I don’t have much time for television in my current job, but parishes or no parishes, I haven’t been able to give up House, MD. The show ended last year but I’ve been watching it on Netflix—I march at my own pace, as readers here know—and last week I reached the final episode.
Dr. House, as viewers can attest, is a difficult man to like. A drug addict, a cynic, a master-manipulator, he shows glib disregard for the feelings, beliefs, and even human rights of others. He has a penchant for insulting patients and destroying relationships with anyone who dares to get close to him. A difficult man to like, yes—but I like a challenge.
The genius of the show comes from the character’s complexity, the fact that House needs relationships even as he unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) burns the ones he has. His colleagues (and viewers) see through his frequent, and slightly too insistent, assertions that curing patients for him is only a matter of solving puzzles. And a great deal of his off-putting-ness comes from the fact that he says things that are true, or uncomfortably close to the truth, but socially unacceptable.
Hugh Laurie, the British actor who plays House, brings forth the character’s humanity in often unspoken ways, with facial expressions and penetrating stares that reveal the conflict and loneliness House feels. House’s colleagues can see these inner wounds too, and they call forth a certain compassion from them, a loyalty that overlooks the constant insults and trials that come with working for House. House’s friendship with Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), an oncologist, is all the more real because of its utter lack of sentimentality. It is tough, almost brutal work, being House’s friend.
Dr. Wilson’s own cancer diagnosis and the failure of his radical course of treatment for the disease overshadow the show’s final episodes. House is not really able to cope with the imminent loss, and his refusal to accept it demonstrates both the utter emptiness of his nihilistic worldview and of the genuineness of his love (though he cannot use that word) for his friend. In the show’s penultimate episode, with House’s machinations to prolong Wilson’s life at all costs ending in failure, he comes as close as he can to acceptance of death by agreeing to spend Wilson’s last good days together. This plan, however, is brought to a disastrous close when House’s past and present recklessness converge and threaten to send him (back) to prison during Wilson’s final months on earth.
The show’s final episode, “Everybody Dies,” is mostly spent in hell, or a version of that place created by House’s own psyche—as it will no doubt be for all those who end up there. House is stuck in a burning building, with flames above and flames below, though never quite reaching him, and he is visited by people from his past, the dead and the living. The last few days of his life are replayed, intertwined with the guilt and emptiness of the past few decades; House seems to have reached a just and inevitable—though sad—end. He is even given the opportunity to cry out to God by one of his visitors, though true to the choices he has made throughout his life, he rejects it. House’s Miltonian ego is incompatible with faith.
It turns out, though (I’m going to give away the ending), that the burning building is entirely earthly, that House had gone there in pursuit of heroin, and as his friends from the hospital race to rescue him, coming close enough to see House’s shadow in the building’s smoke-filled windows, the structure collapses in flames. House seems consumed forever by the consequences of his own selfishness.
The next scene is the funeral, with friends and colleagues speaking, last of all Wilson, who in House-like fashion, cannot forgo the ugly honesty that “House was an ass.” Wilson is winding up for a rant when he is interrupted by a text message from… House.
Switched dental records and a drug dealer’s body prove that House is legally dead—so he is free, free to start fresh and free to spend Wilson’s last few months enjoying their friendship. The irony, of course, is on the nihilistic doctor, for the religious pattern of death and resurrection is unavoidable: only by dying can House gain a new life, only by losing his identity can he escape the imprisonment his narcissism has produced; and on the other side of his escape from death is friendship.
It is important not to over-read these things. House is not a Christ figure, not by any stretch. And pointing out the glimmers of Christianity in pop culture shouldn’t excite us all that much, since often these are only shards and fragments, and they should not blind us to the general, and deepening, corruption of our culture. But it is still satisfying to see that there cannot be any redemption for House without resort to that old religious pattern wrought in a Judean cave two thousand years ago.
Death and resurrection in the final episode aside, and considering the series as a whole, what is perhaps most deeply worthwhile in House, MD is the theme of friendship. House is not an easy person to like, and yet Wilson loves him. And House, who employs the full force of his considerable intellect resisting love, realizes that at the end of the day his love for Wilson is all he really has. At the core of the show—the humanity underneath all the (witty, deeply satisfying) sarcasm—is the possibility of friendship with people who are profoundly flawed and difficult to like.
And that is what Christianity is all about too. As Benedict XVI has reminded us again and again, Christianity means friendship with God. And all of us human beings, in very real ways, are just as flawed as House, though most of us are better at masking it. God doesn’t love us because we’re lovable, but yet, shockingly, he loves us.
Sometimes some spark of that divinity, that heroic ability to love what seems unlovable, flickers forth from us as well, so improbably, and it’s that glimmer of divinity, slender, fragile thing, on which the possibility of our salvation hangs.