Whither Dr. Gregory House? Would the cantankerous hero of the Fox medical drama mend his ways or self-destruct for all time?
That was the mystery as "House" barreled to its conclusion Monday night. In a recent interview, series star Hugh Laurie had teased that House was coming to the edge of a precipice eight years in the making: "Is he gonna step forward or step back? Is it life or is it death?"
Viewers were rewarded with a satisfying answer in the one-hour finale. (Caution: Read no further if you want to preserve the surprise.)
The episode began with a typical example of House's bedside manner.
Patient: "I was in a car accident last month."
House: "I won a swimming trophy in high school. Your turn."
But this hospital encounter gave way to a House hallucination. He appeared to be in a bleak, abandoned factory loft with fire lashing around him and with that same patient, now dead, lying nearby. It was a typical example of "House" surrealism, as, intermittently through much of the hour, House debated whether to live or die while interrogated by characters from his past.
House's challenge as the episode began was how to stay out of jail. A prank he pulled on last week's episode threatened to put him in the slammer for a six-month sentence _ a month longer than his best friend, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), was expected to live with his terminal cancer. House was desperate to be with Wilson in those final weeks.
As everybody knows, House was a grumpy, brilliant diagnostician with a limp, a cane, buggy blue eyes and an addiction to painkillers. He was also a master manipulator. Could he hatch a successful scheme to stay free _ like persuading Wilson to take the fall for his destructive prank?
"You do remember I'm dying, don't you?" Wilson responded incredulously.
"Which is why you'll never spend a day in jail," House declared. "I don't want to lose this time with you."
Wilson refused: "If I do this, I'm teaching you that your bad behavior will always be rewarded."
Meanwhile, on the finale, could House solve the puzzle of existence?
"Every patient I've had, 70 years from now, will all be as dead as Wilson," House grumbled in his hallucination. "Everybody dies. It's meaningless."
By then, House had dropped out of sight. Wilson and other colleagues at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital feared the worst: that the tormented House had killed himself.
Indeed, a fire raged at the real-life warehouse, where House, along with his patient, a heroin addict, had retreated to get high. House appeared to die in the raging inferno. His body was recovered and identified.
A funeral was held.
"He was a healer," said Wilson in a eulogy that quickly grew bitter: "House was an ass. ... He claimed to be on some heroic quest for the truth. But the truth is, he was a bitter jerk who liked making people miserable. And he proved that by dying selfishly, numbed by narcotics, without a thought of anyone."
But then Wilson was interrupted by a cellphone text message: "SHUT UP, YOU IDIOT."
Wilson found House sitting on a building stoop, alive and _ by House's standards _ well. He explained he had escaped from the back of the building, and traded dental records with the patient who had overdosed, whose body was recovered.
"I'm dead, Wilson," House told his shocked friend. "How do you want to spend your last five months?"
The two were last seen out in the countryside on their motorcycles.
"When the cancer starts getting really bad _" Wilson began, but House cut him off.
"Cancer's boring," House said and flashed a little grin. They rode off.
For House, boring had always been life's least tolerable state. The finale _ the series' 177th episode _ served well as a reminder: "House" seldom was.
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier