One could argue that House of Cards is a show about an emperor who has no clothes. One could also argue that House of Cards is an emperor with no clothes.
If House of Cards isn’t the emperor of Netflix’s original content, it’s at least the co-ruler, along with Orange is the New Black. One of OITNB’s writers told me, with no false modesty, that Netflix will never cancel their show because Netflix can’t afford to mess with its nascent brand identity. With prestigious award nominations up the wazoo, House of Cards and OITNB have quite quickly helped Netflix put itself in the same “high quality” league as HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX, and so don’t expect them to knock over House of Cards anytime soon. Another way of putting this is to say that House of Cards can get away with a lot more than, say, Under the Dome.
Slight detour here. The term “showrunner” is only beginning to achieve the same cadence as “director.” “Showrunner” is right around where “director” was 50 years ago; it’s not that people had never heard of directors, but in the 60s enough of them were recognized as Brilliant Artists so as to change the whole game. By the early 70s, American auteur directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman began to run the film industry. Something similar is happening right now in TV thanks to David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, Shonda Rhimes…and a few critics telling us that when you let great showrunners off the leash, they produce the best shows. Beau Willimon of House of Cards and Jenji Kohan of OITNB are as off-the-leash as it gets for shows with major budgets. If Willimon is succeeding, that proves that we need to give more auteurs more freedom, right? (This sidelines the potential problem of House of Cards having nine, count them nine, executive producers; so, where is it easier to get a decision made, on the set of House of Cards, or in real-life Congress?)
So how’s House of Cards? It’s not bad. Muted, drab tones have become a show hallmark; compared to the sharply dressed actors and brightly lit D.C. sets of Scandal and Veep (no doubt, contrasting to them is part of the point), the show is practically dressed by potato farmers and lit by candles. This is a D.C. of toil and tedium. (In some of the van-set scenes of this season’s final episode, the dark ordinariness is like looking through your closet without a flashlight.) Likewise, the filmmaking does as little as possible to call attention to itself. In three seasons, we’ve seen nothing even close to a whip pan, a sudden zoom, or a series of quick cuts. (Compare that to Homeland’s version of D.C.) Staid and steady is the style, and whatever else you might say about the show, you have to admire its consistent even-keel-ness, sort of like riding shotgun with your one uncle who manages to drive around town at exactly 25mph no matter how little traffic there is (and yes, this probably drives some viewers crazy).
House of Cards’ sedate, almost stuffy style pays off when viewers somehow intuitively feel not only that events couldn’t have been presented any other way, but that events probably couldn’t have happened any other way. Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a bit of a force of nature, and after he’s flooded the village, it’s hard to imagine what anyone could have done to resist him. (“Frank Underwood,” as a name, continues to be one of the best things about the show, connotating frankness, under-handedness, and an ‘F.U.’ attitude all at the same time.)
This brings us to the usual first complaint about House of Cards: ever since the first season, the show can’t find Underwood a worthy adversary. Back in Season One, Kate Mara’s young journalist proved a fascinating thorn in Underwood’s side (and provoked useful discussion about new media versus old-boy politicians), but after she met her fate at the outset of Season Two, the rest of the season was like watching vintage Lance Armstrong blow by his hapless rivals, particularly then-President Warner. The second half of House of Cards’ second season came to symbolize problems with Netflix’s policy of releasing an entire season all at once: it’s way too late to listen to anyone who could help you re-steer the ship.
Season Three makes it clear that the show’s writers eventually listened, and their solution is to complicate the life of newly installed President Underwood with a thinly veiled Vladimir Putin proxy (named Victor Petrov) and a ramped-up role for Claire, played by Robin Wright, who in Season Three becomes U.S. ambassador to the U.N. The result is a lop-sided season: the foreign policy scenes are brimming with thrills and tension, but the domestic stuff plays as an afterthought. It’s true that Elizabeth Marvel, as Heather Dunbar, Frank’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, often feels like the smartest one in a room (including Frank); we’ll just pretend that has nothing to do with her resemblance to Allison Janney, and pretend the show isn’t still working in the shadow of The West Wing.
More strange is the decision to devote the first 15 minutes of the season’s first episode to Frank’s former consigliere, Doug (Michael Kelly), and then pay that off with…mostly nothing. Doug is still obsessed with his former mistress who almost killed him, Rachel, but there’s absolutely no way we care about her as much as he does, and the show waits until the 13th (of 13) episodes for her to show her face. It’s far too much build-up for what seems a minor brick in Doug’s façade, and Doug’s manipulations of other characters add up to even less. Frank hires a novelist to write about him, the writer sleeps with a (supposedly) powerful journalist, and none of that shines much light on Frank, advertently or otherwise. In the first season, Frank often responded to his rivals with a Southern-inflected “now you don’t mean that, what you want is this” which was often as brazen as it was convincing. This season, at least on the home front, Frank mostly can’t be bothered.
One pictures the show’s writers sitting around saying, “what kind of relevant, bipartisan domestic legislation can Frank champion that, when it fails, will best demonstrate just how broken Washington really is?” Their solution and Frank’s is America Works, which purports to create 10 million jobs by raiding the cookie jars of Social Security, Medicare, and FEMA. Never mind that the show never explains what the 10 million people will be doing, or how the private sector might be (eventually) incentivized to offer those same jobs and thus provide inflow, not outflow, to the treasury. Frank, and by extension the show, sounds a little too defensive when he insists, during a debate, that his signature bill isn’t an old Republican idea because “show me one Republican who has promised” anything like full employment. Show me one Republican on this show who seems like he could outwit Frank Underwood. The show could have engaged in at least a few minutes of wonky debate about jobs and entitlements, but, like Frank, it seems to feel that the first-paragraph presentation should be all we need to know. Who’s getting away with what here?
Kevin Spacey as Frank represents the show almost too well. Iago talks to the audience throughout Othello, but that play is called Othello, and its alternate title might be Love-Triangle Power-Struggle. House of Cards might wish it were more about palace intrigue, but it’s really about Spacey’s performance, which alternates between outstanding and disaffected to the point of disenchantment. Perhaps it’s the Southern/not-Southern accent, but one never quite loses the sense that Spacey has something he’d rather be doing. (He only signed up for Season 3 after a lot of negotiations; it’s probably hard to resist playing a U.S. President for 13 filmed hours.) This one-foot-out-the-door-ness would actually make more sense if Frank were more like Bush or Obama, and habitually hostile to Washington, but Frank is nothing if not a creature of the city; he vacations in his D.C. townhouse. The show feels oddly trapped by Spacey’s, and Frank’s, refusal to be more ambitious or gregarious.
When Claire asks Frank late in Season Three, “What are we really doing all this for?” the show comes breathlessly close to existential crisis, but as usual it comes back with some warmed-over Underwood platitudes. More than anything else we see Frank do, Spacey’s sometimes-ambivalent performance feels like a betrayal of Robin Wright as Claire, because she’s doing absolutely tremendous, fully committed work that leaves nothing in reserve. It would have been far easier for Wright to play Claire as utterly likable, but her posture and movements suggest someone seething with resentment at slights real and imagined, and her carefully enunciated diction sounds like someone who represses her real passions. It all adds up to a brilliantly articulated woman-of-Washington as we’ve rarely seen, and if the show is to have a Season 4, she’d be the reason to watch it.
Beau Willimon can be proud that he (and his 8 fellow executive producers) have created something that is entirely of a piece…but a piece of what? Having lived in D.C., I wouldn’t say this is closest to the feel of the town…that title probably belongs to Veep or some scenes in Alpha House. This is a show about ambition and quality, about the ambition to be regarded as high-quality, and in a manner that doesn’t feel like what the creators intended, it reveals the hollowness at the center of such ambition. If we’re going to give showrunners more freedom, it seems like they should challenge us more than this, more than Frank (and by extension Spacey) seems interested in doing. Perhaps this emperor isn’t quite naked, but he’s wearing one of history’s least interesting togas.