The second episode of House of Cards opens with a fake-out: what initially appears to blood spread upon a copy of the fictional paper The Washington Herald is in fact barbeque sauce. It’s a striking image, but also an instructive one about this stage of the game for the show. Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood achieves many victories within this installment, but there’s little in the way of actual blood spilled. That’s partly a function of the political proceedings, in which “death” takes other forms than physical violence. But it’s also a function of the way in which this show’s clinical precision could use a bit of actual beating heart beneath the surface.
To wit: Underwood stated in the first episode that he will drive a stake into the heart of the President Walker’s agenda, thereby crippling his effectiveness as leader of the free world. It’s a clean, well-established motivation. But exactly how relatable is this goal? Over on HBO’s Enlightened, Laura Dern’s attempt to speak truth to power comes from a more empathetic position. Here, Underwood’s ire can only be truly understood within the mechanisms of politics that are by and large esoteric to those watching the show. Now, the ways in which Underwood manipulates the minutiae of the day-to-day workings are frightening in their efficiencies. But do we want to binge-watch a show about congressional machinations?
Maybe yes, maybe no. That’s an answer for each viewer to decide for oneself. But two episodes into this grand Netflix experiment finds the show emphasizing the maneuvers at play rather than those putting the maneuvers into play. Spacey’s work here is always insanely watchable, to be sure. But he tears into the ribs at Freddy’s barbeque dive with more relish than anything inside the chambers of power themselves. There’s logic, but little passion. The logic on display when manipulating the chess board to affect the checkmate that is Kern’s removal from candidacy as Secretary of State would be fine if there were more fire in Underwood’s belly. Being a shrewd member of Congress when dealing with his cohorts is all well and good. But the fourth-wall breaking monologues built into this show allows House of Cards to put more of its own cards on the table when it comes to Underwood’s real motivations here.
Still, over the course of the thirteen episodes (that are currently unfolding at various speeds depending on audience appetite), this could all correct itself, leaving such concerns as but a temporary worry. The emotional fireworks have time to unload at a later date. And to be sure, having the education bill fiasco directly lead into Underwood allowing Chief of Staff Vasquez to believe the idea for Catherine Durant’s appointment was a slick piece of four-dimensional chess. The concern here is less that Underwood isn’t as smart and efficient as the show wants us to believe that he is. The concern is more about the fact that once that’s established, we need to actually care about him succeeding or being discovered. For that to happen, we need to know more about him than these first two hours have laid out.
This episode attempts to give dimensionality to his character, to limited effect. Knowledge that he’s in the pocket of Sancorp (mentioned as possible donors to Claire’s foundation in the pilot) at least provides a necessary squeeze on Underwood’s moves to ensure he’s not simply gliding through the halls of Congress. Sancorp have helped fund not only Underwood’s career, but put money into the pockets of other congressmen and congresswomen that Underwood leverages on key legislation. Sancorp promises the donation to the Clean Water Initiative under the condition that Frank would manipulate favorable terms for the company in Argentina upon nomination. Kern would not have played ball, but with Durant now owing Underwood for the nomination, all is seemingly right again between Frank and Sancorp. So, problem solved. But it’s also a problem that required us to invest in Frank’s success, something that’s only been established due to his prominent place in the story as opposed to anything House of Cards has offered up to the audience in order to make them care.
But all of these things pale in comparison to the screws being applied to Peter Russo by Underwood. His trip on behalf of Underwood to cajole a man who worked on the college newspaper with Kern is an episode highlight, not simply for David Fincher’s visual panache inside Roy Kapeniak’s run-down hovel (that single point of light offers up infinite shading of both abode and character) but also the sheer amount of human-level passion, suffering, and self-loathing on display. Kapeniak is a conspiracy-theory loving loon, to be sure. But he also believes in his lunacy far more than anyone in Washington believes about anything. As for Russo? He’s more at home snorting cocaine and rolling joints with Roy than greeting lobbyists in his office. If Frank is trapped within Washington circles of power, Russo is trapped by his all-too-recognizable demons.
It’s probably a bad sign that the strongest moments in House of Cards thus far have taken place the furthest from Washington D.C. itself. An hour of Underwood eating ribs and Russo rolling joints would have constituted an awesome hour of television compared to the “drama” of rewriting Donald Blythe’s education bill. However, this could also be a positive thing over the long haul, so long as the show deepens the lives of its participants outside of board meetings, backdoor negotiations, and office politicking. In terms of the latter? There’s almost nothing in this week’s Zoe Barnes storyline that we haven’t seen in a dozen newspaper-related dramas in the past. But Zoe? Zoe seems to have something interesting about her at all times, with Kate Mara’s eyes simultaneously denoting wide-eyed innocence and experienced calculation. None of those looks have particularly translated into anything fresh in terms of plot. But I’m curious if the show is playing out these tropes as expected, only to play against expectations later for maximum effective.
“That’s too easy,” exclaims Underwood at one point, watching both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups protest Kern’s horrific performance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. And maybe that’s the biggest problem right now: everything about this show is too easy. Rather than overcoming many early obstacles only to achieve later success, Frank Underwood is achieving everything without so much as a scratch to show for it. His biggest problem is deciding to work out on a rowing machine Claire installed in his basement without looking like he’s cowing to her orders. No actor, even one as skilled and charismatic as Spacey, can maintain interest with stakes this low over the long haul. For House of Cards to move to the next level, things have to stop being easy. They have to start getting hard. If the show does that, what’s merely good right now should leap into the level of greatness.
- A weekly reminder that those looking to talk about the entire series can go here.
- Fun drinking game: Take a sip every time we see Robin Wright run! It might make the CWI plotline moderately tolerable. I’m guessing this will magically tie into everything else around episode nine. Wake me up when that happens.
- Aaron Sorkin is now dying to write the dialogue for those six Congressional aides tasked to write an historic education bill while locked in a conference room for a week.
- “You look sexy when you’re improving the lives of hard-working Pennsylvanians.” Everything about Peter and Christina works right now. It’s a great example of how the show could take established storylines (in this case, a boss sleeping with his secretary) and give it enough nuances to justify the retelling of it. Spreading this magic across the series will make this endeavor sing.
- A trope we could do without: an established woman in power (in this case, Janine) being a complete and utter bitch to a rising female within her own business (in this case, Zoe). Ugh.
- Underwood’s scene with the homeless man was interesting, but also felt imported from another show altogether. The show is too sanitized and straight-forward at this point to successfully incorporate more esoteric elements such as this. To be sure, adding in more will help the show as a whole. But tiny dollops here and there will distract rather than augment.