When SPOILER Killed SPOILER – Patrick, Kenny and I review House of Cards s2e1 [WARNING – SPOILERS]

Some of you might already be aware of the keen interest Patrick Galey and I have taken in the new Netflix series staring Kevin Spacey, House of Cards.  The launch of the second season has only intensified this, leading to our email exchange (below) and a VOIP chat (above) about it in which our good friend Kenny Laurie also participated.

Patrick

to:

Austin

Date: Fri, Feb 14, 2014 at 10:17 PM

Subject: HOC se2e1

We need to talk.

Austin

Yeah holy shit.

I watched it twice.

Patrick

So there’s no point avoiding the episode’s (and quite possibly the series’) biggest moment. You wrote at the end of season one how you weren’t convinced by the opening scene, where Congressman Frank Underwood kills a dog. Where do you wanna start with him killing Zoe?

Austin

I liked it is the short answer.

I was slightly disappointed because I thought the writers had actually started to address the issues we discussed about their treatment of her character in the previous series, specifically, that she was presented as a sex object, and that her work as a journalist mostly seemed to revolve around trading sexual favours for scoops. This might seem strange as the first scene after the credits is her as she is lying passively, getting fucked from behind by her boyfriend and would-be defender. After this however (and I know there was much more to the that scene than just sex – but let’s leave it for now…) she seems to start to kick into gear. This is marred for me by her breaching journalistic protocol by lying to the manager of the restaurant where Rachel worked, about who she was and what she was doing.

This reminded me of the scene in the first season where she recorded her boss “the Hammer” without telling him. To secretly record conversations with colleagues, even during a dispute, would be something that would be thrown back at her in a way that never happened. Zoe is meant to be at least a little bit smart right?

This is also an issue regarding (and ok ok i’ll cut to the chase) the scene where Frank kills her. It does seem a little stupid of her to go to him without even informing her colleagues, and then over to the only part of the platform where he could conceivably pull it off.

It can be made partially believable if one accepts that Zoe just couldn’t imagine Frank (or whoever might have been behind him in those shadows) doing a thing like it, but hey, I did.

That might have been because you mentioned a non-specific Big Twist to look forward to. Despite this and the other reservations I mentioned above, I think it was a nice way to up the stakes, and the shooting (of the whole episode) was done in a way that created a real sense of suspense for me throughout.

I think my favourite part was the pig kill monologue in the BBQ place… I jumped when he slammed the table.

You?

Patrick

It’s not often you get a genuine mouth-on-the-floor moment from any series – or at least not so soon into a season. Think of all the suspense and anticipation that’d been brewing for months before the mood of ep1 (as you say, that “created a real sense of suspense throughout”) had even been established. We’ve been going over various permutations in our heads and – myself especially – all those permutations involved Frank and Zoe in some capacity.

I was all geared up for a real sort of Woodward and Bernstein investigation all the way to the White House and I was very interested in how Zoe’s proximity to Frank would either accelerate or allay that. That’s all gone now. We have to reevaluate the whole paradigm of the series. But, yes, you’re right, some things remain the same or even more uneven, most notably the treatment of the female press corps.

You wrote about how all the female journalists in HoC were intent on, to quote Janine “fucking their way to the middle”. Now we have the most dynamic female character – the most enterprising, at least – dead, and the veteran hack scared into the outback of Ithaca. It’s left to Lucas to pull the remaining strings, and I just think that’s less plausible. (He’s a bit of a drip that was counselling caution right up until Zoe was murdered). But it’s early days and I think the success of the first episode will rest on how well it can continue the narrative without its second protagonist.

I do totally take the point of journalistic ethics and Zoe’s relative lack, but I think her subsequent subterfuge is perhaps justifiable, if a little desperate. It was a really high stakes game and I think she didn’t realise (as I too did not) how high they really were. Which makes me wonder: If Frank wanted this story to go away, why kill Zoe? Why not the prostitute, who’s all but dispensable at least from the POV of those on the Hill? Kill a journalist in broad daylight, in public, or off a hooker using Doug Stamper’s curious physical strength in the privacy of a Maryland bedsit?

I’ve moaned before how HoC has virtually no dramatic irony. In casting Spacey as the all knowing character, and, through soliloquy, the omniscient narrator, it never really felt like any development was totally unexpected. FU makes it his business to know everything and anticipate every move. That doesn’t always happen (the lost house vote in season 1 being a good example) but it’s always a collection of eventualities that one feels Frank has at least anticipated. The writers did well I think by doing away with Frank’s soliloquies until the end of the episode with the effect being the production of a real “holy fuck” moment.

Image

I too liked the pork death dialogue and, as ever in HoC, what appears at first witty interchanges actually become maxims for character behaviour. “The humane way to do it is to do it quick” is something Frank appears to have taken to heart.

So what now? Frank’s still our main character and narrator. Do we hate him? Should we? Who’s side are we on?

Austin

Before we leave the topic of Zoe’s murder, I guess the reason I like it is that it I’m always excited by a TV show that is prepared to make big changes, and this is surely that.

What’s more, I anticipate another one I think you have missed. “why kill Zoe? Why not the prostitute, who’s all but dispensable at least from the POV of those on the Hill?”

I see a fission coming between Frank and his enforcer. I think NAME is in luuurve with the stripper.

Dun dun Darrr…..

Patrick

Doug? Yeah, he’s used a fair bit of his disposable income on her already and has shown excellent taste in take out cuisine. Frank relies hugely on Doug. He’s SEEN stuff. That’s a wrinkle I look forward to.

In terms of TV shows prepared to make big changes, I can’t help but think of The Wire. Killing D’Angelo early on? He had it coming. The death of String? Same. What really gets me more than any of the others on each rewatch is Omar. You really invest in him and think that he (along with Bubs, you’re hoping) might be the one who gets out of this whole rain of shit intact. Not so. As I tweeted last night, Frank killing Zoe would be like McNulty killing Kima in Se2E1. Perhaps it’s more like Avon killing Kima, given they’re on different sides. But even David Simon didn’t kill off Kima.

I admire the gonads, I just fear (and this will become apparent in episodes 2 and 3) that the narrative will have to delve into the world of the implausible to keep up the external threat to Frank. We’ve talked briefly about the internal threat.

Forgive the repeated question, but what do we think of Frank now? It’s not often you have an objectively bad lead guy. Even Walter White did it for the “right reasons”. But Frank. He’s just Macbeth, right?

Austin

I like the way the character has settled into a solid psychopathy (and yeah – my notes contain the word EVIL in big capital letters like that, though that referred to both frank and Claire- [ok sub wow- just wow- we’ll get back to it]), I think it (along with the excellent timing you mentioned above) helps make the soliloquies more spooky.

I kind of see the darkness of Frank’s character as a metaphor for The Darkness In Washington, and in that regard like that no punches have been pulled.

A lot of people I know really liked the show the Black Mirror, in particular the episode where the prime-minister fucks a pig on live television.

I actually really didn’t because it failed, I thought, to give an adequate portrait of power, which as far as I can tell mostly gets more and more terrifying the closer you get to it.

I do want a serious protagonist to back, actually, and hope the show provides.

I’m still half praying for a Helen Thomas tribute character to show up and kick everyone’s ass, but might feel cheated if it all ends up being such a tidy morality play.

What would be your big hope for the season in the wake of this big black begining?

Patrick

It’s hard to see the series as a playout between pure good and pure evil and I think the writers have been very good in ensuring that any good or bad (morally speaking) move by any character is calibrated entirely by vested interest. The thread I see is what Macbeth calls “vaulting ambition”. Everyone is after aggrandisement and so The Darkness, in Washington, as you put it, is thick, but evenly spread.

That being said, if everyone is kind of a bad guy, that means that we as viewers are more inclined to back characters that do evil for good reason. Jackie Sharp has this down to a tee: she is necessary evil.

I guess I hope to see a rally by the journalists, and I include Janine in this, who I refuse to believe will acquiesce, especially given the lengths the writers went to to show us her professional background. I’d also like to see a return (and this happens a little in eps 2/3) of the lobbyists. Tusk is the obvious one but Remi also. I loved how HoC told it like it is (lobbyists run the place) without putting too fine a point on it in season 1. Remi, remember, offers the sexual frisson with Claire (and I think I dislike Claire more than any other character, save possibly Tusk). I’d be disappointed in the writers if this avenue isn’t explored more – just as I’m still baffled as to why they’d bother including Frank’s homoeroticism in the library without seeing it through. Like Rawls going to the gay bar in The Wire. Never draw your gun unless you intend to use it.

At some point we need to talk about Claire. Where do we place her? Lady Macbeth?

Austin

Actually, Claire opens up interesting possibilities for me.

When she threatens the pregnant former employee’s health insurance, then offers her the company… that might be an expression of what is meant to be the expression of some redeeming quality?

Could frank also be about to save the world or something and it is all pure utilitarianism?

Could that even be pulled off in a way that isn’t cartoonish?

Then again… I didn’t like The Watchmen at first for the same reason (it seemed to endorse an absolute dedication to the principle of the lesser evil, and along the way the idea it’s ok to lie and kill if you Decide it is Right)  but it has stayed with me…

I hope the writers surprise me.

Patrick

The scene that seals it for me is when the news of Zoe’s death is read out on TV and Claire just nonchalantly continues to comb her hair. She knows. Frank knows she knows.

I can’t see any redeeming quality for Claire, I’m afraid. “I am prepared to see your baby wither and die” is the language of a character who is either mean or acting mean and neither really appeal. At the same time, she’s one of the few empowered female characters. At least she has agency. It’s her power (over Francis, over Remi, over Gillian) and it will be fascinating to see what she uses it for.

[this has been cross posted over on Patrick’s blog]

About Austin G. Mackell

I am a freelance journalist who has worked for a variety of corporate and community outlets from my hometown of Sydney and from the Middle East, including from Lebanon during Israels 2006 invasion and from Iran during the tumultuous presidential elections there in 2009. I have recently moved to Cairo to watch the revolutions in Arab world unfold.
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