DEFCON 1 spoiler alert! If you haven't seen Monday night's “House,” stop reading now. Everyone else, onward and downward!
Here are the six things you need to know up-front about last night's “House”:
- Yes, Kutner was the subject of my "suicide" blind item.
- No, his death wasn't a figment of House's Vicodin-impaired imagination.
- Yes, Kal Penn has left the show for good.
- No, he wasn't fired. He asked to go. (And man, wait 'till you find out where he's going.)
- Yes, this was the "cataclysmic" event that Hugh Laurie has been teasing all year.
- Yes, the trio at the center of this grim turn of events — exec producers David Shore and Katie Jacobs, as well Kal Penn himself — spoke to me exclusively about the surprising story behind Penn's exit, the decision to have the seemingly well-adjusted Kutner take his own life, and whether the tragedy will drive House-Cuddy and Cameron-Chase closer together or further apart...
Part I: Kal Penn
I understand it was your decision to leave House. True?
KAL PENN: Yes. I was incredibly honored a couple of months ago to get the opportunity to go work in the White House. I got to know the President and some of the staff during the campaign and had expressed interest in working there, so I'm going to be the associate director in the White House office of public liaison. They do outreach with the American public and with different organizations. They're basically the front door of the White House. They take out all of the red tape that falls between the general public and the White House. It's similar to what I was doing on the campaign.
Will you actually be working in the White House?
PENN: This particular office is in the executive building. The White House has two buildings: the actual White House and an old Navy building called the Old Executive Office.
Are you there as long as Obama's in office?
PENN: A lot of that stuff is up in the air. This is a relatively recent development.
Safe to say you're taking a huge pay cut?
PENN: Oh, yeah. There's not a lot of financial reward in these jobs. But, obviously, the opportunity to serve in a capacity like this is an incredible honor.
How long has this been in the works?
PENN: I've been thinking about [moving into politics] for a while. I love what I do as an actor. I couldn't love it more. But probably from the time I was a kid, I really enjoyed that balance between the arts and public service. I went to a performing arts high school, but I still took a bunch of those dorky political science classes. It's probably because of the value system my grandparents instilled in me. They marched with Gandhi in the Indian independence movement, and that was always in the back of my head. So the past couple of years I thought about it a little more. And in '06 I started this international studies program at Stanford, where they actually let you do most of the course work online. So it was something I could do while I was acting. And I thought this might be the right time to go off and do something else. The ultimate irony, of course, is that I love being on House. There's not a smarter group of people that I've been surrounded by in television. So I thought about it for a very long time before I went and talked to David and Katie.
What was that conversation like?
PENN: We had a very long discussion. And I remember David saying, "Are you telling me that you're unhappy with the show and that you want to leave so you can go off and do a different show?" And I was like, "Not at all. I'm actually saying the exact opposite, which is I'm having an incredible time, but there's something aching in me to do something completely different and take a break from the acting thing for a while." And with their blessing, we were able to work it out.
Are you retiring from acting?
PENN: Not necessarily. Who's to say where any path leads? I still have a passion for it. But for the time being, I won't be acting.
How did you react when you found out how they were writing Kutner out?
PENN: One of the things I love about our show is you never know what's going to happen. So that news struck me in the same way we hope it strikes the audience: there was a little bit of anger and some depression. You really go through those emotions, especially when somebody dies in that fashion. Ultimately, it was a really interesting choice for them to make. We don't really know why he did it, unless it's resolved in the episodes after [I left], which, of course, I'm not privy to anymore. At least in [Monday night's] episode, we don't really know why he did it. There's no note. There's no explanation. And as a testament to David and Katie, that's a huge risk. 'Cause it is going to make people upset, and it is going to piss off some of the audience. And, ultimately, in my opinion, that's what art really is — when you can conjure up those kinds of emotions. And it's rare nowadays to be able to do that on network television, but they managed to.
Were you disappointed that you didn't get to shoot the requisite good-bye scenes with your co-stars?
PENN: From my selfish perspective, you want one last scene with Hugh, you want one awesome bantering scene with Peter, you want something where you and Olivia [Wilde] are doing a diagnostic together. But I had known a couple weeks beforehand [that Kutner would just abruptly commit suicide], so I was conscious in previous episodes of, 'Okay, this is probably the last time I'm going to get to do a scene with Peter, and this is the last time I'm going to be on screen with Robert.' And, of course, we're all still really close friends, so I've seen them a ton of times since I stopped shooting.
What were your emotions like on your last day?
PENN: It's always emotional when something incredible comes to an end. The feeling would have been very different if I was not enjoying myself, and if I didn't love the job. But because I loved the job and the character and the people I'm working with, I think bittersweet is the probably the best way to describe it. The contrast of knowing that I want to move on and do something completely different, with the incredibly violent and incredibly depressing thing that happens to my character... I think bittersweet is the only way to describe it.
Are you bummed you won't be around to experience firsthand the fallout from Cuddy and House having sex?
PENN: Do they really?
That's the buzz.
PENN: See, I didn't even know that. If that's the case, yeah, it's a bummer to not be involved in an episode like that. It's the emotional stuff that really gets the characters riled up, so if that's actually happening, it would be neat to see. [Pauses] Well, not see. To be part of scenes like that. [Laughs]
Part II: David Shore and Katie JacobsWhen did you first learn Kal was thinking of leaving House?
DAVID SHORE: It was very early in the process that he told us that he might [at some point] want to move on and work in politics. He has been involved in a number of other things [while working on House]. He worked very extensively for the Obama campaign and he's been teaching at Penn. Kal is a man with broader ambitions than the entertainment industry. So he spoke to us and said, 'I love the show and I love working with these people, but there are things that I would like to do.' And you sort of think, 'That's admirable, but there's no way he's going to do it.' This is a good gig he's got here.
KATIE JACOBS: As time went on, it was still on his mind. And then we took a writers retreat right at the beginning of December and David sort of had this "A-ha" moment about how to both free Kal up to pursue other things and, most importantly, service where David wants to go at the end of the season with House's story.
SHORE: The fact that it happened over a long period of time allowed him to pursue his goals as a human being, but also allowed us to make it work within the confines of the show.
So why not just have Kutner take a new job at a different hospital?
SHORE: The suicide was essential to [the story]. The lack of reason behind it — the lack of answers — was what I responded to and is what I got excited about. House, the man of answers, doesn't have an answer about this guy who he has worked with for two years.
JACOBS: And he didn't see it coming. It gets under his skin. He is the man who can't rest until the puzzle is solved. So the idea that he worked in such close proximity to Kutner and didn’t see it coming [was an interesting story to us].
SHORE: It makes him question the most important aspect of himself, which is the ability to find answers. It's the one thing about himself that he feels good about.
If anyone on House's team was going to kill him or herself, the likelier candidate would have been Taub (Peter Jacobson). Were you intentionally setting up a bait and switch?
SHORE: A little bit. But also, oddly enough, we wanted it to be a character who didn't make sense — or didn't superficially make sense. Obviously, there are reasons, but the notion that the reasons are too complicated for even House to figure out is what was drawing us to it. I like the fact that Kutner is almost the least likely guy to do this. And it gets down to the issue of, "Do we know anybody? You work with somebody for two years, but do you really know them?"
There's an opening on House's team now. Will Chase or Cameron fill it?
SHORE: No, there's a different Chase-Cameron storyline coming up. We touch on it, but that's not really where we go with it.
JACOBS: There's fallout in every part of the hospital because of this. This will affect everybody.
Are you planning to fill the position?
SHORE: Not initially. It's not going to happen this year.
There are rumors that Chase and Cameron may be getting married. Care to comment?
SHORE: No. But [Kutner's death] does affect them as a couple. When somebody close to you dies under any circumstances, you take stock of your life and you want to go home and hug somebody. We worked hard to let everyone react [to the tragedy] in a different way.
Does it bring Cuddy and House closer together?
SHORE: The way House reacts ultimately brings House and Cuddy closer.
Any more cast changes looming this season?
JACOBS: This is the only one you'll see this season.
Okay, Ausholes: Take a few minutes to absorb everything you've read before... alright, minute's up — react away in the comments section! Oh, and be sure to check out the eleborate memorial shrine Fox has erected in Kutner's honor.