House is an American TV medical procedural drama. “Love Hurts”, aired May 10, 2005, is the twentieth episode of the first season.
The episode begins with a man in the Emergency Room with what appears to be a stroke. The patient, Harvey (John Cho), also has nominal aphasia (difficulty naming things), as his friend Annette (Christina Cox) explains.
As Harvey has a metal plate in his jaw from an earlier injury, the doctors can’t do an MRI scan, and have to diagnose with other methods. They also notice oddities like how Harvey enjoys having needles inserted, and how Annette hovers around the patient. Finally, they find Annette in Harvey’s hospital room, apparently strangling him.
One of the doctors, Chase, explains that she is a dominatrix.
Annette explains that Harvey is an asphyxiaphiliac. “He likes to be strangled or smothered.”
She also says she was careful, watching the monitors, making sure his O2 stats were over 90.
Annette: “I would never hurt him. […] Harvey was upset. He needed to calm down, to feel in control by being controlled.”
Hospital official: “He pays you for this?”
Annette: “In return, he does my taxes and cleans my house.”
Most appearances of dominant women in mainstream media are professional dominatrixes, commercial sex workers. Annette is a little unusual in that she does this as a quid-pro-quo with Harvey, and there is no mention of her working professionally.
Dr. Chase later explains that he knows Annette through “parties” and says he was once involved with a woman who liked to be burned.
House hypothesizes that Harvey was injured because of BDSM play. As is typical, he also makes derisive jokes, referring to Annette as “Mistress Ilsa” and saying that Chase won’t get a “leather stethoscope” because he withheld important information. (Whether Chase was trying to respect the privacy of Harvey and Annette is not clear.)
House: (to Chase) “I wouldn’t have tortured you if I knew you liked it.”
Much like the sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, House is a sadist who is disgusted by a masochist.
When Chase tells Harvey that his strokes were because of the strangulations, he becomes deeply depressed. Chase tries to get him to sign a consent form for surgery, even adopting a commanding tone to bring Harvey’s submissiveness into play, but he still refuses.
The doctors search for a way to get him to consent.
House: “Where’s a good dominatrix when you need one?”
Chase: “Annette’s barred from the hospital.”
House: “If you get caught, [Dr.] Cuddy’s got a hairbrush, and believe me, she knows how to use it.”
They bring Annette back into the hospital and have him talk to Harvey.
Harvey: “They let you come back.” [blissed on antidepressants]
Annette: “Not because you deserve it. You’ve been bad. You will have the surgery. Do you understand?”
Annette: “Do not laugh at me. You will respect me.”
Harvey: “Where do you get off telling me what to do? Get out of my room, you bag-faced witch!”
Black doctor: “Is this a part of their deal?”
Annette: “This isn’t like him. Something’s wrong.”
Harvey: [yells] “Get out!” [goes into a coma]
The doctors search for a next of kin to sign the consent form. Harvey told Annette his parents were dead, but it turns out they are alive.
The doctors employ some trickery to get them to the hospital. Harvey’s parents have disowned him.
Harvey’s father: “He humiliated us. Everybody we know knows about his… perversion.”
House has to threaten them with public shaming to make them sign a medical consent form so the doctors can operate. (This scene gets into uncomfortable racial stereotyping, as Harvey and his parents are Asian.)
The doctors also go through Harvey’s apartment. (They can do that?) They find bondage equipment literally in his closet.
The surgery proceeds but finds nothing. The doctors realize that Harvey has been covering his bad breath with mints, and deduce that his infected jaw injury is releasing debris into his bloodstream and causing the strokes. Another operation removes his entire jaw.
Afterwards, House visits Harvey and also finds that Annette has acquired hospital scrubs and snuck in to be with Harvey
House: “Like I say to all my patients, you’ve simply got to say no to strangulation. Me, I’m a freak. I get off on not being in pain. That and chocolate covered marshmallow bunnies.”
Annette: “He’s not a freak.”
House: “Yeah, he is… a little. But it’s got to stop, or he’ll die.”
Annette: “It’s not about pain. It’s about being open. And completely vulnerable to another person. If you can learn to be that deeply trusting, it changes you.”
This seems to affect House.
House: “Lock him in a cage. That should be fine medically.”
Harvey: “Dr. House. Were my parents here? Did they come to see me?” (Would he be able to speak after his jaw was removed?)
House leaves without answering.
Though Annette is presented as suspect, even exploitative, she proves to be genuinely concerned for Harvey, going out of her way to provide emotional support and help the doctors. Conversely, Harvey’s parents have disowned their son, and have to be blackmailed into merely signing a medical consent form.
This ties into the episode’s B plot in which House and Dr. Cameron resume dating, even though everybody thinks this is a bad idea. House’s idea of date talk is to say that Cameron is only dating him because she wants somebody she can try to fix. As a pathologist, he reduces everything and everyone to pathologies.
The relationship between Harvey and Annette includes the pathology of his masochism, and mutual care and trust too. The lesson is that love does matter, even if it takes unconventional forms.
One of the interesting things about this episode, compared to other procedural dramas, is its visual restraint. Usually in these types of stories, investigators physically go into another world of exotic people and practices, with a mixture of repulsion and fascination. It’s also a premise for putting attractive women in sexy clothing. In this story, most of the action is in the hospital. Harvey and Annette are not seen in fetish attire. The closest to the usual scene of entering the underworld is when Dr. Chase looks at the toy collection in Harvey’s closet.