Gregory House – A Tortured Genius

The enormous success of House, a medical drama which aired from 2004 to 2012, was largely dependent on the scintillating personality of its eponymous anti-hero, Gregory House (Hugh Laurie). House was rude, abrasive and wonderfully sarcastic. He was a pill-popping cynic, and none of this was helped by the limp that forced him to use a cane. He was also a diagnostic genius, whose deductive and inductive abilities were reminiscent of that great sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

Elementary my dear Wilson 

I mention Holmes deliberately, for it is clear that House was at least partly a modern, medical reimagining of this archetypal, emotionally stunted genius. The most telling clue is in the names (House/Holmes). Another is in the name of their only close friend (Wilson/Watson), and yet another correspondence is House’s addiction to vicodin (admittedly taken for pain purposes, unlike Holmes’ liking for recreational cocaine). The clincher is the number of House’s apartment: 221B.

Arthur Conan Doyle was always deliberately vague about Holmes’ youth, and so it is not surprising that House’s origins are similarly blurry. At one point House vaguely hints that he suffered from sustained paternal abuse, but there is nothing vague about the moment that he realised that a life in medicine was the only life for him. House’s Marine Corps father had once been stationed in Japan, and a rock climbing trip gone wrong led to House taking his friend to the hospital. When the prim, proper and respectable doctors had failed to deal with the problem, they brought in the janitor (a Buraku, one of Japan’s untouchables). While recounting this story, House finishes by saying, “He didn’t pretend to be one of them. The people that ran that place, they didn’t think that he had anything they wanted. Except when they needed him. Because he was right. Which meant that nothing else mattered. And they had to listen to him.” This firm-minded commitment to practising medicine in a way that was free of pretensions and conventions was not without its setbacks, as he was once expelled from John Hopkins medical school for cheating.

Everybody lies

While practising medicine, his ideal workplace involved a whiteboard (the marker pen was for his use and his alone) and a selection of quick-minded doctors to sound off. “Everybody lies” was his credo – and he applied this to both the operating room and to the wider world. Another of his unconventional beliefs was that “Test’s take time. Treatment’s quicker.” His blatant disregard (or, to be kinder, it may have simply been disinterest) for any semblance of medical ethics or medical convention often put him in direct conflict with those doctors who seemed to be more interested in an ingratiating form of bedside manner, or with administrative bureaucrats who cared more about statistics than individuals. Even know he often said that “treating illnesses is why we became doctors, treating patients is what makes most doctors miserable”, he did once let the mask slip a little during a speech condemning a doctor who House felt was too comfortable with failure. He concluded by saying, “I think that what I do, and what you do matters. He sleeps better at night, he shouldn’t.”  

House once said that “I cleverly have no personal life”, but he could find occasionally find temporary solace or excitement in non-diagnostic situations. He makes several references to his aborted career in physics research, which would have had the advantage of giving him a problem to solve without a patient to deal with. He played both the guitar and the piano, which not only echoed Holmes’ skill with the violin, but also gave Hugh Laurie the opportunity to show off his own considerable musical abilities. Finally, there was his predilection for paid, emotionless sex.

However, his libido was not always completely distinct to his emotions. He had a serious relationship with a woman called Stacy Warner, and their break up clearly made a lacerating impression on him for some time. And there was also the on-off, sexual-tension fuelled relationship with the Dean of Medicine, Lisa Cuddy. Pages and pages could be written about this relationship, but I am grateful that one of its moments (House hallucinated having a passionate fling with Cuddy and announced it to the entire hospital) led to my favourite episodes of the entire show, in which House is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Just to give a taste of the volatility of this usually rather sweet relationship for those who haven’t watched the show, House later drove his car into her home, earning him a prison stay. His occasional amorous moments prove, as is so often the case, that his outward confidence and cockiness was a mask, concealing a vulnerable and volatile core. His former colleague Cameron summed it up at his ‘funeral’, by telling the mourners that “somewhere in there, he knew how to love.”      

Somebody who doesn’t want to be saved

In the episode DNR, House’s patient is a jazz musician who, after being resuscitated despite having signed a ‘Do not resuscitate’ form, attempts to capture the most salient aspect of House’s personality:

“You don’t risk jail and your career to save somebody who doesn’t want to be saved, unless you got something. Anything. One thing. The reason normal people got wives and kids and hobbies, whatever, that’s because they ain’t got that one thing that – that hits a man hard and that’s true. I got music, you got this, the thing you think about all the time, the thing that keeps you south of normal. Yeah, makes us great, makes us the best. All we miss out on is everything else.”