REVIEW: House of Cards, Episode 9

Frank and Claire

 

I realized at some point that this show has an odd number of episodes (13). So if I’m going to be reviewing in blocks of 2 episodes each, I was going to have one left over; ergo, I was going to have to review one episode all by its lonesome. I was figuring I’d do that for the last episode, because, you know, it’s a finale so there ought to be SOMETHING to discuss, but then this episode popped up and I have many many thinky thoughts on it, so I decided that if I’m going to review a single episode, it may as well be this one.

First, let me just acknowledge the sheer irony in Frank’s closing line of the episode: “I want to know who lied.” Dude, you’re on House of Cards. EVERYBODY is lying, including and especially you.

But everyone on the show, including Frank, also has their own twisty code of honor, and operates within those parameters. For Frank, his central tenet is loyalty. You pick your loyalties, you form your alliances, you pay your favors, and you absolutely don’t change the rules of the game in the middle or you are dead to him. That was the President’s mistake in the very first episode — changing the rules, withdrawing a promise. Zoe (who is back in this episode) tries to change the rules and end the affair she’s having with Frank, and he cuts off her exclusive access to behind the scenes scoops. (I have to say I liked Zoe in this episode. She wasn’t whiny or babyish or entitled like she has been previously. She accepts that she can’t have everything she wants — such as get exclusive scoops and NOT sleep with Frank — and decides to prioritize and sleep with Frank for the scoops, but with as much dignity as she can muster. This is a such a welcome departure from what we’ve seen of her so far that The AV Club considers it to be out of character.)

The person who really changed the rules on Frank in this episode, though, is Claire.

As I said in my review of episodes 5 & 6, the Frank/Claire marriage is the bedrock of the show, its reliable constant, and the two of them work synergistically with each other, feeding off the other’s energy, working toward the same goals. This episode is an exploration of what happens when their goals diverge, and it’s not pretty.

The divide is foreshadowed early in the episode with Peter Russo’s children. Frank tells the camera, “I hate children,” but a few moments later we see Claire volunteer to drive them to school, and it’s clear that while she may not be the most motherly of women, she clearly doesn’t hate children. It’s a quick reminder that Frank and Claire are not the same person, regardless of how similar they are.

And things devolve from there. For the first time, Frank is clearly prioritizing his political efforts to get Russo elected governor over Claire’s organization’s needs, which at the moment include a $200,000 shipment of water filters stuck in Sudan. To complicate matters further, Claire finds that the only place she can go for assistance in retrieving the water filters, the powerful company of SanCorp, will only help her if she deliberately sabotages the very campaign Frank is working on, by secretly working to kill a bill that is crucial to building Russo’s support among his constituents. She does it without blinking, because Claire’s currency is also loyalty, and Frank has not paid up.

The episode ends with a nailbitingly tense scene of the whole Russo campaign in Frank’s office, watching the votes come in — it goes from celebratory jocularity to horror-struck silence in the span of thirty seconds. It’s the first real cliffhanger on the show; the sense of Where do we go from here?! is palpable. Russo losing the bill means he’s lost the support of the shipyard workers, whom he worked so hard all episode to win over, which means he’s probably going to lose the election, which means he might relapse . . . I think it’s safe to say that the house of cards is starting to collapse.

 

Rating: 4/5

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The Newsroom — Season 1 Review

I started off my very first post by saying, “I have so many preconceived notions about this show I have never watched. LET ME SHOW THEM TO YOU.”

I then listed my preconceived notions, and now I’m going to go through that list and back each one up with evidence from the show, now that I’ve actually watched it.

“First, the good:

1)   It’s an Aaron Sorkin show. To me, this means super slick, rapid-fire dialogue that makes you feel smarter for having heard it, even if you only partially understood it. Sorkin shows know how to build drama, create moral dilemmas, and crack incredibly funny jokes. I loved Sorkin’s previous shows: Sports Night, The West Wing, and even Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which I don’t think anyone else liked even though Bradley Whitford has the most adorable dimples on the planet. I loved his movies: A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Moneyball, although there was way too much silence in that movie to have been written by Sorkin alone (he co-wrote it).

Um, that was kind of my only thing on the list.”

This show did not live up to the previous standards set by other Sorkin works. I chalk this up mainly to the fact that in this show, he consistently shied away from actually discussing the issues he was claiming to be discussing. In The West Wing, at least from the few seasons I’ve seen, the show was not afraid to have an issue or political scenario hashed out in excruciating detail in long, in-depth scenes. It did not muddy the waters with relationship drama that completely overshadows the hardcore issues being addressed. And it was not afraid to have the characters be very smart and well-meaning but occasionally wrong at the same time. The Newsroom is afraid to depict any of the characters as being wrong; they are constantly self-justifying, and the show backs them up by having everything always work out just right. As I pointed out in my review of “Bullies,” the only moment on the show that lived up to that standard was the interview with Sutton Wall, where Will was being self-righteous and narrow-minded and had his head handed to him, like he deserved. And I can’t even give Sorkin credit for that because as I mentioned in that post, Sutton Wall is basically using the exact words of Robert Traynham.

“The bad:

1)   My brother’s a journalist and he hates this show, because it’s about a news team covering actual historic events, but the writer of the show has the benefit of hindsight, which any actual reporters at the time did not have. Which is obviously irksome to a journalist in a similar way that Grey’s Anatomy is irritating to doctors — it’s unrealistic and creates distorted perceptions of the profession. I personally enjoy Grey’s Anatomy most of the time, because I am not a doctor. I’m not a journalist either, so I’m pretty sure this won’t bother me the same way it bothers my brother.”

I’m still not a journalist, but I can absolutely see how this show is incredibly unfair to journalists, due to the hindsight factor. Yes, ideally, no one should have reported Gabrielle Giffords to be dead when she wasn’t, but telling us that and berating all the news networks that got it wrong is not very impressive when you’re making your show two years after the fact. We all know that the coverage of the Boston Bombing was abysmal, but it got sorted out eventually and there were a few news outlets that got it right the first time, just like with Gabrielle Giffords, so it’s really not the huge deal the show makes it out to be. (Except the Post identifying the wrong suspects. That could have ended badly, but fortunately it didn’t. Most shoddy coverage has no lasting effects, however. Hence not a big deal.) Also, the recapper at the Huffington Post points out that Will’s mission statement is hardly any different from other actual current cable newspeople. The show bothers me intensely with its inflated sense of its own importance and uniqueness.

2)   “Also because of hindsight, my brother tells me, the show gets preachy and sanctimonious, because of what the writer, Sorkin, thinks ought to have happened regarding these actual real-world events being depicted. I can handle a little preachiness (all Sorkin shows are a bit preachy and message-oriented), but too much gets on my nerves.”

Holy lord, was this show preachy. It’s like Sorkin doesn’t trust anyone to put any pieces together themselves; he has to spell it out for you. I cannot tell you how much I prefer the Daily Show’s strategy of pulling up a clip or a soundbyte and letting the viewer realize for him or herself why that politician or other newsmaker was being absurd or hypocritical or just stupid. A lot of people apparently liked Will’s whole spiel in the finale about the Tea Party being the American Taliban, but I felt like it was so over-the-top and condescending that I could not stop rolling my eyes at it.

3)   “Since The Social Network, Sorkin has kind of become a target for ridicule and criticism regarding his portrayals of female characters. In fact, the AfterElton recaps that I skimmed when the show was on the air sometimes had headlines like, “The 5 Worst Lady Blunders From Last Night’s ‘Newsroom,’” which contained lines like: “Aaron Sorkin‘s way of establishing [this female character’s] flaws are condescending and unbelievable.” I am not in the business of mind reading and I have no idea if Sorkin is an especially sexist man. I’d like to believe he isn’t. He has a daughter. Female characters on The West Wing like CJ Cregg and Ainsley Hayes were quite awesome. But is it possible for character portrayals to be sexist even if the writer himself is not sexist? I think yes, personally. If female characters are consistently more irritating/incompetent/shrill/underdeveloped/overly sexualized than the men, then that’s a sexist portrayal of women (I know, we have a lot of demands for our fictional representation; deal with it). This can be the case even if the writer doesn’t personally hate or disrespect women. I’ll probably be more sensitive to this while watching The Newsroom than I would be otherwise, since I know about this controversy.”

Well, the women in this show were pretty uniformly awful. But you know what? So were the men. It’s hard to call the show anti-women when it’s actually a lot worse than that — it’s anti-human. All the major characters suck, regardless of gender. They are all ruled by their love lives, they are all repeating the same patterns over and over, they are all maddeningly self-righteous, they are all often or at least occasionally professionally incompetent, and see my previous post for more detail on this. But yes, we never got to see a single woman come up with a great, innovative solution to a problem. Men are given professional supremacy throughout the show, even though Mac is supposedly in a position of authority and expertise.

4)   “I’ve heard that the villains in the show are often one-dimensional straw men, and Professor Dunphy’s comments in class reinforced that idea. I know that sometimes it’s very satisfying to root against a totally evil villain and watch him fall, but I really enjoyed the nuanced and often sympathetic opposition portrayed in The West Wing and thought it made the show feel more honest and rich.”

Simply put, the show needed more Sutton Walls. The Tea Party is the easiest target anywhere, and watching it being blasted week after week was not at all dramatically satisfying. I wanted more of the other side, and I understand that in the case of the Tea Party, there may not be another side, but then I want to know the reasoning of the people who are voting for them. An episode about THAT would have been interesting. As would an episode with a different target. What made The West Wing so great was that the issues changed every week and the opposition changed and nothing ever felt like a retread of what had already been done; each episode found something new and fascinating to explore. The opposition almost always had viewpoints worth hearing that would make you look at things just a little differently. I sometimes find it hard to believe that this show gets wrong everything that The West Wing got right.

I have one last major criticism that I only developed after watching the show for a while, and I summed it up in my Episode 8 review like this:

“And then there’s the show’s blatant hypocrisy and double standards about what is worth watching — evidently it’s okay for the SHOW to be melodramatic and focused on petty relationship struggles, because that’s “entertainment,” but the news is obviously different because the news shouldn’t be entertainment. What the show fails to grasp is that it’s undermining its own message by using the same emotionally manipulative techniques that it accuses the news of using. It’s saying higher standards are important, and then proceeds to scrape the bottom of the barrel with tawdry relationship drama, as if it doesn’t trust the viewers to keep watching unless it pulls all those lowbrow tricks out of its bag. Result is that I feel cheated and condescended to, and wish the show would just be more intelligent and more interesting without trying to play to the lowest common denominator.”

The hypocrisy also includes the fact that the show claims to condemn fear-mongering, yet it simultaneously calls the Tea Party things like “the American Taliban” and manufactures a secret source from inside the NSA to warn us about the government’s invasive and violating practices of wiretapping and interception of private communications and how this will spell the end of the civilization as we know it. Textbook fear-mongering. You can’t have it both ways.

I think these are all fundamental issues with the show, and the reasons I will not be watching next season.

Final Rating for the season: 2.5/5

Thoughts on Some Interviews

For class this week, we were assigned 3 TV interviews to watch (which I cannot link at the moment because of computery issues but will edit them in when I can), and evaluate the relative merits of each. The interviews were a) Jon Stewart’s takedown of Mad Money’s Jim Kramer, b) a TED interview with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, and c) a Stephen Colbert interview with Julian Assange.

 

I would rate the Jon Stewart interview far and away the best, and the Colbert interview above the TED talk. My reasons for this come down to the perhaps superficial quality of memorability and the less superficial presence of follow-up, which may very well contribute to memorability. What do I mean?

 

I mean that after watching the TED interview, I could barely recall anything interesting being said, even though it went on for 20 minutes. It just wasn’t memorable, because the interviewer never seemed to stray from his script — he seemed to have questions he planned on asking, and even when Assange’s answers were vague or not entirely to the point, he didn’t press him for clarification or ask any follow-up questions.

 

This is in stark contrast to Stewart and Colbert, who frequently used their interviewee’s own words against him in their follow-ups, pointing out inconsistencies and hypocrisies within their statements. Stewart even called up footage that directly contradicted Kramer’s claims, leaving him floundering for a way to save face.  That’s memorable TV, and it’s a lot more informative than simply allowing someone to spout the party line without comment or criticism or context.