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House of Cards – the Power of One

(minor spoilers)

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Away from the light and into the darkness the cutthroat tragedy of House of Cards unfolds. Not since The Twilight Zone have the sinister regions of the human psyche been so caustically exposed as they are in the labyrinths of D.C. leadership infested with sly powerbrokers and slimy influence peddlers. Produced by David Fincher, Karyn McCarthy, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth Kevin Spacey and writer Beau Willimon (The Ides of March scribe) House of Cards nevertheless has Fincher’s distinctive signature all over it. The propulsive thrust to never back off, the refusal to sooth the viewer, the rejection of easy answers that make our world seem deceptively sensible and more secure — these brutal components hit us with the other half of the story we rarely get with movies or TV series that only seek to serve our need to escape. We want heroes. We need to believe people are basically good and not driven by darker motivations. Shakespeare knew otherwise. So did Edward Albee, David Mamet, and Paddy Chayefsky.

I often wonder how Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, or William Friedkin’s The French Connection could have been made today. The Godfather II ensnared us with a man who had a black spot where his heart should be. The devolution of Michael Corleone was an opportunity for us to reevaluate the American dream. We sat in quiet agony over a man whose life of crime and ascension to power swept us up in his corruption, and our sympathy made us complicit when that ruthless pursuit led him to kill his own brother.

But now, there doesn’t seem to be much tolerance for the notion of a treacherous anti-hero. We need to know that our fantasy world “in here” protects us like a snuggie from the world “out there.” We need to know our villains will be adequately punished and be reassured that they won’t rise in the ranks to rule the world. Industry voters couldn’t bring themselves to “like” the main character in the Social Network because he was too “cold.” What a sad state of affairs compared to 1972.

House of Cards never backs down from the harsh reality for one second but instead holds our heads steady on — look. Look. This is a driving force that resides inside many of us, including and especially those who play the game to win. What is a house of cards but a carefully built structure in danger of total collapse if one person pulls a card out from underneath. If we don’t like watching powerful people do terrible things to win the game, then we can love it when those people are taken down.

As our mainstream films and television programs must by definition appeal broadly to the widest range of audiences — teens, the target demo, global audience — so have the thorny specificities of unsavory characters fallen in decline. The entertainment industry, like any business, is motivated by profit. Which makes greenlighting any film with “unlikable characters” nearly impossible. Thus, a dark yearning to see people devoured in the lions den plays out on reality-TV where the fringe-dwellers and wanna-be actors get their 15 minutes of fame just so that the public can then lift them up and tear them down again. The tearing down part is only the beginning of what we do to them.

We’ve become accustomed to being coddled as viewers, even with shows like Mad Men, to believe that our protagonists will get their due, always fumbling towards greatness even if they didn’t start out that way. Tony Soprano by the end became true believer, a lover not a fighter. Don Draper is other one we’ve been coaxed to feel sorry for — as wife Betty unraveled into a pampered bitch and his girlfriend struggled for independence — because you know, that’s when everything started to break down for men, once women got the notion they could take control of anything. Bad is never bad for very long on television, and that’s the trap. Because when we abandon our messy reality and invest our limited time into the tidy reality of a television show it teaches us and our children to expect things will always get better — when, in fact, for many of us they never do. Audiences reward the feelgood writers and directors with success, so some come to believe they owe us that comfort, turning drama into a drug that’s easy to swallow. Happy endings where good things always happen to good people is the high.

But House of Cards breaks all of those rules by focusing our needs on Francis Underwood, a kind of Shakespearean JR Ewing who plays cat and mouse in Washington D.C. as he kicks and claws his way to the top. The players around him are there to be assessed for their value to his schemes, then exploited or discarded after whatever they’re worth is used up. Underwood isn’t completely ice cold, we’re led to hope, but we don’t really know yet for sure because as embodied by Kevin Spacey we aren’t along for the ride as much as we’re taken hostage as accomplices, allowed to share his private thoughts even as he keeps at a distance.

Spacey breaks the fourth wall, as Ian Richardson did in the original series did, and in so doing takes us along as part of his inner circle, explaining to us, making us willing participants in the terrible things he’s doing. This proves Hitchcock’s wise theory about audiences, that we can be talked into rooting for the bad guy if we feel like we’re in on it. When Francis glances sarcastically at us, or says stuff like “I despise children. There, I said it.” He says it to us and assumes we agree with him. But do we? It is a tribute to Spacey’s adept work as an actor that we never really recoil in horror as we should.

The 13 episodes of House of Cards don’t feel like a choppy series meant for week by week viewing, but rather like a fluid longform film. That is perhaps its greatest gift and why it might be reinventing the wheel. While much of the criticism comes from people not being able to water-cooler it at the same time and not wanting to give away spoilers, the whole ends up being bigger than the individual parts. We realize this once you finish it and look back at where it’s taken us.

If you watch, say, Downton Abbey’s season 1 all in one go or even Homeland (I did both) you will see the gears grinding out choppy episode beats and unrealistic cliffhanger mechanism work to bring us back week and week. Stuff happens too suddenly and melodramatically to be believable as a longform movie. But House of Cards doesn’t need to have shock value hooks from episode to episode. It doesn’t need to drag you in again every week because it’s already all there, laid out in a feast for us to consume all at once. Thus, the narrative can focus more on character development and story.

David Fincher only directed the first episodes and in many ways it’s one of those things that sets up an unfair disadvantage for the directors who have to follow him. You can easily see Fincher’s thumbprint on display in those first two hours. He’s a director who never takes the simple route and because he revels in complexity he approaches every tiny detail with painstaking attention. Thankfully, the directors selected to pass the along the torch he’s lit do just fine. Episode 10 is handled by Carl Franklin who might come the closest to matching Fincher’s style, but all of the directors — Joel Schumacker, Charles McDougall, James Foley and Allen Coulter work to serve the story first. And what a story it is.

House of Cards starts out making us think what we’re about to see is your traditional power structure familiar in nighttime drama, where the good guys beat the bad guys. We’re also fooled into thinking that Francis has the upper hand. But ultimately we discover the women are the ones with all of the power and they aren’t just standing by their men — supporting them, seducing them, needing them, fucking them. The women are motivated by something other than getting a dick between their legs — they are ambitious, imagine that! Women who actually care more about the work. Sure, we see this in some primetime shows like Law and Order SVU or Homeland to some extent, but in House of Cards women don’t have to be “perfect.” There is less focus on women seen through a lens of the male gaze because it almost feels as if the series is aimed at women. Believe me, in case you’ve never found out the hard way, we can be as devious as any of our male counterparts, perhaps even more so.

The standouts in this regard are Robin Wright, who should be looking at her first Emmy nod for her complex, exquisite work here. The upstart with the most interesting arc is probably Kate Mara, who is never predictable. While her relationship with Spacey is probably the most uncomfortable aspect to House of Cards — so much so that we squirm when Mara finally confronts him and asks, “what do you think about when I’m up against the wall?” Meaning, what do you think about while you’re fucking me? Neither of them likes it, particularly. But they do it because it is a presumed mutually beneficial relationship. And it is that until it isn’t. One of the women in Frank’s life will eventually turn on him and that’s the moment House of Cards truly ignites.

The other strong performance that really makes season one of House of Cards worth your time is Corey Stoll as the coke-snorting alcoholic trying to pull his life together. He believes the all the wrong myths that good guys can prevail if they’re honest and work hard. He never sees Frank coming until it’s too late.

It isn’t until that point, where we as willing participants in Frank’s climb to power, that we begin to feel dirty too. That’s when we also turn on Frank and we wait for everyone else to find out what we already know. We started out riding shotgun and maybe digging how it was all turning out — after all, who doesn’t want to be the smartest guy in the room who can snap his fingers and control the universe? But then we watch him destroy the one character we come to love — and when that happens it feels like war.

Probably what House of Cards make us think about is what we hide from everyone else.   We usually hope, when we turn the lights low and settle down in our comfortable living rooms, to be convinced the world outside is just as right and orderly. We like to be told that people are good, justice is served, and God is looking after us. Frank Underwood knows God isn’t watching. But we are.  We feel our morality surge inside us, sending us conflicting messages about what it is we really want.

So the question will come up as to whether the characters are “likable” enough to sustain the show beyond season one.  But the same way Breaking Bad lures us in with an increasingly soulless Walt, the darker regions of the human mind can be as intriguing as our idealized selves. I don’t know why they never give us viewers the benefit of the doubt.  House of Cards trains us to be skeptical about what we hear every day from our elected officials and even high powered lobbyists and activists.  It sends you away with more questions than answers.  The last thing it wants from you is to walk away feeling confident that everything is going to be okay. Pick up a newspaper once in a while if you want to see just how not okay everything is going to be.

As Season One of House of Cards concludes, we know that Frank Underwood has won the first round, but his utter collapse could be right behind him, coming from unexpected places, by the weaker sex even, out to reveal every string manipulating the puppets.   The only problem with House of Cards is that there is no season 2. Not yet.