Everyone Dies: Looking Back on House

Fox finally pulled up the sheet over House’s face on 21 May, bringing the long series to an end with an aptly titled finale episode, “Everybody Dies.” As season finales of long-running shows often are, it attempted to encapsulate the show in an hour, leaving viewers with a taste of old characters and a final bite of the show’s distinct style as well as tying up loose ends to generate a feeling of completion with a touch of nostalgia.

From the dimly-lit, moody pilot to the strains of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ floating over a bucolic landscape as House and Wilson drove away, House took medical dramas in some new and interesting directions. It also, unfortunately, ultimately became extremely formulaic and dull, a common problem for shows that run for extended periods of time. The drama within the lives of the characters wasn’t quite enough to drive the show, which became soapy at times with a veneer of medical mystery that wasn’t quite enough to keep the show sparkling.

House distinguished itself as a medical drama by daring to include a deeply sardonic and often unlikeable main character, a man who abused the people around him and endangered his patients with reckless medical decisions. Unlike the medical heroes of so many shows of this ilk, House made mistakes, sometimes catastrophic ones, and his impulsiveness and heavy-handed attitudes weren’t necessarily rewarded. House’s bad-boy appeal was tempered by genuine change as his character evolved and grew in reaction to the characters around him.

What made the show remarkable, though, was the inclusion of a disabled character as the lead, which set it apart from other popular dramas on US television. From the start, House was established as a man who uses a cane for mobility, and medication to manage chronic pain. He was not only a disabled man, but a working disabled man, which made him even more outstanding in a television landscape where disability is usually a tragedy that renders people incapable of anything other than wallowing in their misery, let alone being viably employed.

His disability was also a critical part of the narrative, sometimes awkwardly and frustratingly so, but not always. In many episodes, he was simply a doctor who happened to be disabled, and a man who did lots of things other than being a disabled person. House also openly explored some of the stigma surrounding disability and chronic illness, though not always in the best of ways.

One of the things the show did best was crystallise the fact that the lead was an asshole because it was in his nature, not because of his disability. House wasn’t made to be snappish and cruel in the bitter cripple tradition, but rather for other reasons; he was a dark, troubled man who was sometimes deeply angry, but disability wasn’t the sole fuel driving that anger.

At the same time the show made at least some efforts to be careful about not attributing his fundamental character to his disability, it also freely admitted that sometimes chronic pain can make people frustrated and irritable with the environment and people around them. House’s relationship with his disability reflected the conflicted relationships people with disabilities can have with their own bodies and identities; far from being a simplistic and flattened character, he was a complex man.

The people around House often had a much more troubling relationship with him and his disability, attempting to fit him into their own models, much like nondisabled people in the real world. He was often heavily criticised for using narcotics in pain management, for example, a theme that came up repeatedly over the course of the series as other characters attempted to get him to quit or suggested that his pain was purely psychosomatic in nature.

Despite the fact that narcotics are an established standard of care for chronic pain, and a highly effective one, the show sometimes tended to cast them in a negative light with its depiction of House. One of the barriers for effective management of chronic pain can be appropriate narcotic use, and not in the sense that most people think; the bigger problem is actually getting patients to take their narcotics as prescribed and on schedule because so much shame and stigma surrounds their use. Patients worried about becoming addicted to such medications may be stingy with their dosing, extending the time between doses and experiencing more pain and complications as a result.

In a House-ian model, it was often implied that narcotics were not okay, and should be avoided except in the case of temporary management of acute pain. Having this common public attitude reinforced by a popular medical drama certainly didn’t help chronic pain patients, and of course the show’s depiction of other medical matters wasn’t always accurate either.

One arena where House was accurate, though, and often striking in its boldness, was in the depiction of friendship. Throughout its run, the show was fundamentally a narrative about friendship and the connection between two men. House and Wilson enjoyed a deep personal relationship that was extremely complex and constantly evolving in nature, and while other characters came and went, they stayed. It is rare to see such deep platonic friendships on television,

Each brought something slightly different to the relationship and while it may sometimes have felt that House was exploiting Wilson, their relationship wasn’t always entirely unbalanced. As House reminded viewers at the end, the most important thing in his life, and by extension in the show, was the deep love he had for Wilson, and he demonstrated that love in a shocking and very final way by ruining his life for the chance to have five more months with his best friend. It made an excellent conclusion for a drama that has become a deeply integrated part of the cultural landscape.