A review of the “House” series finale coming up just as soon as I say that Pascal’s Wager is facile…
The “House” creative team never tried to hide the influence that Sherlock Holmes had on the medical drama: the names, the one-sided friendship with Watson/Wilson, the drug problems and, of course, the misanthropic sleuth who can act as your biographer after a 10-second glance. So it feels appropriate that Shore would end the series with a gambit borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle, who ultimately grew tired of Holmes and had Holmes and Moriarty plummet down the Reichenbach Falls in his story “The Final Problem.” When it became clear that the public wasn’t done with Holmes yet, Conan Doyle resurrected him with a story in which the great detective revealed to Watson that he had faked his death so he could deal with a variety of other enemies in secret.
House never had a Moriarty, and showrunner David Shore’s occasional attempts to supply him with an outside nemesis usually fell flat. House was always his own worst enemy, so the “House” equivalent of “The Final Problem” put our man in the Princeton equivalent of the Reichenbach Falls (a burning building where House had been scoring heroin with a former patient) and put him into conflict with himself – albeit dramatized in the form of “House” characters both deceased (Kal Penn’s Kutner, Anne Dudek’s Amber) or long-absent (Sela Ward’s Stacy, Jennifer Morrison’s Cameron), who each represented a part of House’s mind that either wanted him to save himself or lay down and let the fire take him.
“House” had dabbled in both self-reflection and hallucination in the past, but the finality of “Everybody Dies” (a riff on the title of the series’ debut episode – and House’s first lesson to his assistants – “Everybody Lies”) made it feel like a more important referendum on Greg House than the previous ones.
Sooner or later, Shore found a way to undo whatever earlier progress had made, whether physical or mental, so that the series could continue being what it had always been(*), but also out of his own frequently-expressed belief that people are incapable of change.
(*) Shore may be right about that, and even if he’s not, that thesis doesn’t inherently prevent a drama from greatness – David Chase felt much the same about Tony Soprano and friends, after all. But when you combine the refusal to have any of House’s changes stick with the show’s formulaic procedural mystery structure, you get a show that became very tiresome to me after a while. “Everybody Dies” was the first episode I had watched since last season’s House/Thirteen road trip episode, and that was the first episode I had watched since midway through the season before that. Conveniently for me – and any other viewers who might have come back for the finale after an absence – the two new members of House’s team had very little to do, and new plot developments like Wilson’s cancer were explained quickly.
A series finale, though, offered Shore a chance to introduce permanent change if he wanted it to, without worrying about how difficult it might make applying the formula to future episodes.
He could have had House give up and die in the fire. He could have had House run out the door, stop, drop and roll and declare himself a new man who would stop and smell every flower. He could have done a lot of things.
Ultimately, Shore went with an emotionally tricky conclusion. After debating with his imagination for most of the hour about his fear of his own mortality, about his obsession with solving puzzles above all else, about whether he’s capable of finding someone else to love him (in either a Wilson or Stacy sense), House is accused by the Cameron figment of once again taking the cowardly way out of things.
“You’re right,” House tells her. “But I can change.”
Of course, moments after he makes this declaration, he appears to die when a collapsing beam blocks his exit right before the building blows up. But Wilson discovers that House faked his death just as Holmes did, sacrificing his entire life – including the ability to practice medicine and continue to solve those puzzles he loves – in exchange for the ability to avoid jail in the present so he can take the dying Wilson on one final adventure.
It’s not quite as ambiguous an ending as the final scene of “The Sopranos” – we know that House survived, and we know that Wilson will be dead within five months of when they take off on those motorcycles together – but it’s one you can definitely view multiple ways. House’s decision could be an enormous change: a selfless act where he gives up the thing that gives his life happiness and meaning in order to be there for his only friend in his final days. Or it could be more of the same: House gaming the system one last time to get what he wants, and worrying about the consequences later. (I can imagine, for instance, a sequel series set five years in the future where House has figured out a way to keep practicing medicine under an assumed name, traveling town to town to diagnose strange cases and always staying one step ahead of Foreman or some other dogged investigator.)
I spent most of the night and morning after the finale wrestling with how I felt about it. I appreciated that Shore recognized that the only thing that ultimately mattered was House himself, and his relationship with Wilson. There was no attempt to advance storylines for the other characters – though the final montage(**) gave us glimpses of what their lives became (Chase gets House’s old job, Cameron has a new husband and a baby, etc.) – and only a token attempt to care about the malady afflicting the final patient. (As House tells the Kutner figment in a meta moment: “Nobody cares about the medicine!”) House’s struggles with his own worst impulses was always the heart and soul of the show, and it’s what should have mattered at the end.
(**) Even though we knew at that point that House wasn’t dead, using Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart” – a haunting, beautiful song written by a man who knew cancer would be taking him away very soon – hit me like a ton of bricks. Ultimately, I think that’s more about the song and my history with it, but points to Shore and company for knowing the exact right tune to lead into the more joyous “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” accompanying House and Wilson’s final road trip.
I was also glad to see the return of faces (particularly Amber, a character the show discarded far too soon in favor of less interesting figures like Thirteen) from an earlier era where I greatly enjoyed the show, even if they were really just there representing different parts of House’s psyche. (And the funeral sequence gave all the living characters a brief moment to speak as themselves, even if it was to talk about House.) And House’s devotion to Wilson, even in the roundabout, self-destructive way he did it (as opposed to just following Foreman’s instructions so he could delay his jail sentence), was moving, and provided a few more great final scenes between Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard.
But I think the repetition and muck of those middle seasons ultimately severed whatever emotional connection I had to House’s personal struggles. No matter which way I choose to interpret House’s solution to his own final problem, it didn’t matter to me in the way it might have at an earlier, stronger point of the series.
Watching “Everybody Dies” felt like a class reunion. I was reminded why we were so close once upon a time, but I never felt regret about losing touch in the interim. Nostalgia, but not a new connection.
What did everybody else think? How did you view House’s last Holmes moment? If you had, like me, stopped watching earlier, how did it feel to drop back into the world of Princeton-Plainsboro after an absence? And for those of you who stuck it through all the way to the end, did you feel rewarded for your patience?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org