Monday, March 10, 2014 at 9:00AM
WatchingPreacher in Tv-shows, commentary, television

WARNING: Contains spoilers for House of Cards' entire run, including its second season.

We live in a society that, always, in some way, feels as if it's on the brink of destroying itself. It's made up of too many nuts and bolts, has too many cogs, too much machinery, and if one single of those bolts jolts out of place, then it all goes to hell in a handbasket and nothing is ever the same. Take the situation between Russia and Crimea, going on right as I write these words. Tensions are high, and while Putin, NATO and Obama are all showing their hands, hinting to the lengths they're willing to go and what they're willing to do, there are a few hundred soldiers down on the ground of a peninsula, and if one of the guards on the other side of a certain line in the sand puts his toe over, has itchy trigger fingers or just generally wants to make some mischief, that little tiny act it can set off a chain reaction leading all the way up to the astronauts on the International Space Station. When, or even if, they get down, it might not be to the same world they left. Everything might look vastly different.

And yet nothing really ever changes. Society doesn't collapse. The bolts and nuts are screwed back in again, tightened and fastened better this time. We endure, we survive, and, sometimes, we do something we didn't think we were capable of.

Beau Willimon's House of Cards (adapted from novels and the UK television series of the same name), which Netflix just released 13 new episodes of, frequently seems to forget this. It's one of the show's many flaws - for an excellent and spot-on dissection of the second season, I point you to Todd Vanderwerff's fantastic review - and, what I feel, its biggest. Not the lack of an adversary for its main character. Not the fact that it seems to reduce women to whores, spineless politicians wife or a means to an end (during the second season, pay attention to how the rape-bill goes from a major plotpoint to a shrug, only to finally get swooped under the carpet when it gains Frank). No, the problem runs deeper - and it begins right in the opening credits.

With lush music - piano and violins - and time-lapsed images of Washington; monuments, streets, highways, neighborhoods, statues and construction sites, always with the White House looming behind it, just out of sight, until it takes center stage as the title card appears on screen. There are no people; no faces. Only names, cars, buildings, symbols and rivers, the latter with a plastic barrell halfway buried on the shore. This is the great machine. This is Washington. And in this great machine, this house of cards, is where decisions are being made - decisions that have ramifications far beyond, but always with that White House looming in the background.

It's an effective image, and an interesting perspective, though perhaps better suited to a movie than a 26-episode television series, so far (a third season, probably with 13 new instalments, is on the way). Because after the first few hours of the first season, this great machine begins showing its flaws. If Washington is the machine, then Frank Underwood is the operator, and he can do no wrong. He twists a screw here, leans on a cog there, loosens a bolt and hammers in a nail, and boom; everyone follows suit. I don't know about you, but it isn't very interesting to see someone operate a machine with this much efficiency.

Like in the opening credits, the show seemingly forgets that it's dealing with a human element. And, let's face it, people are unpredictable. Some of them will make rash decisions, behave irrationally and, without knowing it, thoroughly fuck up your plan. Society is a great machine, in theory, but not without this human element. What the show forgets is that every nut and bolt in Underwood's machine is self-concious. They should lash out when he tries to tighten or loosen them. They should feel used, manipulated, they should shout, scream, cry. They should behave irrationally, not play into Underwood's hand, especially when they know what he's up to.

The show is just as cold and calculated as Underwood is. Every single plotline introduced in season two is built up to a point where Frank Underwood can use it to manipulate, as leverage or as ammunition to get someone else to do exactly as he wants. They're like ticking time bombs that magically hurt everyone except the main character, who slithers through the explosions and ends up on top. It's not suspenseful, surprising or shocking - it's inevitable. On a show this calculated, with a character this calculated, I frequently expected him to start talking about the nature of television and inevitability, how he'd written his own version of events only so he could use them later. Season one was bad enough, but in season two this is taken to incomprehensible heights, and Frank is portrayed as something close to omnipotent to make all this work.

Granted, the series is fun and frequently pulpy, with interesting dialogue and a delicious performance by Spacey, but it is tiring to witness things going his way every time. Even a plotline where he isn't involved, the romance between Jackie and Danton, ends up a place where he can use it to his advantage. Going forward, the show needs to realise that Underwood's pawns are people too, with their own motivations, agenda and thoughts - thoughts that can't be changed with two speeches and a threat. They frequently make it easy for them, having a spineless president that leans to heavily on his advisors the enemy Frank has to tip off his chair (not the hardest task when you're essentially a walking rhetorics-course), or killing off risky characters before they have the chance to do something drastic, then spending the next three-four-five episodes with a plotline that buries the whole thing, so that the audience never has to think about it again.

By doing easy manipulations, a penchant for overexplaining things and a writing staff that's never heard of the word "subtle", the series becomes perfect for binge-watching; throwing a lot of balls in the air, timing developments down to a tee, and moving the plot just a little bit forward every episode, throwing in a shocker now and then to stir things up when people might be losing focus. It's pleasant to watch, making you feel intelligent when what it really does is be as manipulating, cynical and cold as its protagonist. It's all the worst tendencies of television today, and of entertainment; an easy structure, easy to follow series that pretends to be intelligent, thoughtful and deep. It's what you get when you want something people will watch - controversial and dark, but not too controversial and dark, with a shocking opener that hooks people to the inevitable ending that goes exactly where you thought it'd go when you finished episode one. There are no surprises here - only people manipulating you into believing you're being surprised. It's comfort television that fits everyone; one feels smart without pandered too as people who watched Sopranos and Mad Men, another recognises how manipulative it is, but is still entertained by the acting, the directing, the dialogue. It's a carbon-copy of high-quality drama, made to suit everyone, with nothing special about it. It's just another show to add to the rotation, and when it's over you won't remember much of it - just that it was kinda fun and yeah, of course you're gonna watch the next season because it wasn't bad.

The great machine and its operator returns in (probably February) 2015, from an even more powerful seat. I only hope that the writers have figured out a way for this to stop being so manipulative, and that they will, just once, make this house of cards fall. Though I won't be surprised if Frank once again has rigged the game by using his special cards, prepared the night before with a special glue that takes a number of hours before fastening. He's done it twice before, so why not play it safe - it is, after all, his victory lap.

Article originally appeared on Ramblings of the Watching Preacher (
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