Warning: spoilers for the first two seasons of House of Cards are below
When I think of House of Cards nowadays, the first word that comes to mind is “pity.” I know this is more than a little strange; after all, this show was made popular by way of its pitilessness, and set into motion by a series of remorseless MacBethings. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel sorry for it. Here is a show created and maintained by some of the most accomplished folks ever to work on a series, and run by the talented playwright Beau Willimon. And yet, in spite of all that, here is a show with a serious identity crisis.
House of Cards doesn’t know what dress it wants to wear to the TV prom. Does it want to get loud and blissfully gaudy like Scandal or Madame Secretary, or is it aiming for something more tastefully groundbreaking like The Sopranos or Mad Men? Does it want to be a tweet-worthy twist-fest or a serious treatise on the power of power? I’m saddened to report that, even its third and probably best season, the show still doesn’t know. Thematically speaking, it’s still trying on dresses, and right about now I would really like it to pick one of the damn things and buy it.
Admittedly, in terms of bare-bones plot, this season differs dramatically from the first two. As loyal viewers will recall, last season ended with Kevin Spacey’s power-hungry Frank Underwood clinching the presidency, tapping on the table of the Oval Office with his iconic Bad Guy Ring. This season begins with the game of thrones won. Therefore, this no longer a show about social climbing, but about the struggle to stay atop the mountain. This is a major shift, and it changes everyone on the series, starting at the top and trickling down to the smallest ensemble member. Most notably, there’s Frank himself; he is suddenly vulnerable in more ways than one. Politically, the presidency hasn’t insulated him from criticism; it’s opened him up to more of it. And emotionally, the job hasn’t calcified him; it’s started, in some small ways, to crack him open. The show isn’t quite smart enough to explicitly examine it, but there’s a blackly fascinating paradox here: the filthy moral compromises required of a modern day President are enough to make even Frank Underwood flinch. And if you think he’s struggling with conscience problems, you should see his First Lady (Robin Wright).
Overall, the post-Presidency changes are good for the show. Yes, they showcase the show’s lack of political know-how (FEMA does what, exactly?), but they also strengthen the plot. No longer is House of Cards an endless upward trajectory for the Spacey and Wright characters. Suddenly, these people are in real danger, not to mention ethical and emotional upheaval. There’s a moment in which, after a bad call with a donor, Frank wrecks his study. In that moment, I realized with a shock that I wasn’t seeing Frank Underwood the Oft-Mimicked Meme; I was seeing Frank Underwood the Man. In these episodes, a marble-wrought Machiavellian gets his back broken. There’s plenty wrong with the new, post-Presidency version of House of Cards, but it has certainly shaken off any remnants of Season 2’s occasional sluggishness.
What it hasn’t gotten rid of, as intimated above, is its bone-deep uncertainty about exactly what it wants to be. Is it gearing for soapy goodness, or contributing to TV’s intellectual Golden Age? I can’t tell. Scenes of careful nuance swerve right into Crazytown; scenes of flaming wackjob madness are dampened by the cold splash of reason. One minute, Frank is talking about how to square the barabarities in the Middle East with the words of the Qu’ran; the next, he’s knocking over a statue of Christ and saying, with a vicious cackle, “Well, I guess I’ve got God’s ear now.” One minute, a freshly resuscitated Stamper (Michael Kelly) is struggling with the sacrifices he’s made to gain political power; the next, he’s carrying out an absurd task that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitman game. The worst example comes in an argument between Frank and Claire on Air Force One. The argument itself is an intense slow-build, a well-staged lift from the “Whitecaps” playbook of marital strife. But then, as it reaches its peak, Frank turns to the viewer and, in one of those fourth-wall-breaking asides that have gone from badass to bete noire, he snaps at us: “What are you looking at?” This drama is topped off by camp. The show can have it one way, but it can’t have it both. House of Cards’s major problem is still its tonal inconsistency, and it’s still as frustrating as ever. One cannot have a show that A) shoves Kate Mara in front of a moving train and then B) tries to go all Plato’s Republic on us.
And yet, even as I bristle at the aforementioned inconsistency, I know I will tune back in come next February. This is partially due to my ridiculous brand loyalty; if I watched a season of a show about how awful Mason Walker is, I’d probably stick with it for at least the next three. But that loyalty is also due to the fact that this show, for all its unstinting ridiculousness, also has some unchanging strengths. Its great assets are, of course, the actors. Spacey is Spacey, treating every line like it’s Shakespeare. His arsenic-and-old-molasses accent is now world-famous, of course, but notice how many layers he finds in it now. In the final episode, he utters the words “When we lose…” in a throaty baritone we’ve never heard before, and the effect is chilling. But Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood runs away with the show. Over the course of three seasons, she’s stripped away her character’s sylphy elegance to a show us a woman who is deeply unsure about her husband’s place in the White House—and her place at his side. Spacey gets much of the show’s showier dialogue, but Wright seizes her best verbal bits and is remarkably adept at facial expression. Note the scene in episode 6 where she goes from “This is fine” to “This is bullshit” without saying a word. You’ll catch it. It’s all in the hardening of the jaw, in the sudden fire of the eyes. If the show did nothing else, it would be notable for reminding us that, hey, Princess Buttercup can really act.
The rest of the ensemble is equally committed to this messy enterprise. A special mention goes to Mahershala Ali, whose gutsy work here undermines Remy’s famed suavity in surprising ways. And Michael Kelly, as Stamper, deserves some kind of medal: more than anyone else, he’s trapped in the midst of the show’s aspirational confusion, but he plays it all with straightforward clarity and comes out unscathed. The scene of him traveling to Caracas to put a beat-down on an old enemy should be the most unintentionally hilarious scene of the season and/or year, but Kelly commits to it so honestly that you only laugh after the fact.
Finally, of course, there’s the show’s aesthetic. While House of Cards‘s writers don’t know what dress they want it to wear, its cinematographers surely do. Building on the style that David Fincher brought to the pilot episode, the show’s technical behind-the-scenes team have created a series that looks like nothing else on television. Almost every shot is either impossibly chic or deliciously ominous. Scandal can give me scandal and a handful of other shows can give me deep insight, but only House of Cards can give me a blood-drive that’s shot like a descent into Hell. Only House Of Cards can give me a Buddhist chant that starts as part of a White House cultural exchange but then spreads over the whole episode like a great underlying rumble of doom. And only House of Cards can give me that unforgettable shot of Claire Underwood in the bathtub, placed eerily close to our faces, shorn of make-up, and stewing in bitterness and discontent.
DPs Martin Ahlgren and Paul Elliot nail the little details as well. Note the final confrontation between Frank and Claire in the season finale; note how at around the 52:45 mark, the camera follows Frank out of his chair and goes over his shoulder, so that any modicum of sympathy we might’ve had for him evaporates—so that he looks like a predator going after Claire’s wounded animal. If all that mattered was style, this would be one of the better shows on television, and probably the best one produced by Netflix.
But, as the newly Presidented Frank Underwood now understands, appearances aren’t always enough. You’ve got to have a plan of attack. And when it comes to that, this show, so full of strong acting, technical dazzle, and bad storytelling, still has a lot of work to do.
Mason Walker is a kazoo-bearing Jew who writes at his blog So Beautiful or So What when he isn’t visiting Loser City.