This post analyzes the latest episode of House, Last Temptation, for a which a full synopsis is not yet available. But before that, a question:
Say your a chef. Not only do you love cooking, you love eating. Finding new and interesting ways to blend flavors is what makes your day. Just thinking about heading down the spice aisle at Albertsons (ignore the fact that a chef of this caliber probably wouldn’t shop at Albertsons) gets you hard. Unfortunately, you’re diagnosed with a (mythical) disease that necessitates the removal of your taste buds. You’ll never taste again. If untreated, even though you’ll be able to cook, you won’t live for more than a year. Treated, you will live a long life. Do you do it?
The answer will differ from person to person, but it’s an important question every person should ask of themselves: which is more important, quality or quantity of life?
I opened with the taste bud question because eating and tasting food is something every person on the planet enjoys to some extent and can relate to. This is important, because what may be essential to your existence might mean nothing to someone else. You might not have cared about walking across a tight rope strung between the Twin Towers, but to Philip Petit, it was a feat worth over five years of his life.
Time to look at tonight’s episode of House. The patient is a 16 year old sailor. Before she gets sick, she’s preparing herself to become the youngest sailor to ever sail around the world. Late in the episode, the extent of her passion is becomes clear, and I’m paraphrasing from memory: it’s not about the glory and it’s not about the record — it’s about continually besting herself doing what she loves. Most people call this “passion”.
The final diagnosis is cancer that requires the amputation of her arm. Too bad hook-hands are only useful for intimidating your crew, not sailing solo. Ignore the fact that today’s prosthetics might let her sail again (the show ignores it, maybe because they’re lazy and want to create fake drama, but that’s another discussion) and ignore the question of whether or not she’d still be able to get her record (the show ignores that too). Instead, lets focus on how the question, quality vs. quantity of life, is presented (or, rather, not presented).
The episode is told from the POV of Martha Masters, a doctor known for being adamant in her beliefs. One of these beliefs is that the patient’s life is important. Specifically, the greater the quantity of life possessed by the patient, the more good she’s done. This is fine. She’s a character and that’s an interesting angle. The problem is the show executes this premise with stunning lack of awareness.
You might argue that because the episode is told from Master’s POV, she could be an unreliable narrator. It’s a good point, and it would have been a brilliant episode if Master’s treatment of the patient forced her to analyze her own life for meaning, but I don’t think it did. Instead, the conflict is about whether or not Masters has the balls to lie in order to get the arm amputated. It’s never about whether or not amputating the arm is the right decision. Time for the breakdown.
First, when Masters originally delivers the news that the patient’s arm must be amputated, the family kicks her out so they can talk about it. Masters waits in the hall. Moments later, the patient’s father emerges from the room. He informs Masters that his wife has come around to his daughter’s POV and he’s none to happy. He would overrule everyone, but he doesn’t want to upset the family balance.
Strike one: the daughter’s POV (i.e. discussion with her mother) never enters the show. “But the show is told from Master’s POV and she wasn’t in the room!” Easy gentle reader. You’re right if you said that, but just because that’s true doesn’t mean the show doesn’t avoid the question, which is the position I take given what happens next.
Masters asks for advice from other characters in the show. None of them suggests that maybe a person capable of sailing around the globe solo is the one that should be making the decision about their life. Shit, they never say it’s the patient’s decision.
Not even House — the character who had his leg muscles removed against his will, condemning him to a life of pain — offers this argument. All he’s interested in, he tells Masters, is the diagnosis, which is solved. Forget the show breaking its internal rules, which it just did. Just recognize this, the second strike: none of the characters that Masters talks to acknowledge the question of quality vs. quantity of life .
Masters even ends up trying to convince the patient in a tete-a-tete that she has to amputate her arm. This is the scene where the patient tells Masters how good she is at sailing… but fails to bring up any of the aforementioned issues (will she be able to sail again? Break the record? Quality vs. quantity of life?)
At this point, it looks like the patient is going to get out of the hospital and attempt to sail around the world.
Not if Masters has anything to do with it. Masters gives the patient medicine to simulate heart failure, tells the parents her heart failure is because of her cancer, gets them to sign a form giving the hospital permission to amputate the arm, then goes and gets the other four doctors on house’s team to amputate.
Strike three: all four doctors, doctors that know she faked the heart problem, agree to the amputation. Four doctors with what generally are four wildly varying opinions, and each of them has already made the decision that quantity of life is more important than quality .
Perhaps you think I’m going too far. Maybe I am. The patient is a sixteen year old girl after all. She’ll find meaning in something else. And perhaps that’s true too.
But consider this — when you’re among the best in the world at something, you’re not a typical 16 year old. When your the best in the world and you’ve accomplished real, tangible things that hundreds of other people worldwide care deeply about, perhaps admire, perhaps wish they could do, then it’s not as easy as saying “you’ll find something else”. When you’re that good, the best in the world at something, you won’t ever find something like that again. Lightning doesn’t strike twice.
THIS is where you know the episode’s writer fucked up: The character who is the best in the world at something never considers what her life would be like if she couldn’t do that thing. The question of whether or not she’ll still be able to sail, much less break the record in the future, is never raised. If that’s not a contrived plot built to satisfy the needs of the writer, I don’t know what is.
The show ends with Masters having a sleepless night and deciding she can’t work at the hospital anymore. So she leaves. And that’s it. No introspection, no sign she believes she’s done something wrong.
She had a sleepless night? Please. Her patient woke up screaming and cursing everyone around her — anyone would have second thoughts about whether or not they did the right thing. But unless those second thoughts are about whether or not it was right to take away a patient’s passion against their will, they’re empty, meaningless.
And, for the reasons above, there is no reason to believe Masters had such thoughts. If that was the shows intention, well, still shitty writing, though for different reasons. Too bad this episode doesn’t resemble some of its earlier episodes, where asking the question, not providing an answer to it, was the important thing.
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