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(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired Nov. 22)

Instead of the usual pre-credits focus on getting to know the patient of the week – or the fake-out non-patient of the week – “Hunting” jumps right in with a shot of House (Hugh Laurie) and Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) discussing the question that really needed asking last week. To paraphrase Wilson wildly: what the hell did House think he was accomplishing by stealing Stacy’s therapy notes and attempting to manipulate her into acknowledging that she’d rather be with House than her husband?

Because House is House, his answer is more of a non-answer. Because House is House, we also meet the patient of the week pre-credits – an HIV+ man, Kalvin, who is stalking House to try to persuade him to take the case. Hmm, doing something creepy and illegal in order to get someone to look favourably on you? Can’t imagine why Kalvin thinks House would understand that method.

When House’s not-quite-a-hit sends Kalvin backwards into Wilson’s car, causing him to collapse, House finally has a reason to be interested in the case. Not only does the anaphylactic shock introduce a symptom he can’t easily explain away, House is reminded that treating the patient might stave off the lawsuit.

That reminder comes from ex-love Stacy (Sela Ward), during a cozy domestic scene courtesy the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital of Inappropriateness, where lawyers take meetings in their kitchens while waiting for the exterminator. Of course the scene is a wonderful excuse to introduce us to the House and Stacy of infarctions past, interacting with a casual familiar humour and warmth. It’s one of many pseudodomestic moments in the episode as House finds excuses to return to her home and Stacy finds excuses to let him. In absurdly comic and sweetly affecting scenes, House traps the rat in her attic, then becomes obsessed with the sickly creature as a patient instead of a pest, returning to treat it, trap it, and continue with his devious plan to force Stacy’s hand.

When House and Stacy go on a stakeout for the rat, which he’s oddly and adorably named Steve McQueen, they have a conversation with a couple of layers and more than a little romantic tension. “Admit it. You like him,” House cajoles, lying shoulder to shoulder with the woman he obviously loves. “He’s alright,” she responds coyly. “For a rat.”

Call me easy, but after an episode that tested my faith last week, all I needed to be back on House’s side was the obvious disconnect between his admitted motivations and his actual motivations, which were full of nuances of pain and the desire to inflict pain, conveyed beautifully by Hugh Laurie’s expressive face. (Well, I needed that and the impish humour that brought the funny back to the bastardly.)

House tells Wilson he doesn’t want Stacy back, he just wants her to admit her feelings for him so he can tell Cuddy and have her fired or reassigned. Problem is, we’ve already seen her admit her feelings for him. Twice. Try again, House. A horrified but also apparently fascinated Wilson tries in vain to get House to be ashamed of his methods and drop the game of cat and mouse: “If you want her back, either tell her, or better yet, shut up and cry yourself to sleep like everybody else.”

House’s game nearly works, except that Stacy isn’t the only one whose emotions are being manipulated. Never very self-aware, or at least never very willing to acknowledge his awareness, House finds his plan backfiring when his file-stealing and manipulation are revealed and repel Stacy, just when his own feelings were rising to the surface.

Speaking of the time immediately after the surgery she authorized that crippled him, their lines are simpler and more straightforward than any of their previous interactions, and the emotion behind them belies his stated intention to simply manipulate her.

Stacy: “You could have asked me how I was.”
House: “I already knew. I’m sorry you were miserable.”
Stacy: “I’m sorry I caused you so much pain.”

It’s a huge breakthrough for him, except it’s not, really, because even though I believe he means it on one level, he’s also acting out his plan on another. House fittingly, sadly, ends up home alone, with a drink … and the rat.

Overlooking the fact that House seems to have moved again, the episode is full of lovely continuity nods to past details and character revelations. Wilson’s marital troubles don’t get a lot of play in “Hunting,” but his “cry yourself to sleep” line is one of a couple that’s shaded with his own woes. Chase’s father issues get a minor airing – but when is dad going to die, already? (I mean, not that I want him to die. Not exactly.)

And occasional references to Chase’s attraction to Cameron get a major workout here. The medical storyline has Cameron exposed to HIV+ blood and taking lessons from Kalvin in seizing the day and eliminating regrets. Cameron’s gravity and distraction when faced with the regime of medication and HIV tests, and the abandon and regret of her meltdown, which has her taking drugs and seducing an all-too-willing Chase, are handled well by Jennifer Morrison, who sheds the beatific demeanour that sometimes plagues the character.

One of the funniest lines in the episode had to be purposely self-referential. House explains to Wilson that he can’t hit another patient to create an excuse to see Stacy again, saying: “I hate to repeat myself. People will say I’m formulaic” – mocking an often repeated criticism of this show that broke free of its original formula long ago.

In another bit of repetition, House gets punched by Kalvin’s father. While my first thought was: again? (He was also punched in last season’s “Detox”.) My second thought was: it really should happen every episode. The man does ask for it. And this time, he was literally asking for it so he could retaliate. It was pure House: punch as diagnostic tool, to confirm the final diagnosis – father and son hunting trips led to a shared parasite.

The patient story suffers a bit from the show’s insistence on tossing out the obligatory ethical discussion that doesn’t really discuss or provide any ethical meat. In a very short scene, a throwaway line by Foreman blames Kalvin for not using condoms, while Cameron defends him as getting caught doing something others do all the time with no consequences.

The medical mystery this week was buried under the far more interesting focus on character, and Kalvin either seemed irrelevant or was channelling House. For example, the patient gives Cameron, who stoically refuses to blame him for coughing blood on her and stoically takes House’s little cruelties about her distress, this Housism: “Stop being nice. It’s useless. And worse, it’s boring.”

Kalvin also espouses the big lesson that’s turned on its ear. He advocates living life without regret, while we are treated to House and Stacy’s relationship being all about their past regrets, and Cameron’s misguided attempts to plan regretless fun backfiring almost as surely as House’s misguided plan to pursue Stacy.

I love these writers for having the courage to make their main character unlikeable. They’re not just flirting with unlikeability, they’re making passionate love to unlikeability. House is not bitter with a heart of gold. He’s bitter with a heart of nastiness – and, yes, some gold mixed up in there, just enough that even when I’m horrified at his methods to manipulate Stacy, I sympathize with his turmoil of emotions. And even when I’m appalled at his callousness to Cameron, I almost admire him for not bothering with niceties that don’t change anything substantive and that might make him the focus of her carpe dieming.

House isn’t nice, but he definitely is interesting.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)