On Doctor House (TQP0123)
I like to watch House; I usually watch it on reruns, because I can never remember when it’s on, and even when I remember what day the show’s on, I rarely remember what day today is, so I’ve got a very poor grasp of TV schedules. I like the show anyway, because Hugh Laurie is funny, and also because of the fascinating ethical picture that it paints. Any time someone complains about the medicine not being accurate on House, I am perfectly prepared with a long-winded, complicated rant about how that’s not the point.
Here’s a weird phenomenon, though: I’ve reached a point where I’m so confident about how the show should work, that I’ll sometimes see episodes that I’m convinced are wrong. It’s crazy, because my beliefs about how Dr. House should be acting should be based on the evidence of the show, right? I shouldn’t be watching the show saying, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen. Wait, wait, it can’t end that way! That’s not House at all!”
And yet, I can.
Take, for example, the episode that I saw the other day. This is actually a third-season episode, so it’s a couple years old already, and every opinion I have on it is based on only two year’s worth of television. The episode is called “Fetal Position,” and in it, a woman is dying because she’s pregnant and her fetus is sick. They can’t diagnose the fetus because it’s too small, but whatever’s wrong with it is killing the mother. So, House says, “terminate the pregnancy.”
Cuddy, for personal reasons, flips out and refuses to accept this diangosis, instead going to great lengths to mutate the baby with steroids so that she can find out what’s wrong with it and diagnose the mother. In the end, she finds out what’s wrong, saves the baby, saves the mother, and all is right in the world. Some time in the middle, House has a miraculous experience when he see’s the fetus’s tiny hand while they’re in the middle of womb-surgery, yay, it feels good. At the end of the episode, House and Cuddy have an argument about whether or not she did the right thing: House says that it was a crazy dangerous thing to do, Cuddy says it doesn’t matter because it worked.
This bothers me. I mean, on the face of it, it’s a fine episode, there’s nothing wrong with it. But let’s compare it to the first-season episode “Babies & Bathwater.” In this episode, there’s another pregnant woman. She’s got some kind of pancreatic or liver cancer or something, and they can’t treat her for it because she’s pregnant. House lays out her choices: she can terminate now (the fetus is too underdeveloped to survive on its own), she can delay the radiation for two weeks so that they can try and save the fetus. In the first circumstance, the fetus will die. In the second circumstance, she will die, and probably so will the fetus.
The mother decides to wait, interested only in the survival of the fetus; in one of the most dramatically tense scenes I’ve ever seen on television, she begins to bleed out through her small intestine. She dies on the operating table while they’re removing the baby, and there’s a good three or four seconds between the time the mother dies and we first hear the newborn cry. I gasped out loud when I heard that, but it wsa also late and I was drunk, so take that how you will.
The problem, as I see it, with the first episode is that by vindicating Cuddy’s decision, the writers have invalidated the essential premise of the show. The way House works is this: it’s a show about how right decisions are hard ones. Or, more importantly, it’s about how House doesn’t have to worry about moral decisions, because his morality is clear and straightforward: the patient survives. His decisions are always simple, and it’s everyone else who thinks they’re hard decisions, or complicated decisions, or what have you, because House’s team always wants people to be happy and to have what they want. They want the decisions to reflect their worldviews, to validate their beliefs about the patients, to show that there is good in the world!
So, they don’t want to accept that the choice is between the mother and her child. Foreman and Cameron and Chase and Cuddy always want there to be a third way out, and that’s the point: there is no third way. That’s what makes House smarter and more ethical than everyone around him; he is the only one who accepts the available choices and makes a decision between them–he does not live in a fantasy world where better choices miraculously appear, he lives in a real world where he’s stuck choosing the lesser evil.
“Babies & Bathwater” reflects this–that the baby survives is, indeed, a small miracle, but we always knew it was a minor possibility, and the consequences of making that choice are clear. We don’t get something for nothing; when the mother makes the decision to delay treatment, she has chosen to meet her own death, and then she actually does it.
“Fetal Position” is a terrible cop-out. Cuddy continues treatment precisely because she can’t accept the situation as it stands. She doesn’t want to make a hard choice, she wants the choice to be easy, and risks the life of both mother and fetus in order to make that choice easy. She wants both mother and fetus to survive, and will kill them in order to make it happen. Her decision, despite being not only deeply subjective but also representative of her desire to live in the world she wants, rather than the world that exists, turns out by miraculous chance to be the correct one.
And then, the mother gives birth, mother and child are both healthy and happy. There are no consequences for a decision like this–everybody gets what they want, the universe has chosen to accomodate what one of its character’s wants. This is patently dishonest storytelling under the best conditions, but on House? A show that is defined by the fact that it resides in a universe that refuses to give without taking? Cuddy got something for nothing, and the essential world of the show was betrayed.