Well, that’s one way to bring a promising storyline to a terrible end.
We’re at the point in House Of Cards where it’s fair to ask the following questions: Why? Why does this show exist? Why does it need to exist? What in particular is it saying about politics, power, gender, or relationships in general that makes it any different from anything else? Answering any of those questions helps to answer a similarly important question: What is this show trying to say about any of this stuff?
At the end of the 11th chapter, I’m at a bit of a loss. The last installment featured a host of people “trying on” new lives, and it feels like House Of Cards is trying to be a noirish psychodrama at this point in its run. The problem? That really doesn’t line up with its previous episodes. A show like Mad Men can afford to produce different types of episodes featuring different types of tones. But that’s also a show that used those tones to reflect the state of certain characters. It can be a horror show one week if everyone’s feeling terrified. There’s no real main story in Mad Men, which means it can service different elements and still feel like a cohesive whole when viewed from afar.
House Of Cards isn’t that show. That’s not to say House Of Cards isn’t as good as Mad Men (that’s for individuals to decide, although I’d wager most would go with the latter over the former). House Of Cards differs because it’s not really about a host of characters that all happen to live and work in a semi-connected world. House Of Cards is all about Frank Underwood, and everything (and every storyline) exists to serve his singular ambitions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a show about a figure that casts a looming shadow over the entirety of its proceedings. But it does become problematic when the show pretends like it’s an ensemble drama in which every storyline fits into a larger tapestry. Everyone on this show is always and ever defined by their relationship to Frank, which makes them not individuals but cogs in a machine.
The machine that is House Of Cards has run efficiently enough, more or less, but with accumulated mileage it’s increasingly clear how limited its features really are. That’s never been clearer than tonight, when what could have been the tragic end to one of the show’s singularly compelling figures turned instead for a problem that Frank had to solve. Peter Russo didn’t kill himself in the 10th hour, as the look on Stamper’s face might have implied at the end of that episode. Rather, Russo turned on the shower, left the hotel room, went back to his condo, and started to drink himself to (potential) death. His final episode features a series of attempted atonements, but all fail. His son won’t speak with him. The cops won’t arrest him. And ultimately, he falls asleep in his car after Frank drives him home from the police station, at which point Frank turns on the car engine, closes the garage door, and walks away in the dead of night.
There’s something heartbreaking about Russo’s final hours, to be certain. But there’s also something false that rings throughout. It isn’t just the hamfisted nature of the dialogue. (His daughter’s line, “I don’t like to hear your voice when it’s like this. It makes me sad,” is so maudlin that I can’t believe it made it into the final cut, and his explicit confession to Frank all but sealed his fate.) It’s the way in which his desire to come clean after months of manipulation and decades of inner demons gets squashed because it might actually cause problems for the show’s protagonist. As such, Russo’s own story becomes not a singular one that exists alongside Underwood’s but rather one that is eventually woven into, then excised from, Frank’s own saga.
That’s the point of House Of Cards, but that’s also its biggest flaw. Everyone feels the ripple effects that Frank’s actions have, but don’t exist outside of his ambitions. Even if they aren’t directly related to his approach toward the vice presidency (and presidency, it seems), they nonetheless ebb and flow according to his whims. They can’t do anything without it being something that fits into Frank’s agenda. “When has your help ever helped me?” asks Russo on the way home before lulled to sleep by booze, exhaustion, and Frank’s soft, silver-tongued words of “comfort.”
The answer is never, of course. But Frank’s plan, revealed in “Chapter 11,” reveals a much larger flaw in the season as a whole. For a while, it seemed as if Russo was selected to run for governor because it would give a lot of power to Underwood. But Frank’s actions tonight seemed to indicate that he always wanted Russo to fail in his run for office, in order to depose Matthews, step in as VP, and be the lead figure to run after Garrett’s second term. That makes no sense if Frank actually wants Russo to fail. Had he wanted to, Frank himself could have tanked the watershed act and watch Russo unravel. It’s all fine and good to be driven to the point where Frank feels he needs to kill Russo as an unintended side effect of unforeseen complication. After all, Breaking Bad has lived inside that kind of world for five seasons. But Frank’s master plan, as stated tonight, simply doesn’t line up with the season arc.
That would be fine, except that House Of Cards is a show that is almost entirely about that arc. With the exception of a side trip to Sentinel, this has been a show about Underwood’s long con and the steps needed to achieve it. If the logic surrounding that long con falls apart, the season as a whole starts to fall apart. Frank breaks the fourth wall repeatedly in this episode to highlight just how important each conversation with Linda Vasquez or Jim Matthews is, which confirms that the vice presidency isn’t something that he’s now seizing upon as a Plan B but rather the goal all along. If we learn in the final two episodes that Frank knew the watershed bill would fail, but simply thought he could more slowly reintegrate Russo back into low-level congressional power, that means the show’s bargain with the audience simply goes right out the door. Frank’s asides exist, among other reasons, so we know what he’s really thinking. There’s been nothing in the show that demonstrates the watershed vote was anything but an unmitigated disaster for Underwood. If House Of Cards shows it as yet another triumph, there’s almost no reason to keep watching.
Why? Because Frank always, always, always wins. It’s no different than Dexter always, always, always avoids being caught. After a while, there’s simply no tension in any of the proceedings. In this episode, Frank gets away with murder, gets the president and vice president to go against their better judgment and agree to part ways, gets Linda to sign off on his own viability as VP even though she knows the Stanford stuff was a ploy to engineer exactly that result, gets to break up with Zoe after a weird fashion show in his bedroom in which she tried on Claire’s clothing, and managed to lure Claire away from Adam Galloway and any hope those two might even have a life together. That’s a lot of fucking victories, and probably far too many by half.
It’s not even as if this victory lap comes after a season of being kicked in the teeth. Aside from that watershed vote and the disastrous CNN appearance, Frank has walked on water, shit gold, and smelled like roses throughout this entire season. That’s great if you’re Kevin Spacey, but bad if you’re anyone else on House Of Cards and even worse for anyone watching House Of Cards. Ostensibly, the nature of Russo’s death is something that may or may not haunt Frank in the final two episodes of this season or extend into the next one. But at this point, is there any reason to think anything will stick? He’s made of Teflon at this point, able to emit signifiers of vulnerability but ultimately is someone who gets whatever he wants. Ultimately, Russo is not unlike the dog whose neck Underwood snaps in the very first scene of the show. But even that scene, as awful as it was, had a type of moral logic to it. In his eyes, Underwood put that dog out its misery. But Russo died to ensure that Frank’s ambitions lived.
House Of Cards wants to make Russo’s death tragic, but what’s really tragic is that after 11 episodes we know almost nothing about those still remaining. It tried to pretend it’s created this vast tapestry of characters in the final moments when nearly everyone who has been in the show this season reacts to news of Russo’s death. But that simply indicates the show has width, not depth. It has a wide array of people that serve functions, but don’t usually exist as human beings. The women of House Of Cards have increasingly gotten the short end of the stick. There’s probably a really great show to be made about Zoe Barnes, Janine Skorsky, and Slugline editor Carly Heath. There’s an equally good one to be made about Claire Underwood’s ambitions being thwarted by those of her husband. Linda Vasquez saw right through Frank’s machinations this week; how does she navigate the rest of the vipers’ nest that is The White House? I’d wager a story told from Christine Gallagher’s POV might be compelling. How did Rachel Posner end up in Peter Russo’s car in the first place, and how does she adjust to owing her decent-paying job to a mysterious congressional staff member?
Those are a half-dozen stories waiting to be told, in a medium that has a singular advantage over others in terms of telling lots of long, overlapping, well-paced stories. But House Of Cards doesn’t have a woman problem. It has an “anyone besides Frank” problem. None of those stories had the time to develop because nearly everything shy of Frank and Peter’s stories have received any time to breathe this season. With Peter now gone, the sheer lopsidedness comes to greater focus. Frank always gets everything he wants, and everyone and everything serves at the pleasure of his storylines. If those storylines brought anything new to the table, that might be okay. But we’ve seen all this before, and will see it all again. House Of Cards was touted as something different. Instead, it’s more (yet in many ways less) of the same.
- 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.
- Peace out, Adam Galloway. Go find someone else to name strangers in the park after.
- I couldn’t quite place what Frank was humming in lieu of playing Call Of Duty. I imagine it’s something from his Sentinel days. Those with insight, please share!
- The Zoe mental breakdown continues to make no sense. Trying on Claire’s life for a few minutes before agreeing to return to “simplicity” with Frank? I honestly have no idea what’s going on with her and Frank anymore, unless she’s totally batshit insane at this point and is barely holding it together.
- The episode ends oddly, with the press conference audio playing over the credits. The show has never done that before, which suggests a running time issue that will probably make more sense when this runs in syndication in foreign markets.