TV Rewind: House M.D. Was an Artful Master of Misery and Loneliness

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TV Rewind: <i>House M.D.</i> Was an Artful Master of Misery and Loneliness

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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Spring 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the series finale of one of the most beloved American medical dramas, House M.D. That’s a good enough excuse to talk about a less-discussed aspect of David Shore’s iconic show. Beyond its numerous intriguing cases and characters, House gave us a protagonist who was particularly relatable and appealing to introverts by the way he embraced loneliness and misery.

Dr. Greg House (Hugh Laurie) was the Michael Jordan of diagnostic medicine (and being a jerk) on television. He could afford to insult and look down on people because he’d always come up with brilliant diagnoses that other doctors couldn’t. Based on thorough observations and spot-on assumptions, he had the superiority to tell people how he knew them better than they knew themselves. But this arrogant, cynical, and snarky demeanor was only a disguise to hide his pain.

House truly believed that his leg injury, which left him in severe agony and with a limp for the rest of his life, made him meaner. That it was the main cause of his narcissistic and morose behavior that alienated him from creating and maintaining human connections. He blamed his condition to justify his assholery. Yet, the truth is that House wasn’t a fan of people even before his impairment. He sucked at relationships: he was a selfish lover and a self-absorbed friend. His disability just gave him an excuse for being like that without consequences. Most of the time, however, he liked being a social outcast because he longed for solitude. Yet, he seriously thought his life would magically turn content if only he could heal his leg.

Eventually, though, House learned to use his misery. He identified with being the “genius cripple diagnostician” as others saw him. Trauma and being in pain fuelled his obsession to be the best in his medical field. In Season 1’s “DNR” episode, House treats a legendary Jazz musician who can no longer play due to ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). In a conversation. between the two, the patient dissects House’s personality in a matter of minutes. He says that he knows that limp, the empty ring finger, and the obsessive nature of his that drives him to be extraordinary. The reason normal people have spouses, kids, and hobbies is that they don’t have that one thing these two share. But having that one thing comes at a cost. It’s inevitable. Yet, for House, this isn’t necessarily a weakness.

Sad people are interesting. They have wounds. They have a tragic story that triggers sympathy in others. They’re mysterious. But once you reveal their secret, the appeal disappears. House knows this well and just can’t let it happen. He needs to be different from ordinary people because his pain needs to mean something. His gift, the talent of solving human puzzles, is a combination of wit, misery, and compulsiveness. He understands better than anybody that happiness doesn’t inspire the same way sadness and struggle do.

House wants others to find him fascinating more than he wants to connect with them. It’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make every time over a stable, fulfilling, or happy relationship. His longest, most intimate bond has always been with pain—it’s the only thing that never let him down. That’s what makes him the genius; he just can’t give up on it.

Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), House’s best and only friend, sees him for what he is: a brilliant yet wounded man in perpetual pain, obsessed with puzzles, hiding behind narcissism and arrogance. He’s the one who constantly questions his decisions, his morality, and the nature of his relationships—the only person that’s keeping him in check. Wilson is just too kind and loving to let House ruin every good thing in his life. His tender, selfless, and affectionate personality is the polar opposite of House. Even when he hates his best friend, he can’t stop caring for him. This twisted friendship is the closest House got to a functioning connection—and he knows he doesn’t deserve it.

It’s not a coincidence that House hasn’t had a single long-term romantic relationship for eight years. In Season 1, when his ex-girlfriend Stacey (Sela Ward) returns, he tries to get back with her despite knowing that she’s happily married now. In fact, the very reason she seeks out his help is her husband’s poor condition. House treats this as a challenge. He needs to find out whether she still has feelings for him (a puzzle). It’s clear that he had his closest and most vulnerable connection with Stacey. But as soon as she gives in and wants to try again with him, House shuts her down. He knows that he can’t make her happy. He has to admit to her that he could never love her more than he loves himself.

Six years later, in Season 7, when House and Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) finally get together, the diagnostician finds himself in a similar situation. This time, however, it’s his girlfriend who has to open his eyes to make him see the truth. She tells him, “You choose yourself over everybody else over and over because that’s just who you are.” It’s not that he doesn’t try. To a certain degree, House desires to change: to open up and be vulnerable. He’s more considerate, understanding, and loving than ever before. Fundamentally, though, he stays the same at his core. At the beginning of their relationship, he keeps coming up with justifications why this will never work between the two. For him, being content and joyous feels foreign and unnatural. Thus he needs to sabotage his happiness to go back to “normal.” At one point, he even says, “Love and happiness are nothing but distractions.”

I’m not suggesting that House doesn’t want to be loved or that he doesn’t long for company; he attempts to form real, deep, long-lasting human connections from time to time. But he suppressed this need for so long that he’s desperately looking for ways to negate it as soon as something starts to feel good and regular. He’s too afraid of losing his genius, and anything that seems to threaten his talent is a risk he consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) attempts to eliminate immediately.

That’s why the final season feels a bit hollow and vague. In House’s character arc, for the first time, there’s no one and nothing that could challenge his principles. Season 8 has no direction or aim until he finds out about Wilson’s grim diagnosis in the last few episodes. His eventual change of character in the finale feels a bit unfounded, and yet, that’s also why the ending works beautifully. For that one person—the friend who always accepted him, who forgave him no matter what horrific things he did in the past—he’s willing to change even though it goes against nearly everything he believes in. But whether or not he can actually achieve and sustain that change after Wilson is gone is left to us to decide.

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Akos Peterbencze is an entertainment writer based in London. He covers film and TV regularly on Looper, and his work has also been published in Humungus, Frame Rated, and Fanfare. Akos is a Rustin Cohle aficionado and believes that the first season of True Detective is a masterpiece. You can find him talk about all-things pop culture on Twitter (@ilovemoviesmor1) and Medium (@akospeterbencze).

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