In which Frank installs a new House Majority Leader, Claire gets reacquainted with a photographer, and Zoe has a few too many drinks after being fired from the newspaper…
Is House Of Cards following the wrong character’s journey?
I ask that question because through four hours, it’s hard to understand why Frank Underwood is our primary entry point into this particular world. For reasons external to this fictional setting, Underwood’s centrality makes all the sense in the world. If one hires Kevin Spacey, one hires him in order to draw attention to the program in addition to providing a reliably strong performance. From a business perspective, I understand it completely. But from a narrative perspective, I’m finding Spacey’s presence distracting rather than compelling.
It’s distracting because it’s increasingly hard to understand the visceral reasons why Underwood does anything that he does. In the last episode, reducing the scope of the show allowed House Of Cards to sharpen Frank’s approach. Small-town politics yielded big-time results. Putting him back into the mix of the House of Representatives dulls Underwood’s edge, as seeing him concoct a coup of House Majority leader David Rasmussen is devoid of any emotional resonance. Yes, everything that Frank does in this episode serves the ultimate goal of undermining the President’s education bill. But the deeper Underwood and House Of Cards gets into the everyday deal making behind closed doors, the further both get from engaging the audience in that quest.
At a bare minimum, we should want Underwood to succeed or root for his failure. There are, of course, a dozen gradations within that large spectrum in which someone watching at home can deploy. Maybe you loathe Underwood’s techniques, but find yourself charmed by his approach. Maybe you respect him feeling slighted for being passed over as Secretary of State, and understand that revenge takes time in this environment. In any case, one should feel something about Underwood’s machinations, otherwise they simply become mechanical. Through four hours, House Of Cards isn’t a living, breathing entity but instead a well-constructed machine.
There are benefits to being a well-constructed machine, to be sure. Having a show without a semblance of an underlying structure almost never works, and House Of Cards isn’t an experimental piece of long-form narrative in the vein of Louie. There needs to be a structure in place for Underwood to work his angles. But it’s far more fascinating to see those affected by Underwood’s chess moves at present moment than watching him make those moves himself. Yes, House Of Cards is based on a British miniseries featuring a charismatic politician who spoke directly into camera. But maintaining loyalty to that strategy in this American adaptation means that characters such as Claire Underwood, Zoe Barnes, and Peter Russo get much less time in which to demonstrate the corrosive effects of Underwood’s influence.
It would be fine if Underwood were all strategy, all the time if he weren’t the central character. But since he is, there needs to be much more going on under the hood than the simple goal of attaining/maintaining his power within Washington. Simply announcing an adaptation of House Of Cards didn’t automatically mean Underwood had to be the central focus of the show. But once Spacey came along, any other option was out the door. In smaller doses, I can’t help but wonder if Underwood’s impact would be larger. Having him be a mysterious Gus Fringe-esque character wouldn’t have suddenly turned House Of Cards into the District of Columbia-based version of Breaking Bad. But what’s really important here: Underwood winning, or those he destroys along the path to victory?
Mileage may vary on that answer. But the stories involving Claire, Zoe, and Peter in this hour could have benefited greatly from more time in which to actually get under the skin of those involved in each. Would they have all been perfectly executed? Probably not. But a story such as the one involving Claire and photographer/former love Adam Galloway would have had time to play more than the three key beats deployed tonight. The beauty of long-form narrative lies is its luxury of having time to explore the backstreets and side alleys that film usually doesn’t have the time to flesh out. This show’s planned 26-episode run doesn’t come close to matching the length of programs that achieve syndication. But that’s still a shit load of time that can be spent making characters compelling. Underwood’s plan is the spine of House Of Cards, but it sure as hell isn’t its heart.
Maybe making tonight’s installment into “The Claire and Adam” hour would have produced the single-worst hour seen in 2013. But after four episodes, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes Claire tick. The same goes for Zoe, about whom we’ve learned more about through the way her editor Tom and newspaper owner Margaret discuss her versus anything that she’s done herself. Having her get fired from The Washington Herald is meant to feel like a unexpected moment, something that viewers might assume would happen much further down the line. But it feels more like a plot point than the culmination of brewing tension. Zoe’s editor Tom has been cartoonish since Moment One onscreen, someone designed to disdain new media in a way that would have felt antiquated a decade ago. Janine Skorsky has likewise also been a two-dimensional character, making her interactions with Zoe tonight devoid of heft. There’s no weight to anything that transpires, which makes everything surrounding this plot seemed designed to get Zoe to the point where she drinks a lot of Long Island Iced Teas and drunk dials Frank for some sweet House Majority Whip action.
Plenty of critics have bemoaned the slow pace of certain television shows over the years. So it seems hypocritical to penalize a show for moving too fast. But when a show skips over certain key emotional beats in order to maintain the illusion of breathless pacing, those turning points turn into more cogs in the machine. We’ve seen Frank and Zoe together onscreen for roughly five minutes at this point, with texting and cellphone conversations making up the rest of their interactions. There simply isn’t enough there at this point to justify the two making their relationship sexual. One could argue Frank was still stung by the return of Adam into Claire’s sphere, but that’s a huge damn leap to make. Despite all of the screen time, and despite all of the asides to the camera, we’re not much more privy to the inner workings of Frank than we are the secondary and tertiary characters. We know his stance on refrigerators that fall off a minivan on the highway. But what do we know about his stance on Zoe Barnes? The two get together because House Of Cards needs them to get together. But that doesn’t mean it earned that pairing.
While Frank and Zoe’s relationship is starting, the one between Peter and Christina is ending. I’m a broken record in these early reviews, and perhaps this will all change by the time the eight episode rolls around, but Peter Russo is the reason to watch this show at this time. While it’s impossible to lay out complete character studies for multiple characters in a four-episode span, the work done by both showrunner/head writer Beau Willimon and actor Corey Stoll demonstrates that it is indeed possible for the show to dig deep into its denizens and pull out compelling qualities. After all, this isn’t about answering every question and explaining every motivation. It’s about making the audience wish the show to eventually do so, or at least compelling them to try and fill in those blanks themselves. Russo’s weaknesses have given Underwood power over Russo. But far more fascinating than the closing of a military base is the effect it has on Russo’s already shaky psyche. This isn’t simply a junkie who happens to be a member of the House of Representatives. He’s not the best dad, the best congressman, or the best boyfriend. But he sure as shit wants to be those, only to find himself his own worst enemy at every turn. Watching him struggle with his conscience at the BRAC Hearings was the most riveting moment of the show thus far, intersecting the personal and the political in the most dramatic way yet.
That Underwood’s plans intersect with Claire’s goals, Zoe’s ambitions, and Russo’s frailty drives the engine of the story. But what gives these stories heft are the ways in which Frank thwarts those goals either consciously or unconsciously. House Of Cards doesn’t want to be a show about the plausibility of Frank’s plan. It doesn’t overtly paint outside the lines in this regard, but it’s also not the point of the show. Unfortunately, the point seems to center around Frank’s unyielding ambition instead of the affects that ambition has on others. Will we know more about Frank’s psychological makeup by the end of this first season? There’s an excellent chance of that. But a show such as House Of Cards doesn’t get to ignore basic rules of television just because it released that first season at once. If you don’t know why characters do what they do after four full hours, why watch nine more in the first place? Following a thirteen-hour story seems like a long slough. But I’d watch compelling characters for an infinite length of time. Too bad House Of Cards is limiting the current time spent with its most fascinating aspects.
- Standard boilerplate: This space each week deals with the show only through the episode covered. I’m writing about each episode after I watch them, but given the unique nature of the release of House Of Cards, it’s incredibly likely that I’ve watched far more by the time each review drops. Please keep comments below to only events through this episode.
- It looks like in the time since this review was initially written that Todd VanDerWerff wrote up a review of the entire season. So you can now share thoughts about season one there.
- I’m not sure we knew until this hour that Underwood was a Democrat. Often times shows set in Washington intentionally obscure party affiliation, but I’m glad House Of Cards isn’t one of those.
- Holy fucking Playstation Vita As Posing As Natural Dialogue, Batman. I guess House Of Cards gotta eat. But damn, that was overt. Over at The Buy More, the cast of Chuck is eating Subway sandwiches and shaking its head at the egregious product placement on display in this episode.
- How tall were those heels Zoe was wearing? She turned into a Hobbit after taking them off upon Frank’s request.
- “You’ve been with older men before.” “Yes.” “Then you know they hurt you. And after they hurt you, they discard you.” “You can’t hurt me.” Well, that was anvilicious, even without having a clue how all this ends.