Monday, March 16, 2015

Power, Sex, and the Real Story of House of Cards

Be warned: spoliers follow.

I finally finished season 3 of House of Cards late last week, and I have to say that I was, at first, disappointed. It was superbly made and consistently entertaining television, to be sure, but it didn't advance the story in ways that I think season 2 had set it up to do, instead giving us viewers a lot of mostly irrelevant--though admittedly compelling--foreign policy shenanigans, and then prolonged excursions through Doug Stamper's and Remy Danton's souls. So honestly, I wasn't sure I was likely to binge on season 4 next year. But after thinking about it over the weekend, I decided: no, I'll give it another shot. But mainly on one condition--that Kevin Spacey's inconsistently vicious President Frank Underwood be sidelined somewhat, so that the story arc of Robin Wright's First Lady Claire Underwood can take center stage, and be recognized as that which really pulls House of Cards fully together.

I don't know what percentage of Netflix's HoC viewers were fans of the original British House of Cards, but I was, and I don't think I was at all alone in approaching the Netflix series in comparison to that small masterpiece. At its center was Francis Urquhart, a truly brilliant Machiavellian literary and television creation brought to life by Ian Richardson. The first season of the BBC HoC is simply tremendous storytelling, because through Urquhart the series' creators managed to explore--in the context of a deliciously compelling story of media manipulation, outright bribery, sexual blackmail, and (most of all) bureaucratic maneuvering--not just the heart of an ambitious and amoral politician but the twisted logic by which ambition operates in a parliamentary system. Urquhart's assent to the top of his party, then to near unchallengeable authority over the machinery of power throughout the United Kingdom, made a spooky amount of sense; it was, in short, not only fun to watch but plausible to contemplate, in a way which Frank Underwood's machinations through Washington DC's various chambers of power have really never been.

The level of intricate and devilish plotting which the original BBC series laid out wasn't maintained, in my opinion; in the subsequent series about Urquhart's political career (To Play the King and The Final Cut), he relied crudely on the drumbeats of war--the terrorist threat of the Irish Republican Army, to be specific--to mask increasingly fascistic moves as prime minister, making him over into a less complicated stand-in for everyone who hated Margaret Thatcher. At the same time, his occasional feelings of regret over the murder of Mattie Storin seemed arbitrarily dropped into the plot, in a clumsy attempt to humanize him. Whereas in the case of Frank Underwood, season 2 of the Netflix HoC was a real step up from the already excellent season 1. Once Frank was in the executive branch, a heart-beat away from the presidency, the opportunities were presented for the writers to get really gonzo in the telling of this story, and did they ever. Killing Zoe Barnes, railroading Lucas Goodwin, silencing Jaimie Skorsky, intimidating Tom Hammerschmidt, turning the tables of Raymond Tusk....this was great, crazy, conspiracy-minded television! Sure, the actual politics which the writers were making use of were, in contrast to the case with the BBC HoC, pretty much baloney--but it was cool baloney, and I loved it.

Hence my disappointment with season 3--Frank wasn't making his snarky asides to the camera nearly as much any longer, and while there was some true nutso audaciousness on display in how he wielded the powers of the presidency (twisting the arm of FEMA so as to use earmarked emergency funds to pay for a congressionally road-blocked job-creation program, insisting on a mano-a-mano showdown meeting with Russian President Viktor Petrov in the middle of a war zone), by and large, with his life's ambitions fulfilled, some of the fun had gone out the story. So I thought for the first day or two after I finished season 3--until, that is, I realized that maybe the real story, all along, hasn't been about Frank, but rather about the conflicted, ambitious, secretive, ferociously talented and dangerous uncertain woman who shares his bed.

Urquhart's wife Elizabeth was clearly a major player in his ascent to power, and she remained crucial to the story until the very end, when she arranged for her husband's assassination in order to protect his (and her) reputation. But she had little depth as a character; we saw her almost always as responding to the actions of her husband or others, whereas Claire Underwood has been a person with her own agenda right from the start. In reflecting upon the state of this agenda by the end of the latest season--Claire having taken a humanitarian organization in a new and ambitious direction, throwing the staff into a tumult, then abandoning that organization in order to lay the groundwork for her career as a diplomat, which she achieves and then loses as her husband sacrifices her accomplishments to appease an embarrassed Russian president--one can see the source of much of the best drama of the whole show. But there's even more to it than that, I think; HoC gives us Claire Underwood, through Wright's fascinating embodiment of her, as a driven yet sometimes icily indecisive symbol for all women in a world shaped around male sexual power.

Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that matters of sex--its use and abuse, the longing for it and the complications of it--are a constant sub-theme throughout House of Cards. To start with: what is Frank's sexual orientation, anyway? He obviously delights in reigning (literally) over younger, impressionable women, but we can't forget the way he seduced Agent Meechum, culminating in the three-way with his own wife, nor the weird undertone of sexual attraction which vibrates through his meetings with biographer Tom Yates (who we are supposed to believe became a nationally famous and best-selling novelist with a novel about his years as a male prostitute). Claire has regular acquiesced to Frank's sexual predilections, yet when she angrily insists that he make love to her roughly, face to face, he can't manage it. Claire herself was at first reluctant to re-ignite her sexual relationship with Adam Galloway, but then later embraced it, and later yet twisted her feelings for him such that he was willing to undermine himself on live television just to protect her own husband. The tension between Claire and the Russian president made me wonder if we were going to see some further attempts as sexual blackmail there. But through all this Claire is also shown as somewhat half-hearted, betraying almost stereotypical feminine weaknesses mostly behind the scenes (such as early on, when she reconsidered her and Frank's decision not to have children, to the point of exploring fertility treatments without his knowledge). The suicide of Michael Corrigan shocks her into a state of maternal defensiveness (he hung himself while she was lying there, getting her much needed rest, using her own scarf!), but of course this was the same woman who contemptuously mocked her one-time employee Gillian Cole for getting pregnant by a man she wasn't married to, and for allowing her fate and her unborn baby's health to be entirely in Claire's unsympathetic hands.

And more: consider how prevalent themes of sexuality, women's rights, and motherhood came to dominate all the electoral discussions of season 3. Heather Dunbar, at first refusing to use against Frank secret information about Claire's season 2 story about being raped and having an abortion, and then being willing to pay almost any price to get a hold of that information. Jackie Sharp, married to a man she doesn't love because Frank wanted her to be married before he added her to his re-election ticket, lusting after a former lover, willing to hypocritically attack Heather for choices that indict her own less-than-fully-loving childcare choices. (And don't forget that Jackie was able to attain the position she has mainly because she was willing to expose another politician's secret illegitimate child.) The scenes we're given in season 3 all about Claire's hair color, and how simple decisions like that can't fully be her own in the political world her and Frank's mutual ambition have committed themselves to, speak volumes--as does, in fact, the constantly repeated refrain that Claire's approval numbers are higher than the president's, thus making it imperative than she be used by the president and his handlers carefully. Important sexual contrasts are built up: with Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp, of course, but more particularly with Catherine Durant, a Democratic Senator and later Secretary of State who has had her share of entanglements over the years, yet stands interestingly apart from the machinations of the Underwood presidency. And then, most particularly, the strange encounter between Claire and the young mother in Iowa, whose openness about her own sexual freedom, her mothering responsibilities, and even just her own breastfeeding of her child, seemed like one long bizarre taunt to the terribly controlled Claire.

Season 3 ended with Claire announcing that she's leaving Frank, so here's to hoping that season 4, rather than staying in the White House, actually follows her. Some of have called Claire Underwood a feminist icon, some have called her a sell-out; in truth, we've seen her be both. So forget President Underwood; we have his number, for better or worse. Claire is the one who is still a mystery, who we viewers are--and, as presented on screen, who she herself is--still trying to figure out. If we're no longer being treated to the contained story of a tyrant's rise and fall, as the original House of Cards suggested, but rather to an exploration of what an American-style pseudo-tyranny does to people, then let's forget about the tyrant himself; it is the Lady Macbeth at his side (or no longer at his side) whose journey as a woman and sexual being I want to understand.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I felt the same way about this season - a little flat and much less devilish fun. It really is about Claire's propping up of Frank and how he's gotten a little too big for his britches.

It's incredible to see Doug's roller-coaster ride in and out of spirit-crushing despair. He's a truly bad guy who you can't help but have tremendous sympathy and even admiration for.