So, I finally finished “House of Cards.” Twelve episodes in four weeks seems like a reasonable pace – for me at least, if not for the bingers. And this is the problem with the Netflix roll-out model. I don’t like being far behind or way ahead of the rest of the audience; every conversation about this show has to start with a question (“What episode are you on?”) and then you need to calibrate your discussion accordingly.
Contrast that with the way we talk about “True Detective,” that other buzzed-about drama of the winter. With a new episode rolling out every Sunday we could all be on the same page and participate in the conversation via, Twitter, Facebook, recappers or podcasts. And the series built to such a crescendo that it set HBO viewing records and even crashed HBO GO. Yet when I finished “House of Cards” I had no one to celebrate with – not even a lonely Twitter follower.
Mindful of the fact that many people haven’t finished “House of Cards,” I’ll try to avoid the biggest spoilers but I’ll be discussing some plot points. In other words, look away if you don’t want to know anything about the season.
“House of Cards” has been a propulsive, sometimes thrilling, sometimes head-scratching experience. Regrettably it exemplifies a growing problem in TV dramas: a growing disdain for common sense. It doesn’t have much in common with “Downton Abbey,” “Glee” or “Sherlock” other than the fact that they all are completely ridiculous. It’s one thing for plots to be over-the-top, because that can be fun, but it’s completely another thing if the characters and their motivations are not even internally consistent within the universe of the show. Extreme fans seem willing to forgive these flaws because they are so into the shows’ overall milieu that plotlines are beside the point. But personally I find that it takes me out of the moment to have question marks popping into my head every ten minutes.
Sometimes I do feel pedantic and overly literal when I wonder why a character who did this thing will suddenly turn around and do the exact opposite. “House of Cards” dealt with this problem by accelerating the action to near warp speed. Before you can ask whether a plot twist really made sense, we’re onto something else and too distracted to ask, “Whaaaaaaaat?”
And I’m not even talking about the murders. In a dark show where the paranoia is so thick you could spread it on barbequed ribs, I am willing to accept the premise that politicians would be ruthless enough to kill, jail and ruin their opponents. But I really object to scenes were the motivations are inexplicable. To take just one example from the first episode of the season: Claire goes to great lengths to torture the former director of her Clean Water Initiative, cutting off her health benefits (not possible under COBRA!) in order to force her to take back her old job. Turns out Claire wants to drop the Clean Water Initiative altogether. Getting some well projects in Africa last season was the justification for an entire year’s worth of scheming, but now Claire is ready to move on. Yet instead of just calling her former director to offer the job back, she bludgeons her into agreeing to do something she would have done anyway.
Look, I like “House of Cards” as a political melodrama, but there’s so much mendacity I can never figure out what anyone is really thinking, which kind of undermines the point of political melodrama – to see if you can outthink the protagonists. As far as I can tell, Frank and Claire Underwood lie all the time. Even when they’re telling the truth they’re lying in their hearts by using sincerity as a point of manipulation. They even lie to each other (although not as much as in Season One, when they both conducted affairs) so you can’t even distinguish between their lying and honest voices This makes them completely opaque; when they are explaining their motivations or their strategies can we believe them? They’ll say anything necessary to get their way so it’s impossible to get inside their heads.
In this regard, the way Robin Wright plays Claire Underwood is particularly unnerving. This might be the role of a lifetime, but I wonder if it will hurt her career because we’ll never be able to accept her as anyone ever than Claire. Her cool, emotionless delivery, combined with her ruthlessness, highly toned body and Roman Emperor haircut is outright scary. Only twice did she actually show human emotions – both in the final episode of the season. First when she broke down crying after the First Lady told her that she and Frank were good people and then when she yelled at Frank to fix the political problem he’d created for everyone.
Closely connected to their weird calculating personalities is their sex lives. Although they sleep in the same bed, they apparently never have sex – with each other at least. As mentioned, in Season One they each had affairs that the other knew about and accepted with little emotion. But now that Frank is Vice President, he needs to be more careful, so is reduced to watching porno. When a secret service agent comes upon him enjoying the pleasures of Internet porn, he and Claire laugh about it, remarking that at least he wasn’t caught masturbating. Standard husband and wife chatter! And of course their sexuality gets even more confusing after that, but no spoilers in that area.
My other objection to the show is the same problem I had with “Breaking Bad,” which is that it makes you morally complicit in the characters’ amoral activities. Even though Frank is a villain who commits murder and ruins people’s lives, we still root for his success. We can’t help it because he’s so charming and clever. Oceans of pixels have been spilled comparing “House of Cards” to Shakespeare, but no villain in Shakespeare is as attractive as Frank Underwood, nor do any of the Shakespearean villains so consistently get away with their evils. Iago, Macbeth and Brutus all end up lying prone on the stage with daggers in their stomachs, not being offered more power.. I suppose you can argue that he’ll get his comeuppance in future seasons but that just means more years of hating ourselves for secretly pulling for the bad guy.
Maybe the problem with “House of Cards” is that it’s too good for its own sake. The beautiful sleek direction, the important subject matter and the good acting all suggest that this is prestige TV that needs to be dissected for deeper meaning. But MediaPost’s Ed Martin has another theory – that “House of Cards” is really just another stylish melodrama in the manner of “Dynasty.” We are seduced by the detailed discussion about labor policy, budget deals, and entitlement reform into thinking this is a serious drama, but maybe it’s not. If we can just accept it as high-class trash, then maybe we’d all be happier.
Some other thoughts:
— You know that thing that happened early in the season that NO ONE was expecting? That was the most shocking thing I’ve seen on TV since Bobby showed up alive in Pam’s shower on “Dallas.” (see below). I’d say it was even more shocking than the lawnmower incident on “Mad Men.”
— The appeal of the show rests heavily on the sense of verisimilitude – the idea that you are watching something true to life – but you have to wonder if they’ve ever read a newspaper. Some of the internal machinations are plausible; the plot about the rapist general seems ripped straight from the headlines (indeed this very story was on the front page of the New York Times today.) But to make the plot spin around building a bridge from Port Jefferson across Long Island Sound seems really far-fetched in this environmentally friendly day and age. Worse was the plot about raising the social security retirement age: according to the fantasies spun by the writers, the DEMOCRATIC president pulled out all the stops to get the retirement age raised and the Tea Party objected because they were afraid the Democrats would get all the credit. This is so insane on so many levels I won’t bother to deconstruct.
— Supposedly all of Washington is wild about House of Cards, which is odd considering it depicts them as slimeballs, incompetents, hacks and losers. I think the appeal for the show is that it portrays Washington as a place where stuff gets done. They actually pass bills on “House of Cards.” It takes some arm-twisting but it gets done, unlike the perpetual stalemate in the current Capitol, where they haven’t even passed a budget. A “House of Cards” that told the truth about Washington would be one of the most boring shows in history – CSPAN on Quaaludes. Hours and hours of negotiations on a “grand bargain” that go exactly nowhere.
— Of course I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m as susceptible to Washington-nerd flattery as any Assistant to the Deputy Undersecretary. I almost fell out of my chair when the show mentioned the United States Trade Representative (USTR) – the very agency where I used to work. And when the reporter barks to her assistant to “get me the USTR press secretary” I was just thrilled to death. That used to be me! I’m in “House of Cards”!! Of course it’s extremely unlikely that USTR would bring a case to the World Trade Organization about China’s currency manipulation – Treasury would take the lead on that, I nerdily point out – but still, thanks for the shout out!
— Slate Magazine has referred to this season of “House of Cards” as “refreshingly feminist.” Oh really? This is a show where Claire Underwood continually subordinates her desires to her husband’s ambitions, where female reporters sleep with their sources to get stories, where young women are preyed upon by more powerful men, and where women who confront men about sexual assault have nervous breakdowns. I suppose you can make the case that it’s a feminist show because there are a few women politicians who are as viciously manipulative as the men, but that’s not what Slate argues. Their case for the show’s feminism boils down to Claire publically admitting she had an abortion. This is usually a verboten topic on TV. Pregnant characters will usually threaten to have abortions and then either have a miscarriage (“Girls”), keep the baby (“Mad Men”), give the baby up for adoption (“Downton Abbey”), or not be pregnant in the first place (“Glee.”) Claire should be no one’s poster child for abortion, however. She actually had three abortions, further advancing the pro-life stereotype of aborters as careless and selfish. She also lies about it, claiming she got pregnant when she was raped in college, when the most recent one was simply because a baby would have upset the life she and Frank had built. This kind of behavior is exactly why feminism has a bad name.
— In the end, “House of Cards” is a fundamentally depressing show. The decent people in Washington – everyone from the BBQ joint owner to the President of the United States – are made to suffer to advance Frank and Claire’s ambition. We’re left feeling hopeless and paranoid. We theoretically have a system of checks and balances but no one seems capable of checking Frank. He’s got all the ruthless people on his side and they are sprinkled throughout the government. He would seem to be invincible at this point, although if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this show, there is no loyalty in Washington, just pure ambition, and he could be cut down to size by a younger Frank Underwood.