Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Forget about your House of Cards

with 72 comments

Kevin Spacey on House of Cards

Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
Denial, denial…

—Radiohead, “House of Cards”

Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.

Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.

And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.

House of Cards

And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were there, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)

Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.

72 Responses

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  1. I like your perspective, but nothing can change my love for this show!
    Nice read.


    March 21, 2015 at 4:32 pm

  2. Would you mind giving my account a view? I’d appreciate it.


    March 21, 2015 at 6:11 pm

  3. You made quite a few good points, I had similar views while watching it. I do, however, like the way Claire basically spiraled into depression, spurred on by her interactions with people who seemingly had more backbone than she. I do wish Frank wouldn’t have been so stifled; especially at the beginning of the season. And they did drop the ball on his reactions with Petrov.


    March 21, 2015 at 7:37 pm

  4. Hah, I love that song!

    Perla Vzla

    March 22, 2015 at 1:48 am

  5. I really need to watch this show one of the days, I loved the original UK version.

    Stephen K.

    March 22, 2015 at 2:26 am

  6. I felt much the same way through watching 3 and I had to wonder why? I realized going back to 1 that it was because he quit breaking the the 4th wall to talk to us, make us his compatriots in his dirty deeds and less than pure thoughts. Then I realized it was because all the crazy internal dialog that we had become addicted too was no longer internal. Now that he was POTUS he was spewing it out of his mouth to everyone and we were no longer needed to stroke his ego. It was our loss, and his. I agree 3 was massively disappointing compared to 1-2. I need to watch the UK version now and see if it held up longer. Great review! :)


    March 22, 2015 at 3:08 am

  7. Very impressive, Like it.

    Smith's blog line

    March 22, 2015 at 4:12 am

  8. I agree with your views! nice one.


    March 22, 2015 at 6:33 am

  9. Nice post 💂💂💂💂💂


    March 22, 2015 at 10:53 am

  10. matviere

    March 22, 2015 at 12:00 pm

  11. Flow me?

    Carolene Holanda

    March 22, 2015 at 1:28 pm

  12. I felt like this season had no impact on me. I finished watching it and it was done. Whereas the previous seasons lingered in my mind for weeks.

    Anne Sparrow

    March 22, 2015 at 1:54 pm

  13. Isnt house of cards the most beautiful tune. Also you are an infallible genius. You are incapable of writing inauthentically


    March 22, 2015 at 3:44 pm

  14. @mypyjamaproject: Thanks for reading! I guess we can agree to disagree, which is fantastic in itself.


    March 22, 2015 at 4:34 pm

  15. @Shealyn: I agree that Claire is generally the most compelling character on the show. And nothing can take away from Robin Wright’s performance, which has been consistently awesome.


    March 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm

  16. @Perla: Same here! I get it in my head whenever I think about that show.


    March 22, 2015 at 4:36 pm

  17. @Stephen K.: I really need to check out the original version, along with the novel. I just find it so hard to see what the U.S. version is trying to be about, so maybe a return to the source would clarify the issue.


    March 22, 2015 at 4:36 pm

  18. @idream3223: The first two seasons at least had their share of compelling, surprising moments, even if they were totally implausible. Thanks for reading!


    March 22, 2015 at 4:37 pm

  19. @Anne Sparrow: There are definitely moments in the first two seasons that have staying power, which I don’t think will be the case here—it’s already fading.


    March 22, 2015 at 4:38 pm

  20. @treatwilliams: Wow—thank you! And I agree about “House of Cards,” which is one of my top five Radiohead songs.


    March 22, 2015 at 4:39 pm

  21. I was taking the piss. But house of cards is awesome. Maybe you’re awesome haven’t actually read the post and never will tbh


    March 22, 2015 at 4:41 pm

  22. It feels though season 3 has not been as exciting as the first two. I know it has had its moments but it seems to be more of the world crumbling around the Underwood’s. There has been more mishaps on their part, others catching on and catching up. I do miss Spacey talking to us in the camera though, he did this more in season 1 and 2 than this season. I still am a fan though and about to finish the last two episodes.


    March 22, 2015 at 8:27 pm

  23. love this!


    March 23, 2015 at 12:20 am

  24. I love House of Cards, but I do agree with some of your points, I was expecting Underwood to go on a tyrannical rampage as soon as he took office, but instead just got stuck in the same kind of political nonsense that he used to clean up at Whip, but at least that was interesting. But the reason I keep watching is in fact James Foley’s direction, following the tone set by Fincher, and despite the poor story, its just a beauty to watch, even though what we’re watching may not be its best potential.


    March 23, 2015 at 2:43 am

  25. ;)


    March 23, 2015 at 6:27 am

  26. Anyone follow me


    March 23, 2015 at 10:53 am

  27. This sn 3 has been a great piece…its so unpredictable reminds me of Game of Thrones.Eagerly waiting for its sn5


    March 23, 2015 at 4:12 pm

  28. great one. keep it up!


    March 23, 2015 at 5:31 pm

  29. Excellent. I couldn’t agree more!


    March 23, 2015 at 5:45 pm

  30. Interesting take (and certainly deeper than my write-up :)). My problem with season 3 was slightly different, and related more to the conclusion than the way there.


    March 23, 2015 at 8:27 pm

  31. I confess, I’m totally hooked on this show. But I do fast-forward a lot!

    Lucille Williams

    March 23, 2015 at 9:20 pm

  32. @smrzzy: Oops—I may have spoiled a big part of the finale for you. But it’s still worth watching, if only for Foley’s direction.


    March 23, 2015 at 9:40 pm

  33. @8centpublishing: Same here. If it weren’t so gorgeous to look at, I probably would have given up a long time ago.


    March 23, 2015 at 9:40 pm

  34. No worries. I can’t wait to finish it off.


    March 23, 2015 at 9:55 pm

  35. Very impressive👍

    Heart shadows.

    March 23, 2015 at 10:21 pm

  36. Liked your view points but I have not watched the new episodes yet. I think I’ll have to start watching this weekend. I love the show.


    March 24, 2015 at 7:11 am

  37. Amazing post!! You should take a look at my site!


    March 24, 2015 at 8:33 am

  38. @gilshalev: You make a good point in your writeup. I think I would have found this whole season a lot more tolerable if there had been a sense of it going somewhere, rather than just serving as a holding pattern until the next installment.


    March 24, 2015 at 2:57 pm

  39. underwood is quite a fascinating character


    March 24, 2015 at 6:30 pm

  40. I appreciated the dullness of Season 3 because I thought it was a good insight into the powers of an unelected, lame duck president.


    March 25, 2015 at 10:45 am

  41. I wasn’t so much of a fan of the British TV series, with the exception of the first season (series). The British series is a quiet merry-go-round compared to the intense rollercoaster of the American series.


    March 25, 2015 at 10:49 am

  42. Well firstly, I appreciate that I’m not the only one who found this song fitting! I have been listening to it thinking if Claire’s exit. I agree with many points but can I counter some too? If you truly respect the show give a listen. For the previous 2 seasons the budget was close to 47 million dollars. For this season, they were cut to 17 million and then told no DC filming unless they agreed to the cut. So there is that which a. Hinders filming and therefore full plot development b. Automatically makes it much harder to be consistent c. Pissed Kevin spacey and Robin wright the fuck off, I’m sure.
    This being said, I also see an element of intelligence in the writing in my opinion you are missing; Frank Under woods name is FU. Literally. He is a villain, I agree but still a man. And even his villainy only seems a mask for his fears. Have you thought about what it might mean to a man to become president? I bet Stressful and intense beyond measure. Soul crushing ego death at every meeting. Death in general, war. That is just the election!! Imagine trying to hold on to your coherent game plan in a country rife with contraindications. And not only that, the campaign and power politics I general turned a somewhat normal, aggressive male into a hyper alpha psycho murderer. It probably would scare the person. There is also an element of classism influencing society, and visa versa. Clairea money is how Frank gained power. This present an immediate struggle! Her idea of being key to his success through blood money started them on a vampiric codependency. I’m not surprised they had Wright direct herself. Who better to direct a barbie than an actress? This season had to rely heavily on writing and frankly (haha) i think it is fucking brutally honest. Study historical psychiatric reactions to power and its influence. Washington himself said he never wanted the presidency


    March 25, 2015 at 12:22 pm

  43. I wrote a long one at the end of the list, but I have been SO eager to discuss this show and the budget cuts they faced. Plz read and reply. Great read!


    March 25, 2015 at 12:29 pm

  44. I love Francis…but still a good read. Thanks for sharing :)


    March 25, 2015 at 8:54 pm

  45. @moonandvenuskayla: That’s an interesting detail about the budget—I wasn’t aware of that! I’m not sure it makes me rethink my opinion on this last season, but I appreciate the info, and your thoughtful take.


    March 25, 2015 at 10:04 pm

  46. I love the show but disappointed with the third season. I think the profucers git blind sided to one thing that made house of cards different. The only vilan I care about winning in this show is Frank Underwood. This show is full of bad guys with no good guy in the midst. So forgive me for not caring another bad guy takes the upper hand over the only bad guy I care to winvin this show. What is the point of Claire or Jacky or any other nasty polition to have the upper hand here. Poeple just want to see Frank putvall other baf guys in there place imteligintly not through idiotic forcefull narratives the writers wrote for him in the final episode.


    March 27, 2015 at 2:10 am

  47. i am still of the view that the first season was more exciting but i guess every season had its moments!!! :D

    Omkar Barve

    March 27, 2015 at 6:38 am

  48. Follow me?

    Carolene Holanda

    March 28, 2015 at 10:09 am

  49. I had a feeling she was going to leave him. The last two episodes obviously confirmed this. This season though did not have many exciting twists or eye popping moments like season 1 and 2 had. I am looking for a big season 4 finale.


    March 29, 2015 at 10:42 am

  50. I love House of Cards but agree season 3 wasn’t as good and 1 & 2 and I missed Frank talking directly to me! I usually watch on my laptop while cooking and finished 1 & 2 last November in about 6 weeks because I couldn’t make myself press the stop button, it was so addictive, on the other hand 3 took me about 4 weeks and didn’t draw me in as much as 1 & 2 did. I think it shows that even a villain like Frank can’t manipulate situations all the time and in real life it must be hard being at the top and having to compromise when you don’t really want to. And the thing with being at the top means the fall is all the more painful! I love Claire and as much as I love Spacey I think Robin Wright is the star of the show. I can’t wait to see what fate has in store for Frank and Claire in season 4.


    March 30, 2015 at 11:08 am

  51. Click this please . Need help thank you


    March 31, 2015 at 6:46 am

  52. Looks good! I didn’t read on because I just started season three but I agree with what you say ! I also thought the show was going to go on from that scene in season two!


    March 31, 2015 at 8:38 am

  53. expertly explained. i feel the same way, but couldn’t articulate it as well to my friend after we finished the finale. season 3 was so hollow…


    April 1, 2015 at 1:55 am

  54. You made quite good points! I just watched the entire season last weekend and I remember I kept waiting for a “wow” or “no he didn’t” moment. But for the most part it just fell flat. I suppose the first 2 seasons have left my expectations quite high. Anyway thanks for sharing.

    Koumba Orsi

    April 2, 2015 at 9:13 am

  55. It is the same sense of how South is Southern. Truly anti-sophistication and misogynistic with the heavenly trouped women starlets. Here, her under the bus, oh she cuts herself, all of those dead collaterals, and the Mommy/Daddy dearest dyad. Float your boat.


    April 2, 2015 at 5:18 pm

  56. @SeekStillness: The trouble with this season is that Frank isn’t nearly evil enough. We still know almost nothing about him as a character, and when you take his villainy away, you’re left with a narrative void.


    April 2, 2015 at 8:27 pm

  57. @Omkar Barve: The first season is still the most watchable, and I have fond memories of Fincher’s pilot episode. I should probably revisit it one of these days.


    April 2, 2015 at 8:28 pm

  58. @smrzzy: I’ll give it one more chance. Although it sounds like they may be done after the fourth season—which, if it’s the same length as the ones before it, will give them exactly fifty-two episodes, or one for each playing card.


    April 2, 2015 at 8:31 pm

  59. @thedivinepeach: Wright has been a consistent highlight. If nothing else, House of Cards deserves some credit for giving her the major role she’s needed for a long time.


    April 2, 2015 at 8:33 pm

  60. @tomgavin: Yes—you should definitely save this post for later if you’re planning to watch the rest of the season. Hope you’ll check back again once you’ve seen it all for yourself.


    April 2, 2015 at 8:35 pm

  61. @wePhilistines: “Hollow” is a great way of putting it. It’s got the most seductive surface of any television show I’ve ever seen, but there isn’t much on the inside.


    April 2, 2015 at 8:36 pm

  62. @Koumba Orsi: Just one moment like that would have made the entire season a lot more worthwhile.


    April 2, 2015 at 8:37 pm

  63. I would love to reblog. Nice on.


    April 3, 2015 at 10:15 am

  64. Very good point. What made Frank’s performance interesting was his uncompromising character to get what he wants. His fell out of character when he got to attached to his position and became venerable as a result.


    April 4, 2015 at 12:28 am

  65. Hated the last season. Killing off Rachel proved the show had no heart instead a glimmer of morality. I’m done. For me, her murder was the final straw. I can’t watch a show full of people I hate. There is something to be said for character like ability and this show proves it. No one to root for? Why bother watching….


    April 5, 2015 at 9:02 am

  66. I miss Underwood breaking down the 4th wall more than anything. I love his WTF face.


    April 10, 2015 at 4:26 pm

  67. I don’t think I could possibly agree more. The first season was brilliance, but it didn’t seem like they quite knew how to carry it forward from there.


    April 11, 2015 at 10:40 pm

  68. Thank you
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    April 13, 2015 at 5:40 am

  69. I do agree that the season would have been a lot more interesting if Frank was fighting a scandal rather than trying to up his approval ratings. I disagree, however, that Frank was weak. If anything, I think Frank was more manipulative than ever this season. The difference? Whereas in the past, Frank would only manipulate others in the political realm to try to climb the ladder and get his way, this season, with the added responsibility and power, we see that Frank has started to manipulate his wife that he loves dearly, Claire. We’ve never seen this type of manipulation between Frank and Claire before, especially in such a loving a relationship. Their dynamic certainly changed.


    April 16, 2015 at 2:34 pm

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