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House of Cards (US, 2013): Chapter 2 (Review)

Get ready, Cathy, things are about to move very quickly.

– Frank is moving

That’s more like it. After a rocky season premiere, it looks like House of Cards might finally be settling into a groove. It’s very strange to see a four-part BBC drama adapted into a full thirteen-episode season of an American television show. Of course, the United States has a very different political system, so the machinations of the Chief Whip of the House of Representatives could never overlap fully with those of Sir Francis Urquhart. However, the first episode needed a sense of traction that was so sorely lacking.

Luckily, the second episode picks up the slack. The pieces are all in play, the characters are established. The game can be afoot.

Underwood tactics...

Underwood tactics…

With everything established, we’re finally getting a better sense of who Francis Underwood actually is. Kevin Spacey is charming enough that he can invest us in a character, but we need a better sense of who Underwood is and what he believes in. It feels like a slight problem that we’re only getting a proper sense of that now, but it works. It’s quite clear that the show has an idea of who Frank is and who Claire is, and views them as more than mere translations of their British counterparts.

For one thing, Underwood seems a lot more sympathetic than Urquhart ever was. The beauty of Ian Richardson’s portrayal was the fact that you found yourself rooting for the bad guy, a central character with no political or moral philosophy more important than his own personal advancement. There are definite traces of that to be found in Spacey’s politician as well. “Such a waste of talent,” he remarks of his former Press Secretary. “He chose money over power. In this town a mistake almost everyone makes.”

A sorry (Secretary of) State of affairs...

A sorry (Secretary of) State of affairs…

And yet, despite that, Underwood remains curiously sympathetic, or at least not as overtly reprehensible as his British counterpart. Urquhart was little more than a dictator with a sharp wit. Underwood seems like he might be something resembling a decent man if you get underneath his lust for power. In fact, the second episode seems design to invite us to empathise with Frank. It opens with him generously tipping his local restaurateur. “This is too much,” Freddie replies, trying to hand the money back. “It’s not enough,” Frank replies. They must have been good ribs.

More than that, though, the second episode establishes that Frank is swimming like a shark. He might seem like an over-confident hustler and manipulator, but he’s vulnerable and has to keep moving. Underwood is in debt to lobbyists, lobbyists who are less than pleased about his recent political shortcomings. Indeed, their threat to “throw money at” any challenger in his district makes it clear that Underwood is not the invulnerable master manipulator that we might think that he is.

Old news...

Old news…

Presenting Underwood as vulnerable – the idea that he has to keep moving to stay alive – is an interesting take on the character. His British counterpart very rarely seemed at a disadvantage and, even then, it took the King of England to pose a political threat. It does a lot to distinguish the show from its British predecessor, which is vitally important at this point in its life. It does undermine Spacey’s slick and machiavellian operator, if only because it makes him answerable to some people.

That said, the show is taking advantage of the space to develop Claire as a character. Elizabeth Urquhart hovered in the background like some sinister Lady MacBeth, her influence keenly felt more often than it was overtly shown. Here, it’s very clear that Elizabeth is every part Frank’s equal, if not more ambitious and vicious than he is. “That sounds both passive aggressive and condescending,” he suggests during a fight. She counters, “It’s aggressive and true.”

Whiter-than-white...

Whiter-than-white…

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey are both superb here. Indeed, they both get wonderful moments at the end of the episode, that outline their philosophies and viewpoints better than extend dialogue ever could. We see Claire as a woman who will not tolerate dead weight, and who perhaps worries that her own skills may blunt with age. And Underwood’s dismissal of a crazy homeless person who tried to storm his office (“nobody can hear you – nobody cares about you”) perhaps reflects his own insecurities and his fears about losing power.

Spacey is also putting his own mark on the Shakespearean asides that Richardson executed so well. While Richardson was the master of the smirk, the raised eyebrow or the witty put-down, Spacey is much better at silently expressing frustration or boredom. There’s still a sense that Willimon’s dialogue is holding the show back, but all the parts are beginning to work in harmony. In particular, Jeff Beal’s score is wonderfully evocative, creating a sense of a sinister Washington underbelly.

Dealing with lobby in the lobby...

Dealing with lobby in the lobby…

The show is still having a bit of trouble with Zoe, but at least it isn’t making so many cheap shots about the noble integrity of print journalism as compared to the sleazy exploitation of on-line blogging. There’s still a moment of hesitation when Frank asks her to run an unverified story. “There’s no direct link,” she protests. “I can’t get this past Hammerschmidt.” Because, you know, no newspaper has ever published a story that was questionable. It’s only on-line journalists who do that, the show seems to suggest.

Although the series does play with the idea of the journalist as celebrity. Zoe’s reporting doesn’t seem to be motivated by a desire to do the greater good, it’s all about positioning herself in the limelight. During one live television interview, she claims, “A lot of firsts. First national story. First front page by-line. First TV interview. I would have to my mum, but the cameraman told me not to shift in my seat.” It’s not about the story, it’s about her.

Keeping things on track...

Keeping things on track…

Indeed, the best thing that the second episode does is to allow things to move. It allows Frank to score a major victory through sharp political manoeuvring, playing speed chess with living pieces. There’s a fantastic sequence where – through Zoe – Frank is able to steam roll the White House simply through the repetition of a particular name. “Say that name. Catherine Durant. Say it over and over. Tomorrow afternoon, write it down. Then watch that name come out of the mouth of the President of the United States. This is where we get to create.”

There’s something wonderful powerful about the image of Frank appointing the next Secretary of State from a late-night subway station. That is power, and this is the first time that we’ve really got a sense of Frank’s power, as he manages to depose an appointed Secretary of State and choose the man’s successor, all without setting off any red lights, or without resorting too anything that looks like it might cause him to break a sweat. This is the version of Frank Underwood that we really needed in the opening episode, but better late than never.

Live feed...

Live feed…

Russo looks like he might be a problem, particularly as a regular character. It’s nice to have a character who exists under Frank’s thumb, but it feels a waste of Corey Stoll to have him running around in a sub plot that could handily be trimmed from the episode or explained away in a line of dialogue. I worry about spending a few episodes trying to figure out what to do with Russo as a character before we get to where the character needs to be in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps he’d be better as a recurring character instead of a regular.

Still, things look a lot better. I think we can deal with this.

Check out our reviews of the first season of House of Cards:

2 Responses

  1. The line from Frank about his former Press Secretary was “He chose money OVER power. A mistake many people in this town make.”
    That says tons about Frank’s character. Watch home wield his power. He’s at his happiest when he does!

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