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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

House: “Holding On”

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In retrospect, it’s obvious that the writers of House would give Wilson a death sentence in the show’s final season. This is the only card they have left to play. House has tried and failed at relationships, he’s tried and failed to give up the Vicodin, he’s tried and sort of failed to establish a new team at Plainsboro. His dad is already dead, and, apart from a brief dalliance with a new dad and Mom being sort of relevant, the family scene is a lost cause at this point, drama-wise. As I’ve mentioned dozens of times before (often when I literally couldn’t think of anything more interesting to say about an episode), the House/Wilson friendship is the only thread that’s remained consistently meaningful through the entire run. It’s had its ups and downs, but given the actors and the framework of the roles they play, these two have always managed to mean something when they’re on screen together. One of the few really interesting angles of the last couple seasons of the show has been how we’ve slowly seen both men lose every other important structure in their lives outside of work and each other. When the show started, Wilson was House’s best friend and occasional antagonist; now, they’re platonic soul mates. Life-bros. And given how House has managed to alienate every other caring figure in his world, there’s an effective dramatic cruelty to taking away his sole remaining bright spot. It’s the last sore place the writers can poke and be ensured of generating some feeling.

So yes, the last couple episodes have had their moments. Hugh Laure and Robert Sean Leonard play their hearts out of the material, and it’s refreshing to have so much screen-time spent in off-format storytelling. Sure, there’s a patient of the week in “Holding On,” and he’s problematic, but at least we don’t pretend he’s the main focus. House has had a certain freeness building to the end, and for a show which has spent so long rooted in formula, it’s refreshing to see the writers loosen up. It’s exciting, too, because after years of big revelations which, given the demands of procedural television, could almost never go anywhere, we’re finally in a position where every change might be the last. People are feeling big emotions and taking risks, and that, in and of itself, is fun. There’s pleasure in knowing there’s no next season to undo the damage.

That said, I wanted to like this episode more than I did. The patient of the week this time around is, if anything, worse than last week’s; the character has a big, juicy story—he’s a college student who’s been hearing the voice of his dead brother in his head for the past decade—and we barely get to know him, beyond the fact that he’s kind of a dick, and the actor playing him is flat. Oh, and he has an awful, awful mother. Mom decided to bury all evidence of her dead son when Derek (the patient) was a kid, and despite Taub’s tossed off comment about the healing powers of repression post-9/11, the act is monstrous and damaging. Yet there’s barely any context for it. Mom shows up, hears about the voice issue, and starts dodging questions. The final scene between her and Derek is played for deep feeling—he gets the surgery he needs to save his life, losing the voice of his brother in his ear, and in exchange, his mom shows him all the photos of Christopher she’d kept hidden until now—and I can’t imagine caring about either of these characters. I get that Wilson and House’s sparring wasn’t enough to support an entire episode (maybe), but that doesn’t excuse a perfunctory, and at times laughably thin, PotW case.

Still, I would be less critical of all this if the Wilson storyline had moved me as much as it was meant to. After last week’s cliffhanger, we learn early in “Holding On” that the super risky, super intense chemo treatment Wilson went through in “The C Word” didn’t save him. The tumor is inoperable, and without treatment, he has about five months to live; with treatment, he’ll get maybe a couple of years, but that’s not a guarantee, and the treatment will be unpleasant. So Wilson decides he wants to enjoy the time he has left as best he can, and opts for the five months. House is not happy with this, and a struggle ensues. It’s inevitable, and its just a variation on the struggle the two men have been having the entire show—the “I know what’s best for you” war. The biggest variation here is that House is the one trying to force Wilson into medical care, and not the other way around (remember that whole season when Wilson was so determined to get House off the Vicodin that he teamed up with Cuddy to play mind-games?), but even that’s not new. The edge these scenes have is that whatever Wilson decides to do, he’s still dead, which makes the sparring seem as much about trying to distract from the inevitable as it does about any actual position.

While I dig Wilson and will hate to see him go, I respect the writers’ willingness to avoid some kind of cop-out happy ending; if played right, the finale could be powerfully bittersweet. (But given the final twist of this episode, who knows.) What threatens to undo this is that the writing in these scenes is too direct and unencumbered by character. This whole hour is full of dialogue in which people say the exact moral or thematic point we’re supposed to learn from whatever scene we’re watching, and while the actors do what they can, it saps away the drama. At worst, these aren't people; they're summaries. The restaurant scene between House and Wilson was sweet bordering on corny, and while I liked the idea that this was House’s last ditch attempt at manipulation (by, in effect, not manipulating at all), there was something cringeworthy in the way it all played out, the complete lack of humor or irony or cynicism. With a show like this one, which has a lead who wears his contempt and misanthropy like armor, the trick has always been to let just enough of his humanity show through so that we can believe he’s a good man underneath. Make him too grim and dickish and awful, the show becomes hard to watch (which isn’t to say you can’t have a monstrous protagonist; but to do that would require more intention and better writing than this series has managed even in its best moments); make him too huggably soft, and you lose the edge, and it feels like pandering. I get wanting to show House’s vulnerability, but this is too much, too fast.

And now we have Wilson telling House, “I need you to tell you you love me,” and it’s just kind of weird. It’s too easy; it’s like the characters are stepping aside throughout the hour to let the writers just hand us their objectives. It’s not just House and Wilson, either. Park has a terrible line right after House attacks Derek (and isn’t immediately fired, by the way)—”You spent your whole life searching for the truth, but sometimes the truth just sucks!” No one would ever say that to anyone else. Nor is it justifiable for Foreman to tell Wilson, “Chemo won’t make your life better. Caring will.” Just… ugh. Sure, it all sort of works, and the last scenes with House and Wilson are a nice calm before the inevitable storm, but this is more due to our history with these men, and, again, Laurie and Leonard. It’s disappointing to see something with legitimate potential handled so clumsily. Tear-jerking works best when the characters don’t turn directly towards the camera and shout, “Are you crying yet? Eh?”


Even the plotting is obvious. As though it wasn’t already bad enough that Wilson got a death sentence, we also have House responding to his grief by pranking the hospital in a way that leads him to violating the terms of his parole. The pranking is unimaginative and random; okay, House was offended at Foreman’s attempt at kindness, and he decided to use some season tickets to clog up the toilets. What magical tools does he possess that allow him to do that much damage with shredded paper? He doesn’t just block a pipe. He does so much damage that an entire floor gives way, coincidentally destroying an MRI machine while Park, Adams, and Derek are using it. It’s insane, and, apart from House’s presumed stress over Wilson’s illness, there’s no build-up to the insanity. It just happens, and then House goes on like before until the cops get ahold of the shredded tickets with his name and fingerprints on them, and we find out he’s going back to jail for six months, which means he’ll be in prison when Wilson dies. Wheeee. I’ll reserve some judgment until we see all of this play out next week, but that’s a lot of silliness and coincidence needed to manipulate two men into horrible positions. Maybe this really is all some crazy dream. I guess we’ll have to wait till the finale to find out. Until then, “Holding On” remains an intermittently powerful hour of television which goes about its business in the worst way.

Stray observations:

  • I assume the burden of proof for parole violation is more lenient than regular ole crime, but those tickets aren’t the hard-and-fast evidence the lawyer treats them as. Anyone could’ve grabbed them, and of course they have House’s fingerprints on them; they have his name on them. But then, I’m not sure how the season passes could’ve retained fingerprints after being soaked in water for as long as they were, so I dunno. (Maybe House used them to clog the drain in a way that kept them from being wet?)
  • So House hired a bunch of actors to represent the people Wilson saved, and Wilson gets upset. Unless we’re supposed to believe this means that Wilson has never saved anyone, isn’t House’s gesture just as meaningful regardless of who the people standing up in the cafeteria really are?
  • 13 showed up. That was fine.
  • I'm glad Noel poked his head one last time before the end; I enjoyed his reviews back when he covered the show, and have always felt myself to be operating under his (very large) shadow.
  • All right, big finale next week. I predict a big party before House has to go away to jail, or else he goes on the lam again, or else there’s a suicide, or else it’s all a dream. Thoughts?