HOUSE OF CARDS: Will Frank Underwood be the Next Captain Kirk?

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Beau Willimon

Beau Willimon

I’m aware that this blog might make it seem that I’m out to get Beau Willimon, and for that appearance I apologize in advance. I’m not. My only reason for taking apart House of Cards, Season 3, in such detail is that it has been hyped as a prestige television production and I think that the reality is otherwise. It is a missed opportunity that requires attention from that part of entertainment journalism that seriously delves into what is really going on in the American media, which is such an important part of our culture. That said…….

In my first HoC blog, I focused on the deterioration of character and the misrepresentation of politics in Season 3, because that’s what struck me after seeing two episodes. Having now seen all 13, I am struck by an even larger problem, the implosion of Willimon’s storytelling, which I now hazard a guess is what has made it impossible for the show to develop its characters and make any point at all. The season opens with a brief cold opening showing Frank Underwood’s return to his home town of Gaffney, South Carolina, which is not particularly surprising.

Stamper(Michael Kelly) and Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

Stamper(Michael Kelly) and Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

But then, after the credits, it focuses for a whopping twenty-one minutes on Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s once and future Chief of Staff, and one of the subordinate characters in the first two seasons, which is truly odd. I should have realized when I saw that that the series was turning into a soap opera, or something very like that, but it took me a while to get my bearings. When I say soap opera, by the way, I don’t mean what you probably think.

As a former soap opera fan, and a former soap opera writer and story editor for five network soap operas, contrary to popular opinion–usually the opinion of those who have never seen a soap opera–I never found the daytime series’ more maudlin, over-emotional, or hyper sentimental than most night time television series. In fact, often a lot less. Those in the know will tell you that the most salient characteristic of soap opera is its multi-plot narrative structure which has now been borrowed by many shows on night time television and some movies too. Think Grey’s Anatomy, Glee, and Crash, Paul Haggis’ 2004 Oscar winner, among many. And now HoC.

Multi-plot stories offer amazing opportunities if they are written properly. One of the great things about them is that they are democratizing. There is more than one main character, so we don’t just have to sit in awe of the usual one, white, controlling male. And that’s what has happened on HoC. Sounds good, right? Well, read on.

hoc3kspaceyfingerpoint The series shows signs of reaching for other protagonists and multiple plots because Willimon has exhausted Frank’s possibilities as a political jackal, but doesn’t want to let go yet. For two seasons, the series was traditionally constructed as Underwood’s story, to which a few subplots were attached, subordinated to the saga of the unholy progress toward power of an overwhelming man whose initials are F. U. So, by hook and crook, mostly crook, Frank got to be president. What do you do for an encore? Decline and fall, as in the British original? Permanent corruption of America, as seems to be taking place in reality?

No. Seems the decision has been to dilute the focus. Now, suddenly, Doug Stamper, whose tendency toward psychosis had been backburnered to Underwood’s sociopathy, is given one third of the screen time of a sixty minute episode. And his own plot.

hoc3aspaceywright Not very long afterward, we discover that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), although still so chillingly, chicly doll-like, is no longer satisfied to be just Frank’s helpmate in scheming on a national scale, and has got her own plot. Oh, and Frank is also trying to shore up his victory of the year before. We see him every so often, but no longer accompany him in every scene as he delivers asides only we can hear. He is now sometimes the protagonist of his story and sometimes a secondary character in Stamper’s or Claire’s story, and he doesn’t confide in us very much anymore. This is the kingdom of multi-plots.

At first, I pondered the possibility that this radical shift is a burst of new creative energy. But increasingly the show seemed out of control, as might be expected since I know of no multi-plot narrative that didn’t begin that way. It’s a huge transition. Where the conventional plot demands tight focus on the main character, which HoC delivered, multi-plots demand balance among the main protagonists, which is very much missing in Season 3. I’m not saying that a true artist can’t pull off the switch from a conventional to a cutting edge style of storytelling; someone of the caliber of the three Davids (Lynch, Chase, and Simon) will someday show us how it’s done. housecardsspaceyfacecropped2But Willimon’s move has turned out badly. He has not been able to create a balanced multi-plot by braiding the heroic scale of a Macbeth and Richard the Third saga of political power, with a wife’s rebellion against a controlling husband on the domestic scale of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and the mental state of a grim and creepy, pathological murderer.

HoC’s original main plot about political domination has shattered into three multiplots about taking control: politically, domestically, and psychologically. In theory, highly do-able. However, trying to make the sale in the third season after two seasons of story on the imperial theme, dominated by the towering character of Frank Underwood and the towering performance of Kevin Spacey, has produced a lumpy, misshapen mess. Doug Stamper’s quest to kill Rachel, the girl who knows too much about him; Frank Underwood’s scheming to take charge of the United States and Europe and beyond; and Claire Underwood’s revelation that she doesn’t like being under Frank’s thumb—the three multi-plots in play in Season 3– don’t combine to form a whole, as a functioning multi-plot system should. What we have is a mish-mash of disconnected blobs.

Admittedly, some of the blobs are pretty good. There is an especially first rate face-off in Episode 37 between Congresswoman Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) and Special Prosecutor Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvell) which is meant to be a plot complication for Frank, and a signal to the audience about Claire’s problems as a subordinate wife. Jackie has been promised the vice presidential nomination by Underwood, if she plays ball with him as he seeks to win election to another term. In this scene, she is approached by Heather, who plans to run against Frank in the presidential primaries, to switch her political allegiances. It’s a pleasure to see the representation of more than one qualified woman in all of the world; usually we are made to understand that the competent woman is alone of her sex. The performances are crisp and dynamic. And, we are treated to a rich subtext of two smart, spirited women, who don’t dress like Prada models, working something through that has nothing to do with sex. As the women talk, Sharp realizes, without saying a word about it, what a fool she’s been to let Underwood control her, and what a true champion Dunbar is, an independent woman of enormous integrity. It’s a boxing match made in heaven.

hoc3mdebate

But it doesn’t mesh with the three multi-plots. The Dunbar-Sharp confrontation is so much fresher than the other predictable scenes in Frank’s political story and the unconvincing scenes in Claire’s supposed self-discovery story, which includes finding out the the public likes her better as a blonde than as a brunette, that it outshines the separate Frank and Claire plots instead of serving them, as it obviously is intended to do. And Doug Stamper’s homicidal plot chunk makes us feel as if we had changed channels briefly.

It can be argued that in taking this new path in Season Three, Willimon has added a feminist aspect to his series. Sure, there is some feminist potential in the new mix. But it feels tacked on. And it defeats the original premise of the show instead of expanding it in a new way, which makes HoC feel herky jerky.

hoc3bspaceywrightMoreover, absurdly, the overload of domestic scenes about Frank and Claire keeps threatening to make us forget that a nation or maybe two are at stake. When Willimon reminds us of the political context, it’s almost an “Oh, yeah” effect. Even more jarring is that the “new” Frank, demoted to being just one of a number of leading characters in competing plots, has become quite a different man, one who has gotten out of Claire’s way—for no reason I can understand, given his original character–as she has claimed enormous political power. So when she drops the ball repeatedly, I find it difficult to side with her as she increasingly frets about Frank’s domineering ways. Hey, this season’s Claire, that was last season’s Frank! She’s having as much trouble as I am trying to keep up with the new reality of the show. Cognitive dissonance, aplenty!

Where am I? Indeed location too becomes an issue in Season 3 because another telling sign of the show’s exhaustion is that Willimon pins onto his multi-plots a crazy quilt of elements borrowed from Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, and David Chase’s The Sopranos, one major borrowing being the sudden appearance of the kind of panoramic vistas that Breaking Bad employs persistently. Gilligan uses establishing shots of the wide open spaces of New Mexico to provide a fascinating, meaningful context for Walter White’s story. But how could this possibly work for Washington D. C.? That is to say, I lived there for six years, and I never once saw a wide open space. Where Gilligan made sense of the action partly through its geographical context, Willimon destroys his context for spectacular effect. (Previously, the show had done a credible job of visualizing D. C. space.)

And then (BIG SPOILER ALERT) HoC all but commits creative suicide when it attempts to imitate the brilliant, visionary series finale of The Sopranos and comes off as doing nothing more than flashing its gimmick. The Sopranos ending explodes the entire enterprise of television’s neatly packaged series conclusions. HoC looks as if someone forgot to finish writing the last scene. In the season’s final moments, as Frank is coming off a primary win in Iowa, Claire walks away from him on her very, very high heels–”I’m leaving you, Frank”–a la Nora at the end of A Doll’s House, and Underwood lamely calls after her, “Claire—” But she doesn’t stay to hear the rest of it. Nor do we. Underwood is rendered pathetic, and so is the season close by choosing to follow Claire and leave the political story dangling. Marital negotiations turn out to be so much more compelling and crucial than national politics to people so thoroughly defined previously as political animals. Seriously?

Frank’s “Claire–” sounds like the last gasp of a man running on empty, which appears also to be the current state of HoC, but apparently Netflix has not noticed. Perhaps Netflix has counted the numerous, but fleeting, cultural references to Underwood and the series (they are already getting stale) and concluded that this demonstrates importance and quality. According to IMDb, there will be another season. Where will HoC go now that it has completely undone its original premise and structure and started (badly) impersonating television series’ that have truly imprinted our culture? Maybe Season Four will open on the deck of the Enterprise.

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