I don’t know how many of you have watched House of Cards with Kevin Spacey. I have been watching it since Netflix released the first season two years ago. Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a manipulative Democrat politician who uses chicanery and much worse to make his way through Washington, D.C.
The show’s been fun to watch because Spacey is wonderful. He affects a broad Southern accent, speaks in a rich deep voice and, in a riot of cheerful overacting, chews up the scenery as his character uses a potent combination of pure malevolence and utter charm to manipulate people to achieve his invariably nefarious goals. At his side, like a sane and sensible Lady Macbeth is Robin Wright, playing his equally vicious and manipulative wife. They are two happily married, evil, dishonest peas in a pod. In the first two seasons, that made for very good TV.
This season, which Netflix released last Friday, is different, though. I’m not going to give away any spoilers when I say that, after having watched 5 episodes in the new season, it seems to me that the writers have changed Underwood substantially. He’s no longer focusing on clawing his way up, and doing whatever is necessary to create the bodies he climbs over. Instead, having already succeeded in that climb, instead of being in control, he’s a victim of circumstances and of people even more powerful and manipulative than he is. Frank Underwood’s less charming when he’s the underdog.
What’s even more perplexing to me about the new season is that the political initiatives he’s advancing aren’t just for self-aggrandizement. Instead, the writers seem to be having a West Wing flashback. As you recall, although West Wing started in 1999, it mostly played out during the Bush presidency. During the show’s first season, Aaron Sorkin was trying to rehabilitate Bill Clinton’s soiled reputation. After that, Sorkin dedicated himself to showing how much better the country would be under the aegis of a wise Democrat.
House of Cards, though, is not a Democrat show running during a Republican administration. Instead, it’s playing out on Obama’s watch. Despite that, the show still seems to be a fantasy about how much better the country would be under the aegis of a wise Democrat. The only way that the show’s writers can create this little time warp fantasy without turning Underwood into a bland model of rectitude is to have him use his Machiavellian methods to achieve good goals instead of nefarious ones.
The results are unnerving. Watching someone spit on a crucifix as a prelude to fighting a bizarre, disruptive, unpopular war on behalf of America’s poor and unemployed is very strange. Perhaps the writers are trying to make an Obama parable, one in which they’re saying that Obama’s hatred for Christians and attacks on the Constitution are okay because, like the strangely reformed Francis Underwood, Obama is using his evil powers to achieve good goals.
Another thing I don’t like about this season is the little jabs it throws at Israel. These jabs are subtle, but to the extent there’s a significant plot line pushing Samantha Powers’ plan to have the UN move into the Jordan Valley, I have to believe that the jabs are real. After all, unless the writers intend to expose that idea’s stupidity and danger to Israel by having it backfire spectacularly, whoever wrote it supports Powers, who is violently anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and antisemitic..
One more complaint: While Spacey is still giving it all, the other actors have gotten lazy. They are mumbling. It’s not just my semi-geriatric hearing, either. Even the kids, when they drop in, can’t understand what anyone is saying. Maybe the actors are embarrassed by the collapse in the writing quality or the disloyalty to the original characters.
For the time being, I’m going to continue to watch the show, in part because I continue to enjoy Spacey’s over-the-top dramatics, and in part because I’m wondering if he’ll just get back to being plain evil and ambitious. It will also be interesting to see if the show’s writers are indeed planning to continue this strange apologetic on behalf of the Obama administration and its wilder, more dangerous plans.
Please chime in with your opinions. If your opinion includes a spoiler, though, please be good enough to alert other readers first, so that those who still intend to watch the show don’t learn too much about it too fast.