January 20, 2018
Saturday, February 15, 2014

House of Cards delivers post-TV masochism

Michel Gill, left, and Kevin Spacey portrayed as Garrett Walker and Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
By Hank Stuever
The Washington Post

This is prohibitively sinister, even for average audiences’ contempt for Washington

Rarely am I asked to sign and return a confidentiality agreement just to see a few episodes of a show in advance. But we’re at threat level orange here in Rep. Frank Underwood’s fictionalized Washington, where there are many checkpoints to gain entry into the deeply dark-spirited Capitol for the second season of creator Beau Willimon’s hot political thriller series House of Cards — all 13 episodes of which began streaming yesterday today on Netflix.

There’s a shocking moment in the first episode where the reason for all the secrecy measures becomes painfully clear. I’m not going to tell you anything about it, but I defy the Internet to keep its collective yap shut for very long. If you’re a hardcore fan of the show and your Valentine’s Day plans were built around watching it with your snuggle bunny, it might have been a good idea to stay offline until you’ve watched the first hour.

This review, therefore, is hamstrung even more than usual. I won’t mention any of Season 2’s upcoming plot points, but I will assume that you’ve finished Season 1 (if not, then we need to secure the room), or that you don’t really get all the fuss. I have a special affinity for viewers who jumped aboard the House of Cards binge-wagon on the advice of friends, rave reviews (not mine) or the simple fear of missing out, only to find the show was too heartless to really enjoy.

I, too, think House of Cards is almost prohibitively sinister, even considering the average US citizen’s contempt for the ways of Washington. I’ve lived in the nation’s capital too long to believe fully in grand schemes and master plans, which is why the bumbling chaos and ego implosions of HBO’s comedy Veep seem far more like the Washington I know.

As many wonks have noticed, House of Cards clings to this notion that Washington power (or “power”) centralizes and eventually edits itself down to the shrewdest player, who gets to become a master puppeteer. So strong is Frank’s power now that he can even bend Congress to his will, a resonant fantasy for an era of gridlock, debt ceilings and shutdowns. Viewers can’t be blamed for seeing House of Cards as an appealing antidote to partisan powerlessness, and it’s not entirely baseless. We’ve all had the pleasure of trying to figure out how the shots really get called.

Meanwhile, I don’t buy the central artistic argument of House of Cards, that giving the audience someone — anyone — to root for is a cop-out, or that the melodramatically nasty Frank (Kevin Spacey) and his equally vicious wife, Claire (Robin Wright, who won a Golden Globe last month for her steely, perfectly clenched portrayal) are simply drawn from Shakespearean templates.

I also find it hard to offer unqualified praise to a show that can soar in one minute and then, two scenes later, makes me feel like I’m rummaging through the discount table of thrillers at an airport book shop. Frankly (no pun intended), when I want to be delighted by the nastiness and self-interest in power plays, CBS’ The Good Wife stands ready with its ever-adjusting interpretation of right and wrong, mining the same high-tech pitfalls and speed-of-text social mores that House of Cards leans on.

When people tell me how much they love House of Cards, I like to ask them to describe how it makes them feel. I keep waiting for someone to say “happy.” As good as it can be in its very best moments, House of Cards is a deeply depressing way to spend 13 hours, whether rationed out like treats or gobbled up in a weekend. It’s only ever about people doing wrong.

Many of my favourite shows are just as morose and fixated on the downward spiral of human nature — Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire — but they each have a better grasp of tone. House of Cards is almost willfully and sadistically atonal. Its schemes and subplots and internecine politics undulate and intertwine with a suffocating kind of flatness. I find these new episodes watchable yet sterile.

As viewers know, Underwood, the House majority whip (a Democrat from South Carolina) who took his resentment at being passed over for the job of secretary of state to murderous and complicated extremes last season, has schemed his way to becoming vice president. But an untidiness remains in the wake of all that. After her bizarre sexual encounters with Underwood, former Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who now works for a website called Slugline, is getting closer and closer to piecing his scheme together, aided by her boyfriend/ex-editor, Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus), and her newsroom rival, Janine (Constance Zimmer).

Spacey’s work in House of Cards wavers between that of a virtuoso and an occasional hack. At a point where I’d hoped showrunner Willimon and his writers might have bravely abandoned the broken-fourth-wall soliloquies and asides in which Frank turns to the camera and oozes quotable insight, this demon returns: “Did you think I’d forgotten you?” he drawls, looking us dead in the eye. “Perhaps you hoped I had.”

What we are engaged in here — and make no mistake, after the four episodes they’ve let me see, I’m game for the other nine — is a form of post-television masochism. By being so cruel, so gruelling, House of Cards is the perfect show to dump on viewers all at once: it’s a test to see how much hurt we can take. It’s as if, knowing how “messed up” “Washington” is, we’ve turned to this fictional big shot politico Underwood and asked him to slap us, hard, over and over. You don’t want to like it, but a twisted part of you really does.

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