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(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired Feb. 7)

It’s been a cruel Houseless month, but Fox finally, mercifully, ended the detox with a new episode. (OK, so I’m a House addict, but it’s not a problem). And while I genuinely appreciate the fix, I’m not quite sure what to think of “Need to Know.” Since “gee, I don’t know” makes for a lame review, though, I’ll try to sort it out.

It was not a bad episode of House. And even a “bad” episode of House is, to me, better than a good episode of most anything else. It even had one of the funniest lines, which was of course used repeatedly in the previews. “I know you’re in there,” House says outside Wilson’s locked door. “I can hear you caring.”

But I think it’s the first episode that confused me. It made me think I’ve missed something crucial. Because this episode starts as if the last episode didn’t end the way it did. In “Failure to Communicate,” didn’t Stacy and House ruefully recognize that people don’t change? And wasn’t there a nice parallel between the patient desperately trying to change, and House realizing that he’s still the same man who couldn’t give Stacy what she needed? Did I imagine the bitter in the bittersweet ending? But … but … does this mean I have to retract my admiration for the way “Failure to Communicate” tied the medical and personal stories together, subtly but effectively? That would mean that I was … wrong. My brain is having trouble grasping that concept.

If we skip all the pesky patient stuff, “Need to Know” begins with House believing the kiss in Baltimore means a reconciliation, and Stacy, though conflicted about her commitment to her husband, ready to ditch Mark and live grumpily ever after with Greg. When she delays talking to Mark, because “if I never tell him, it will never hurt,” House breaks it down into a him-or-me argument: “It’s not easy, but it is simple.” The episode proceeds to show us how much difficulty people have with simplicity.

First, back to the patient stuff, because this is still a medical show, not a soap opera, and the case also ties in to the House-Stacy story and contributes to the theme that not only does everyone lie, but people in love lie even more.

When supermom Margo (Julie Warner, Family Law) crashes into her garage after her limbs start flailing wildly, House and his team believe her fertility treatments might be to blame. Since Huntington’s Disease is also a possibility, House wants to try his usual “let’s treat before we diagnose” trick – this time with even less attempt at justifying than usual – but Foreman is still in the waning days of his month in control of the department. Instead, they discover Margo has been sneaking Ritalin (“cocaine with a PG rating”) to cope with her frantic days, which explains her symptoms and is also easily treatable: stop taking the damn pills. But when she has a stroke on her way out of the hospital, House and Co. realize that something else is going on.

Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota, plays the adorable munchkin daughter who has no hope of melting House’s heart, but gives it the old kindergarten try. When she barges into his office wanting to play, he takes her by the hand and leads her to the elevators – awww! She asks about his limp: “Is that why you’re so sad?” “Oh, aren’t you adorable,” House replies sarcastically. “I’m not sad, I’m complicated. Chicks dig that.” The conversation segues into the revelation that her parents never fight, before he fakes her out and sends her off in the elevator by herself.

The conversation leads to the realization that it’s hard to fight when you don’t talk about anything meaningful, like that you don’t actually want to have another child and are taking birth control pills along with the fertility treatments. House tells Margo the benign liver tumour this caused will go away once she stops taking the birth control. Though the choice seems simple, if not easy, she opts to lie some more, to deny taking the Pill, and to have surgery in order to avoid telling her husband she doesn’t want another kid. “You don’t have to lie to me,” House tells her. “We’re not married.”

Lisa Edelstein is sadly absent for most of the episode, but makes up for it by doing a fabulously awful impersonation of Sela Ward. In a deliciously bad Southern accent, Cuddy mocks the legal advice Stacy would give House, calling him “the big mean doctor, albeit with dreamy eyes” who should, for legal reasons, act as though he believes the patient.

“Need to Know” gives us a taste of House’s view of romance, which is, not surprisingly, a little cheesy, a little sweet, and a lot disturbing. He actually admires Margo for going to such lengths, calling it romantic – “people do crazy things for love.” And though the magic whiteboard doesn’t give him any easy answers to his romantic dilemma, he admits (but … again? Didn’t he do this last episode?) that he is not willing to do anything for love, and sets Stacy free to be with Mark.

But not before our first House sex scene, with a shot of him and Stacy in bed together … and a brief February sweeps glimpse of Hugh Laurie’s bare chest. The suddenness of the bedroom shot, coming as it does near the beginning of the episode, and after some hand-wringing about the foolishness of pursing a relationship, works for shock value but not for the subtle or clever character progression the show usually demonstrates.

“Need to Know” gives us an overdose of character story when we’re used to having it doled out in smaller doses. It wraps up Sela Ward’s storyline and Cameron’s HIV scare while giving a minor nod to Chase’s dead dad and Foreman’s adolescent brush with crime (yes, sigh, again – Foreman needs more backstory). It relies on us still feeling the repercussions of Cameron’s crush on House, with Jennifer Morrison playing almost-suppressed jealousy nicely, and House not-so-nicely toying with her in order to force her to get her HIV test. But both the Cameron plotlines have been so far on the back burner lately that they don’t have enough emotional impact to make the scenes poignant, or funny, or anything but an afterthought. This episode feels like both a slight rewind and fast forward at the same time.

There are fun moments, like the rivalry between House and Foreman, and the team’s concern over Cameron manifesting as a bet over whether she’ll take the HIV test or not, and the usual sprinkling of politically incorrect laughs. But it also has an awkward scene that is either a near miss of slapstick or a near miss of pathos between House and Mark, who unbelievably comes to him for advice. There are also a couple of cringingly cheesy visuals of House and Stacy on the roof with a backdrop of purple skies – Laurie and Ward are great in the scenes, but the shots seem taken from House’s lessons on romantic cheesiness.

Wilson hovers around House and Stacy throughout this episode, warning her about the emotional mess she left when she broke up with House the first time, and warning House about the consequences of getting involved with her again. When the end comes, Wilson plays pop psychologist, astonished that House told Stacy the truth – that she’s better off without him – then deciding that House doesn’t actually believe that, however. His theory is that it’s not that House can’t change, it’s that House doesn’t want to change. “You don’t like yourself, but you do admire yourself,” he says, offering the theory that House believes that shorn of his misery, he would lose what makes him special.

“Need to Know” isn’t quite devoid of what makes House special, but it’s a sadly rushed ending to the Stacy storyline that occasionally seemed to drag on without progressing much, and ends with a heavy-handed Wilson pronouncement that could have been more interesting and credible if the audience had been led to the conclusion ourselves, rather than having Wilson act as our narrator.

EDIT: Check out House – “Need to Know” reprise for an explanation of why I’m still dissatisfied, but no longer confused.


(Cross posted to Blogcritics)