hurts. He hurts a lot, and no amount of pain medication seems to work. He's got a loving wife and an adoring son, but that doesn't make the hurting stop, and he's reached the point where the usual reasons for living just aren't cutting it anymore. The cold open has him trying to off himself in the garage, and getting admitted to Plainsboro doesn't make him any happier; while House and team try to figure out a problem that a legion of doctors were unable to solve, Jeff makes two more attempts at self-termination, once by blowing into his IV, and a second time by convincing his son to act as a distraction so Dad could down a bottle of isopropyl. (That last bit didn't have quite the impact it should've; there's something profoundly unsettling about a father involving his pre-adolescent son in a suicide attempt, but here the "happy ending" makes everything seem okay.)
There's enough here to fill up most of an episode, but we still get our share of subplots. Cuddy's struggling to balance her job with the demands of motherhood; it's a predictable development, as are the various baby diaper jokes, but I did like the way DYFS inspection resolved. Cuddy spends most of the ep worrying, and, in typical TV fashion, the inspector arrives early, on a day when Cuddy's housekeeper hasn't had a chance to tidy things up. Cuddy panics, but in the end she passes the inspection with flying colors—given the state of foster care, Cuddy's essential stability means she's more than qualified in the eyes of the state. Which leads to a revealing conversation with Wilson, where Cuddy explains that she feels like she's failing under her own standards; so Wilson suggests she might try lightening the load a bit. Y'know, like a man would.
Another subplot gets into the developing relationship between Foreman and 13. I had high hopes for the pairing; unlike House and Cuddy, their chemistry didn't seem shoe-horned in. Initially tonight, I thought maybe I was wrong after all, because once again we get 13 trying to avoid connecting with life (life being in this case Foreman) because of her illness. Foreman pushes, 13 runs into a much improved Janice at the drug trials, and by the end, the two have a dinner date. It's a predictable hour-long arc, but thankfully, there's a House-ish spin to things. For one, 13's reasons for not wanting to see Foreman could be viewed less as avoidance and more as a simple need for space; she's going through a lot, and it's not entirely unreasonable that she'd not want to jump into a new relationship. The fact that Foreman tries to force the issue could be seen as him trying to help her, or it could be read as him selfishly pursuing her for his own needs; the latter becomes a stronger possibility when we learn that Foreman manipulated the drug trial schedule to ensure that 13 would run into Janice (and thus give her hope), and then lied to 13 when she confronted him about it.
Ah, but House knew the truth; House always knows the truth. (I dug how quickly he caught on to the 13/Foreman pairing, too.) At least he does when it's about the lives of other people. Closer to home, he's a bit easier to blind-side. In our third subplot, some pipe problems lead to a collapsed ceiling in House's bedroom. When the repairman comes in to fix things, he tells House that the repairs aren't covered by his home warranty because he caused the damage himself. House spends the rest of the episode (in between sniping at Cuddy, curing the PoTW, and knowing Foreman better than Foreman does) trying to dodge responsibility for the damage, finally bribing the repairman so he'll falsify the claim. It doesn't matter that the bribe costs more than the repairs would've; it's about the principle of the thing. Principle being, House is always right, even when he's probably wrong.
Not sure how I felt about that last bit; on the one hand, it was largely disconnected from the rest of "Painless," apart from an errant ball-scratch in the final ten minutes, but on the other, it made for a mildly interesting slice-of-life story. Really, all of the subplots (except for Taub and Kutner's standard patient-inspired debate) were disconnected this week, and by and large, none of them were particularly memorable. I'm curious to see what happens with Foreman—the reveal that 13's getting a placebo in the drug trial makes for a nice twist on his manipulations—and the idea of Cameron taking over part of Cuddy's job has potential. But the most compelling part of this ep was Jeff and his problems, and those didn't get a sufficient investment of time; we're told over and over how bad his suffering is, but it never really connects, and Jeff himself never looks all that miserable. (And considering that he's been suffering from a perpetual knee to the groin, he should look pretty damn miserable.) As we've seen over and over this season, there's potential here, but not nearly enough follow-through.
—Wilson brings a Cuddy's baby a giant stuffed duck. Did he visit a carnival before stopping by?
—Cuddy worries about leaving House unsupervised. Yes, because she so rarely gives him exactly what he wants…
—I actually didn't guess that Taub was the attempted suicide ahead of the reveal. Looking back, I probably should have, but I liked how it made his earlier lecturing seem more human.