By Matthew DeMello
Actor Kevin Spacey. Photo courtesy of p_a_h.
SPOILER ALERT!!!! The following article contains multiple spoilers from both seasons of House of Cards… Plus some inferred details about HBO’s True Detective.
The new season of Netflix’s hit political drama, House of Cards, is beloved by all kinds of television audiences for many reasons, though ‘realism’–a hall of mirrors in modern visual entertainment, to be sure–is probably no longer one of them.
Now that we’re more than a month removed from the season’s genius Valentine’s Day debut (seriously, can you think of a better way to spend a bitter cold winter weekend as a dirt poor Millennial couple?), what better time than now to sound the sirens of spoiler alerts in order to dig deep into how a show could take such utterly ridiculous plot turns and, as Tim Gunn would say, make it work.
Again, what ensues from here contains many, many spoilers from both seasons of the show. Newbies, you have been warned.
Let’s start with what no one seems to be surprised about in season two: the killing of Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, by the end of the first episode. Yes, the wiley and determined Frank Underwood, played by the ever-impeccable Kevin Spacey, appears to have an intimate familiarity with the act of murder. In fact, given how many sentient beings he’s relieved of their useless pain, it may be fair to call Frank our nation’s first psychopathic president–even if only in Hollywood.
In the first season Frank’s role in the death of his protege, the disgraced congressman turned Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful, Peter Russo, was a turning point that pushed the drama forward as far as possible while toeing the line of suspended disbelief with fine precision.
As depressing as Russo’s “suicide attempt” was to process, it stayed well within the strict confines of the illusory innocence Frank projects in the public eye, or anytime he isn’t breaking down the fourth wall. Also it’s difficult in a culture like ours, where the role of free will in addiction is so misunderstood, not to lay a great portion of Peter’s demise on Peter himself. Like Christian Bale in Batman Begins, it’s arguable that Frank didn’t necessarily murder Peter so much as he neglected to save him when he was the only on who could.
Was Peter’s demise planned? Obviously, Frank placed Peter in a position where he knew the temptation would be too much for him. (Alas, hookers! His Achilles’ heel.)
And temptation makes for a very efficient instrument of murder, with as little forensic evidence as just letting an already incapacitated drunk just nod off in a car filling with exhaust fumes. No bullet, no stab wound, no fingerprints, just utter contempt and unfathomable opportunism. The sheer arrogance of Zoe’s murder in season two, on the other hand–with Frank meeting Zoe in a dark corner of a fairly populated DC subway station before pushing her in front of a moving train–marks a sharp transition, perhaps not so much in unpredictability but in tone and presentation.
It may not be surprising that the creative team behind House of Cards found Zoe’s curiosity, which served as the first season’s primary plot engine, a problem for Frank’s skyward trajectory in season two. Zoe knows too much about Frank to let him get any farther past the Vice Presidency, or stay there for much longer. Still, even by Gary Condit standards, throwing a journalist who is familiar to the 24-hour cable news circuit in front of a subway car is bold. It’s even more preposterous sounding when you think of someone carrying Joe Biden’s recognizability doing so. In fact on paper, it reads at first like something the writer’s room of Scandal came up with half drunk off the exploits of their own PR-disaster porn of a soap opera.
I say that like Scandal’s over-the-top conceit for turning grade-A Washington gossip into problems for Kerry Washington isn’t the point (or delight) of a very different, and much more subversive show. Yet where Scandal presents the viewer with an escapist’s wet dream as they follow Olivia as she snakes her way out of one potential career-ending sham after another, House of Cards softly treads on territory not even Aaron Sorkin dared gander with his numerous, equally weighted deliberations on corruption, character, and power: the Bard.
For as many who have pinpointed that same influence (though it’s not exactly a secret), uttering the name of Stratford-von-Avon’s most famous resident in the context of political drama is no small potatoes. A master of many literary disciplines, deliberating on the intricacies of monarchal feuding was arguably Shakespeare’s forte.
As many a freshman English major has argued in many a lecture hall, the first problem in modernizing any Shakespearean political tragedy is that it’s just not that easy to get away with murder as it was in the Elizabethan era. For evidence, we don’t even need to turn to the stolid lessons in pseudo-science of Law & Order or CSI outright.
Consider what was deemed the “CSI effect” in the acquittal of Casey Anthony. After stroking the public’s anger over negligent parenting as far as Nancy Grace possibly could, the cable news media needed an explanation for why a sentient jury of Anthony’s peers would find her not guilty of her daughter’s murder. Their explanation? In an era of monotone primetime television whodunnits overflowing with technical details, a nation’s standard of “reasonable doubt” has been raised far past the relevancy of circumstantial evidence previously enjoyed in high-profile murder cases.
Which is not to say that such a theory would stand up to empirical review, but the sheer fact that the notion of entertainment having an impact on the judicial process was taken seriously says something. Let’s also remember what happens when even a show with no comparable realistic foundation to reality swings too hard for the fences when it comes to plot twists. (Amiright, True Blood fans?)
“By Law & Order: Criminal Intent standards, Goren and Eames would probably have Frank Underwood behind bars before the second commercial break. Still, the show’s integrity as a serious review on how abusive the powerful can be, even in a democracy, remains unquestioned.
I’d go on to make a point about the meticulous attention to detail behind a first-rate crime drama like HBO’s True Detective, and how many fans are still finding problems with an arguably more complex yet cleanlier plotline, but my managing editors said they would kill me if I gave away spoilers to two shows they haven’t seen yet in one article. (Ed. Note: We would.)
Though Kevin Spacey and company may get away with murder (heh, heh) in this regard they make up for such a gamble with the efficacy of their social commentary. As ludicrous as Frank’s unpunished transgressions may be (though how much longer they will go unpunished is hard to tell), the all too real post-Citizens United passion play taking place on House of Cards between monied interests, an obsessive surveillance state, and a fundamentally cracked American legislative process couldn’t be more plausible, or distracting from all that seems too easy.
In a case of life imitating art when usually the reverse is true, this current season’s subplot focusing on the tribulations facing a military sexual assault bill appears to have played out nearly note-for-note this week in Washington. If we were to make direct character-to-real-life-counterpart comparisons here, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand played the role of Claire Underwood’s compromising voice for victims and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill served as Jackie Sharp’s veteran realist.
Our own President has spoken publicly about admiring the show for Frank’s “ruthless pragmatism.”
Let’s just hope that’s where the admiration ends.