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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.

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10 Comments

  1. James
    February 13, 2013

    Great write up to a great show. Regardless if viewers feel there aren’t enough cliffhangers throughout the season, there’s plenty of it in the finale. I’m game for season 2. I don’t know if I want to go on much more than that since I’m always paranoid of a series peaking, but like I said I’m interested.

    Fine work from it’s actors. Strong writing. Not as beautiful as an episode of Breaking Bad, but it’s not dull either. The bit with the spider in the glass is one of my favorite shots I’ve seen lately. It’s visually intriguing enough. Beal’s score in combination with the editing help that too. This could easily battle in terms of quality with the best of challenging shows on HBO, AMC, FX, etc.

    Hmmm women do have a voice in this show. That was evident with Wright and Mara, but you’re right. It goes even further beyond that with some of the smaller roles though I’ll be curious where they will go with Christina(Peter’s gf) who is now focused more than ever. Hope she isn’t just written out of the show.

    I’ll be revisiting season 1 when season 2 is around the corner. I hope Netflix goes through with it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want Frank to acquire power after being back stabbed, but I want him challenged trying to get it. Actually I’m curious about the fates to all these characters.

  2. Jonny McFarlane
    February 13, 2013

    “Tony Soprano by the end became true believer, a lover not a fighter.”

    - Please explain Sasha because I have watched The Sopranos all the way through about five times and you have either entirely missed the point or are seeing something not there.

    As for your comments about Mad Men and being coddled to feel sorry for Don, I strongly disagree.

    I liked House of Cards. It was a good show, with a brilliant central performance by Spacey but its not in the same ballpark as The Sopranos or Mad Men.

  3. Applesauce
    February 13, 2013

    Some of us are just blinded by our worship for our favorite filmmakers that we fail to see their flawed works. TSN is amazing but GWDT and especially House of Cards are average at best with the latter being certainly inferior to all the shows mentioned in this article.

  4. Andre
    February 13, 2013

    LOVED the show and your write-up, and can honestly say that every single episode would get a positive review from me. it’s no “Mad Men”, but what is? =P

    some quibbles:

    1 – Robin Wright is a talented actress, and I know she is supposed to be a cold, centred woman in this, but this is one of the most inexpressive performances I’ve seen in a while. someone else even wondered if she is a replicant. I know these are hard, cold people, but everyone else comes across as human.

    2 – the season did not feel conclusive as a whole arc for me. it was a HELL of a set of 13 episodes, but it didn’t feel like a closed narrative like “Sopranos”, “Mad Men”, “West Wing”, “Breaking Bad” and some other shows have been able to do – self-contained shorter narratives serving as a small part of a larger whole. when “Mad Men” ended last year, I thought, “fuck! I have to wait for their return, but damn if they didn’t finish the story they set out to tell with ‘Zou Bisou Bisou’”. with “House of Cards, I just wish they’d had a longer season. maybe it’s just me not wanting to wait so long for my next fix.

    and, SPOILERSPOILERSPOILERSPOILER

    3 – Corey Stoll. the most human, compelling, evolving, complex character in the show gets offed. it’s ballsy as fuck and I applaud that. and I know it is supposed to be a dark show, but COME ON! Stoll delivered my favourite performance in the entire series (even more so than a Spacey who hasn’t been this fired up since… hell, when?), and they really took their time to build him a nice redemption arc. in fact, my biggest problem with his downfall/suicide is that, after seeing how hard he had worked to improve himself, I don’t think he would’ve let himself slip off that easily. maybe that has more to do with my recently positive outlook on life, but I was really really sad to see him and his character go. regardless of how dark things get, we do STILL need some hope, no?

  5. Andre
    February 13, 2013

    also, though Fincher kicked ASS here, he has to share as much of the credit with Beau Willimon, Carl Franklin (of all people!!) and the show’s casting directors, who have really done exemplary jobs in here. kudos to ALL!

  6. Robert
    February 14, 2013

    I am biased because I adore the original British series and have seen it 3 or times. I really liked the initial two episodes directed by Fincher but felt the subsequent episodes were for the most part far less engaging. Corey Stoll was sensational, and it’s the best Kevin Spacey has been in a long time. But the British 1st series tells a similar story in 4 thrilling episodes, and this felt rather drawn out in 13. Still much better than most things on TV.

  7. Kane
    February 14, 2013

    This is a great show and Spacey’s character was made absolutely clear in the opening minute of the show. He is fantastic along with Wright, who are great off one another. Their marriage and the way they talk to each other is just so peculiar (I’m only up to episode 7) and I love it all. I will say though if there’s one show out there where the character is just bad to the bone as of now, you hate him and you also root for him it’s Breaking Bad. Walter White is more terrifying than Tony Soprano and more cunning than Don Draper and leaves Frank Underwood in the dust altogether (not a knock on the character) mainly because all three of those characters were already bad people and they have been for a long time. What makes Walter White that much worse is because we’ve seen him as the nice guy, then the nice guy who does one bad thing to bring about good and now just does bad things because he built a mythology around himself.

    Anyway, I have to give the original BBC series a shot. In the meantime I’ll be relishing this new Netflix original. Give me some of Freddy’s ribs, baby!

  8. Chicago Steve
    February 14, 2013

    I have to agree with Johnny McFarlane here, I don’t know where you came up with your interpretation of The Sopranos and Mad Men, Sasha. The central focus of The Sopranos was how Tony Soprano sought out a method of self-betterment but ultimately turned out to irredeemable, how his attempts to save his soul were ultimately shallow and half-hearted as he continued to make a living by chewing up everyone who walked into his circle and spitting them out. The point of the show was that he could only put on the facade of a lover, but in the end he could only be a fighter – or more accurately, an unrepentant killer.

    As for Mad Men, yes, it has portrayed Betty very negatively of late. But how can you say it left Don off the hook? The entire most recent season spent a great deal of time showing how Don couldn’t handle his new wife’s independence – and how that was DON’s fault, not Megan’s. Megan is portrayed as an individual expressing perfectly understandable desires for a life of her own, whereas Don is portrayed as a person devolving into a typical patriarchal fool. Just look at the parallels the show develops between Don and a young Roger in the past season. Just look at how Don has become out of touch with the progress of culture over the past season, a stark contrast to Don’s more sympathetic acceptance of changing times in the earlier seasons. I can’t comprehend how you’ve managed to turn possibly the most feminist show on television into a men’s rights treatise.

    I understand this is one throwaway line in a write-up, Sasha. But it’s an incredibly stupid throwaway line, so much so that it feels like you don’t even really believe it – like it’s an opinion you crafted solely to make a single point in this one post, which I’m sure you’ll conveniently forget once the new season of Mad Men comes out in April.

  9. AD
    February 15, 2013

    I love this series so much and I can’t wait for the second season. Spacey, Wright and Stoll are fantastic. The only weak link in my opnion is Kate Mara.

  10. February 25, 2013

    This series turned out to be awesome! Some great music featured in it also. Shawn Lee’s ‘something’ and ‘too tired to sleep’. Check out the tracks here:

    Too Tired To Sleep: http://bit.ly/XuQ1iY

    Something: http://bit.ly/WkyM6D

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