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House of Cards (US, 2013): Chapter 3 (Review)

Dammit, Frank! You can’t just roll up on my property like you own it!

Oh but I can.

And we’re back to square one. I suppose this is inevitable in the transition to American television, but House of Cards is beginning to feel strangely episodic. The British version ran ran for four episodes, moving at an incredible pace as Francis Urquhart manipulated his way to the position of Prime Minister. The American version, running thirteen episodes, seems to be more about stopping and starting. Indeed, there’s relatively little traction here on the Secretary of State subplot, or Frank Underwood’s plan for political revenge against those who he feels wronged him.

Instead, this third episode feels like something of a breather episode, the kind of character-orientated piece that might have worked a bit later in the year, after the show had built up a decent momentum. Instead, it seems like we accelerated last time only to pump the breaks this time around.

Just peachy...

Just peachy…

To be fair, there’s quite a bit to like here. The expanded space means that the American iteration of the show has more chance to develop its characters. So here we get an episode of what is essentially Frank Underwood dealing with constituency issues. Really, it’s an opportunity for the character to go home, to show us his roots and how they compare to his current standards of living. It’s a nice vehicle for that kind of story, it just feels very jarring to stop so suddenly.

As you might imagine, Frank seems to treat his home with no small measure of contempt. “Every trip is a reminder of how far I’ve come,” he muses, although he takes the time to add that he doesn’t hate the place half as much as he used to. In fact, he still knows the town better than his sat-nav. Still, there’s a palpable sense of lowering himself when he’s forced to intervene after the death of a seventeen-year-old girl.

Phoning it in...

Phoning it in…

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that this will be a major concern to the on-going plot. After all, House of Cards is firmly centred around Washington. The trip to Frank’s home is just an excuse to let us get to know him a bit better. Indeed, it’s interesting to hear his opinion of his father, who died young. “The man never scratched the surface of life. Maybe it’s best he died so young. He wasn’t doing much but taking up space. But that doesn’t make for a very good eulogy, does it?”

It’s interesting that his mother and his grandmother both hated his father, and presumably played a large part in raising Frank after his father died. It would suggest that Frank always had strong women in his life, adding to the complexity of his marriage. That is, if you buy into all that Fruedian Macbeth stuff, which is absolutely fascinating. Again, Frank seems cynical and calculating, but it’s remarkable how little his manipulation of the death of a young girl doesn’t vilify him.

The show has just to blossom...

The show has just to blossom…

The episode presents his frustration as channelled towards those trying to exploit the loss for political gain against him. Indeed, he explicitly states that he is not “vindictive”, and instead manipulates the situation into a case where everybody wins. Of course, he wins more than most as he prepares to welcome an opposition congressman who owes him a debt of gratitude. “It’s always good to have friends on the other side of the aisle,” he muses, even in the face of rank contempt.

House of Cards seems to be hedging its bets with Frank. He’s nowhere near as malicious as his British counterpart tended to be, but we haven’t yet seen him a political fight to the finish. He’s callous, he’s manipulative, he’s willing to go after those in his way, but we haven’t got a sense of how vicious Frank can be. Indeed, it’s telling that the episode opens with Frank receiving a stern talking-to from Stamper about the potential problems brewing at home. There’s no way that his British counterpart would tolerate such a thing, and – much like his wife’s insistence on his fitness drive – it’s a suggestion that perhaps Frank isn’t as able to take care of himself as he might like to think.

An out-preach programme...

An out-preach programme…

Spacey is, as ever, great. And Robin Wright is superb as Claire, even if every other subplot (apart from Zoe’s) seems to spin its wheels while Frank takes a week off to go home. In particular, I can’t help but feel that casting Russo as a regular might have been a bit of a mistake. Both Corey Stoll and Kristen Connolly are great actors, but it feels like a bit of a waste to focus in on their domestic drama in the midst of what should be political scheming and manipulation.

Kate Mara is great as Zoe, even if this episode is back to making those same insinuations about the difference between print media and on-line journalism. In an interview, Zoe talks about “double and triple” checking facts and stories. “Is that a workable model in the internet age?” her interviewer inquires, a none-too-subtle insinuation about the ethics of those writing on-line. Again, it seems a little trite for a series that is premiering on-line to resort to this cliché distinction between print media and on-line journalism.

A textual relationship...

A textual relationship…

Applying some of the show’s wit and cynicism to the realities of daily print journalism might be more interesting than simply portraying it as a dignified medium in decline. Then again, as Underwood notes above, that wouldn’t be the most effective eulogy to a medium that the show insists is in decline. That said, there is some nice stuff about the ethics of the relationship between politicians and the press, and the dangers of ego when it comes to reporting of breaking the news.

“Your job is to report the news,” Hammerschmidt advises Zoe after one interview, “not to be the news.” We’re clearly meant to agree with him. After all, Zoe is cultivating her own celebrity by serving as the mouthpiece of Underwood’s cynical press leaks. It’s one of the smarter plot lines that House of Cards is cultivating at the moment, and I’m curious to see it pay itself off. After all, Zoe can’t really think that she’s indispensable to Underwood, or that he’d hesitate to throw her under the bus.

Home in time for tea...

Home in time for tea…

Like her first televised interview in the previous episode (which seemed to be about her first televised interview), there’s a sense of mounting ego behind all this, something that doesn’t sit too comfortably with the ideals of the press and their obligations to the public. It’s clever, and it’s uncomfortable and it seems to be hitting right where House of Cards needs to be hitting right now. The only problem is that – like everything else – it could be going fast.

House of Cards is still good television, but it really needs to make the leap to great television. The last episode made huge strides, but it feels like we’re back-pedalling already.

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

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