Wednesday, March 25, 2015

House of Cards, or Let Things Go Out With Dignity

In 1994, I was watching PBS when a commercial for a rerun of House of Cards came up. Ian Richardson threw Susannah Harker off of the roof of the building while she screamed "Daddy!". I thought it was pretty dark as PBS went, and didn't really want to watch, but the image stayed with me. I learned later Ian Richardson's character went on to become Prime Minister. Not my cup of tea at the time.

Fast forward 19 years later: no one can stop talking about Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in Netflix's version of House of Cards for the American political scene. I'd grown decidedly more cynical in the ensuing years, and the description sounded good enough that I finally gave Netflix a chance (I'm an extremely late adopter). Before my husband and I committed, though, we finally watched the original on YouTube. There were in fact three seasons: House of Cards, To Play The King and The Final Cut. Each of them had four episodes, and I seem to remember that my husband and I got all of that watched in two days. (Shh, don't tell the kids.) We were blown away.

We were equally impressed by the first two seasons of the American show, which tracked pretty closely to the British version (more below). This year, we eagerly anticipated what we assumed would be the final season of the American show...and we were very disappointed. Here's why:

In the original House of Cards, Francis Urquhart is the patrician (not just Conservative) Chief Whip who was a party loyalist and expected to be rewarded by the new Prime Minister with a Cabinet Post. He's insulted when he's told instead that he needs to stay in his current position. He then embarks on a scheme that would make Iago jealous: he manipulates weaker journalists, lobbyists and politicians to not only unseat the Prime Minister but to get himself elected in his place. He is willing to resort to murder, not once but twice, including the young journalist Mattie Storin who became his smitten mistress- at the suggestion of his wife Elizabeth! (Oh, and why was she calling him Daddy as he threw her to her death? Because that turned her on.) His aide Tim Stamper helps him manipulate his other victims, but it's Urquhart who pulls the proverbial triggers. And it works. The viewer is left with a horrible taste of what goes on behind the scenes and the sociopaths who are willing to do it.

Ian Richardson as the calculating, deadly MP- and then PM- Francis Urquhart
In To Play The King, Urquhart finds himself at odds with the liberal and idealistic new king, played by Michael Kitchen. While the monarchy doesn't hold any real power, it is perfectly capable of moving public opinion against the Prime Minister and his party, and Urquhart won't have that. By the end of the series, Michael Kitchen is forced to abdicate in favor of his young son (and regented by his mother, the divorced wife of the king). Was this a play to take on the monarchy itself? Not at all. As Urquhart points out, his family marched down from Scotland in the 17th century to protect the crown when no one had ever heard of the present royal family. This, he assured the soon-to-be-abdicated king, was entirely personal. But some chinks in Urquhart's armor are beginning to show: he has to kill both his newest mistress (also picked out by his wife!) when she gets too close to the truth about what happened to Mattie and then Stamper when he decides he's tired of living in Urquhart's shadow. Urquhart is secure for now, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?

Diane Fletcher as Elizabeth Urquhart, ruthless to the end
In The Final Cut, the answer to that question is clearly "yes". Urquhart may be able to manipulate his own country, but foreign policy is not so easily controlled. Even worse, he has some significant skeletons in his closet from his time in the military: he killed two unarmed men while serving in Cyprus. Against all of this is his desire to secure his legacy and exceed Thatcher's term in office. As he feels younger politicians nipping at his heels, his wife Elizabeth assures him that she's got a plan in place to secure his legacy. Urquhart doesn't realize what her plan is until too late: she has him assassinated during the dedication of his monument. That, she tearfully tells him as he takes his last breath, was the only way that his memory could go untarnished. A satisfying ending to a series that made your jaw drop in every other scene.

Susannah Harker as Mattie Storin, one of the first bodies Urquhart needed to bury
The American House of Cards replaced the To The Manor Born Urquhart with a more Clintonesque Frank Underwood (only his wife Claire calls him Francis): he was born poor, but he was always intelligent and scheming. In the first season all he wanted was to be Secretary of State, but losing that appointment brought out a ruthlessness that ended up causing the death of a weak Representative and the ruin of his young mistress, Zoe. But when the dust had settled, Frank was the Vice President- this much closer to being able to oust the president.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Whereas Urquhart was a master of subtlety, Underwood hides behind the confusion he creates
During the second season, he does just that, ably assisted by his wife, who lies about being impregnated by a man who's now a high ranking general (but she didn't lie about being raped) and then worms her way into the First Lady's inner circle and exploits the weaknesses in the First Marriage. The President, no fool, begins to understand just as Underwood has isolated him that he is the author of all of his problems, but ends up turning back to him just as everything falls apart and he decides to resign. Thus, Underwood, who has never won a national election, is now the President of the United States. Oh, and Zoe? She made it a little further than Mattie, but by the end of the first episode Frank's killed her; by the middle of the season he's made it impossible for her friends in the press corps to dig up anything on him. So what could possibly take him down? His chief of staff's obsession with a young prostitute who helped bring down the Representative in Season One, and, just maybe, the cracks in Claire's resolve.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. Can't you just hear her muttering "Out, out, damned spot!"?
So what happens in Season Three? As in the original, Frank finds that foreign affairs are much harder to manipulate than domestic ones, and the fact that his inexperienced wife is helming negotiations at the UN isn't a plus. On top of that, there's a general election to gear up for, and Underwood is informed that the party leadership doesn't want him to run. His solution: an end run around Congressional authority to begin an ambitious jobs program that will be piloted in D.C. by siphoning money off from...FEMA. When the inevitable storm is due to hit, Frank blinks (he may be a sociopath, but he can make political calculations better than anyone else)...and then realizes he shouldn't have: the storm turns before it can do any damage to the US. But now Frank has the goods to run on, and he's more than ready to take on the well-placed former Solicitor General, Heather Dunbar, with the covert aid of the Assistant Whip whom he's promised the Vice Presidency to, Jackie Sharp. But Jackie, a veteran whom we know has had a major crisis of conscience before, can stomach only so much, and she throws her support to Dunbar. It's a close race in Iowa, but ultimately Underwood pulls out a victory just as marriage to Claire is coming apart. As he leaves for New Hampshire, Claire walks out on him...and so ends Season Three.

Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper. Whereas Tim Stamper's relationship with Urquhart was undone by his ambitions, Doug almost lost everything over his human frailties. Don't worry- he got past that.
Oh, okay.

To say I was disappointed doesn't fully cover it. House of Cards is REALLY good, and it's rightfully credited with having revived Netflix after their PR fiascoes. But after 39 episodes of watching increasingly unlikeable people (however complex) do bizarre things, I'm sort of done.

I'm also sad to say that the writing didn't hold up as well this last season as it did in the other two (maybe the writers are done too). Really, the Russian President would get to terms SO QUICKLY about both troops in the Jordan Valley AND the release of an American prisoner? And they would be negotiating themselves- without aides? REALLY? Obviously, then, we need to throw Putin and Obama into a bunker for a few weeks and see what they come up with. But wait! What about Michelle? Because after those two hammered out everything, an overwrought Claire- the one who is usually calm and controlled- ruined everything...at a press conference.

The character of Claire was my biggest problem with the season. Everyone always says "Lady Macbeth" when they see an ambitious wife, but they meant it with Claire. And that irritates me. Lady Macbeth is easy to write, in part because it's been done so much: Woman gets a taste of the possibility of power she can get through her husband, then pushes her husband to get it, regardless of what literal or figurative bloodiness she'll need to indulge to help him. She does unspeakable things but blindly pushes on until her conscience finally destroys her. And her husband, who's been using her as a psychic crutch, crumbles now that she isn't there anymore.

Some hope...Elizabeth Marvel as Solicitor General Heather Dunbar...
Other than laziness, the reason this gets me in this story is that Elizabeth Urquhart as played by Diane Fletcher is, if anything, the anti-Lady Macbeth. She blithely makes suggestions to further his interests and even helps him commit murder at one point. However, she never shows any signs of remorse; while that may make her more of a sociopath, she's frankly more interesting than the woman who walks around with a fist in her stomach. She is like any other advisor, only she happens to be a woman. And in the end she doesn't have her husband murdered to appease her conscience but to save him, at least in the way that ultimately matters to him.

...Molly Parker as veteran and Assistant Whip Jackie Sharp...
As disappointing as the main female character was, I did enjoy watching both Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) and Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), and the Do Not Screw With Me bureau chief Kate Baldwin (Kim Dickens) made me smile every time she was onscreen. These were all competent, complicated, ambitious women, some more conflicted than others, but overall dedicated to catching their brass rings. Maybe Netflix can do spin off series on these three if it's going to be extra special greedy?

...and Kim Dickens as Bureau Chief Kate Baldwin
The original House of Cards had an undercurrent of humor in it's otherwise very dark tale of politics and ambition; I'm afraid the same can't be said for it's American counterpart, and that's a shame when it's so much longer. If it looks like this thing is going to be resolved in Season 4, let me know, but even then...well, I'm done anyway.