Image Credit to Venture Capital Post
Warning: Spoilers for House of Cards‘ Season 4 Below
In the sixth episode of House of Cards’s fourth season, the first lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) comes out of a meeting with the Russian President after forcing him to compromise to the US’s demands. Claire meets with her advisers to tell them of the meeting’s details, but instead of showing joy, Wright keeps her face expressionless until she finally smiles while explaining the end result. Wright’s acting choices are meant to make the audience, who knows nothing of the meeting’s results, feel tense. However, as brilliant as Wright is, the scene falls flat because it makes no sense. Why would Claire hide good news from others in a cold, steely exterior? Why would she fuck with them over something so meaningless, just to stop fucking with them a second later? To paraphrase the great critic, Brian Tallerico, Claire’s actions are only sensible if she knows she’s on a TV show.
Ultimately, that throw-away moment sums up House of Cards’ fourth season. This is a show that wastes your time while pretending to be worth your time. It’s a show that throws plot points, twists, and characters at you for a reaction, but never earns those reactions through thoughtful plotting and characterization. Worse, the lazy writing contaminates whatever good the show has going for it, such as its precise direction and new-found political relevancy. When season four comes to a close, all you can do is curse yourself for taking 13 valuable hours away from your sleep and giving it over to this sloppily put together “drama.”
Image Credit to Talking Points Memo
House of Cards’ sloppiness is most visible in its characterization and plotting. The fourth season tracks Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the ruthless politician who lied, cheated, and murdered his way to the Presidency, as he now fights for re-election. He’s blindsided by numerous enemies, including his wife Claire (who’s unhappy at how he shuts her out), other Presidential candidates, journalists, foreign leaders, and his own party’s politicians. On the surface, this storyline seems complex and tension-packed, but as the season plays out, it ends up feeling overstuffed and weightless.
Part of the problem lies in how House of Cards uses its characters. The show has so many of them that it struggles to devote an adequate amount of time to carving out their personalities, visions, and weaknesses. Characters, like Republican Presidential Nominee Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) and journalist Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), often disappear and reappear into the narrative in a way that makes it seem like they have no lives outside of their scenes. The clumsiness of the characterization also extends to the show’s plotting, which often traps Frank or Claire (essentially the season’s antagonist and 2nd protagonist) in an impossible situation, only to bail them out through contrivances-such as a shooting or family death. Ultimately, such poorly constructed characterization and plotting work hand-in-hand to kill whatever tension the show builds because they reduce the Underwoods’ opponents to cardboard characters and make their paths to success too easy.
Image Credit to the Wall Street Journal
In the past, House of Cards suffered from many of the same storytelling flaws; however, it always minimized them through confident direction and acting. Sadly, now, the show’s technical brilliance not only fails to balance out its weak writing, but ends up corrupted by it.* With little of interest happening in the plot, you can’t help but focus your attention on the show’s direction and performances, which-while carefully crafted- often follow a repetitive pattern to diminishing results. You can only watch so many close-ups of dejected characters putting on a happy face, shots of Spacey staring into the lens as he chews scenery, scenes that cut out right before a character makes a key decision, or cross-cutting sequences that contrast the Underwoods’ seniority and artificiality with their opponents’ youth and warmth without feeling drained of excitement and energy. Without any powerful storytelling to lean on, the direction and acting wear you down till you feel like Netflix’s once promisingly original series is now nothing more than a packaged product.
Surprisingly, though in its worst season, House of Cards has managed to become more politically pertinent than ever. Part of the program’s new-found relevancy can be traced to the incredible stupidity that our political process has devolved into (something which the show zeroes in on). But part of the show’s political insight comes from the fact that it has become smarter over how it deals with political scandals and evil. In the past, Frank & Claire often committed terrifying acts, like cold-blooded murder and blackmail, which revealed how monstrously they craved political power. While somewhat exciting, such scandals often felt silly, as they saw two political leaders take criminal acts that, if revealed, could doom all they’ve worked for. In this season, Frank and Claire still commit such abhorrent acts, but they do so in the way a politician would: through legal channels that insulate them from possible blow-back. For example, for political gain, Frank and Claire start a war, one that would cause far more damaging consequences than the murder of one man and yet far fewer consequences for the Underwoods, who could use legal loopholes to protect themselves. In such moments, House of Cards gets to a chilling truth about the politics: it doesn’t necessarily take a tyrant who overrides laws to create political chaos; sometimes it just takes a tyrannical person who follows them.
But getting at a chilling truth is far less compelling than making people feel that chilling truth. And despite its evolving political vision, House of Cards struggles at evoking any emotion. The sloppy plotting, lazy characterization, and repetitive direction repress the powerful sadness, excitement, or happiness that could exist in the work. Instead, a sense of detachment pervades the text, one that makes its insights, twists, and revelations feel insignificant.** Looking back at Claire’s forced demeanor in Episode 6, the problem wasn’t just that her actions made no sense, but that for her and us, they didn’t matter.
*The exception, here, is Michael Kelly, whose work as Douglas Stamper has singlehandedly, made the worst written character on TV more bearable.
**I’m interested in the idea that this detachment is what people feel when they call House of Cards cynical. I’ve called it cynical too, but looking over it, I’m unsure if it’s any more cynical than our real political process.