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The third season finale of House falls somewhere between the brilliant re-examination of its main character in season two’s “No Reason” and the anticlimax of “Honeymoon” as a finale after the spectacular “Three Stories” in season one. But I loved the confirmation of and justification for House’s bastardliness, elevating this episode above most others of the season for me.

“Human Error” is part cliffhanger, part character study, answering the question: is House hiding a heart of gold? The answer, of course, is no. No, he’s really, really not, and he’s had enough of the people around him thinking he is.

Written by Thomas L. Moran and Lawrence Kaplow — in his final script for the show he’s been with since the beginning — this episode is almost an answer to “No Reason,” where House realized that his reliance on rationality over empathy has negative consequences. Yet his actions throughout this season would indicate that he hasn’t changed his behaviour after that epiphany. Why? Because he is not empathetic, not caring, not interested in seeing his patients’ life stories as anything other than case histories, and not prepared to change his personality while he changes guitars and employees.

“Human Error” is a rematch of sorts in another sense. It’s “House vs. God” take two, as the “atheist”-who’s-mad-at-God House does battle with the deity over credit as the saviour of the well-named Marina, plucked from the ocean. It’s an amusing spin on the God complex that doctors — especially fictional ones — display.

We meet Marina shivering in a rescue helicopter as her husband Esteban is making rescue attempts difficult by grasping a large suitcase. The Coast Guard seems to read from the same playbook as House, doing what he must to save the dying — he dunks Esteban into the ocean until he loses consciousness and his grip on the suitcase, which contained Marina’s medical records.

Esteban is a mechanic, the guy who can fix anything, except his wife. For that, he turned to House, his love for her not letting a pesky thing like geography get in his way.

It’s a story that would melt even the coldest heart, right? Have you met Dr. House?

House is still struggling with Foreman’s decision to quit, alternately stalking him at his going away party (wearing his trucker hat disguise, declaring himself “Best in Show”) and verbally patting him on the head at every turn.

Wilson: He thinks you’re a cold-hearted bastard with no regard for anyone else. You have to show him you care. You are not good with change.

House: I didn’t used to be, but I changed.

Wilson: He’s not afraid to be you; he’s afraid to be who he thinks you are.

House seems to perversely take that as a dare from one of the few people he does seem to have genuine regard for (very occasionally), perhaps to prove that it is Wilson, Chase, and Cuddy who have the mistaken impression of the real House, not Foreman. House is flummoxed by the Foreman issue because Foreman wants the one thing House cannot give him — an apology for or denial of who he really is.

Chase lectures House on the same topic, and even yells at his boss, but House is at a loss how to keep Foreman around. “Foreman’s not as easy as Cameron. But then, who is?” Director (and executive producer) Katie Jacobs does a hilarious quick pan to a previously unseen Cameron sitting at the conference table. “I’m in the room,” glowers the woman whose departure was remedied with a date from House.

Esteban is frustrated that House himself has not seen Marina. “I came 1,000 miles to see him,” he complains to Chase.

“He doesn’t care. I’m sorry, but that’s who he is. That’s who you risked your life to see,” Chase says, adding: “And you made the right choice.”

That bit of insight might have helped cushion the blow when House abruptly fires Chase when he approaches him to explain more calmly his frustration over House’s dealings with Foreman.

“Because you’ve been here the longest, learned all you can,” House explains. “Or you haven’t learned anything at all. Either way, it’s time for a change.” It’s safe to say House doesn’t care whether it’s time for a change for Chase, but rather that he’s the one who wants the change. Take that, Wilson.

Chase has grown considerably in the last half of this season. He’s gone from barely existing in much of the first half of season — down to the character’s remarked-on but never explained disappearance midway through “Que Sera Sera” — to asserting himself as the persistent but not stalkery wooer of Cameron and conscience of House.

Without that growth, it would be inconceivable to imagine the Chase who betrayed House in order to keep his job, who was double dipping shifts to earn extra money, could possibly be the same Chase who’s so accepting of House’s snap decision to fire him because “change is good.” It’s still easy to think he’s in shock and hasn’t fully processed the change yet.

Foreman wonders if House is lashing out at Chase in lieu of himself, and Cameron puzzles over how to make sense out of this seemingly senseless act. “He always makes sense,” she asserts.

Instead of giving him the results of Marina’s PET scan, they confront a cane-guitar playing House over his actions before Wilson and Cuddy storm in for the same reason. “I told you to show Foreman you had a heart,” Wilson protests. “How does that translate into ‘fire Chase’?”

House is unmoved, even cruelly toying with Chase to get the results of the PET scan out of the one obedient — if no longer employed — employee.

Foreman retaliates by giving the still-House-seeking Esteban House’s home number. Which is something, as Cameron points out, makes Foreman not so unlike House despite his protests. And yet, when Marina’s heart stops during an angiogram, House refuses to consider the only likely option: human error, Foreman’s error. However, it’s not another example of deference to his exiting employee, but his refusal to pick the most likely but least satisfying explanation.

Marina’s heart stops but her mouth doesn’t, and House is more intrigued by the fact that she continued to speak while having no pulse than the dire fact that she continues to have no pulse. Rather than put her on bypass until he can figure out this new mystery, fearing a potentially deadly blood clot, he gets his remaining team to perform CPR. This is not House’s most stellar moment in labour relations. If he’s not treating his team as disposable, he’s treating them as machines. Very high tech machines.

In an amusing scene reminiscent of his interesting teaching methods in “Three Stories,” House quizzes Cuddy’s medical students for possibilities other than human error. One, very Cameron-like — smart, quick to regroup, and a pretty, long-haired brunette — suggests a tainted Botox injection, which he rejects for obvious reasons. But then he calls “send me a resume” even before knowing he might need a Cameron replacement after all.

And he’s still avoided talking to Esteban about what’s going on with his wife, not out of early-Cameron-like hesitance to share bad news, but perpetual-House-like indifference to the emotional impact on the patient and family. He has no facts, therefore he has nothing to tell the husband.

Esteban came 1,000 miles to see House, though, so the few extra feet to his office aren’t an obstacle. “How do you fix something if you don’t look at it?” he demands of the doctor who still hasn’t examined his wife. Good question, and I like the metaphoric possibilities as well. Though it’s hard to say if House is fixing his life by examining it.

Even examining her heart during the bypass surgery doesn’t yield any clues, though, and House discovers that her heart can’t be restarted. She is, in effect, dead, kept on the machine only so the husband can say goodbye.

Still, House stalls, wanting to solve the case even if it’s too late to save the patient.

“How can we tell him there’s no hope when we don’t know why there’s no hope?” he asks a doubting Foreman. “If he pulls the plug it means he’s failed.”

“If he pulls the plug, it means you’ve failed,” Foreman counters.

“And you’re OK with that?”

In other words, the differing perspectives are meaningless. Whether the motivation to solve the mystery, even if it’s too late, is to give the husband some certainty before pulling the plug, or to give House some certainty before giving up, the outcome is the same.

“I don’t care. I really don’t care. My motives are pure,” House explains to Cuddy after she attempts to get him to admit that he wants a storybook ending for his ocean-crossed lovers. He isn’t ready to let go of the mystery because, unlike the patient they lost in “Family,” thanks to the bypass machine there is a chance he doesn’t have to conduct an autopsy to make the diagnosis.

His patient isn’t the only one with the cold, dead heart. House really is that heartless, that the story of a young couple risking their lives to see him doesn’t move him. They’re just another day on the job, just another case to be solved, and, to hear him tell it, that’s a good thing, letting his determination be based on rationality rather than emotion.

In some ways, the series has proven to us again and again that House possesses the perfect confluence of traits to allow him to do his specialized job so well. His lack of caring means he’s not distracted by pesky emotions. His addictive personality makes him “jones” for a medical mystery, as Foreman puts it, gives him the insatiable desire to solve the case.

But his night at the office yields no further clues, and he finally approaches the husband to advise turning off the bypass machine. He finds the purported atheist in the chapel. “I promised my wife I’d do everything I can,” Esteban explains. “If I don’t pray, then I don’t do everything.” Seems rational enough.

What doesn’t is the fact that Marina’s heart continues to beat after the machine is turned off. “Holy crap,” House says when she wakes up, giving a plaintive shrug up to the heavens. The God he doesn’t believe in is making House look bad. Esteban has apparently converted from House worship to another kind of belief: “God sent her back to me. It’s a miracle.”

“How come God gets credit whenever something good happens?” House grumbles to the remnants of his team. “What if it wasn’t human error? Maybe it was God’s error — a congenital defect.”

He needs his powers of persuasion and manipulation to convince the happy and highly photogenic couple that Marina’s apparent good health is a temporary state, and they should submit to the same test that stopped her heart in the first place. Esteban points out that House was wrong about there being no hope for his wife when they pulled the plug.

“My mistakes don’t prove there’s a God. You came a long way to see me. Are you going to put her life in God’s hands or mine?” It’s a similar argument to the season one “Damned if you Do,” which was the first episode to suggest that House is not quite a devout atheist himself.

Well, sure, since they came all that way, why not trust the man who’s admitted he’s wrong a lot? But they do, because doctors trump miracles for nuns and recent converts alike.

“I better not see you praying,” House jokes to Esteban during the procedure. “I don’t want to have to fight for credit on this.”

House’s prediction turns out to be accurate, and his acute powers of deduction solved the case again. One more operation, and Marina will be fine.

“Thank God,” she says.

“Don’t make me slap you,” he retorts, and suddenly I can see a little Jackie Gleason in the very un-Jackie-Gleason-ish Hugh Laurie.

So House fixes what God breaks. That’s pretty heady stuff. No wonder everyone — including House himself — is so enamoured with the dark-humoured doctor. Everyone except Foreman.

At the last possible moment, House finally admits he wants Foreman to stay, that he needs him. But he fails at showing he cares for either Foreman or his patients, and because of that, experiences a rare failure in his attempts to persuade or manipulate.

“I don’t want to solve cases, I want to save lives,” declares the unmoved Foreman.

“Do you think she cares? Do you think the husband cares? Do you think the children she can now have because of me are going to care why I saved her? You’re the selfish bastard, not me,” oh-so-tactful but not irrational House counters.

“Nice try,” Wilson the observer says after Foreman exits, supposedly never to return.

“Nice tries are worthless,” is House’s disgusted reply.

The scene reminded me of the first season speech he gave at Vogler’s insistence. House cannot be who he is not, and there’s something noble in the fact that he won’t try to be, either. That’s why it’s been such a brick wall for him to manipulate Foreman into staying — he hit on the one thing House can’t and won’t change: who he is. And who he is is someone who doesn’t generally give a damn and doesn’t want to pretend he does.

House doesn’t seem to care that Cameron went to commiserate with the fired Chase, either. “Say hi to Chase for me. You’re wearing lipstick,” he adds, presumably in explanation for how he knows who she’ll be seeing. Sure enough, Cameron tries to cheer the ex-duckling up, but flees after he tells her he’s OK with the firing (in a not-quite-OK kind of way) and apologizes for his “silly” plan to ask her out every Tuesday. She put lipstick on for that?

No, that’s just the prelude. Later, she confronts him on his doorstep to remind him it’s Tuesday. When he points out it’s actually Monday — but with a tiny smile that indicates he knows, or hopes he knows, where this is going — she says she couldn’t wait, and the former friends with benefits convert into actual coupledom, with a long, sweet kiss.

Cameron’s change goes beyond just choosing Chase, but also choosing, like Foreman, to distance herself from House. Though nothing in the episode suggests she made the decision for purely professional reasons, she offers House her letter of resignation, saying smugly: “I’ve gotten all I can from this job.”

He wonders what she expects him to do about it . If she wanted a date last time, I wonder what he thinks the higher stakes might be this time. But no, she and Chase both seem to have learned to accept House’s flaws in a way Foreman can’t. “I expect you to do what you always do,” she says. “I expect you to make a joke, go on. I expect you to be just fine.”

Cameron has made her choice — for now — and Chase is the lucky recipient of her affections. The “I’ll miss you” and the arm touch suggest her feelings for House have been deliberately submerged rather than eliminated. But she’s learned from House over the years. She’s harder and less gullible, as Wilson pointed out recently. She’s also learned about House, and puts her newfound non-gullibility to work. Whatever her feelings for him, House and his twisted heart will be just fine without her.

What follows is a weirdly companionable scene between House and Esteban, sharing House’s “genuine American cigars.”Esteban is at least a step up from original recipe coma guy — he can talk back and partake in the smoking/drinking male bonding ritual. He also has the benefit of not being judgmental Wilson, and doesn’t have any reason to care that House doesn’t care.

Esteban: You must be very upset.

House: Yeah, I must be.

Esteban: But you’re not.

House: I don’t think I am. I think I’m OK.

Esteban: What are you going to do?

House: God only knows.

He comes home to the new guitar he apparently ordered to replace the one he’s had since grade nine. Change is addictive, it seems, and the cane-guitar playing must have given him a taste of something snappier, too. As Josh Ritter’s “I’m a Good Man” plays ironically, I have to consider that he is a good man, as long as he’s judged on a Housian curve and not by the standards of St. Wilson, for example, who doesn’t have a problem with faking caring. House looks just fine playing that new guitar, when he would seem to have just made a complete mess of his professional and possibly personal life.

Now that’s the kind of cliffhanger I like. I have no predictions for how this is all going to play out next season, except that I’m highly skeptical Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, and Jesse Spencer are off the show. Is the mass exodus another engineered lesson for House courtesy of Wilson and Cuddy? Is it a ploy by the team, or at least Cameron, to win Chase his job back? Or is all as it appears, and the ducklings have decided they’re ready to swim on their own and House has decided that he’s ready for change?

OK, I have one prediction, but I’m not making any bets on this one: I think they’ll all be back, but in different capacities. At the very least, this regrouping could put to rest the never-ending fellowships without getting into tedious administrative detail. By the end of the episode, all three have decided they’re ready to move on from House’s tutelage, but I’m skeptical that means we’ve seen the last of them.

Whatever the answer, I’m ready for some change, and am hopeful we’re in for a readjustment of a show that’s hit the reset button a few times too many. But I’d hate to see an overhaul of the undeniably successful dynamics between the characters, so I’m hoping for a tweaking that will prevent the show from growing stale without tampering too much with its winning formula.

FOX bumped the finale by a week, putting it in the path of my holiday but also, perhaps more importantly to anyone but me, out of the May sweeps and into the doldrums of summer reruns. I take some spiteful comfort in the fact that On the Lot, the show FOX wanted to launch with an American Idol-fueled boost, is tanking already. Take that, scheduling gods who dare to mess with House. He wins again.