House of Cards
(SPOILERS) The expansion of House of Cards from its serial BBC origins brings with it both positives and negatives. There, Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart had full reign, and those around him snapped into place like the pieces in a jigsaw. With the luxury of three times the length for each season, there is more time to bed in characters and plots down. When this works, as with the Washington intrigue involving Tusk this time round, it is something to be marvelled at. But when it is less compelling, as happens with the Claire Underwood and Doug Stamper plots, you can feel the storytelling dragging its heels. It shouldn’t be the case that you’re willing the makers to get back to Frank; we should be diverted by each detour sufficiently, and it’s the one consistent failing in a second outing that otherwise trumps the first in all other respects.
Certainly, everything involving Capitol Hill is a step up and, while the original version progressively weakened in its follow-ups, I can quite foresee the finale being the best of the lot. The Peter Russo plotline last season seems almost so-so next to the machinations here. The duelling for the heart and mind of President Walker (Michael Gill) between Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood and Gerald McRaney’s big businessman Raymond Tusk is riveting. The latter gets so close to putting Frank on the ropes on numerous occasions, only for Frank to trump him, that those who suggest Underwood doesn’t have a worthy adversary in all this seems to have missed the part where Tusk is. The scene in Chapter 21, where an inwardly fuming Frank, usurped in his attempt to bring casino man Lanagin (Gil Birmingham) on board, throws a steak into the swimming pool after which the Tusk dog leaps, is a beautiful tiny tantrum in coming out fighting when his back’s against the wall; “Dogs are so predictable, aren’t they?”
Gill gives a fine performance as a weak President who can be pushed, through careful doublethink, in whosever chooses’ direction. Anyone else, and you’d wonder how a man could be so foolish, but we’ve seen Frank’s clever plays repeatedly, picking a fight with Walker (“Dismiss me, or keep swinging Mr President”) and buying him a punch bag to make up. When Walker finally sees the truth of Frank’s manipulations, and exiles him, we think that must be that. And, while Frank’s gambit is a clever one (offering a “false” confession to win the President’s trust), one can’t help conclude that even Walker wouldn’t fall for that one.
Likewise, some of the developments, such as the threat of impeachment, seem like weak sauce next to a real life counterpart like the Lewinsky Affair. But then, this is a series well aware that the major crimes go undiscovered while minor nothings are leapt upon as if they represent a serious impairment of function (the President must go not because he took some medication, but because he is fool enough to be swayed). Was Frank’s confession actually in the letter Walker throws on the fire? Walker would have been a fool to let him have it back, but then he is a fool. Occasionally too, Frank’s schemes are so obvious that they wouldn’t look out of place on Yes, Minister (the appointment of a Special Prosecutor)
Spacey really hasn’t been in anything this good in years, and he really is unparalleled in his approach to direct addresses (he cites Richard III as his inspiration, but he would). Richardson had silky cold refinement; Spacey has good old boy steel. Letting Zoe Barnes survive the first season wrong-footed me, so when she suffers the fate of Mattie Barnes, albeit in front of a subway train rather than plummeting from a tall building, it’s a jaw-dropping turn of events at the end of the opener. In part it’s a relief to have the rather annoying Mara out of the picture, but the icing on the cake is that it’s followed up by Frank’s first audience address of the season (“Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had”). For one so coolly unphased, Frank’s genuine feelings sometimes sit a little uncomfortably (i.e. he has actual liberal views, such as his friendship with Freddy proves he’s neither racist nor truly elitist – “I wont leave one of my own bleeding in the field” – and he’s genuinely enraged on discovering he has to pin a medal on his wife’s rapist); while these are good moments, one can’t help feel there should have been no need to nudge the audience that Frank has some good qualities. We’d think no more (so to speak) of him if he didn’t have some positives because his key is Mephistoclean charisma. Some of the other elements, such as the battle re-enactments, show that even Frank can have some dull moments.
Of course, this series is no more really about politics than The West Wing; it may get the power for power’s sake vibe, but if politics is about power, power does not reduce to politics, and those involved would readily admit that it’s merely a backdrop for more Shakespearean obsessions. There are legions of publicists and facilitators, but there’s no interest in dissecting the more intricate and conspiratorial tentacles of power. Perhaps the most direct scene in this regard is the ménage-a-trois between Frank, Claire and Meechum (Nathan Darrow). We could see the latter’s devotion to Claire a mile off, and the sudden turn from tipsy tete-a-tete to passionate clinches when Frank tends to his protector’s cut palm probably shouldn’t come as a surprise (certainly given Frank’s remembrance of times past last year, and Meechum finding him watching porn an episode earlier) but it does; for Frank sexuality is just another string to his bow of power plays, and for his wife – with whom he is sexually distant at other times – it is a release from her new guarded prison. The next morning it’s business as usual (“It’s a beautiful day!”) and if this couple’s eccentrically calculated relationship had been clearly spotlighted throughout the season it is now displayed with a whole greater clarity.
Claire is both better developed as a character and more variably served this season. There’s something rather slack about the rape plotline, as it feels wholly as if the writers were casting about for something dramatic for her. As a result, the development of putting a bill through the house (even given the issue surrounding military jurisdiction is a topical one) comes across as reductive to her character (this is the woman’s plotline). She is actually far better served in terms of mettle when shown reinforcing her husband’s career, because it lends her a Lady Macbeth mettle. From her casual manipulations of the First Lady (Joanna Going) to her discarding of her ex-lover (Ben Daniels) when Tusk tries to stir the pot (the slight smile Wright gives when Frank puts Adam in his place is a sight), to her decision to climb down for the most productive result in response to Jackie Sharp and most revealingly (which almost, but not quite pays off its use as a rather clumsy plot thread) her decision to drop the bill for political gain. The danger comes with a series that plays it this broad that, if the decision is then made to try to instil emotional depth (Claire breaking down on after betraying Megan) it doesn’t really carry. The series isn’t working on that level, and it shows the makers aren’t always certain of the line they are treading.
James Foley directs half the season, and it looks as classy as ever. We don’t need Fincher dribbling contemplatively over every shot. Also in the chair are Jodie Foster and Robin Wright. Foley notes how House of Cards was originally intended as a handheld show, but then did a 180 degree to fixed camera. The result is luxuriant decadence and invokes a necessary sense of scale. It’s true that at times the show does not feel quite as densely populated with politicos as it should, but those who do appear are always made good use of. Particularly well served in Season Two is Mahershala Ali as Tusk’s spin merchant Remy Danton. His relationship with newcomer Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) occasionally hits clichés of business and pleasure but both performers are superb, and Parker is a particularly welcome addition to the cast.
Less certain is the Doug Stamper storyline. Michael Kelly is great in everything, but Stamper’s obsession with Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) is banal and repetitive (her own arc is no more interesting) Derek Cecil’s wily operative quickly scoops Stamper’s place without even trying. Elsewhere, the attempts of Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) to get justice for Zoe don’t really convince, nor does Arcelus as a supposed senior political editor (do they just throw those titles around at papers?) There’s a horribly obvious scene where he has to have cyber crime explained to him, and then there’s the mythical cyberhacker, played with aplomb by Jimmi Simpson; there’s the feeling this subplot was written by someone who did research by watching The Net. I wanted to see more of Boris McGiver as washed-up Herald Chief Editor Hammerschmidt, since his interview with Francis is great stuff, and there’s a thrill from McGiver and Spacey sparking off each other. Hopefully he’ll be back in the final run.
That’s assuming the third is the last. It would be the sensible move, not just because of the original but because it creates a neatly symmetrical rise and fall as the house of cards collapses. And Spacey, for all the kudos, surely won’t want to be tied down too long. There are certainly plenty of means for dirty and worse secrets to reveal themselves, it’s just that none of those plot lines are especially engrossing right now. The best way to describe House of Cards is probably smooth. It’s not deep and, at times, it’s not clever, but it has a seductive veneer that papers over the cracks in plotting; everything about the show is so well upholstered and presented, and it knows just when it needs to turn the screws. I don’t doubt it will be just as good next time out, but it also has room to improve some more.