One of the things promised by the release of House Of Cards was the break from the traditional distribution of televised entertainment. Hate waiting a week for an episode? You can simply let Netflix passively take you to the next one! Worried that a certain plot line might ultimately disappoint? Well, you can find out over the course of a long weekend, not two months. There are a host of advantages that come with releasing a show in its entirety for all to consume at their own pace. One of those, apparently, is completely disregarding how a “season” of television is supposed to operate.
For all intents and purposes, House Of Card’s primary narrative ended in “Chapter 11,” which sees the tragic end of Peter Russo. And yet, two episodes remain afterward, sticking out like a curious thumb. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t particularly a problem. If you like House Of Cards, then more of the show is a good thing. If you don’t, you probably didn’t even make it this far. But even if Netflix allowed viewers to watch this show divorced from the tyranny of weekly airings, the sum total of House Of Cards featured a climax eleven hours in. Is this more or less or a problem within this brave new world of distribution?
“Chapter 12” doesn’t seem to really know, as 40 percent acts like it’s still in season one, 40 percent acts like it’s already in season two, and the remaining 20 percent likes to pretend we give a shit about Claire Underwood and Gillian Cole arguing about photo shoots near wells. And yet, I’m using the word “season” as if that’s what these first 13 episodes actually constitute. This is hardly a House Of Cards problem. Anyone that’s bought a DVD box set that featured wording like “Season Three, Part One” knows that the word “season” has been arbitrarily applied for a long time. It’s probably best to call the first six episodes of Parks And Recreation as a “warm-up” rather than a season of television. And the first season of Switched At Birth ran a mind-boggling 30 episodes over the course of 18 months.
So a “season” is in the eye of the beholder, and thus the goal turns into analyzing this less as the penultimate episode of the first programming block of House Of Cards and more as the aftermath of Peter Russo’s death. As alluded to before, one large chunk of the episode is focused ever on the future while another chunk remains stubbornly rooted in the past. Both parts are good, but rarely feel connected. That disconnect is part of the point of the hour, which sees Frank Underwood trying to clear the last remaining hurdles toward becoming vice president while the two newest members of Slugline dig into Russo’s dealings leading up to his apparent suicide. For Underwood, it’s all about forward momentum. But people like Christina Gallagher and Zoe Barnes feel rooted in place, unable to move in any direction, paralyzed by fear, grief, and guilt.
It makes sense, then, to finally put those two together in the final scene. The two really couldn’t be further apart in terms of the arcs each took to arrive in that same office. But both has nagging feelings that something is rotten, and I’m not just talking about the mold in Zoe’s apartment. Set a month after “Chapter Eleven,” this episode shows Gallagher and Barnes more or less going through the motions of their jobs without anything resembling engaged passion. Russo’s death numbed Christina, and Zoe’s mental breakdown after playing dress-up in Frank’s bedroom seems to have left her adrift as well. Only Janine Skorsky seems in the game, with her investigation into Paul Capra’s potential run for Russo’s congressional seat uncovering interesting facts about the closing of the shipyard in his district. Her tenacity eventually wakes up Zoe from her slumber, but also reveals to both Janine and her boyfriend Lucas the true nature of her relationship with Underwood.
Frank, on the other hand, spends most of the episode in St. Louis at the behest of President Walker to vet the “Backwoods Billionaire” Raymond Tusk. Played by Gerald McRaney in that oh so Gerald McRaney way, Tusk throws Underwood off his game from the minute Frank arrives at his home in St. Louis. The dialogue between Underwood and Tusk feels too clever by half, but it’s also damn fun to watch Spacey and McRaney engage in equally theatrical manner. Part of the problem with House Of Cards has been that Frank has almost always had to come down to the level of his particular opponent in order to wound them. The implication is that Underwood has to demean himself in order to operate at a level the rest of the mere mortals around him normally traverse. Learning that Tusk blocked Underwood from becoming Secretary of State, and thus kicking off everything that’s unfolded so far, was also a nice bit of business. In Tusk, he has a man every bit his cagey equal. This probably means it will take Frank a whole TWO episodes in order to have Tusk groveling at his feet. But given that most opponents fall upon their swords after a few scenes, this feels like an improvement.
More or less, both plots work fine, provided you forget most of what you know about what’s already transpired. President Walker’s trickery gives the episode some dramatic twists, but also flies in the face of what we know about Walker. Actually, strike that: it doesn’t fly in the face of what we know about Walker because we know almost nothing about Walker. This isn’t a show about the President of the United States, and I’m okay with that. But everything presented onscreen suggests a generally moral but over-his-head who isn’t really capable of pulling off this type of trickery. The episode hints that maybe Linda put him up to this, but again, there’s no way for us to know for certain. Both possibilities are in play, but not because we have concrete evidence that both are capable of fucking Frank over.
As for the Zoe developments… well, the show lost its handle on her somewhere around the time Frank was trapping spiders in her apartment on her father’s birthday. She acts in whatever way the show needs her to act, and now she acts like the Woodward to Skorksy’s Bernstein, unless it’s the other way around. In any case, the show can’t completely abandon the loose threads of the Russo storyline, so it gives Zoe a moral conscience at a moment in which it could undo everything Frank has pulled off so far. I like the idea of these two women working together to uncover a major story, but House Of Cards has neither the insight nor interest in journalism to provide veracity as to how these two might actually exist within the world of Washington. It’s more interested in turning Stamper into a figure of menace rather than learning the biggest lesson of All The President’s Men: The very act of journalism is dramatic enough on its own when the story is big enough.
All of this will come to a head in the final installment, except for those things that won’t. Much like Game Of Thrones, House Of Cards is interested in a large tapestry but settles for doling that out in sub-60 minute segments. Sometimes those segments have a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes they don’t. Far too often, they involve origami birds. But that’s how shows roll these days. I’m not sure I have a particular horse in any organizational race; I am, however, interested in episodes that build upon what we already know while staying self-contained unto themselves. But much like Frank, House Of Cards has its eyes on a much larger prize at the end of its planned 26-episode run. Sometimes, that long view means sacrifices in the short term. This series has done more than a few things well, but those sacrifices on an episodic level have kept this from being a truly great show.
Seriously: Think back. If you can remember what happened in any one episode outside of the trip to Sentinel, I’d be surprised. If you want to watch a 26-hour movie, there’s no one stopping you. But in whatever form it’s distributed, the power of long-form narrative such as this lies in the individual installments, not the sum total of them. If House Of Cards wanted to be a 13-hour movie, it could have released itself as such on Netflix and let someone else decide how to divvy them up for eventual release on “normal” TV. But they didn’t. Movies are great. TV shows are great. But both are great without having to emulate each other. In fact, when one acts like the other, the results are usually more dispiriting than uplifting. It’s not enough to have Netflix passively take you to the next episode. You should want to pick up the remote and do it yourself. When each installment is exciting, wading through 13 hours of a show is a pleasure. When each installment is just a slice of the larger picture, 13 hours can seem like an eternity.
- Standard boilerplate: This space each week deals with the show only through the episode covered. I’m writing about each episode after I watch them, but given the unique nature of the release of House Of Cards, it’s incredibly likely that I’ve watched far more by the time each review drops. Please keep comments below to only events through this episode. You can read Todd VanDerWerff's review of the full season and leave comments about all 13 episodes here.
- I didn’t talk about the Claire/Gillian stuff above, because I have respect for your time as readers. That’s more respect than House Of Cards gives its viewers. Claire got mad repeatedly this season when Frank put the CWI on the backburner, but the show has done that as well. It’s too late for me to care about anything involving off-screen wells.
- I like the touch that Tusk lives in what is probably the first home he ever bought. He is worth $40 billion, but still resides in a house with creaky floors.
- Frank’s stink-eye to the camera upon receiving bird-watching binoculars was one of my favorite fourth-wall breaking moves all season.
- Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” is referenced halfway through this episode. Here’s the full text of what Tusk cited during the bird-watching expedition with Frank.