Simple explanations for complex problems

Last night's House, s05e20, a brief reaction: As a brief summary for people who didn't watch but don't care about spoilers, duckling Kutner committed suicide, with no warning. The team discovers this while treating a husband and wife for the usual mysterious maladies. "Simple Explanation" for the husband and wife pair, no simple explanation for Kutner, two of the three end up dead.

Everybody was in character. The reactions of all the characters were completely believable, House's reaction especially. I enjoyed Meatloaf as guest-star. And yet, and yet, and yet... I cared way less about the death of a character I liked a lot than I would have expected. Why? Because it happened offscreen? Maybe. I'm thinking about Amber's death and how gut-wrenching that was. Because I rode along with Wilson and shared how gut-wrenching it was for him? Why am I so insulated from this one? Why doesn't it feel real?

Analyzing the construction and writing issues, I think trimming the House cast size is wise. They had more characters than they knew what to do with. I would have picked the original ducklings to trim, but maybe they had actor issues? Aha. Yes. Kal Penn is taking a position in the Obama administration. Good for him.

Poses an interesting writing problem, however: how do you hit the eject button for a character in the middle of a season? If you're JMS writing B5, you plan ahead for the possibility that you'll lose a cast member, and put some hooks in place early for potential payoffs later. Talia Winters' exit was plausible. Sinclair's exit, much less so, because he was JMS's main character and the center of the story. He did a nice bit of juggling to transfer most of the storyline over to Sheridan, though I think he dropped a few balls. But mainly, the exits connect.

Kutner's exit wasn't connected to any existing setups. It was a big point of this episode, in fact, that it was unconnected to anything anybody knew about Kutner. The mystery has no explanation; there is nothing we can know about what was going on in Kutner's head. Kutner is a cipher. Can I grieve for a television character who's a cipher?

Taub's breakdown into grief at the end was the most affecting moment in the episode. The approach to feeling for Kutner is for me to see that he wasn't a cipher to the other characters.

So, flist, what did you think?

Many months later: I'm locking down comments on this entry not because of anything in the entry or the comments, but because Russian spambots seem to think this is the most awesomest entry ever to attempt to spam.
  • Current Music: Inner Peace : Jon Hopkins : Opalescent
I kept expecting Kutner to not be dead. I didn't believe it for at least half the episode - I mean, there was no set-up for it at all the way that "House's Head" set up Amber's death in "Wilson's Heart." On the other hand, that's how these things happen a lot of the time. There are no warning signs at all.

I was shocked, but not upset. You're right about Kutner being a cipher. We never saw inside his head the way we see inside Taub or Thirteen's. He had no personal life that we saw, no real relationships or attachments. I'm not sure we ever even saw his apartment until this last ep.

I agree that Taub's breakdown was touching. Actually, that entire end sequence was very good, I thought. That show uses music very well.
Unqualified agreement that the House producers use music extremely well. They nail those closing song choices.

I was thinking (and may even have said this to you in IM) that Kutner's isolation could have been the hook for them. I don't mind if the suicide is a mystery to the characters-- I'm okay with them never knowing. But I need a framework for it. I need pattern in my art. Somewhere.
I'm not sure we've ever been invited to care about any of the new ducklings. They might want us to, but I never have simply because they never got billing status, so I've always assumed they were going away eventually. I think it was kind of cheap of the writers to use death. It makes me wonder if they're capable of writing off a character without killing them.

The only thing that did upset me about him dying is that, to me, he is the most interesting and likable out of the 3 new ducklings. I cringe at the thought of Taub and 13 getting more airtime.
See, I always just assumed it was contractual issues that kept them out of billing status. I've cared about them all for a long time. I like all of them. And I, unlike lots of fandom, am a-okay with Foreman/Thirteen. I'll miss Kutner. And Taub is a complicated thorny man, which I like. In short: season 3 nearly lost my interest, but seasons 4 & 5 have really kept it.
Can I grieve for a television character who's a cipher?... The approach to feeling for Kutner is for me to see that he wasn't a cipher to the other characters.

I haven't seen the episode (or indeed any House for... whole seasons now) so this is more general storytelling musing.

I think another way it could work would be to see the other characters grieving for a colleague who was a cipher to them. Suicides sometimes occasion a "what did I miss? where did I fail?" response even from the deceased's acquaintances. So seeing and possibly entering in to other characters' questioning, or self-reproach, or regret, about how little they knew of the dead man, might also be a way for writers to invite the viewer to feel for the cipher character.
So seeing and possibly entering in to other characters' questioning, or self-reproach, or regret, about how little they knew of the dead man, might also be a way for writers to invite the viewer to feel for the cipher character.

This was definitely the approach of the House writers, almost to the point where it went too far. No, Kutner's suicide is not all about House! Please connect it to *Kutner*, I was thinking. Until the end, when Taub (who had been trying the stoic, I don't care approach) broke down. Then somehow the human emotions felt real to me, not like a manipulative TV show.

And here I want another parenthetical to say that I don't mind TV shows being manipulative. All emotional storytelling is manipulative; that's the point. I'm willingly entering into that experience with the writer. It's just when I am made aware of the mans of manipulation that I have less fun.
Ooh, thank you for the link! That was most informative.

I also liked Kutner a lot, and had been hoping for a Kutner-centric storyline like the one Taub just got. Now that's impossible. However, I can't begrudge Penn his new career, which he seems quite happy about.
I haven't seen the episode yet (I'm about half a season behind in watching), but I've been reading people's reaction posts. More than anything, this reminds me of Tasha Yar and the killer tar pit from first season ST:TNG. You want off the show? Fine. *zap* See ya.
Do I recall grumblings from the time that happened about how it happened? This was a bit more nuanced, and I think (hope) we'll see repercussions over the next few episodes.
I rarely chime into these things, but I thought it was really well done- exactly like suicides I've experienced. The real ones never seem to give warning.
That said, when the pool of blood appeared I assumed he had a movie deal, because I expect that of this show.
Some suicides give warning signs; some don't. The ones who kill themselves after months of depression aren't any less real. (Am thinking of one particular incident of an acquaintance who shot himself in the head with a gun, as this character did.)
Oh, I meant real suicide as opposed to friends I had in college who seemed to make a hobby of putting themselves in the Psyche ward by making poor attempts for the attention. They would often do all sorts of dramatic foreshadowing and threats. I was referring to that sort of dramatic personality as opposed to the people I know who did want to take themselves off the roster, who usually just went out one night and did it.
I'm not saying all of that means that he couldn't commit suicide, but I think looking at a "SUICIDAL?" checklist and consciously giving him absolutely NONE of the indicators isn't so much an excellent dramatic choice as somewhat lazy writing.

sahiya and I were discussing that this morning. There can be a difference between what the viewers know and what the characters know. Dramatic irony can create lots of delicious and painful effects in viewers, in fact. They might have let us the viewers see things that House can't ever figure out. Or they can scatter the clues through the episodes leading up to this. Out of the blue feels random. Life might be meaningless and random, but I don't want my art to be that way. I want some sense of a pattern.

I think it's more of a failed attempt at a particular effect than it is lazy writing, though.

I also wanted Foreman to clock House during that scene. Or Kutner's dad to haul off on him. He really crossed a line for me. If you take the House-centric approach, you see that he's in anguish there, searching for explanations, testing out his theories the way he tests out his medical theories. Poke it and see if it bites. But humans have feelings that microbes don't.

The burgling was in character. I thought all of his shitty behavior was. I also think Taub should punch his lights out. House needs to curb himself, or the show becomes a cartoon.