Monday, February 17, 2014

House of Cards [s2, eps 1, 2, 3]

SPOILER ALERT. The first entry reviews episodes 1 to 3. The next entry reviews 4 to 6; the next entry reviews for 7 to 9; the next covers 10 to 12. The final review is here.

Last season I was amazed at how effectively symbolic and intelligently insightful House of Cards was. Not since Eyes Wide Shut have I seen a piece of entertainment so aggressively indict an entire class of people. In Chapter 3, Clair Underwood is running in the cemetery (near 12:00); and a woman says to her "You shouldn't run here, it's disgraceful. Have you no respect?". I knew then I wanted to write about this show in context of Washington DC behavior. That moment sums up a good portion of the shows' ethos with both ideas and symbols in mind. It's the third most symbolically charged moment across both seasons.

I'm in no rush. You can watch them with me. Although option3 is a policy project, it is affirmatively not blind to the realities of DC and other policymaking environments. I don't think the behavior of characters on HOC is a perfect illustration of all politicians - just some of them. (You definitely need to know the show to enjoy this blog series.)

Furthermore, the cheap parlor tricks that a politician will often fall for don't work as much on business people because unlike politicians business people do not have an innate need for adoration. The show right now is not revealing that picture. Even Kevin Spacey says the President could only wish to be as ruthlessly efficient as Underwood. I have to agree with other reviews who have said that Frank domineering presence is misplaced but then show would be as much fun.

In the above article, Spacey also notes "our story lines aren't that crazy". Agreed.
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[I]f the American people ever find out what we have done, they would chase us down the street and lynch us.
        Bush 41, 1992
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Chapter 14 - 'Every kitten becomes a cat.'

Apparently not. Apparently the moment you come into your own as a reporter - the moment when you really are about understand the type of person you're dealing with - you get shoved into an oncoming train. That's DC rules on HOC. Right as I was thinking I might not write about the show, the soon to be appointed VP of the US, Frank Underwood, killed his own ex-lover-protege-reporter-confidante Zoe Barnes - who was IMO the conscience of last season. It took almost a season to kill Peter Russo and less than 50 minutes to kill her. This season is off to the races. (You even see him snuff a candle light right after he kills Zoe. These show writers mean business in season 2.)

The first frame of this season is Frank and Claire running as they were in the closing scene of last season. I felt like they were definitely running from their sins. That symbolism seemed plainly apparent.

Frank's interest in veteran and Congresswoman Jacqueline "Jackie" Sharp is quite interesting. While he relishes in killing and competing, Sharp seems to not want to dwell on the subject when she admits to having killed civilians in the fulfillment of military duty. My hope / guess for this season is that if and when Frank aims to crucify her politically and she'll be able to respond in ways that Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes couldn't. (It's interesting that he hands intelligence he has on Webb and Buchwalter; although the show does indicate it, you wonder if he did get the intelligence via some unusual access to surveillance feeds. Just something that came to mind.)

The pivotal use of symbols in the episode was the idea that slow bled pork tastes better. I can't help but feel Frank understands that making his prey - which is at some level the American people - suffer is his greatest unconscious joy. In closing, he turns to us as though we were hoping for his acknowledgement and plainly says it: "hunt or be hunted". Then, once he has left, the camera pans down and the cufflinks read FU, which in my mind is what politicians are effectively saying to Americans in this day and age: 'fuck you'.

There is also vivid sub-themes dealing with the objectification of woman and the control and manipulation the reproductive process. In fact it's worse that objectification; it's a sort of property-ization of woman. Rachel Posner, Janine Skorsky, and Gillian Cole are all facing deep coercion and are more or less told we own you and we don't give shit about your opinion. Claire literally threatens to kill Gillian's baby - not until another women tells her to where a condom when she sleeps with someone's else husband. That's just episode one.

Chapter 15 - 'All you can offer me is Ethics, which nobody wants.'
Couldn't have said it better. Those are the words of Howard Webb to Wes Buchwalter regarding the potential compromise. The first thing that stood out for me in this episode was the characters' inability to sit and eat. When Sharpe and Havemeyer first sit together for lunch early in the episode they both get up from the table at least once; Frank and Claire do the same thing at his first public appearance as VP. These people can barely sit still long enough to eat - they are not centered or balanced in any sense of the terms - all chaos, all ego, no peace. (I thought it was telling that later Sharpe takes a bite of Havemeyer's dessert. She surely did drink his milkshare by the end of episode.)

The Secret Service's invasive presence in Frank's home was especially gratifying in that Frank has gained more power only to find that the system now owns him further.

We again see the brutal theme of woman and external control - prompted by General Dalton McGinnis' years back rape of Claire. What is most interesting is her standing policy in the psychological aspect of this experience. If I am not mistaken, she tells Frank that when she relives the memory she strangles the victim "because the alternative is unlivable". I've never been in that situation but I suspect that's not the best perspective. She basically tells Frank to acquiesce to the perpetrator and take the hate that will be there "in the morning" and direct it others - presumably in the larger political competition for power. This is maelstrom of dysfunction.

Dancing on eggshells. Those are the terms the President used with regard to cyber-security and China in the episode. It's quite fitting that that character would use a mixed metaphor, as though the writers wanted to advertise his total weakness as an agent of history in the HOC universe. What's also interesting is that in some sense we do dance around the issue of cyber-security and walk on eggshells when it comes up. It's a pretty serious subject in terms of the real balance-of-power questions we face in century 21. The amount of existing, day-to-day cyber-warfare is amazing. Just a few days ago Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told his people: "Cyber, in my modest opinion, will soon be revealed to be the biggest revolution in warfare, more than gunpowder and the utilization of air power in the last century".

The most critical idea of the episode was Frank's observation that Raymond called the President Garrett, his given name, and not Mr. President. It brings up a lot issues - most of which I ignore for now and deal directly with the true and real nature a President - namely that he is in the end the last iteration of the European monarch, a big subject. In any case, the real people in the real world that are like Raymond Tusk - especially as a semi-unified yet competitive group, whether you call them 'the capitalist elite' or the monied finance / engineering / technical class - assert much more power on society and Presidents than a person like Frank ever will.

What was so interesting about Frank last season was that he was in the political world, having success while almost getting his ass handed to him on ever other episode. IMO the political class serves the economic - not the other way around. I could be wrong or over simplifying. It will be very interesting to see how the Frank and Raymond story unfolds.

Last but not least. We again see the attempt to surveil - use that term loosely here - on the part of Lucas who wants to get into Zoe or Frank phone data. It gets back to the cyber-security question but also the large question of old data in the modern time.

(In the scene where Frank tells Claire to listen to the quiet, I felt the urge to watch the whole season. Thank goodness I have others stuff to do.)

Chapter 16 - 'Es demasiado.'
Too much indeed. Those are the words of Catalina Rodrigues - ex-lover of Havemeyer. Sharpe's newly evolving Underwood-initiated ambitious and political calculus prompted her to throw Havemeyer under the bus; and Rodrigues and her daughter have been pushed into the spotlight in the process.

All this fallout is Sharpe's initiation into real American politics and power, which for the time being is about sacrificing others. She is learning to work around her conscience but she is paying a price. She has incurred a debt of pain. She re-animates, regurgitates, commemorates, and processes that pain through the tattoo outlet. Just as we silo policy issues into new categories periodically, she is siloing the pain of pro-level politics from the emotional into the physical.

The procedural scene involving the arrest of Republican legislatures was one of the most interesting scenes in the whole series. I wonder to what extent it reflects real parliamentary procedure. It has high political theater and quite enjoyable.

The ongoing tech sub-theme became even more rich with the emergence of the deep web specialist. I look forward to seeing how that character unfolds. (If anyone can tell me how Doug Stamper knows that Lucas Goodwin knows the truth about Underwood please tell me.* As I was looking up Doug's name I happened to learn his fate. Interesting.) Lucas for me officially became the conscience of this season. No surprise there.

The most symbolically meaningful scene was with Frank, Claire, and two other legislators drinking wine and talking about Frank's supposed apprehension about seeing blood. Of course the wine is red. I could be accused of over-interpreting but the notion of blood sacrifice - which is not a explicit theme in HOC - seems to come up here and then again when the President speaks of 'the altar of democracy'. It's not quite a mixed metaphor but I think it's a troubling phrase. I could be mistaken but I don't know that we have altars in our political system. If we do, I doubt they are formal. The question is: who or what sacrifice is being offered at this altar?

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* I suspected the deep web character was working for Doug but that wasn't clear until episode 4.

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