If you missed even one episode of the previous season of House — the last one — you might not have recognized “Twenty Vicodin” as part of the same show. That guy looks like House, you might have thought, but what’s he doing in that blue shirt?
After the season finale cliffhanger that left us with House on the lam in some tropical place after smashing his car through Cuddy’s living room, it seemed like there was nowhere left for the series to go.
Except, of course, for jail.
“Twenty Vicodin” is the story of what the viewer hopes will be House’s last week in prison; despite his lack of remorse, he’ll be paroled on Friday if he can keep his nose clean. The entire episode takes place within the prison, introducing many new characters: the murderous and possibly simple-minded cellmate, the chess-playing sidekick who tries to help House keep out of trouble, the leader of the white gang who squeezes House to pay him the 20 pills from the title, the senior doctor who plays by the rules, and of course the pretty young doctor who believes in House’s gift.
It’s the last of these, Jessica Adams, who brings psychological weight to the episode, giving us yet another unsuspecting woman who may finally be able to pull House into the world of the emotionally mature. She seems to “get” him, to the point of breaking the rules for him (just like all the others before her).
Of course, whether we’ll get to know Adams or any of the others is one of the questions left unanswered by this first episode. Though a lot has happened in the year between seasons, more is different than the same. We learn nothing about Cuddy or Wilson, nothing about Taub and his dueling pregnancies. We do learn that House has had no visitors or phone calls, and that he does not plan to return to medicine.
However, just because House is through with medicine doesn’t mean medicine is through with him. One of his friends(?) in the prison is sick, and the case, as usual, is more complicated than it seems. Despite trying to stay out of it, House is drawn deeper and deeper in, going (as usual) to extraordinary lengths to solve the case. At the same time, he tries to stay off Vicodin in order to store up the necessary pills for the gang leader’s “exit tax.” But it seems that medicine is House’s true addiction; though he weakens for pills, he falls completely for the diagnosis.
As always, we’re asked to believe that this is the right decision, that saving lives makes all of House’s flaws worthwhile. The setting of the episode shines a bit of a new light on this, though. House is in a place whose sole purpose is to alter behavior, to impose the limits of behavior and punish those who transgress. With all that House has been through, will he ever learn? People don’t change, he says. But the way he is has brought him lower and lower, and we see him now in perhaps the lowest position yet, with a trajectory that, if anything, points lower still.
It’s hard to feel sympathy for House after all the selfish things he’s done, but this episode almost accomplishes it. Faced with problems that would bring anyone down, House remains true to his imperfect self, and as a byproduct helps others. And I suppose it’s that dichotomy that keeps the show watchable, even gripping, despite its over-the-top sensationalism and poor character choices.
This article was originally published at TV Foundry.