House of Cards
(SPOILERS) Has House of Cards gone off the rails? Was it ever really on them? You have to wonder, given the way the magnificent coldblooded, gloating conceit of Andrew Davies’ original BBC adaptation of Michael Dobbs novel(s) has given way to a show in which the psychopaths touch, feel, grieve and display compassion. It’s possibly a function of the expanded series format, and a crumbling of the start, middle, end trilogy template, but Beau Willimon’s version increasingly feels like a meaner version of sanctimonious, do-gooding The West Wing, which isn’t meant as a compliment.
House of Cardsremains a gorgeous-looking, immaculately produced series, with outstanding performances form Kevin Spacey and (particularly) Robin Wright (not that she’s rewarded, in terms of the risible descent of her character), but the jet black humour has descended to the point of unkempt melodrama, casting about for new plotlines to fill time while the rudderless ship saps the potency from its once virile and virulent leads (even the to-camera asides have diffused).
The warning signs were there last year with the attempts to locate an issue-led subplot for Claire Underwood. But still, the Shakespearean coupling and mutual support between Frank and Claire remained rock solid, in a Macbeth without the madness sense. Doubtless the layering of the characters is at least partly a consequence of the investment the actors are allowed in the show’s development; Spacey is a producer, Wright a three-time director. They’re not necessarily the best judges of what works tonally or in plotting, though. The missteps in Season Three are particularly extravagant ones, such that you wonder if anyone quite has a grasp on what they’re making any more.
I might opine that the show would be a more interesting one if it hamstrung power-crazed Frank by ushering him into the Oval Office only to learn he has no say at all, under the edict of those pulling the strings behind the scenes and overt corporate interests. There are intimations of the latter, of course (such and such senator is the pocket of a particular company, say), and the comment “Sometimes, I think the presidency is the illusion of choice” but, instead of giving Frank anyone to really push against when he reaches the highest office in the land, the writers fall back on fashioning moveable obstacles as place markers. Of course, the argument is that House of Cards isn’t really a political show, it isn’t a satire; it’s simply about the lust for power. Unfortunately, it betrays itself as something else when it staggers into an extended plotline about the Russian premier or gets sidetracked into exploring emotional arcs when there’s a whole lot more meat to be found elsewhere.
There are some decent ideas being played with in terms of Claire’s role re: her husband, but the wisdom of incorporating them in this show with this premise is questionable. Claire should be the icy power behind the throne, unflinching and unmoveable when confronted by any problem or obstacle her more impulsive partner faces. Instead, she’s been considerably weakened by the introduction of her own desire for attention and overt reward. This is, to an extent, commented upon by Frank in the final episode, that she knew the bargain she was entering, but being self-aware about it doesn’t make the idea any better. Claire comes across as petty and small-minded with her demand for an ambassadorship that makes her husband appear nepotistic. She then acts in a wholly short-sighted and impulsive manner in her subsequent decisions to speak out when political prisoner Corrigan hangs himself and then not show for Frank’s nomination speech/choice to leave the White House in the final episode.
Again, it’s not as if the writers aren’t aware of the trap they’ve set themselves, and Frank’s explosive confrontation with Claire in the finale is the kind of fiery behaviour we’ve been waiting for all season. But withdrawing from the position that these characters are a couple of shrewd, calculating sociopaths who will stop and nothing to get what they want and replacing it with a couple with standard foibles, jealousies and tiffs reduces what makes the material special in the first place. There’s a scene where Claire forces the Russian ambassador to meet with her while she’s sitting on the toilet; it’s supposed to be a taking back of power by the patronised and belittled woman, but like so much of this season it comes across as contrived and trivial. The writers have hobbled her. The scene in the finale where she is sitting in Frank’s office is presumably designed to have Hillary-esque significance (soon after she is told she’d be a good president), but it’s difficult to care when she’s been so systematically disassembled her.
It’s much the same with Frank and Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), the author he hires to write “America Works”. It’s the decision of someone who lacks Frank’s calculated, tight control. He seems sloppy and foolish to reveal his secrets to this man (to even consider intimacy with him), and it’s the decision of writers bending over backwards to manoeuvre their antihero into a dramatic situation rather than staying true to his dark nature. His America Works idea also feels like an only-in-TV invention, even if the repercussions of its enforcement have some currency.
Elements of the Middle East peace talks plotline that takes up much of this season are quite well played, but it only ever feels like a distraction from Frank really getting his hands dirty. There’s a lot of fun to be had watching Lars Mikkelsen’s icy cool Viktor Petrov, showing mettle and resolve Frank lacks. In particular, his honing in on Claire as Frank’s weak spot is almost a meta-way of discussing the failings of the season as a whole (Claire is a “much better First Lady” than an ambassador). But the plotline generally is a diversion, and it’s only when the focus returns to Frank jostling for leadership that the Season Three actually get a kick up the arse and remember where its at.
So Frank against the ropes, being told he isn’t wanted as president, and the machinations that result as Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker, excellent as ever) and Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) throw their hats in the ring, are a reminder of how good and twisty the show can be; sides change, deals are hatched and ploys are pulled off or fail (notably in this season, when Frank shows his ire, first towards Jackie and then Claire, it has exactly the opposite effect to the one he intends). Generally though, when Dunbar or journo Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) cite how venal and ruthless Frank is, they’re flattering him. This is a show stooping to have Frank go and seek advice from a priest and then spit on a statue of Jesus that proceeds to topple over. It’s as clumsy and unsubtle as the production values are flawlessly glossy.
Season Three doesn't really hit a groove until the eleventh episode and the presidential debates, and then the possibility that Doug will give Claire’s journal to Dunbar (“I’ll slit her fucking throat in broad daylight” is Frank at his expressive best). The finale is a bit of a fumble, though, with the conclusion to the seemingly interminable Doug recovery/search for Rachel plotline in sharp focus. It’s one that really didn’t need an entire season to play out (Michael Kelly is great, but that goes without saying).
Hopefully the fourth season can get back to Frank being really evil, since that’s the show at its coal-hearted best. We don’t want to see Frank and Claire touch and feel and empathise, it’s the opposite of who they should be. There’s also the concern that there may not be that much further to go with the series generally. Even the original was considerably better during the climb to power than in the holding of it. If Season Four goes further down the route of manufacturing sub-West Wing lash-ups of real world political scenarios it will be beyond hope of righting itself, squandering its potential in a toothless middle ground.