Leader of the free world issues Executive Order: “No spoilers, please.”
That’s no token endorsement and one that Netflix can leverage off for seasons to come. Praise from the lips of the President of the United States of America to the ears of the global executive level and then some.
Now, since I don’t serve at the pleasure of the President, I feel zero compunction to comply with the directive. Sorry about that Chief. I have however inserted a chapter 14 spoiler alert further into the piece, for anyone reading who doesn’t want their viewing pleasure diluted. You’re reasonably sheltered first up though so HERE.WE.GO!
It’s Valentines Day and I’ve battened down the hatches, double checked the contents of my ration pack and notified my next of kin that I’ll be off-line for the next 13 hours. I wait for Netflix to hit the enter key. As I do, I find myself salivating, and I hadn’t even clumsily removed the lid off my first refreshing cider. There’s a nervous excitement as I wait for an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. At 6pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST), I join millions of fans the world over to watch the juggernaut that is House of Cards, plough its way down the data cable and into my living room with such force; I could swear I felt the rush of air pass over my face and turn otherwise calm athena vertical blinds into a fury of fabric. It’s good to see you again Congressman Underwood…
The sophomore instalment follows the chapter sequencing of the previous season, with the opener being number 14, and every chapter has something to offer. Something that causes you to have a moment of rapid air intake (I had several imagined heart attacks attacks), or sit there slack-jawed, ignorant to the chilled alcoholic beverage you’re holding that soon goes warm from inattention. Something that makes you jump from the edge of the couch where you were precariously perched waiting for the next manoeuvre, fist pumping the air, hurling slanderous abuse at the victim; and exulting praise for the victor. Only to shamefully berate yourself as you’re reminded of the murderous histrionics of your champion. That’s right, I was rooting for Francis. Full credit to the creators, particularly showrunner Beau Willimon, for providing us with this story, these characters; whose apparent lack of morals have you constantly questioning your own. I was persistently seeking out, even willing redeeming qualities into the characters, in a bid to prevent my own unconscionable corruption. What’s more disturbing is that I did it out loud, alone, on Valentines Day. I was talking to a fictional character. But wasn’t that the point? To participate, bear witness, play accomplice…? I did it all, and I loved every moment, no longer the bystander content to rubber-neck at the scene of a crime. You’re on the other side of the police tape now, moving amongst the carnage, immersed (I suddenly look at my fingernails for epithelial evidence). The fascination, the devastation, the triumph. Frank’s battle became my cause, his victory my elation, his crime my guilt.
At its core ‘Cards’ is about power and relationships. The rotunda halls simply serve as the funnel to ensure every tear shed, every bead of sweat exuded, and every last drop of blood rung out from its characters made its way to me; pooling around my feet. Season 2 delves deeper into the dark recesses of the Underwood’s, as individuals, and as an empire. An empire built on top of the carcasses of friend and foe alike, although I imagine their Facebook friends list would be a short read. The push to the top of the food chain even has its own hashtag #OneNationUnderwood, which would make a great slogan for a campaign, or even the Underwood pairing itself. In fact, the depths we descended to this season were almost terrifying and I feared I would never see daylight again. With so much more still to explore, and explain, between these two characters; I’m considering leaving bread crumbs and a Dolphin torch out for myself in season 3.
Frank and Tusk continue face off in a government versus private sector battle for supremecy. I could have been forgiven for thinking I was watching Nadal v Federer all over again as they traded aces, backhands, and blistering forehands at about the same rate. The loser of this Grand Slam however doesn’t get to take home a polished piece of consolation silverware, and the court is strewn with the broken bodies of ball boys. Pawns. Casualties of war. There’s no such thing as “trickle-down diplomacy” this season, only the remnants of a scorched earth policy.
“There is no sacred ground for the conquered.”
In the true sense of one-upmanship the writers have raised the bar with their character additions (and assassinations), brutality towards animals, and sexual exploration worthy of film noir categorisation. Among those reprising their roles from season 1 are Frank’s rubber band and the rowing machine. Both get more screen time than Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and warrant listing in the credits. The rubber band is a clever manifestation of Frank’s stretching and bending the rules, and people, to their breaking point; sometimes beyond. Whilst the archaic exercise machine in the Underwood’s dungeon, I mean basement, looks more like a medieval instrument of torture and doesn’t look out of place at all. I can see it getting top-billing in season 3 and I pity the prisoner. One of the more curious new additions looks like a rat on steroids wearing an oversized Cruella De Vil-esque fur coat. After some quick googling I discovered it was a Guinea Pig a.k.a Cashew. Turns out Cashew is a thief and steals the scene from her human co stars, in one of several powerful moments where those considered lower on the food chain, fall prey to the biped predators. I know what you’re thinking, powerful and Guinea Pig in the same discussion, must be Binge Fatigue. But it’s not possible with the pace of the narrative which moves along at an increased tempo from last season, if not at times frenetic, punctuated by moments that take you a full chapter to recover from.
Chapter 14 establishes the tone early. The musical score has has had a little tweaking, I meant tweaking, which compliments the heavier and more static atmosphere this time around. Even the new lighting reflected the moodiness and almost otherworldly air around the characters. Darkness has enveloped Washington, with the main protagonists using it to veil their nefarious deeds.
The performances have gone up a notch too. I’m tipping Robin Wright (Claire Underwood) to go back to back Golden Globes and round out the quinella with the Emmy, she really flips the switch in season 2! I thought Kevin Spacey (Frank Underwood) was unlucky in the 2013 awards season, but I’m hoping his luck changes in 2014 now that Bryan Cranston’s meth lab is closed for business. Part of Spacey’s longevity in the industry is his drive to be a dynamic actor, create multidimensional characters, grow; and walk where others fear to tread. He’s not as risk averse as many actors who might deliberately err on the side of sentimentality for the sake of self preservation. He doesn’t judge a character, he presents you with one, and forces you to make the call yourself. Anyone who has already viewed the whole season, or any of his other work, will recognise this to be true and know exactly what I’m referring to. But the best part? Spacey and Wright are electric together! Their off-screen friendship, which is obvious in joint interviews, translates to the camera. They go together like guns and bullets, one doesn’t work without the other, and the result of that fully functioning firearm? Well, it’s a weapon of mass consumption. There was one particular chapter I had to re-watch the following day (my addictive personality didn’t stop at one though) just to make sure I hadn’t fallen asleep mid-binge. I wasn’t dreaming! [insert slack-jaw look here. Again] “Holy Frank Underwood!!” Their relationship really is an empire to rival the Romans, in ALL aspects.
So who else chose to spend Valentines with the diabolic but effective #OneNationUnderwood, shooshing their other half instead of fawning over them? Whilst digital distributor Netflix is cagey about viewership stats, and isn’t subject to the Nielsen ratings system, external sources have estimated over 13 million subscribers watched Chapter 14 within the first eight hours of its release. Add to that the cable network and DVR numbers and it’s likely to be an impressive theoretical tally. To put that into some perspective, the AMC series Breaking Bad had an average of 1.2 million viewers in its debut season. By the second last episode of season 5 they had 6.6 and the finale drew 10.3. CBS Network’s flagship series NCIS, now in its 11th season, is still the most consistently popular of the scripted dramas averaging over 19 million viewers per episode since season 7. At one point spiking with 24 million. Its debut season pulled in just over 12 million. If 13 million is even close to the mark for HoC, and having already seen the entire second season, then I think Netflix decision to commission a third just made sense; and a growing fan base very happy.
The other thing Netflix is conscious of is spoilers. The team created a #spolierfoiler for Twitter fans which removed HoC hashtags from their feeds until they were ready to gather around the Twitterverse water cooler (Netflix has your back Mr President). The only problem of course with binging and a social media black-out? You miss the collective “WTF?”, real-time commentary. With a few scenes where you could have deposited a basket of cobras in my living room and I wouldn’t have flinched, not being able to engage my fellow constituents has been excruciating, hence my #CanTheBan Twitter campaign. It didn’t trend, go figure…
“I hate being kept in the dark. Waiting. Speculating. Useless.”
Chapter 14 SPOILER ALERT! Chapter 14 SPOILER ALERT!
In chapter 14 we pick up right were we left off with the Underwood’s still on their masochistic celebratory jog. Frank is still on the cusp of confirmation as Vice President. The journalistic trio of Zoe, Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) and Janine (Constance Zimmer) are still on the trail, connecting dots as they go. Dots that Frank proports not to exist. As we know, Rachel is the piece of the puzzle they desperately need to find. Enter Stamper (Michael Kelly). He manhandles a very resistant, very large knife wielding Rachel into moving from one miserable existence to another; just out of reach of the reporting crusaders. The previous season intimated that Stamper had an interest in Rachel which extended beyond the need to simply to protect himself, and the soon to be Vice President, from implication in Russo’s death. This is explored further this season with dramatic results. In a role I liken to Richard III’s Duke of Buckingham, Stamper has his demons to wrestle, loyalty to uphold; and lines in the sand. All threaten to consume him. The first of the new characters, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) is introduced as Frank’s, well thought out (surprise surprise) replacement.
All the while Tusk is there nipping at Frank’s heals trying to cash in his Vice Presidency support chip. An economic issue with china, masked by a cyber-espionage sub plot, becomes the treacherous terrain Frank and Tusk (Gerald McRaney) will do battle on. Frank’s hunger for Freddy’s ribs has increased this season and it’s while devouring his unusual breakfast fare that Freddy (Reg E. Cathey) regales Frank with a story about how his delicious new recipe’s main ingredient is prepared. Frank is engrossed, morbidly fascinated even, “Bam! Shovel to the base of the head. No screaming.” Frank startles like a frightened child hearing thunder for the first time. But there’s a strange recognition in his eyes, like he’s just stumbled across the nuclear launch codes, and is already planning how to put this newly acquired information to good use. Claire confronts Gillian Cole with the charm of a rattlesnake, “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required”; said dripping with venom. With that, the law suit, and curiously her perceived interest in becoming pregnant herself; are promptly removed from the equation and she prepares to follow Frank to Pennsylvania Avenue. It seems Claire not only has the killer instinct of a cold blooded fish but the the maternal one as well. It’s easy to see why Frank loves her more than sharks love blood.
“Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?”
In the first season, watching Frank catch & kill was like watching an adolescent killer whale play with a baby seal, before finally exerting enough pressure with its jaws to end the game when it tired of it; or was genuinely hungry. It’s rude to play with your food Frank… But he’s honed his skills and graduated since then. In a far more shocking opener than the now infamous ‘dog strangling’ chapter, and perhaps inspired by Freddy’s meal time story, Frank lures Zoe out. It’s time to put his baby seal out of its misery. #GoZoe indeed, right under a D.C. train! Bam!! [Insert a rapid intake of air I was talking about here]. You know when you can see the end coming from a mile away but it still manages to reach you with sound barrier breaking speed and take you by merciless surprise… With my heart still palpitating, I was fully expecting Frank to say her hashtag “Go Zoe” as he skulked away from the scene, just to reinforce his scorn for useless things. What struck me though was the violence and urgency of it. Was it just an impulse reaction to how much she knew? For me there was still a feel of premeditation, hedging his bets dependant upon how much she revealed knew, I suspect her show of contrition over Russo didn’t help her cause either. Whatever Frank’s intentions, her expeditious demise was in stark contrast to the sad, painless; but obviously opportunistic manner with which Frank dispatched Congressman Russo last season. Evidence of his indifference, if not contempt, toward Zoe is confirmed for us in his post-mortem address later in the chapter.
“Those were my choices and I can live with them.”
Frank (looking more like a super sleuth than someone with two counts of felony murder under his belt) returns home to Claire, who has arranged a small cake with a single candle on it, much to Frank’s obvious chagrin; but he resigns himself to obliging her. We now take another step down into the profundity of their union. It’s the silence that threatens to burst my ear drums. Another element the writers have mastered this season with some of the most affecting scenes void of any dialogue. The tacit exchanges between these two are potent. Frank unceremoniously extinguishes the single candle, a metaphor for the snuffed out life of Zoe perhaps. The muteness continues, their eyes re-engage, wraithlike they melt into black. The whole scene makes me feel like I’ve stumbled into the inner sanctum of a cult that has just sacrificed a virgin. A chill runs down my spine. The temperature drops further when Claire is only briefly distracted by the morning news headlining Zoe’s death. She pays it almost no attention and, looking more like she’s making a mental shopping list, she casually saunters away to apply blush. At this point I’m considering rummaging through my wardrobe for my favourite New York Giants sweater, to insulate me from the frost creeping out of the 52” screen, that’s only 5 feet away (excessive? Meh). The camera work further into this scene was masterful. As Claire finishes applying makeup we get an over-the-shoulder shot that stalks in on Claire. From this vantage point we see only Claire’s reflection framed by the edges of the mirror which has a slight upward angle. It’s positively regal, statuesque, impenetrable; and the camera is there to pledge fealty. When Frank declares to his new Secret Service Detail that they will be remaining in their townhouse after the confirmation, instead of taking up occupancy of the Vice Presidential residence, I was not at all surprised. The townhouse is familiar, their castle, a fortress and the centre of their kingdom.
“He’s got power, he’s got influence, and he’s got a lot to lose.”
Also of note in chapter 14 is Frank’s softening towards his newly promoted Secret Service Agent, Edward Meechum. It is evident that Frank’s tolerance for Meechum has increased when he accepts a birthday gift from his younger guardian. What’s so odd about that you ask? Frank despises celebrating his birthday and has Nancy distribute all cards and gifts accordingly: anything valuable goes to the conference room, anything cheap goes to the interns and all cards out with the trash. Even Stamper’s birthday jest is met with a threatened cuff around the ear. With Frank another year older, and soon-to-be Vice President, Claire decides to abolish the ritualistic lung torpedo by the window. Frank is deflated and I’m forlorn over the loss of this shared guilty pleasure (like they didn’t have enough), with the slender porthole having served as facilitator, therapist, and military advisor since Frank was duped out the Secretary of State position. Back to Meechum, who despite a warning from Stamper, bestows a set of cuff links on his boss which Frank promptly and proudly parades for Claire at home; although the audience does not get to see this prized gift up close. As I watched what I assumed was nothing more than Francis connecting with his inner child, a strange thought crossed my mind and I drifted back momentarily to the chapter 8 scenes played out in the old library of Frank’s military college, the Sentinel. Then there was something Zoe said to Frank last season as well, “What do you think about when I’m up against then wall?”. We know of course that Frank had a relationship with one of The Rifleman but was it just one of those ‘experimental’ phases we hear about? I mean, he’s married Claire since then and bedded Zoe, who appeared to have a particularly satisfying Fathers Day with Frank. But what of his tolerance of Claire’s side dish Adam? Could we be looking at a royal hybrid of Alexander the Great and Richard III? Vision: Meechum with a studded collar sitting obediently beside Frank being petted [insert second rapid intake of air]. Could I begrudge him though? Meechum’s a good looking rooster, patriotic and loyal; he packs heat for a living, and he’s prepared to use it. I’m giving this way too much thought! snap back to present. The chapter is drawing to a close and Frank, still standing in front of the powder room mirror, delivers his first address of the season. “Did you think I’d forgotten you?” I was beginning to wonder… In fine sanctimonious form he proceeds to tell me not to mourn Zoe Barnes, “All kittens grow up to be cats.” Once again, the end has justified the means. There’s a less humorous tone to this soliliquoy than usual though and Spacey’s steely eyed delivery is utterly mesmerising. After his positively barbarous welcoming message, Frank exits the powder room, the camera pans down to the cufflinks on the bench top and the design is now revealed. A single letter adorns each; F and U. The impact is immediate. I burst into uncontrollable laughter laced with pride at the inference. Just like that the hunt is on and I’m sweating chapter 15.
“There is but one rule. Hunt, or be hunted.”
For my fellow Aussie fans who don’t have Netflix firstly, my condolences. Secondly, get it! It’s quick, easy, dirt cheap; and you’re not breaking any Laws according to our own Attorney General. Netflix also has the exclusive Directors Audio Commentary for season 1 that, for whatever reason, didn’t make the Blu-ray release as was originally expected. It’s one of the most informative commentaries I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a few. If you have Foxtel you can catch HoC on the Showcase Channel Saturdays at 7.30pm (AEST). I’m from Brizzy so it’s 8.30pm for the Daylight savings states, which is most of you. Be sure to check your guides and set the IQ to series link so you don’t have to worry about missing it. If you don’t have Foxtel, it sucks to be you. I’ll be posting chapter reviews and of course you can wait for the DVD release, although it will be an agonising wait.
Season 1 is available on Blu-ray and DVD at most retail outlets including Sanity and JB HI-FI, even Woolworths has it! For the online shoppers try EZYDVD or Fishpond. I note EZYDVD has a ‘notify me’ function for the yet to be released season 2 AND 3!! Respect. Before I forget, you can also get the original BBC series on which the U.S version is based. It’s a great show in its own right but don’t look for hard and fast alignment between the two. Director/Producer David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven and The Social Network) and writer Beau Willimon, have fully optioned this model into a quarter mile crusher. Everything else is pedestrian by comparison.
“This is the part where you leave.”