Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

House: “Blowing The Whistle”

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Even the slackest stories take on an edge when everyone knows the end is coming. Suddenly, everything becomes more important. A quip might be the last time two characters speak to each other, and every exchange becomes fraught with potential foreshadowing. As it gets on in years, a show like House loses much of its edge, because we get to know where the lines are. We know how far the writers will push their lead character, partly because we’ve had plenty of chances to see their limits firsthand, and partly because of the inherent limitations of the form. There’s only so much change a show like this can withstand and still be a show, and that means House couldn’t go to jail for very long, and he couldn’t alienate himself from his bosses so thoroughly that they never hired him back. And he couldn’t die. The show has flailed under these restrictions for a few seasons now, because going by character alone, something major should have happened to our protagonist by now. He was created as a pushy, rule-breaking, half-lunatic genius, and guys like that either learn to mellow out, or they explode. House hasn’t exploded, because you can’t have a TV series about a pile of ashes, and House hasn’t really mellowed, because this isn’t a family friendly medical drama about a kind-hearted Brit with a convincing American accent. Maintaining the balance between these two polar opposites has taken its toll over the years, but now that we now the end is nigh, all bets are off. Change is going to happen no matter what, even if that change is just House listening to the opening riff of “Baba O’Reilly” in his office before the finale cuts suddenly to black.

This gives “Blowing The Whistle” some additional weight. Surprisingly, I’m not sure the episode even needs the help. As seems to be happening with intermittent frequency this last season, House has remembered how to tell competent, entertaining, and even affecting stories again, moving focus away from the forced relationship histrionics and distracting stylization that marred previous years. This hour wasn’t perfect, and I was a little disappointed to find that House was once again messing with everyone’s heads, but it still worked, with a patient of the week who was legitimately compelling, and a doctor subplot which, while ultimately nothing we haven’t seen before, moved at a good clip. Besides, it could just be that I’m embarrassed. After seeing the “House pretends to be ill” storyline play out half a dozen times, I would’ve like to have considered myself too savvy to be fooled by it again, but here we are. It’s that edge I was talking about. It makes you jumpy.

Our patient this week is a disgraced intelligence officer who collapses in an airport on his way to a court martial. Brant (Arlen Escarpeta), the soldier, leaked footage of an American attack on a supposed military target, an attack that resulted in a bunch of civilian casualties. Brant believes it’s his duty to make the mistake, and the deaths, part of the public record; the army doesn’t quite see things the same way. His brother, Hayes (Sharif Atkins), also a military man, isn’t sure what to make of this, and as the hour unfolds, there’s a lot of discussion about the ethics of Brant’s behavior, with various team members coming down on one side of the issue or the other. Nobody seems quite as committed to making their voice heard as Dr. Park, as she’s assigned the “I completely and vehemently disagree with the patient, and I’ll make a point of arguing with him about it directly, even if that’s a blatant violation of professional conduct” role. She’s a bit obnoxious here, first assuming Brant is faking illness to avoid prison, and then badgering him in his hospital bed about why he did what he did. This sort of behavior is routine on the show, and it’s been so long since I watched the earlier seasons that I can’t say for sure if the writers ever made more of an effort to have this play out organically. As is, it’s blatant contrivance; the patient’s dilemma is one of the ethical problems the episode wants to dig into, and if that means confronting a sick man in an inappropriate fashion just to get the ball rolling, so be it. At least this sort of behavior makes sense coming from Park or Adams; Park is socially inept, and Adams is so driven by her righteousness that she probably doesn’t even realize she’s being inappropriate.

Brant’s story works because the case keeps you guessing until the end, and because the non-medical elements, while a stretch, generated some solid drama. We don’t get much sense of Brant or Hayes beyond their scenes in Brant’s room, but what we see is enough, and the two actors work well with each other. The reveal that their father died in a drunk driving accident, and that Hayes himself covered this fact up to protect their father’s good name, was solid, and sad, and more importantly, we got a couple of scenes with House interacting directly with the patient. These are rare, and while I understand that part of the premise of the show is the doctor’s unwillingness to deal with the people he treats, the times that he does are almost always terrific. Here is no exception; first he talks with Brant about honor, and finally, he gives the patient his ultimate diagnosis, typhus. The episode doesn’t come down one way or the other on the question of Brant’s actions, but it does let House give the last word, in a line that resonates with what we know of both characters. Brant, he says, isn’t acting to prove his honor; he’s trying to impress a father who doesn’t really even exist.

While all this is going on, Adams is spear-heading an attempt to see if House is suffering from a disease brought on by his excessive Vicodin use. As mentioned, this is a well the show has gone to before, and if it works here, it’s because it’s much easier to believe that, this close to the end of the run, House might actually be sick. I think it works; at the very least, as mentioned above, I fell for it. If there were some sting in finding out I’d been duped once again, the sting was mitigated by the final scene between House and Chase. House figures out who betrayed him to Foreman, and Chase says, in effect, “So what?” Chase isn’t House’s equal, but he’s been at the game long enough to know the twists, and he manages to come out on as solid of footing as he could have hoped for, even if he does get a few rats in his apartment in the bargain. I’m not sure the episode would’ve been better if House had actually been sick, honestly. That’s the danger of that “edge”: the temptation to push for something sharper. With less than 10 episodes to go, and a history of screaming when it has nothing to say, I’m hoping the show keeps to the straight and narrow, even if that does mean re-using some old tricks.

Stray observations:

  • This is all a riff on Wikileaks, I'm sure, but it's detached far enough to make comparisons pointless.
  • Ideally, I’d like the finale to go out on a bittersweet note. No histrionics, no grand tragedies, and, please god, no sudden return of Cuddy to haunt all our dreams. The best finales acknowledge that endings mean more for the audience than they do for the characters.
  • Two clinic scenes this week. The former had Wilson treating a man who picked his nose too much; the latter had House dealing with a hungover college kid. I don’t mind seeing Wilson do clinic hours, but his lines seemed more like House’s lines than something Wilson might say. Not sure if this to show us that House is rubbing off on Wilson, or if it’s just some sloppy writing.