Folks, we are in need of serious House oracles here.
As of this writing, season 4 of House, M.D. has ended on a couple of tear-jerker, heart-stopper episodes—and the fallout in season 5 is going to be ugly.
But as I’m a Holmesian as well as a House fan, I look at the events of the last four episodes of season 4 as a darker mirror of The Sign of Four—and the analysis of the differences and similarities between the two may yield some answers to the future of season 5. (I also extend my analysis into events beyond Sign of Four.)
And since we’ve got some months ahead before Season 5 lands, and maybe an actor’s strike on the way, let’s have a good go at it.
A House, MD and Sherlock Holmes Primer
For Holmesians unfamiliar with House, and House-ians unfamiliar with Holmes, here’s what you need to know:
Gregory House is the even more bitter, far scruffier, and just as dark analog of Sherlock Holmes.
James Wilson is the less hero-worshipping, non-biographer, and just as oddly obsessed analog of Dr. John H. Watson.
House is just as dependent on Wilson for friendship as Holmes was on Watson.
Wilson has multiple ex-wives, a la some theories on Watson’s very odd marital life.
The show features strange medical mysteries rather than strange crime mysteries, but it’s mysteries all the same.
House has a tendency towards self-destruction, popping Vicodin (“poor man’s cocaine”) as much as Holmes self-injected his 7% solution.
Both typically don’t need their drugs when hot on a case. But towards their respective ends, both end up taking drugs while hot on a case—implied in the case of Holmes (“The Devil’s Foot”), and directly shown in the case of House (season 3)—and to their serious detriment in both cases.
There are arguments that Lisa Cuddy is the analog of Inspector Lestrade. Just add more brains and a little dash of sexual tension.
For more comparisons, there’s “House/Homes/Holmes” at House MD Guide.
And Now for the Really Important Stuff
As of Season 4, a rather assertive and very House-like female character showed up: Amber Volakis (aka “Cutthroat Bitch”).
She is the bitchier analog of Mary Morstan, as she becomes romantically involved with Wilson and takes him away from House.
Contrary to popular belief for most of season 4, Amber actually has a human side, and is probably the first person to really and sanely care about Wilson without, let’s face it, extremely neurotic price tags attached.
Amber becomes the center of one of House’s cases in “Wilson’s Heart”, just as Mary Morstan is the center of The Sign of Four.
The difference is that Amber dies.
Just think of the implications.
Let’s explore them in more detail.
The Three Big Questions
After the solar plexus punch and roundhouse kick to the head of “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart”, the two ending episodes of House season 4, there are three big questions left over:
Will House and Wilson mend their friendship when House solved the case—but still lost Amber?
Why was House drinking himself into oblivion at five in the afternoon?
What will happen to the relationship between House and Cuddy?
We’ll do our best to answer these in the next three sections.
The Cracking of the Friendship
“I thought I’d met all your friend.”
“Who could come tonight? Some friend of yours, perhaps?”
“Except yourself I have none. I do not encourage visitors.”
There Are Friends, and Then There Are Friends
Both Holmes and House are highly dependent on their respective Watson or Wilson, and, as Cuddy once mentioned to House, “I thought I’d met all your friend.”
Unfortunately, this did not mean that either of them appreciated the only friend they cared to accumulate over the years; indeed, both take their W-companion for granted.
This is not a good base for a friendship to survive getting as earth-shaken as House’s did—or as Holmes’ did with Watson when he decided to fake his death at Reichenbach, but more on that later. Even for the patient Watson, this always-present rift eventually resulted in a parting that would not be resolved for over a decade.
For something as traumatic as Amber’s death, and House’s incidental involvement in the cause as well as the failed rescue, and the fact that Wilson is not the hero-worshipper that Watson was, this probably means a permanent break may occur much sooner. Say, before season 6.
Pushing Things to the Breaking Point
The next point of comparison is the level of commitment that Watson had with Mary, and that Wilson had with Amber. How much does Wilson hate House, or would Watson hate Holmes, when/if their respective loves died?
It’s been noted that Watson may have grown bored of Mary, leaving her alone many times for adventures with Holmes—as was the case for Wilson and all his ex-wives. But let’s think about the moment—when Amber’s and Mary’s cases were active, and when both men were guaranteed to care deeply. Suppose that Mary had died during The Sign of Four?
And let’s suppose that Holmes was also incidentally involved with Mary’s death, as House was with Amber’s.
I think this would have brought the Holmes-Watson relationship to the breaking point, as even before Reichenbach there were signs of arguments (as when Watson took temporary lodgings away from Baker Street) and bitter disappointment (as when Holmes screwed with Watson’s sympathies by pretending to be dying from a horrible disease, just for the sake of a case in “The Dying Detective”).
Actually leading to the death of a client he loved would break Watson’s hero-worship of Holmes as superman of the law; it would be too much.
And if it would break Holmes and Watson, it will surely break House and Wilson.
Doom and Gloom, O Noes?
Nothing lasts forever—not friendship, but also not the breaking of friendships. Well, no, actually that’s a lie. But not in the case of Holmes and Watson, and probably not in the case of House and Wilson.
Oblivion in the Tender Mercy of Drugs
“Why’d you get so drunk at 5 in the afternoon alone?”
“I need a reason?”
“What are you running away from?”
“When I’m drinking without you, what am I running away from? Hmm. One of those imponderables.”
… Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.
The Downhill Slope
Why did House drink himself into oblivion at five in the afternoon?
Why did Holmes increase his cocaine usage after Watson left?
Did they need any particular reason?
Probably not. It’s more a case of House and Holmes being high maintenance—and once their W-companions no longer have time to maintain them, their inherently self-destructive natures take hold. It’s a matter of gravity, not a matter of what pushes them down the hill.
Their self-destruction may arguably also be attempts to get attention, likely conscious ones since both House and Holmes are master manipulators of other people’s emotions. House tried to dial up Wilson when he was drunk for a ride home, and instead got Amber (thus leading to her death), while Holmes could probably draw the connection between extreme self-neglect and Watson showing up (a la “The Reigate Squires” and “The Devil’s Foot”).
It’s Darkest Before the Dawn
For Holmes, eventually obsession with Moriarty came along, and then “The Final Solution”. By the end of the story, he’d dragged Watson into Switzerland while running from an arch enemy, and it ended with Watson believing Holmes had been killed while fighting Moriarty, both of them plunging into the deadly depths of the raging waters of the Reichenbach Falls. That took a lot out of Watson.
Then, three years later, Holmes returns and surprises Watson in his study, causing the doctor to faint dead away for the first and only time in his life. Quite a re-entrance.
It’s never shown in the canon, but that readjustment between friends must have taken a while to work through, and happens to be the subject of many a pastiche and exploratory essay on “The Final Solution” and “The Empty House”.
But despite all that, Holmes did return a changed man. At first this resulted in a certain gentling of his character into someone who Watson could reconcile with, however terrible and cruel was Holmes’s three-year deception.
Will something similar happen to House, or rather, will House do something comparable? He almost certainly has to in order to change himself. Some things you can only do by yourself—and some things must be done utterly alone.
“People Don’t Change.”
The reunion between Holmes and Watson, as good as it was for a few years, did not last. Holmesian scholars will recognize the time when the last “normal” Holmes story was written, when Holmes’ unstable nature re-asserted itself, and when the final bitterness of Watson came to the forefront.
Eventually Holmes and Watson split up, and would not reunite once more until “His Last Bow”, over a decade later.
Which means that whatever change House does manage to effect, it will not last. As is commonly said on the show, “People don’t change.”
Relationships: Other People
“Nothing matters. We’re all just cockroaches. Wildebeasts dying on the river bank. Nothing we do has any lasting meaning…. So you give up on something real, so that you can hold on to hope. The thing is, hope is for sissies.”
“Exactly, Watson. Pathetic and futile. But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow—misery.”
Letting the Center Not Hold
In many ways, House and Holmes share similar outlooks on life—i.e., it’s hopeless.
Then their Wing-men leave them. There might be a reunion. There might even be change. But nothing lasts forever, and friendships are unfortunately things.
Human beings are social animals. Loneliness gets to even those of us who don’t seek companionship. For people like House and Holmes, the dichotomy of needing a close friend, yet a prickliness that denies people getting close in the first place, is not a healthy thing. Something needs to give.
Whatever needs to give, however, it can’t give while they’re supported by their respective Wilson or Watson. For them to truly change—or to decide to seek an ultimate solution—they must not have enablers. It’s cruel, and sometimes results in suicide or something close to it.
But somehow, House and Holmes are both too damn stubborn to die—as Moriarty in either the show or the books would tell you.
The final breakup with Watson was followed up just a few years later by Holmes’ early retirement and retreat—nay, perhaps even flight—to the countryside. Away from London, where he had always been at home; and away from cases, which he had always devoured rapaciously.
But something even stranger happened, out there on the Sussex Downs, near the coast. Holmes made a friend in Harold Stackhurst—the day he came out there, in fact. It was quite an achievement for the man who had but one friend in University, and that only after he had spent most of a year moping alone; or for the man who made no friends except for Watson for most of his life.
Additionally, this was a friend with whom he was on such terms that not only could he drop by Stackhurst’s in the evenings without announcement, but Stackhurst could do the same. For Holmes, this is practically sheer instant intimacy.
In fact, given his familiarity with multiple people in “The Lion’s Mane”, he may have made multiple friends. Which is just downright weird. (Indeed, the concept weirds Watson out in Bert Coules’ radio play adaptation of the same story.)
Will House do the same—reach out to someone? Perhaps even reach out to Cuddy, or to any of the other doctors on his old staff or his new one? He’s done this before when Wilson wasn’t available, albeit rarely; and despite its rareness, he does it more often than Holmes did at the same points in their lives.
My Final Predictions
To sum up:
House and Wilson will break up.
House will get to a dark place.
There may, or there may not be, a reunion, which either breaks up again or is never as intimate as it was before Amber’s death.
House will reach out to someone, probably Cuddy, or perhaps any of the old “ducklings”, or even the new ones.
Things will be hard. This is okay. Sometimes things have to be hard. But whether House will truly, truly, for reals change is still up in the air.
As an additional bonus, here’s my prediction of how the House, M.D. series will ultimately end: with his retirement, in homage to Holmes’ retirement to his bees in the Sussex countryside.
Or, you know, not.