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Network Jews: Dr. James Wilson on Fox’s Dark Medical Procedural ‘House’

The premise of House required a revolving cast of characters—as the eponymous doctor (Hugh Laurie), a medical genius with zero people skills, continued to act like an asshole, he would of necessity push away the people around him. Though almost every regular character left the show at some point as the series painfully wore out its welcome, James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) stuck around for the entire series, playing the necessary role of the one constant in House’s life.

Originally conceived as the Watson to House’s Sherlock Holmes (a role eventually filled by the diagnostic team), Wilson, the head of oncology at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital who looks like an all-grown-up nice Jewish boy, ended up as House’s only real friend and almost total emotional support system. Wilson advocated for House’s unorthodox methods to boss Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) and bailed him out of tough situations (like when House was arrested after stealing Wilson’s prescriptions). He was also the more emotional counterpart to House’s cold, logical way of practicing medicine. While House’s idea of bedside manner is confronting patients for lies, he describes Wilson at the beginning of the series as “a buddy of mine people say ‘Thank you’ to, when he tells them they are dying.”

He may have been compassionate, but Wilson’s relationships reflected a compulsive, serial need for affection through pleasing his significant others. He began the series married to his third wife, though they separated in the second season, leading Wilson to become House’s roommate for a time, strengthening their codependence. His most serious relationship in the course of the show, with fellow doctor Amber “Cutthroat Bitch” Volakis (Anne Dudek), uncomfortably mirrored his relationship with House until Amber was killed in an accident House was tangentially responsible for, temporarily destroying the friendship.

Wilson tended to place his faith in emotional connections with other people rather than religion, but those often failed him. His serial marriages were indicative of a broader, unhealthy approach to relationships buried in his neediness. Some of Wilson’s relationships end because of the codependence of his friendship with House, others because he cheated (he was unfaithful to each of his wives), and one because he was dating a patient, attracted to her emotional state while suffering from a terminal illness. House somewhat accurately describes him later on in the series as an “emotional vampire.”

Instead of truly acting selflessly, Wilson is merely deceptive in manipulating his relationship with House, attempting to use the many favors he does for his friend as fodder for blackmail. There is darkness in Wilson’s emotional openness, even with his best friend—in addition to masterminding a bet that House could give up Vicodin for a week and lying to his friend about a correct diagnosis he’d made, Wilson plays the martyr by telling the police that House had stolen his prescriptions, supposedly for House’s own good.

Appropriately, Wilson’s final role in House is as a sacrificial lamb. As the show came to a close, it was free to return to the original character premise of House—the potential for House himself to become a better person. That character beat was only effective for a season or two, since the show would have ceased to be compelling or have any real conflict beyond a boring medical procedural if the protagonist stopped being an asshole. The show’s attempts to continually pretend House might change were part of what destroyed it after the fourth season, leading cliffhangers and soap to replace real character development. But at the end, House was able to turn House into a “better man,” and it only required the show to sacrifice its longest-suffering character.

In the final season’s “Body and Soul,” Wilson reveals to House that he is suffering from stage II thymoma and, after a failed, highly dangerous, and experimental medical treatment (at House’s apartment, of course) ends up with a prognosis of five months to live. Other than the obvious irony of the hospital’s head of oncology getting cancer, Wilson’s diagnosis serves mostly as a teaching moment for House. The realization that his best and only friend is going to die is the blow that leads House to finally quit medicine; after faking his death, he and Wilson ride off into the sunset on motorcycles to spend Wilson’s remaining time together. It’s a gorgeous image, but the beautiful countryside masks that the pair is a bit more Sid and Nancy than Romeo and Juliet.

Previously on Network Jews:

Ari Gold, the Jewish Hollywood Agent on HBO’s Entourage

Police Detective John Munch on Law & Order: SVU

Dr. John Zoidberg, the Klutzy Jewish Crustacean on Futurama

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