(This article contains heavy spoilers for all seasons of House of Cards.)
Let me get this out of the way: I like House of Cards. It’s a fun show. I’ve seen every episode I look forward to Season 4. But it’s dumb as hell. It wants to be taken seriously, to be spoken of in the same breadth as The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad but it’s more sizzle than steak compared to those shows. It’s a rung below Sex and the City. At times, the logic of the series is on par with pro-wrestling and soap operas.
And that’s fine! Those are two valid forms of entertainment, and we should all be so lucky to find any joy in our fleeting and miserable time on earth. But those things don’t get Emmy considerations.
Here’s what’s wrong with House of Cards:
No One Has Any Motivation Other Than Power
House of Cards is basically a story about a power-hungry politician, his power-hungry wife, and their encounter with power-hungry journalists, congress members and staff. Zoey Barnes gives up her journalistic integrity to move up in the journalism world. Jackie Sharp turns on her mentor because someone promised her more power. Raymond Tusk is obscenely rich, but also, he would like some power as well.
You might say, “That’s politics! That’s what the series is about, how all of DC is just a power hungry orgy.” Which sounds like low-hanging, dumb fruit to me. It treats good writing like good sports: instead of having real motives derived from personal experience that cause friction among everyone else’s interest, everyone’s sole purpose is to beat the other person. Jackie Sharp doesn’t strive for power because of her traumatic experience in the military compels her to make real changes that would prevent other soldiers from facing her troubles; she just strives for power. Imagine if such one dimensional motivation were applied to truly great shows like Breaking Bad: Walt would would never struggle with his ever expanding line of morality, he’d never justify the means, he’d never weigh the danger of his ambitions. He would just do things simply because he could.
A good political drama should be a vehicle to talk about things: constitutional rights, war & defense, social welfare, economic mobility, and a million other things that matter. The West Wing did this extremely very well. In House of Cards, these topics are just containers for the juicy soap opera drama. The sexual assault episodes, for example, aren’t about the scarring it leaves victims or how we, as the public, handle them. It’s just a salacious secret to hang over Claire Underwood’s web of interpersonal drama. The episodes about the education bill aren’t about the disrepair of our school system and the difficulty of carving out resources to a public good, it’s about showing off Frank’s wheeling and dealing. It’s not really _about_ anything. It’s just about drama, in the most high school sense of the word.
The Stakes Are Made Up Out Of Thin Air
In Season 3, there’s a central conflict with a Vladimir Putin stand-in. This should be high stakes drama; the fate of nations hangs in the balance! It’s a good old fashioned cold war feud! How will Frank Underwood get the military support he wants in the Middle East without compromising American assets?
It turns out he’ll just compromise American assets. It’s fine, nothing happens, it turns out it’s no biggie in the first place. President Underwood fights tooth & nail to protect his interests, but eventually succumbs to the demands of the Russian PM by agreeing to withdraw anti-aircraft missiles from important locations. These missiles are only important because we are told that they’re important; but once they’re sold out, they don’t matter. The President gives them up after a screw up, rendering the last couple of episodes pointless, and there’s no consequences to withdrawing. It doesn’t have any effect on the story or the characters or the world they inhabit. It’s just a means to an end to get some relationship drama.
This is a technique that is used throughout the show frequently. Say something is important, use it as a reason for two characters to argue, and then have one of them win and just forget about why it matters. We see this when Claire threatens to let Gillian Cole’s baby die in the womb, to protect CWI, her clean water non-profit. This leads us to believe that CWI is important, and a driving motivator for Claire. These are stakes — until they decide not to be anymore. She gives the non-profit up immediately, to that same woman she threatened, to team up on Frank’s campaign. Even though she sabotaged one of Frank’s bills to preserve CWI. CWI hasn’t been heard from since, because it was purely a tool to drive a wedge between Claire & Frank, and once that was done they wrapped it up as soon as possible and threw it aside like so much disposable garbage.
Characterization is Fluid and Random
Frank Underwood is a golden tongued speaker. That’s his whole superpower. He basically talks a guy into killing himself. Yet in Season 1, there’s a pivotal scene where he goes on a talk show and completely flubs his interview. It becomes a meme. He’s embarrassed and his political goals are setback.
Why does this happen? Because it gives a reason for things to be hard. There’s no logic to why he suddenly turns into a doofus on camera, but at least it created an obstacle that can fuel an episode or two. It happens repeatedly. President Garrett Walker, once he catches onto Frank’s manipulation, clamps down and declares him an enemy. He’s his nemesis until … Frank uses reverse psychology in a typed up letter. That’s his cunning master plan: the same psychological tactic you used on your little brother when you wanted them to eat their peas, so you pretended peas were delicious. That’s what nabs Frank the American Presidency. That, and the empty non-characterization of President Walker.
Tom Yates is an award-winning novelist that Frank knows about because he also wrote a video game review for a fucking mobile game. That makes sense. Anyway, he hires him to write a novel about a jobs program, because if a novel comes out people will like the program. That also makes sense.
So Why Is It Good Anyway?
And yet despite all this, the show has convinced millions of us to think it’s good and interesting. They deserve a world of credit for polishing up a turd that most of us accept is as a diamond. Despite the writing being rotten at its core, everything around that core is gorgeous. The show is overflowing with style, from the dark blue hues in outdoor scenes to the slick cinematography to the graphics they use to display text messages. Everyone has a great haircut. It is a joy to look at, like a distracting, jangling a set of keys.
It also helps that Kevin Spacey immerse himself in the role is endlessly entertaining. You can just watch that guy monologue for an hour and even if everything he says doesn’t make sense, if he can infuse some arrogance and wit into it, you’ll get through that hour easily. No one else can command the screen like him, but they’re no slouches. Reg Cathey’s aged voice, Robin Wright’s cold confidence and Michael Kelly’s frightening lack of emotion are all reasons to watch. House of Cards may be more sizzle than steak, but it’s an enormous amount of sizzle, a rapturous stereo hiss that cannot be ignored.