When I think about entertainment that moves from simply being competent to being transcendent, I think about applicability. By applicability, I mean how a particular piece of culture speaks to either my life or the world around it. A television show need not reflect my own sliver of existence. In fact, the best ones often have absolutely nothing to do with mine on a surface level. But underneath that surface are elements that not only extend past the immediate trappings of that piece, but in fact push their tendrils into every corner of the world itself. At the end of the first season of House Of Cards, however, it’s clear that this is a show almost entirely about the surface itself, with nothing particularly interesting to say about anything other than itself. This could have been a show about power, marital dynamics, the nature of politics, the inner workings of journalism, or a dozen other things. Instead? It’s a show about an isotope.
Peter Russo’s death in the 11th episode left a huge void in the show’s narrative structure, one that has been filled with an attempt to re-contextualize the season as the master plan of a man whom we only met in the last installment. Raymond Tusk, the “backwoods billionaire,” has been pulling the strings all along on a macro level, steering President Walker away from nominating Frank Underwood for Secretary of State in the pilot. Why? Because he wanted Underwood’s help in steering the United States’ trade policies with China in a way that would help Tusk more easily obtain samarium-149. It’s an element that’s key to helping Tusk growing his nuclear-power empire, and 95 percent of the world’s supply resides in China. With Underwood in Congress, he could more easily affect this outcome. But now, he’s willing to let Frank be Vice President in order to affect this while being one heartbeat away from the presidency itself.
A stronger show would have revealed this rather prosaic instigating incident as the unfortunate mechanism that resulted in a host of smaller, seemingly unconnected tragedies. But House Of Cards isn’t that show, because it’s been systemically unsure about why its characters do anything that they do. The journalistic hydra of Zoe Barnes, Janine Skorksy, and Lucas Goodwin figure out the overarching plot of the season in roughly a week, suggesting not that these three are amazing journalists speaking truth to power so much as this season of House Of Cards is incredibly simplistic when broken down on a pure plot level.
Honestly, a simple plot is fine, even preferable, since it allows more room for deep character analysis and tons of side roads they can go down before turning back to the short, straight Main Street of the show. But the one character who became truly three-dimensional this season, Peter Russo, is dead. Frank has had the majority of the screen time, but has hardly changed his tune since mercy killing that dog in the pilot’s opening moments. The Sentinel episode, for all intents and purposes, never happened as far as the show is concerned. Simply showing another side of a character, only to never have that side return, doesn’t deepen him or her. Seeing “Frank That Might Have Been” bubble up to the surface either before or after would have justified that singular season trip away from the main path. Instead, it feels like it took place in a one-shot “What if?” comic book.
With nothing truly deep to explore, all that’s left to do is detail what happened. What happens in this final episode isn’t so much an exclamation point, or even a period, on the season so much as an ellipsis. Things are achieved, but none of them feel particularly triumphant, upsetting, or game-changing. Everything’s about achieving the next step towards a bigger prize. If you look at this 13th episode as the season finale, that’s disappointing. If you look at it as the midway point in a planned 26-episode television show, that’s probably about right. But as a single episode of television, it’s what nearly every other installment of House Of Cards has been: competent. It rarely transcends the medium, but it rarely offends it, either. Beyond the circumstances of Russo’s death, I’ve never been angry to watch this show. But I’ve rarely been edge-of-my-seat engaged, either.
In some ways, it’s easy to look at these past 13 episodes as prologue to what’s to come. After all, in a certain light, it looks like the next installment will have two cogent, clearly defined, dramatic angles that have been introduced in the wake of Russo’s death. The first is the sudden injection of actual fucking journalism in a show that featured a journalist as one of its main characters. Those of you who looked forward to Zoe Barnes meeting the same fate as her character did in the original House Of Cards might have been disappointed with her role tonight. But while “journalist hoping to atone for her past mistakes” isn’t the most original take on this character, at least it’s a take, which is more than you can say for the show’s treatment of her this season. There are examples of journalism being as dramatic as any life or death scenario in televised form, with the original State Of Play being one of the highpoints of this subgenre. So while it’s really weird to see Lucas doing anything other than making emo eyes at Zoe, it’s good to see him trick the prostitute into revealing Rachel Posner’s location. Better late than never to show how he got his job in the first place.
The second angle involves a potential season-long fight between Raymond Tusk and Frank Underwood for full control of the power in Washington. All season long, Frank has been battling with inferior opponents in order to win what felt like vague achievements. In essence, Underwood has been fighting his own obsolescence, which is a poor verbal sparring partner. But every single scene involving Underwood and Tusk trying to one-up another has been gold. The scene in which Underwood accepts the nomination is fine, even if it made President Walker seem ever more like that comedian who talks to kids in those commercials for cellphones. But the one at Freddy’s? That’s as delicious as the ribs on Tusk’s plate. It still doesn’t have much depth, but there’s still plenty of pleasure in seeing two great actors tear into great dialogue. The two work so well because it’s not just Kevin Spacey and Gerald McRaney trying to match each other, but Frank Underwood and Raymond Tusk trying to match each other. Much in the way that Moriarty comes alive when in contact with Sherlock Holmes, Underwood relishes the chance to topple the one man who is not only his equal, but in many ways his superior. Tusk is a man who can buy the loyalty of Remy with a single phone call, make Sancorp’s stock rise 35 percent before lunch, and keep the President of the United States thinking that he’s calling the shots. He’s no Marty Spinella, that’s for sure.
So all of this sounds great for next season. But do great expectations translate into great television in the here and now? I’m less sure. Reading the comments over the course of this season, it seems like consuming this show hasn’t left people wanting more so much as unable to remember the taste of a recently consumed meal. Without looking back and reading the summary, can you name anything that happened in particular in any episode this season? Did any facet of the show resemble anything as rib-sticking as Freddy’s mac and cheese? Did the fifth episode mean anything more than the ninth? Did you eagerly await the next episode/course, or did they ultimate not compliment but rather cancel each other out?
I ask all this here at the end of our weekly coverage since there’s been more than a few comments that the less-than-positive reviews here represent a concerted and widespread effort from those who practice weekly episode criticism to slam a show that threatens that very model. There’s little I can say to counter such a conspiracy theory to those predisposed towards believing them. But the rules for House Of Cards hold true for any show that anyone can now discover on Netflix or other services. Say you have never watched Community, Breaking Bad, Phineas And Ferb, or the thousands of other shows you could start right now and have dozens upon dozens episodes ready and waiting. Simply having tons of content waiting for you doesn’t mean the individual installments have any more or less responsibility to make you watch more. The distribution is different, but the goal is the same: Make a damn good episode that makes you anxious to watch another. If a show doesn’t do that, it has failed its primary goal. The mere existence of more content doesn’t guarantee that anyone will watch it.
There will be more content, in the form of thirteen more episodes, in 2014. Of that, we are certain. Of anything else, we are less certain. Will people binge watch this the way they did the first season? Will Netflix decide that the quick flame out of discourse around the show actually means a weekly release schedule may make more fiscal and public relations sense? Would that decision in turn change how House Of Cards changes its narrative flow? All interesting questions, and ones that are more interesting than many of those posed in this first season. Frank is closer to the seat of power, but we’re really no closer to Frank. This show has an incredibly glossy surface, but seemed so enamored of its own reflection that it never thought to move past that image and see what dirt might be lurking under that surface.
- If you want a review of the full season, you can read Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the full season and leave comments about all 13 episodes here. Otherwise, all episodes now have individual reviews for you to peruse should you come to this show at a later date.
- The Claire/Gillian lawsuit: the lump of coal that keeps on giving. Sweet Jesus, that’s some good alternative to sleeping pills right there.
- If the show turns Claire into a baby-obsessed woman in season two, I think Robin Wright has the right to sue to be removed from the show. She’s been sorely underused thus far, but that would just be too much.
- “Perhaps I’m talking to the wrong audience.” For a second, I thought House Of Cards had jumped the shark with Frank’s fourth-wall breaking monologues. But the idea that he wants Peter to forgive him turns that statement around. The show merely feigns at Frank’s deep-seated conscience, but it’s still better than literally nothing.
- The show lays out Frank’s season-long plot via the Journalism Hydra halfway through “Chapter 13,” clearing up a lot of confusion I had back in episode 11. But it’s still a plot that had little in-show evidence to support this. An oblique conversation or two doesn’t mean the show did its job in explaining just what Frank’s improvisatory plot was in fact deviating from originally.
- As a final note, this was an experiment in coverage. You’ll see that Hemlock Grove got a single review summing up the entire thirteen episodes already. I won’t pretend to have any insight into how the site will cover future all-at-once releases, but I’m sure the powers that be will be happy to take serious suggestions into account. It’s a brave new world, one that we want to cover in the best way possible. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but we all want the same thing: the best coverage possible for each show that serves both the site and its readers.