(Heavy spoilers for the entirety of House Of Cards follow. If you are not finished with the series yet, Ryan McGee’s weekly reviews will continue every Friday.)
The best thing about House Of Cards is that it takes its time. The worst thing about House Of Cards is that it has no idea what to do with that advantage. Roughly the first eight episodes of the series are all setup, culminating in a wonderful episode—the season’s best—in which Kevin Spacey’s protagonist, Rep. Francis Underwood, travels back to the military college he attended when he was younger (a loosely veiled version of The Citadel). In this hour, all of the cards Frank has been holding back about himself spill out, and it’s revealed that his friendship with the three men he spends most of his time with ended up being far more than friendship with one of them. The show doesn’t come out and say Frank is at the least bisexual, nor does it intimate that if these secrets were leaked to the press, they could be highly damaging to him. Both common sense and the time it’s spent building up the world it takes place in would dictate that.
Then the episode draws to an end, and Frank strides off barking about things that relate to the series’ main plot, and the almost dream-like atmosphere “Chapter Eight” built up dissipates, in favor of a fairly standard serialized drama denouement that’s well-acted and directed but almost never convincing, despite the clear effort of all involved.
The question, then, is if “good enough” is enough. I mostly enjoyed House Of Cards, but at all times, I felt as if the show was afraid to take chances, afraid to stray from its carefully laid-out path and its deeply cynical view of the world of Washington, D.C., both its political and journalistic spheres. “Chapter Eight” delighted me so much—and it’s genuinely one of the better episodes of anything I’ve seen yet this year—because it left the path, because it took chances with the characters and with the storytelling, rather than settling into the dull plod toward a fairly predictable end that the other episodes had hit. Again, the acting and directing was so good that I never found myself actively turning against the series. But I also don’t know that I would have kept watching had it aired on a weekly basis (or had I not been getting paid to watch it). It was roughly at the level of dozens of “pretty good” serialized cable dramas I’ve let slide over the years.
Let me circle back to that “predictable” idea, because it seems to me that if you like this show or not largely centers on if you find the final four episodes or so remotely convincing. I didn’t, and that likely soured me on the season as a whole, though I rather like the setup established in the finale for season two. The whole season has been building along four tracks that occasionally intersect. The first is Frank’s various machinations to get what he wants, kicked off by being passed over for the Secretary of State job. As soon as Frank clears the yet-to-be-confirmed Secretary of State out of his path (in episode two, I believe), then doesn’t want the job for himself, instead pushing for someone who will subsequently owe him a favor, it becomes readily obvious that Frank’s ultimate plan is to somehow tank the whole administration, in order to ultimately win himself the presidency (whether immediately or in 2020 is still up in the air). And, indeed, this is essentially the path the series follows. The other three tracks involve a Pennsylvanian representative named Peter Russo who runs for the recently vacated (by the sitting vice president) governor’s seat of that state, Frank’s wife (Robin Wright) and the clean-water-oriented charity she works for, and cub reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her attempts to climb the career ladder as rapidly as possible.
This is all well and good. The idea is supposed to be that the three characters at the center of the other three storylines will have their essentially staid storylines disrupted and tossed around by Frank, who’s a kind of Shakespearean schemer dropped into the middle of modern-day D.C. (Indeed, the character Frank is based on from the original British miniseries and novels is a fairly naked lift from the title character of Richard III.) The problem is that the disruptions are rarely all that unexpected or interesting. Good drama thrives on plot twists that surprise but are rooted deeply in characters we’ve come to understand well. Thus, the ultimate moment of any serialized drama is the moment when the character is presented with a stark choice to do right or wrong, and one part of us is wishing he will do right while the other dearly hopes he’ll do wrong. For Frank, the season is building to a moment in “Chapter 11” where he drives a drunken Peter home. (Peter, who based his entire gubernatorial campaign on his newfound sobriety, then fell publicly, brutally off the wagon, turns out to have been chosen by Frank because he knew he would flame out, which is rather ridiculous.) The two have a short conversation before Peter falls asleep in his parked car. Frank, seizing the moment, starts the car up and closes the garage door, killing Peter in a way that looks like suicide. It’s a moment the series doesn’t earn; making it even worse is the fact that it’s meant to be the central climax of the season.
The reason Frank kills Peter isn’t because he needs Peter out of the way or because he’s no longer useful to him or even because he’s tired of people who aren’t as nakedly ambitious as he is, all possibilities the series suggests. No, the reason Frank kills Peter is because this is just something he’s supposed to do as the antihero at the center of a dark drama. This is the thing the Tony Soprano or the Walter White or the Al Swearengen does in the penultimate or antepenultimate episode of the season, the moment of no return that will ultimately undo the character when it’s discovered. The problem here is that when those three characters killed someone, their reasoning was always crystal clear, and we in the audience at once rooted for them to be dastardly, while still hoping they might turn from a dark path. (Only Al really did, but that’s how these shows work.) The episode gives Frank plenty of motivation to kill Peter, but only in the moment. Building up to this moment, there’s been no indication that Frank is as sociopathic as to kill somebody, no matter how deep his thirst for power. The moment doesn’t ruin the character or anything, so much as suggest that all involved didn’t really understand the character to begin with.
It doesn’t help that Russo is by far the most interesting person in this thing. As played by Corey Stoll, he’s another familiar figure from the serialized drama—the man who wants to be good but is done in by his own weaknesses—but Stoll finds the soul and passion in this person. He travels back to his Philadelphia-based Congressional district, and you understand all at once why he went into politics. He spends time with his kids, and you understand all at once both how much he longs to be a good father and how lousy he is at it. And he spends time with his secretary and lover Christina (Kristen Connolly), and you understand that there’s something inside of him that could be great if he’d get out of his own way. Russo’s death could have been a powerful moment from both men, a moment when two ambitions collide and one cancels the other out. Instead, I was left mainly wondering why Frank had killed the best character on the show when he didn’t have a terribly good reason to.
The show has a laundry list of other problems—the Claire Underwood storyline never amounts to much of anything at all, the Zoe Barnes stuff is patently ridiculous (though played well by Mara, an actress I like who always keeps getting impossible parts to play), and Frank never has significant setbacks that aren’t resolved within 15 minutes of the next episode’s start—but the foremost one is encapsulated by the death of Russo. Simply put, I never bought a damn thing that was happening on this show, even on its own heightened, Shakespearean terms. Which is where I come to the point that this is obviously, obviously constructed to be a five-act story, and we’ve really only reached the end of act three as of the first season finale, as Zoe has finally turned on Frank and she and her colleagues are building a case against her former source and lover. It’s entirely possible that season one is all build-up, that Frank succeeds so much and so often simply because we’re leading to a season where he’s mercilessly torn down bit by bit. And while that might work as an overall structure for a series, it leaves me wanting as we head into a period where the show won’t be back until February of next year, most likely. (For as many advantages as Netflix’s release of all episodes at once provided to the series and its storytelling, it also required a show that built to a finale worthy of holding us in eager anticipation for almost exactly a year. I’m not sure House Of Cards did that.) At every turn, the show is let down by the programmatic, predictable scripts from creator Beau Willimon and his team, who are self-evidently talented but seem to have misplaced the program’s soul.
There are many things I like about House Of Cards. The performances, particularly from the show’s female cast members, Stoll, and Michael Kelly as Underwood’s chief of staff Doug Stamper, are wonderful (though Spacey, oddly enough, ends up being one of the weaker links, leaning a little too heavily on ham to carry him through weaker moments). The direction comes up with some distinctly gorgeous images—for as much as some have complained about the moment when Frank goes down on Zoe to close out episode seven, I loved the way the camera framed Mara through a little heart she’d drawn in the condensation on the window before that, and I loved the way their coupling was shown out of focus in the background of a spider trapped in a wineglass in the foreground. And I appreciate the show’s writers taking advantage of Netflix making all episodes available at once by taking their time in building the characters and storylines in those first eight episodes, before beginning to yank at them. I could very easily see myself saying this was a great series once season two is all over (and I’m ideally begging for a third season). But as it stands, the first season of House Of Cards is a beautiful mess, a would-be great series done in by the fact that it only knows how to capture the surface trappings of what truly great shows are capable of.