“Want to know about politics in Washington? Four words: Watch your back, Jack.” – Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Clear and Present Danger
Having just released its second complete season, House of Cards remains a meal that refuses to go down smoothly, no matter how sumptuous it might appear. You can admire the artistry in the execution, but afterwards, you always feel like you need a shower – rather like looking at a painting hung in a porta-potty. For years the optimism and hope of The West Wing was my lifeblood and so experiencing a show like HofC that responds to that philosophy by essentially defecating on it (again with the toilet metaphors, dude) will always be a fundamentally unsettling experience. You just don’t want to believe that people are capable of that sort of thing, even though grasping the promise of the light mandates the acknowledgement of the existence of darkness.
WARNING: Massive Season 2 Spoilers follow. Abandon all hope (of being surprised), ye who enter here.
The sociopathic Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are the focal point of that darkness, emerging from it literally as the first episode of Season 2 begins. Frank has been appointed Vice-President of the United States following his elaborate scheme in the previous season that saw his predecessor maneuvered into stepping down to run for his old office of Governor of Pennsylvania. There remain several loose ends, in the form of journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her associates, and call girl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), both instrumental in Frank’s secret wheelings and dealings. Rachel is whisked into exile by Frank’s majordomo Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), while Zoe, growing increasingly convinced that Underwood murdered troubled Congressman Peter Russo last season, is dealt with in one of the most brutally shocking twists in episodic TV in years. (How many other shows have the audacity to kill off the opening credits third-billed lead – played by a rising young actress – in a season premiere?) Culminating in a closing shot of Frank’s monogrammed cufflinks (that read, unsubtly, “F.U.”), the implication to the audience is that this year, all bets are off.
And yet, oddly, they’re not.
Frank is back to business as usual, getting Jackie Sharp (Canadian actress Molly Parker), his preferred choice for replacement as Majority Whip in place, and driving wedges between the frustratingly naive President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) and his mentor and friend of many years, billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) by nearly starting a war with China. Claire works on the First Couple from her end as well, cultivating a friendship with Mrs. Walker (Joanna Going) and motivating her to convince her husband to attend couples therapy – the revelation of which will ultimately prove politically toxic. As with the previous season, the endgame for the Underwoods is never fully articulated until the closing moments of the final episode, yet there is a sense of inevitability about where the story is going that renders the proceedings a bit pat, and moot. Compounding this notion is the fact that Frank always wins, and never at any point do we get the sense that he is in any danger of losing. The only real consequence Frank suffers throughout the season is when his beloved rib joint has to close its doors – and nary more than a moment is spent ruing that.
Half the problem, and this affected the first season as well, is a budgetary one. Spacey and Wright are major stars and don’t work cheap, and with their salaries devouring the lion’s share of the casting budget, the remainder must be spread around sparingly, resulting in a roster of supporting players who are well-meaning and capable but simply don’t have the raw wattage of the two leads, and can’t hope to outshine (or even strike within a country mile of equaling) them. Gill in particular doesn’t have the gravitas we’ve come to expect in the portrayal of a President (no Martin Sheen he), and it’s difficult to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a man whom Underwood championed for the Oval Office, and supported without hesitation until being passed over for the job of Secretary of State – let alone one who managed to win a national election. (Unless he was running against an anthropomorphic sheet of drywall.)
The other half of the equation lies in the writing of Frank’s adversaries, who for reasons of plot necessity allow themselves to be duped, make stupid decisions and side with the Underwoods rather than with the truth. The animosity generated by Frank between President Walker and Raymond Tusk could have been swept aside by the long-term friends sharing one private phone call, but naturally, this doesn’t happen, and in the end Walker abandons Tusk to a perp walk after one dark-heart-felt personal letter from Frank. It also strains credulity that a ruling party would be so quick to bring its own President up on impeachment charges, as is threatened in the finale. Granted, in the show it’s the Democrats doing it (their real-life contemporaries ever ready to cut allies loose in the interest of political expediency instead of walking lock-step into the flames like the Republicans do), but you’d think at least one loyal Walker soldier might be able to assemble the pieces and realize that all the trouble originates from the moment a certain Mr. Underwood stepped onto the stage. No matter – in the end, all enemies are swept or willingly step aside, Walker resigns, and a duplicitous double-murderer takes the Oath of Office, pounding the Resolute Desk in the season’s final shot in a gesture of either triumph or foreboding, depending on your interpretation.
House of Cards has been renewed for a third season, with rumors that it will be its last. I find it difficult to imagine it could venture any further. Once you’ve ascended the mountain, the only way to go is down. I’m mindful though of the comments made by David Chase of The Sopranos, who scoffed at the idea that audiences should crave a comeuppance for Tony Soprano after they cheered on his spree of theft, betrayal and murder for season after season. What will happen to Frank Underwood? Like Dexter Morgan, there is no sufficient legal reciprocity for the magnitude of his crimes. A mea culpa is beyond his capacity. And it simply isn’t dramatically interesting to watch him keep winning battle after battle – the machinations of an untouchable god, become, after a time, unengaging television.
If you’re looking for clues to his demise, you can see seeds sown in the closing moments of this season’s final chapter, with Doug being killed and left to rot in the woods by Rachel, the end of a somewhat pitiable obsession with her that had developed over several episodes. (That storyline reveals another intriguing notion about the portrayal of men and women, given that Rachel remains under Doug’s thumb until the split second she realizes that he wants her sexually – then his downfall begins. A post for another time.) If season 3 is to be The Fall of Frank Underwood, then the reason for keeping Rachel front and center in the storyline becomes clear. Those who manage to undo powerful men will never be powerful themselves – they will arise from the unexpected corner, seemingly insignificant and non-threatening. Not to be forgotten either is the besieged hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) who begins to reassert his independence from the feds and has unfettered access to where everyone’s digital bodies are buried. The advantage also of focusing on either of these characters is that they remain virtually the only two people in this corrupted universe you can find yourself rooting for – even though they have both committed crimes themselves.
Or, Frank’s undoing will come in the shape of his one indispensable ally: Claire. As the Second Lady, Wright seemed a little sidelined this season, particularly in its latter half, as her character’s journey took a backseat to the increasingly complex web spun by her husband. But apart from one fleeting moment of remorse that when past hardened her heart even further, Claire remains as vicious as Frank and as dedicated to the idea of absolute power. Two such identical forces cannot remain together forever, as anyone who’s tried to clap magnets against one another is well aware. They have already shown, in the episode that climaxed (sorry, bad pun) in a threesome with their Secret Service agent Meecham, that either one of them is not enough for the other. Perhaps the ultimate house of cards to be toppled is the Underwoods’ commitment to each other.
It’s telling about our nature that even in stories about bad guys, we crave the triumph of the good. And good never wins on House of Cards. Frank’s manipulations succeed at every turn because he has a gift for recognizing weak points and flickers of evil in others, and like the classic tempter, convincing them to make the wrong choice of their own free will. The conventions of drama, however, lead us to wonder how this plays out. Psychological need asks whether good will indeed crawl out from under the bed after taking a pummeling for two straight seasons. The Sopranos, which chose an open ending with the scales of morality tilted permanently out of balance left an unpalatable taste in many mouths. As much as TV audiences might relish watching Frank Underwood slice and dice his way to his diabolical goals, Americans as a whole likely aren’t comforted by the idea that such an archetypally evil person could manipulate his way into the Presidency in real life (regardless of your partisan opinions of occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania past and present). They’ll want to see him go down, brutally, in a spectacular orgy of cathartic release, as charming as that come-and-go South Carolina drawl may be. It might finally lend that terribly bitter pill a teensy touch of candy coating.
In any case, a question to be left to series creator Beau Willimon and his writing staff. Besides, if I need my idealism fix, I’ll always have my complete West Wing DVD set.