For all the attention it receives and the level of cultural relevance it assumes House of Cards ought to be a much better series than its aggressive promotion makes it out to be.
By Matt Hanson
House of Cards, Netflix’s much-hyped political drama, has gotten a huge amount of critical attention. Since its inception, the show has scooped up awards and garnered an oversized amount of media attention. In three years, the program has won Golden Globes, a Peabody, an Emmy, and a Screen Actor’s Guild award. It also served as the basis for a spoof (in an adaptation called “House of Nerds”) for the prestigious White House Correspondents Dinner. Slate reliably runs several articles on each season’s release and The Atlantic gave every episode of the new season a thorough write-up. For all the attention it receives and the level of cultural relevance it assumes, House of Cards ought to be a much better series than its aggressive promotion makes it out to be.
Ironically, the critics who are constantly writing about the show aren’t fooled by the overdrive of its powerful hype machine. Slate’s Willa Paskin gets it right: “House of Cards is really designed to be binge-watched, by which I mean consumed so quickly there is no time to taste all the garbage we are guzzling down alongside those sneering and delicious putdowns.” Netflix releases the entirety of each season at once, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. In fact, it works out perfectly. The show’s glaring weaknesses are easily overshadowed by the pleasant monotony of watching the whole fetid shebang without a break.
Considering the caliber of the talent involved, the show’s embrace of gourmandizing is disappointing. David Fincher is House of Cards‘ executive producer and has directed several episodes. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are well-cast as Frank and Claire Underwood, a ruthless, seductive Washington power couple. The veteran actors are clearly enjoying themselves in their devilishly glamorous roles. Spacey has made a career portraying cynical, witty, and imperious figures; he plays eloquent smugness like a Stradivarius. Before being cast in House of Cards, Spacey had a long run at London’s Old Vic theatre performing the title role of Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most entertainingly malignant monarchs. Part of the fun of the history play is when, from time to time, Richard breaks the fourth wall to explain his sinister ploys to the audience just before he unleashes them on the other characters, a trick House of Cards uses as often and less successfully. (It is a device that Ian Richardson spun with marvelously purring aplomb in the 1990 British version of House of Cards.)
The show’s biggest problem is its lack of character development. Frank Underwood isn’t as interesting or multifaceted as he must be to merit sustained dramatic attention and keep the viewer engaged. At least Richard III states early on his reasons for ripping apart the House of York: he’s deformed, been passed over, sexual dysfunction, etc. Underwood’s unmitigated ruthlessness and lust for power gradually becomes tiresome because that is all there is to him. He is a paper-thin tiger.
The first season set the wheels of the plot in motion. We first meet Underwood when he has his work cut out for him: a dunderhead president to maneuver out of office, an attractive reporter to use as a media mouthpiece and occasional mistress. His icy but seductive wife Claire is the sole suggestion that he has a richer emotional life. In season two, the strongest thus far, House of Cards refreshingly decided to shed its pretensions of portraying the seamy underbelly of Washington culture and embraced its campier possibilities, with plot twists coming fast and furious and the body count piling up. At last, Underwood seized the coveted big brass ring of the presidency.
The problem for season three and beyond remains: now that Underwood has gotten everything he spent the last two seasons scheming and manipulating his way to get, there isn’t anywhere else to go but down. (Come to think of it, that was the problem for Shakespeare in Richard III.) So far, the Underwood presidency has been a major dramatic opportunity gone to waste. It would be different if Underwood was trying to figure out the motivation behind his power grab, or if in the process of reaching the top he discovered a a private code of ethics or acquired a new-found yen for pragmatic idealism. Instead, Underwood’s villainy functions merely as a way for the show to attempt to be a noirish version of The West Wing.
At various points along the way the show has hinted that Underwood has something resembling a human side, but the scenes that portray him as the ultimate Machiavelli-on-the-Potomac are the ones which leave the deepest impression. Ironically, his moments of high-flying skullduggery aren’t as powerful or as shocking as they should be. For instance, when Frank defiles his father’s grave while chatting with the camera its not all that much of a scandal given that we haven’t learned much about Frank’s pre-venemous life before this distasteful moment.
Now that he’s in office, Underwood’s implausible and poorly explained “America Works” program, a screwball version of the New Deal, doesn’t make much sense. It not only seems out of character for the cold-blooded operator we’ve spent dozens of episodes getting to know, but the vision’s craziness doesn’t justify his sudden vigor in legislating and speechifying on behalf of his program. Perhaps House of Cards wants to appeal to the sublimated desire of frustrated liberals to see a President who takes matters into his own hands, Congress and the federal budget be damned. Either way, it’s hard to root for his legislative initiatives because there’s never been much of a reason why we should believe that Underwood would suddenly believe in something outside of his game-playing solipsism.
As for Claire, her motivations are only now starting to be explored. The show turned a corner with her character when it turned her into a figure of defiant feminism, following her hazardous path from First Lady to UN Ambassador and her intimate meeting with a GLBT activist in Russia. Her sudden bout of remorse comes off as even more opportunistic than Frank’s utter lack of guilt. At the moment, their tangled heap of mangled sexual and gender politics don’t quite add up. Claire’s sudden erotic interest in Frank’ sadistic nature and hubby’s lightening-quick disrespect for her comes out of nowhere, undermining the previous storyline that portrayed Claire as a strong woman making her way in a man’s world.
Now that the central foundation of House of Cards’s plot, characters, and storyline are in chaos there is an opportunity for major, more engaging adjustments. Hopefully, the writers of the show are aware of this and will make the program’s characters more multidimensional and less maniacal in the next season. They’d better, because a house of cards divided against itself cannot stand for long.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.