I started watching House of Cards long after everyone else did. I thought the first season was solid, overall, but the gripping drama and intrigue of the first half of the season soon gave way to the uneven plotting and somewhat tortured relationship drama of the last half.
What was the point of Claire’s multi-episode cheating arc? To show that she could cheat without consequence as well as Francis? This is something that could have been achieved in a single episode. Likewise, their liaisons could and should have been put on the same level. Whereas cheating to Francis is purely transactional, Claire’s seemed to be about filling an emotional void caused by her marriage. To me that plot line served to weaken Claire, taking away from her the mantle of being her husband’s cold, pragmatic equal.
I find Claire to be one of the most compelling and inspiring female characters on television in some time. While there is much to be said about strong female characters who succeed in male-dominated societies without “sacrificing” their femininity, I found Claire’s outright disdain for more female characteristics refreshing and fascinating. However, I found her subsequent struggle to fully embrace the persona she had chosen for herself predictable and troubling.
While I understand that her internal dilemmas and choices are familiar to many women and are probably more reflective of reality than her initial characterization, I am obviously not watching this show for my daily dose of real-talk. The fact is that Frank Underwood follows a long line of unapologetic assholes who are celebrated and display character traits that many aspire to. He is a television Steve Jobs, the awful guy who wants to and will succeed at all costs with no regard for others’ feelings. Where are Frank’s moments of doubt? Of grappling with the moral consequences of what he’s done? When has there been even a single frame that hints at this character having even a basic conscience?
In Claire, we are to believe this man has an equal partner. And yet they are not equal. Frank can commit two murders and lose not a wink of sleep. Claire inadvertently causes a woman to go off a mental cliff and she has to break down on the stairs of her DC townhouse in tears.
Again, the latter may be more realistic, and it may humanize Claire, but no one watching this show is waiting for Frank to be humanized to like him. He is liked precisely because of how inhuman he can be. True equality will be when a female can find the same acclaim without having to apologize or demonstrate a more human angle. In other words, when she no longer needs a “Hillary moment.”
Take a moment to think about that particular woman’s long and distinguished career, filled with so many important and meaningful moments on a global stage. But you know exactly which one I refer to.
As a show, I find HOC to be entirely enjoyable, at times even supremely entertaining. The second season is a marked improvement over the first, lacking the former’s uneven plotting. But more than the first season it has begun to swerve into soap opera territory. The first episode’s closing moment was easily the show’s best, but it’s also the one that is most unlike the show’s initial premise. The show has to realize that it can only make Frank do so much before he is transformed into some kind of cartoon villain, at which point the entire fragile reality of the show will crumble with him.
I can accept the political maneuvering. I can accept a man as weak and flawed as Walker becoming President. I can accept that his wife could somehow be so naive and wide-eyed despite decades of public life. I can accept these things because they are not at the foreground. But Frank is. And the more he murders, the more reckless he becomes and the more he relies on sheer luck the less I can go along for the ride.
All of that said, I did enjoy this season. The moments between Remy and Jackie were compelling and genuinely interesting. The back channeling and hight stakes brinkmanship between Frank and Tusk were the series’ high points. The show did a better job of spending less time on its less compelling plot points (Rachel and Stamper especially, although the show deserves credit for actually eliciting sympathy for Stamper at the end) while wisely and effectively resolving other character’s arcs. Most heartbreakingly, Freddy’s. That was one plot line that would have been easy to play out predictably or with a heavy hand. Instead, Freddy was allowed a dignified and heroic exit.
I look forward to seeing how the show will handle Frank in the White House. My hope is that the show will rely more on the political and diplomatic maneuvers that made this season so compelling and less on the human drama that can drag it down at times.
It also makes me look forward to season 3 of Veep more than ever.