REVIEW: House of Cards — Episodes 12 & 13 (Finale)

Okay, I’ll admit it upfront: I don’t really know what I thought of these last two episodes. I know two things:

 

1)   They didn’t “wow” me, and

2)   They didn’t suck.

 

All right, now that we’ve gotten the pesky extremes out of the way, I need to start parsing the even peskier middle ground.

 

Things I liked:

 

1)   The direction of the reporters’ storyline. Zoe has clearly been humbled by her experiences, and is owning up to her mistakes by treating her fellow reporters with respect and working together with them to uncover the truth. She obviously hasn’t lost her non-deferential streak and is perfectly willing to poke her nose around in places she ought not to be trespassing, much to the chagrin of my journalist brother: “Real reporters can get information without harassing people — that’s not heroic; it’s invasion of privacy.” I still like the other reporters better than Zoe, but I don’t dislike her nearly as much as I did in the beginning when I called her a diva.

2)   The president not being TOTALLY clueless. Okay, he was still a little clueless and didn’t realize that Frank and Linda are working together and that they could figure out what he was scheming, but at least he was scheming instead of being the useless pretty boy he’s been all season.

3)   The scene where Frank gets the tables turned on him by the president’s billionaire buddy and realizes he wasn’t sent to St Louis to convince the guy to take the Vice Presidency but rather to be vetted for the position himself. Nice to see that role reversal.

 

Things I didn’t like so much:

 

1)   I felt like the resolution to Frank convincing the guy to support his promotion to the Vice Presidency was a little too easy. I mean, first he ran around in a panic trying to sabotage the billionaire’s fortune with some complicated scheme involving SanCorp, in order to gain the upper hand. That backfired, but for some reason the guy was sufficiently impressed with Frank’s failed scheme that he decided to support him anyway. So . . . yay, Frank?

2)   I liked that Claire’s decision to enlist SanCorp’s help with the water filters came back to bite her when Gillian found out and rebelled at this deal-making and corporate sponsorship. But I felt like there was insufficient setup for the degree of Gillian’s anger and her decision to go after Claire with a false discrimination suit in order to sully her reputation and the reputation of charities like Claire’s. Peripheral but relevant to this: I also still don’t really understand what is so important to Claire about this particular charity and what she hopes to achieve with it. I feel like that’s a key aspect of her character but it hasn’t been explained yet.

3)   All the cliffhangers! Netflix, I hate you. Everything is unraveling and we have to wait until you put up the next installment? GAH. At least they’re already shooting season 2.

 

Overall, something about these episodes did not feel as strong as the build-up to them. Maybe the success of Frank’s machinations to become Vice President seemed anti-climactic because of the too-easy execution, or because of the theory that the show has lost tension because “Frank always, always, always wins.” Also, I miss Peter Russo and his redemption arc and vulnerability and inspiration and little-engine-that-couldness, and . . . yeah.

Regardless, House of Cards on a bad day is still better than The Newsroom on a good day.

 

Rating: 3.5/5

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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

REVIEW: House of Cards — Episodes 7 and 8

One thing about binge-watching vs. regular week-by-week watching is that sometimes you don’t notice when a character or storyline is dropped or de-emphasized for a particular episode, because sooner or later they always come back, and since you’ve been watching everything in such quick succession, you don’t always have time to realize they’re gone.

I noticed this in this block of episodes because my schedule has been crazy lately and I haven’t had the time to sit down and binge-watch like a normal person — sometimes I don’t even have a chance to watch an entire episode in one sitting. But I’d decided before starting this pair of episodes that I would give some attention to Zoe Barnes (the journalist that Frank is using to leak information to the public strategically) because I haven’t discussed her since my initial post on the show.

This turned out to be not so simple. Because she drops out of episode 8 entirely. If I were lucky enough to just be binging, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, would have just clicked ahead to the next installment and she’d be back as if she’d never left. But since my viewing experience has been so truncated recently, and because I’d decided to focus on Zoe, I was very aware of her absence, although it makes perfect sense, given that the episode takes place on the road, away from Washington DC where Zoe is stationed.

Zoe is probably the part of the show I have the most issues with, which is possibly why I’ve avoided discussing her previously. I don’t like her, but in a much stronger way than I don’t like Frank or any of the other “unpleasant” characters on the show. I just don’t find her enjoyable to watch. Probably because she suffers from what I’ll refer to as Newsroom Syndrome, which is what I’ll call it when any character is obnoxiously self-justifying about their actions and never admits that they could be wrong or not 100% right. Zoe throws hissy fits, she disobeys instructions, she’s petulant and whiny. She happens to have brains and journalistic talent as well, but she uses those to justify her babyish moments, complaining that she’s being wasted and not given good assignments and yadda yadda, and I just want her to take a chill pill and do her work. Simply put, she’s a diva, and I only like diva characters when they are somewhat self-aware, and/or played for laughs, and/or get put in their place frequently. Zoe is none of these.

The relationship between Frank and Zoe turned sexual at the end of episode 4. Until then, it seemed like Frank had no interest in her in that way, and was simply using her for his own nefarious purposes, and she benefited from the exclusive scoops he gave her. I personally preferred the Frank/Zoe relationship when it was non-sexual — I thought the dynamics were more interesting, because in general I find platonic relationships between men and women to have far more dimension than sexual ones. I also don’t really understand why turning the relationship sexual was a smart strategic move on Frank’s part (it is made clear in the very beginning of episode 5 that this is “strictly a business relationship”). Maybe I’m naïve and sheltered, but I think he’d have a better chance of keeping Zoe under control if sex was not a part of the equation. Introducing sex means that more things can go wrong and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, etc. Perhaps someone more schooled in the discipline of sexual power dynamics could explain to me why this is anything other than a bonehead move.

As for episode 8, which did not include Zoe, I loved it. It humanized Frank in a way we have not yet seen, by sending him back to his alma mater, where we see him hang out with his old buddies and just have fun in a way that’s not mean-spirited, just reckless and immature and silly and male-bonding-y and totally entertaining to watch. There is also an obvious reference to Frank’s past sexual experimentation with one of his buddies and the attraction he still harbors, and since I have a running discussion going with a male bisexual friend in which we complain constantly about the lack of representation of male bisexuality on TV, that was nice to see. Even if Frank is a scumbag.

 

Rating: 4/5

REVIEW: House of Cards — Episodes 1 and 2

I’ve just been assigned to binge-watch and blog about House of Cards for my media class. I know a few things about the context of this series, but nothing at all about the show itself. What do I mean?

What I know is . . .

1)   It’s a Netflix original series. Developed and made by Netflix, released on the site all at once, not as a week-by-week thing. Presumably if it’s successful enough, it may start a new trend. Only time will tell.

2)   It has Kevin Spacey, who I like very much, despite not having seen most of his movies. The ones I have seen, I’ve liked him in a lot, so his name is pretty big draw for me.

. . . and that’s it. I don’t know the plot or the premise or any of the character names or professions or ANYTHING. I have not looked at the posters (note from the future: I only googled that picture above when I’d finished writing up this post), and deliberately not read any descriptions, even the little summaries on Netflix. From the title, I presume there will be lies and deceit, but I don’t know what they’ll be lying about or who “they” are. A grand mystery, y’all.

I’ve got permission to blog these in 2-episode chunks, so I sat down with Netflix, my older brother, plus some sushi, and we let it roll.

OVERALL IMPRESSION:

Newsroom and Aaron Sorkin, pay attention. This is how you make a show with unlikable characters. You have them be completely, unapologetically evil with no illusions about who they are or what they want. It stops them from being preachy and insufferable, and causes viewers to see brief moments of compassion as cracks in the armor, leaving them to wonder if the characters’ consciences will ever catch up to them, or if they will get away with all their nefarious shenanigans without having to face any consequences or remorse. THAT is so much more compelling than watching people who claim moral superiority and then week after week fail to achieve it.

SPECIFICS:

—   It’s a political show, set in Congress in Washington DC.

—   It’s the anti-West Wing. Instead of a bunch of brilliant, charismatic idealists struggling against the machine to make things better, it’s about a brilliant, charismatic megalomaniac who embraces the machine and uses it to satisfy his own thirst for power.

—   Kevin Spacey plays said megalomaniac, Frank Underwood, a bigwig senator with a lot of political clout, who craves more power and disdains all the little people (aka other congresspeople) around him, seeing them only as pawns he must manipulate to serve his purposes. When the newly-elected president goes back on his word and does not appoint Frank to be Secretary of State, Frank throws all allegiances to the dogs and decides to achieve power however he can, backstabbing and manipulating whoever is in his way.

—   His wife is played by Robin Wright, and she is a regular stone-cold Lady Macbeth. They deserve each other and get along quite well. She runs a charity called Clean Water Initiative and has no qualms about firing half the staff and her partner when she decides to take the organization in “a different direction.” Not sure what that direction is or why she’s doing it, but it can’t be good.

—   Kate Mara, who I’ve liked from 24 and Jack and Bobby (hmm, I guess she likes those politically-fraught shows about fictional presidencies), is a blogger/reporter struggling to be taken seriously, and she finagles her way into getting Frank to be her top secret inside source. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, as he gets to leak information to the press in order to sabotage the presidency and other congresspeople, including the president’s new choice for Secretary of State (who is dismissed and Frank’s handpicked choice gets the job instead), and the reporter gets credibility and publicity.

—   There’s Pete, the congressman who exemplifies all the worst sordid stereotypes about corrupt politicians: he drinks, smokes pot, snorts cocaine, hires hookers, sleeps with his secretaries, cheats on his girlfriend — you name it, he does it. But all this blackmail material puts him entirely at Frank’s mercy, and he becomes essentially Frank’s lackey, called in to do his dirty work.

I can’t say I like any of these characters as people. But they are a fascinating portrait of evil and vice and weakness, and they make you wonder how empty they can truly be, how far their deceptions and machinations can go, or if they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and it’s only a matter of time before their schemes really will collapse like the titular house of cards.

Rating: 4/5

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