The Death of Gregory House

You have to be an addict of some kind to fully appreciate the genius of “House, M.D.” Whether your vice is Vicodin, like House, or alcohol, or porn, or other drugs, you see yourself in the eyes of House. The self-absorption through which he sees the world is evident in the half-shrugs that he gives when baldly confronted with the choice between right and almost-right, and the maddening pauses that keep him from becoming the person that he could.

NOTE: The series finale of “House, M.D.” aired tonight (May 21, 2012). There is information in this post that will reveal the events of that finale, so if you read on, you may find that the episode is “spoiled” for you.

Which speaks to the genius of Hugh Laurie, who has put on the costume of this genius who draws people toward him through the sheer magnetism of his ability, only to drive them away with the thorns of his personality. Many of the barbs that he throws are intentional, as with the insults that he uses to keep his diagnostic team at bay. Other barbs come from deep within, much less superficially, as in the episode in which Cameron confesses her attraction to him, only for him to pause long enough to give her hope before telling her that he does not like her.

The things that House wants in life are not that different from the things that any of us want. He wants love and a family. He wants to love others, and for that affection to be returned. For whatever reason, though, he does not know how. One is sure that therapists could march in to the situation and declare him to be high-functioning Asperger’s, or autistic, or perhaps even irascible. He finds love not once, but twice, but in both instances his behavior drives the women who love him far away, looking back on him with pity even as they decide that a life with him is not going to happen.

Occasionally, House finds mirrors of himself in the patients who end up in Princeton Plainsboro. There is James Sidas, the brilliant physics student who found a way to dull his intellect through a regimen of cough syrup, because he was happier as a dazed deliveryman, on an intellectual level similar to his simple but loving girlfriend, no longer tortured by the whizzing speeds at which his mind operated when not weighed down by the alcohol in his Robitussin (“Polite Dissent,” Episode 8, Season 6). Ultimately, though, House decides that is not a life for him.

After enough time has gone by, House finally wears down his friends. The pain that comes from an old leg injury drives him to Vicodin, which has a far stronger relationship with him than any person can. The strength of his addiction causes him to forge prescriptions for himself, to rummage through the hospital pharmacy, and eventually to capture the attention of the police (by being so rude to a police officer who came into the clinic that he ends up being the target of that officer’s vendetta).

Even after a stint in rehab, even after finally winning Cuddy’s heart, House never leaves his true mistress — his pain medicine. Medication is far easier than dealing with actual people with actual needs, and so even the Russian woman whom House married just to spite Cuddy — and who falls in love with him — ends up fleeing from him, when it is clear that his own weaknesses will consume him.

And so when the final episode begins, House is lying on the floor, in the second story of a burning building, next to a dead man. The dead come to visit him, to spur him out, but Amber can’t shame him into taking his life back up again, and his first love, Stacy, shows him what he can still have — if he will try to live, but he just lies down. It is when Cameron comes to tell him that he deserves the rest that death will bring, even though all that means is that his self-centered disdain for others will have turned out to be right — that dealing with other people simply is not worth the time and effort — that he struggles to his feet, insisting that he can change. That he will change.

Of course, that is when Wilson and Foreman run up to the building, only to see House’s profile against the glass, fire behind him. A beam falls on the shadow, though, and then the building explodes. House is dead, and the funeral immediately follows.

Colleague after colleague (but not Cuddy) gets up at the podium, giving short, superficial tributes to House’s work, and to the way he challenged them. It is when Wilson turns from praising Caesar to killing him, calling him an ass and a jerk, that he gets a text message on the phone that had belonged to his best friend, House, telling him, “Shut up, you idiot.”

The scene shifts and we find Wilson pulling up next to a figure in black on a set of stone stairs, leading up to a brownstone. There is House — legally dead, having switched identities with the dead man who had lain next to him on the floor. It was this man, finally, who had shown House that change was possible, that even a person who had let addiction run its cold fingers around his very heart could commit great sacrifice — if he had nothing left to lose.

And so House realized what he had to do. By leaving behind his medical license, his apartment, his legacy, he truly made himself free. His next gesture as a free man is to spend the next phase of his life being Wilson’s friend. Suffering from terminal cancer, Wilson believes that he has five months to live. House knows this and asks him, “I’m dead. What do you want to do for the next five months?” When Wilson pauses to remind House what might happen when the cancer worsens, House simply responds, “Cancer’s boring.” Then they head down a country road on a pair of motorcycles, fields of green all around them.

In Luke 9:24, Jesus said that “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it..” This comes in a conversation with the disciples in which Jesus predicts his own death; right before this, though, he had sent the disciples out on their own, going around to heal the sick. Then, he had performed the miracle of feeding five thousand people who had shown up to hear him, turning a handful of fish and bread into enough food for this crowd.

While it might be a stretch to find theology in the escape of an atheist from a burning building, the imagery of House, lying in a room surrounded by flames, as he decides whether or not he will rise up and leave the building, does suggest the power of choice that exists for all of us, regardless of our religious persuasion, or lack thereof.

And the choice is this: will we go out into the world and do what we were made to do? Or will the distractions that lie in wait for many of us, whether in the form of syringes, magazines, bottles, or in the simple presence of fear and anxiety, keep us content to survive, rather than to live?

If you want to see what it is to survive, instead of to live, watch any of the first 176 episodes of “House, M.D.” If you want to see the kind of choice that can push you into life, though, watch #177. It’s called “Everybody Dies,” but it will make you want to live — and to laugh. The identity of Gregory House may be officially dead, but the vision of two friends, riding free on a green day, having cast aside their fears and their illusory needs, is a testament of hope.

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