Iconaissance: a sweeping saga…

Forget McConaissance, it’s bigger than one man. Think Iconaissance. A growing movement of big screen performing arts master craftsman, sweeping across our small screens, recruiting new generations of fans and breathing life back into fans of performances past. The list of silver screen lions switching to a more domesticated environment is impressive, growing, and making us purr with contentment. Here’s an example of those you’ve probably already had in your lounge room or soon will:

1. Kevin Spacey (House of Cards)

2. Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson (True Detective)

3. Kevin Costner (Hatfields & McCoys)

4. Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom)


The Newsroom

5. Kevin Bacon (The Following)

6. James Spader (Blacklist)



7. Martin Freeman/Billy Bob Thornton (Fargo)

8. John Malcovich (Crossbones)

9. Paul Giamatti (Downtown Abbey)

10. Claire Danes (Homeland)

11. Kiefer Sutherland (24)

But what’s behind the recent resurgence of some of our acting greats? Is it the ravenous viewer appetite for quality content and the emergence of new platforms? Maybe these ageing greats just need cash injections to supplement their retirement? Have these old dogs learned new tricks by embracing social media for self-promotion? The only thing I haven’t seen Kevin Spacey on is America’s Most Wanted. Spacey’s Oscar selfie alone won him marketing immortality and Matthew McConaughey is out-Starbucking Starbucks! Or could it be they have simply sat dormant in the cool shadows maturing like fine red wine waiting for a connoisseur like HBO or Netflix to throw an original content party and pop their cork? It might be a combination of some or all of the above. Perhaps we need to look to the past to find the answer.

The most prominent examples of this Iconaissance, Spacey and McConaughey, both flourished and thrived in the period known as the decade of drama: the nineties. Along with other seemingly lost stars, or those whose pace seemed to slow to a meander such as Edward Norton or Sean Penn, these gifted actors were all part of another movement; that of the American Indie Film. They rode the wave of the New World Order created by the likes of Soderbergh and Linklater, the Coen Brothers and Tarantino. The reinvigorated Sundance Film Festival provided the spotlight that brought the Indie out of the shadows. Check any “Top Ten”, or twenty five or one hundred film list and you’ll find most of the names I’ve mentioned so far, some are recurring favourites. In fact Spacey features most prominently and was voted actor of the decade by Empire. “And like that, poof. He’s gone.”

With the new millennium these icons of the industry disappeared from our theatres and subsequent collective conscious. The usual reasons for their Casper the Ghost impersonations spring to mind: Oscar curse, burn-out, tall poppy syndrome, fickle fans distracted by something shinier; the old “I             needed to find myself” routine, catastrophic extinction event…

My opinion: technological advances enabling the blockbuster epidemic, pushed drama to the brink of extinction. Big budget movies laden with special effects and lacking in meaningful dialogue flooded the market. In 1993 Jurassic Park pioneered the use of Computer Generated Images (CGI) in film which would lead to the Pixar phenomenon that started in 1995 with Toy Story. In 1998 Saving Private Ryan made all kinds of headlines for its 27 minute, $12 million opening sequence. But these movies still had soul, the audience was invited to have an intensely personal relationship with their characters, there was depth in their narrative.

What was the price of this technological filmmaking revolution? Storytelling in cinema has become the exclusive domain of the indie film maker with the major studios channelling greenbacks into aesthetics. Classically trained actors, artists, writers, professionals and master craftsman met a metaphorical end at the hands of a creativity sapping, cerebral cortex crushing, pulse film apocalypse. Movies are about muscles not monologues, sequels, not substance. The advent of digital imagery, novelty of 3D and the attempt by comic book nerds to take over the world; mean aesthetically appealing “bling” flicks attract the inbetweener demographic. This is the group that’s too old for Disney but too young to understand the nuances of a Quentin Tarantino masterpiece.  Buy-in from the inbetweeners and tapping into the inner Peter Pan of older demographics translated to Box Office (BO) cash and return sales on future instalments, enter the franchise. The addition of the lucrative merchandising revenue stream alone keeps the Benjamins trickling in long after the DVD is released. Hollywood has become a production line, critical acclaim and storytelling mean less to a major studio than its opening weekend projections. Yes franchises have always been around, and yes they have their place in the market, but we’ve reached saturation levels that only an aquatic animal can survive.

Network Television wasn’t fairing much better, chasing the advertising dollar like a tipped-off paparazzi, bombarding primetime with suburban garbage I could get Gladys Kravitz style in my own street. Whilst I can’t prove it I’m convinced reality TV, as it was coined, was responsible for Benjamin Buttoning the IQ of most of the First World Nations populous. The only small screen shining lights for drama of the noughties were the hard hitting The Sopranos and The Wire. The latter setting a Metacritic record in its fourth season with a 98% rating that would not be broken until seven years later by the fifth season of Breaking Bad with a 99% Metacritic rating. It should be noted both hailed from the HBO Original Programming lineup.


The Sopranos

A seed was sewn, and while we didn’t know it then, the Golden Age of Television was dawning. Many of the current crop of original programming hits claim to have looked to these noughties juggernauts as the Godfathers of episodic drama. When The Sopranos and The Wire finished in 2007 and 2008 respectively we were just getting our first taste of Breaking Bad. NCIS was starting to hits its stride and would become the number one scripted drama in America, a title it continues to hold despite being a Dramedy and not a traditional Drama. The downside being it has never really received any critical acclaim much to the chargrin of its regular 15 million plus viewership . DVD Box sets were also now starting to show up on household Christmas wish lists, another sign of things to come.

There are some from the era however who persevered. Tom Hanks is probably the standout, George Clooney and Matt Damon, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are perennials; many of these though choosing to take up behind-the-camera roles. Others who seemed to simply vanish include Tim Robbins, Kevin Kline, Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes. Even Anthony Hopkins went dark. De Niro went from terrifying character to terrifying character to playing side-kick to up-start comedians. So, like any animal facing the destruction of their natural habitat, they evolve, move on; or die.

Now it appears they have followed the writing and the storytelling. Those who survived the destruction of their habitat are now gorging themselves on the rich, fertile plains, of television. It’s a landscape that has also undergone reformation due to tectonic plate shifting, the birth of the digital distribution, and the decay of appointment viewing. We’re in an era which has spawned a whole new generation of hungry content consumers, and a habit known as binging, taking content consumption and instant gratification to new levels. Spacey had this to say about the attraction of the small screen:  “The people who want to make character-driven dramas are all working in television now.” And there is plenty of great television right now, with and without A-list stars, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Dexter; Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards, True Detective; you could go on for hours. The mobility of storytelling on multiple devices, cheaper access (Netflix subscription per month is cheaper than the cinema admission price), the complexity of the arcs and character development that true creatives crave and thirst for, the removal of the pilot model and appointment viewing by digital distributors; has all combined and conspired to lure in our most talented dramatic actors.

Once known as the “Idiot Box” the TV, and every other device that can access data, is now a playground for the industry’s creatives; and a feast for the viewer who has little interest in what a Kardashian is doing at any given moment. Just like in Jurassic Park, “Life found a way. Our greats survived, they evolved, they found a way.

Welcome back everyone, we’ve missed you.

NOW: In The Wings On A World Stage

NOW: In The Wings On A World Stage


“Now is the winter of our discontent…”

Yes, yes it is. After waiting for what felt like an eternity, my copy of NOW: In The Wings On A World Stage was finally made available for download from kevinspacey.com on 2 May. But selection of the 1080p download version, meant eternity was about to get a little bit longer, the irony of the unexpected cold snap that set in just a few hours earlier was not lost on me either.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been tormented, teased and titillated by my colleagues in the northern hemisphere as, one by one, they attended the various live screenings and Q&A sessions used to launch Kevin Spacey’s (House Of Cards) documentary film about a theatre company’s 10 month world tour. A tour that would span three continents and twelve cities for a grand total of 200 performances of Shakespeare’s Richard III. So what’s it like to be part of such a mammoth production? This film is going to tell me. The social media machine has been churning out promotional material and reviews in equal proportions, and some savvy marketing by Spacey himself has ensured his self distributed venture has received plenty of coverage, and kept his reputation for being “disruptive” in tact. The flagship launch was the Tribeca Film Festival no less, very savvy indeed.

As my download nears completion, I make myself a therapeutic hot drink, don my favourite hoodie, and assume the position in front of my 52” television for full effect. It’s my turn, winter is over, or at least locked outside and I can now see for myself what my friends have been swooning about and I’ve been restlessly waiting for. My expectations are high, a sudden wave of anxiety washes over me, what if it doesn’t live up to the hype? But this is a Kevin Spacey film, he IS performance art and never disappoints, so I remind myself I’m not launching ground-to-air missiles; and press the play button!

“The sense of anticipation, it’s like feeling the heart beat of the world.”

The film opens on a group of limestone steps and slowly pans out to reveal the spectacular Epidaurus Theatre in Greece, the most famous theatre in the world. With a seating capacity of between 13 and 15 thousand and acoustics that scientists have marvelled over for decades, I get a feel for the scale of the play and the ambitiousness of the company’s tour. This isn’t just any play and this isn’t just any company, this is Richard III and this is The Bridge Project Company, led by a man as driven as the protagonist he plays. There’s a stunning time lapse sequence which tracks the setting sun over the amphitheatre and a montage of preparations for the Epidaurus performance with narration by Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall). This is the first time Mendes and Spacey have collaborated since 1999 with Academy Award winning American Beauty, which was Mendes feature film directorial debut, like Spacey; Mendes was a student of theatre before the call of the celluloid. I find myself wondering why they haven’t teamed up more often a la DiCaprio and Scorsese, I hold onto hope that Mendes will bring Spacey in as the penulitimate baddie for Bond 25, but I digress…

The scene is set, you can almost see the energy of the audience cascading down the steps, funnelled to the waiting stage. For the company members who had never left home shores before now, the anticipation must have been palpable. So with the blessing of the Gods, their journey was about to begin and the world really was to be their stage. I exhale, the last of my anxiety subsides. Fade to black.


NOW: Epidaurus Greece

”Doesn’t matter where you’re from, doesn’t matter how you sound, you can make Shakespeare come alive.”

With the prologue out of the way we move into NOW proper. First up we discover the origins of the company, meet the cast, and work our way through 6 weeks of rehearsal at The Old Vic in London. The Bridge Project Company, was a trans-atlantic venture, bringing together British and American actors to perform classical work, in this case; Shakespeare’s Richard III. With the Bards work thought to be the exclusive domain of the British, this was to be an experiment of sorts to see if artistic passion and a modern reinterpretation, could transcend a geographic divide and beguile a global generation of millennial pulse film fiends.

The company’s membership is eclectic, there’s a cacophony of regionalism amongst the 20 strong cast. The ages, experience and backgrounds, are as varied as one of Forrest Gump’s boxes of chocolate. Many, like Andrew Long and Gemma Jones, are performing arts veterans; while for others this will be their first major foray into “blockbuster theatre” as it was coined by Bruce Gutherie, the production’s Associate Director. Some are old Shakespearean hands, while many including Spacey himself, have had limited exposure to bringing the pre-eminent dramatists extant works to life. Over the course of the film, many will recount their personal journey, their connection to theatre; why they do it, their desires and their struggles. For now, they spend 6 weeks getting to know each other, as individuals and as a company, exploring the text and developing their characters, “falling over and getting back up again”.

The rehearsal period is fascinatingly insightful. Mendes reveals an introverted side I wasn’t expecting by disclosing a fear of addressing large groups, while Spacey discusses the psychology of a character with a deformity, what he surmises informs his portrayal of Richard III. The production is physically and mentally challenging long before the first lines are ever uttered to an audience, be it Spacey coming to terms with a deformed gait he will have to carry through 200 performances and then some, or a young actress trying to find the right level of sexual tension and voice pitch to make herself believe in her character so that others will as well. You see, it’s not just about remembering lines, it’s about understanding what the character is saying and the context in which it is being said. Rehearsal allows the actors to build and create, unlike a movie, the actor owns the stage and the character when the curtain raises; nobody gets to call “cut!”. This is theatre, it is immediate, and it is NOW.

“Any theatre company is a form of created society which you hope becomes a single unified organism…”

After six weeks of sell out performances at The Old Vic Theatre in London, it’s time to get the show on the road. The film takes us from the lap of the Gods at Epidaurus, to Istanbul and Naples, San Francisco, Beijing, Sydney and Doha; the curtain finally falls in Brooklyn, New York . Friendships develop, the travel bug bites and the logistics of the production come to light.

As the company makes its way around the world we’re treated to its wonders, the beauty, the mystery; it’s a veritable cultural feast and “spiritual catharsis” for some members. There are a few indulgences but there’s a reason for it, there always is with Spacey. I equate seeing him in anything other than a measured, self aware state, like finding a unicorn in a paddock of four leaf clovers. Jeremy Bobb, one of the American contingent who plays Catesby, manages to put the experience into an every-day-man perspective. At one point I think he even out f*bombs Spacey, which is likely to have been more of a challenge than the doing the play, given Spacey’s penchant for profanity. It’s Bobb’s quips and observations that give the rough edge to this romanticised gem.

But there are glimpses of the not so glamorous for anyone who cares to pay attention. There are cramped dressing rooms where the unappetising aluminium hot-box meal containers can be seen to litter the scant space, frenetic backstage mechanics, the physicality of the play itself; and the mental and physical drain resulting from sleepless nights in a hotel undergoing renovation. When you’re performing for three hours a day, weeks and months at a time; throw in more than just a few long haul flights and the homesickness that almost always sets in regardless of what wonderful place you’re in, this was not a tour to be scoffed at. But it’s all part of the experience that is taking a large scale theatrical production on an international tour.

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NOW: Sets on the move

”I wanted us to share more than just the stage.”

With four sets on the move around the globe at any given time and timeframes tighter than Spacey’s hunch-back bodysuit, the logistics for the production would have been worthy of their own film. The amount of effort in moving, constructing then deconstructing and again moving the world of Richard III, looked exhausting without ever being privy to all the mechanics involved. There’s only so much you can cram into a ninety minute film but the thought of lugging those sets down long, narrow, corridors in Naples was enough for my back to start going out in sympathy. With a new backstage crew in each city to be trained and rehearsed, managing behind-the-scenes must have been as gruelling as everything happening on stage.

It’s not just the crew that changes at every port, we learn that the audiences engage differently as well, whether it’s through intense concentration or animated participation. All however enjoy being co-conspirators through the device of direct address, Spacey’s charisma is intoxicating and he has the ability to develop an immediate rapport with the audience, despite playing a murderous dictator.

I have to make special mention of the musical score here as well because it was perfect. It was a well paced accompaniment to the narrative and matched the tone of each destination so that I felt I was getting the full cultural experience as the company would have been.


”It’s been filled with what a year of life would be filled with.”

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NOW: Doha

There are so many insights, hilarity, “corpsing” and precious little moments in this film that can’t and shouldn’t be revealed here.  The film, like the play, like theatre; needs to be discovered by the individual watching. I personally feel like I’ve just had a deeply religious experience. If I’d seen this sort of film when I was staring down the barrel of my tertiary education and agonising over having a “real job”, or following my creative dreams into perpetual “unemployment”, according to a wise and gainfully employed elder statesman of my family; I’d have chosen the latter without question. The production itself was an amazing achievement for The Bridge Project Company. This film, is a credit to Spacey’s determination to ensure that theatre, not only survives; but thrives. He has provided us with an opportunity to go behind the curtain and understand why theatre means so much to performers known affectionately as “theatre rats”. *Applause*

House of Cards: Chapter 17 Review

“Think of Remy as the guy who shows up with a six pack after the liquor store’s closed”

Time is of the essence as we open chapter 17. There is still much work to be done to push the retirement bill through the house and Frank accepts an olive branch from Tusk with the same reaction a toddler has to their first taste of citrus fruit. Tusk has sent in Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) to provide incentive for votes and is teamed up with Jackie, who must be sucking on the same lemon as Frank because she has a similar reaction to her new whipping shadow, really Jackie? I mean, I can see how being followed around all day by a cashed up, classy, Adonis could be a problem for most hot blooded women; NOT! There is definitely something wrong with the new Whip #justsayin I am enjoying the competitive undercurrent between Frank and Remy, as we know from the first season Remy was in the employ of Frank but “chose money over power”, a decision Frank has never grasped. But Frank, despite the interference and embuggerances of Remy to his ambitions during the Watershed Bill, has not yet put Remy to the sword. Is it because Frank genuinely needs the leverage Remy provides in the private sector or because he’s hoping his protege will return to the fold? A kind of “the son I never had” thing maybe? After all, eight years is a long time to hold Frank’s attention and live to tell the tale, there’s investment in Remy on Frank’s part but to what end? So while Jackie and Remy are out corralling votes, with Jackie doing so in a manner that demonstrates she’s her own Whip and not a Frank clone, or worse; his puppet, Frank steels himself to take on the now very bitter (the citrus sucking look is a recurring theme in this chapter) Donald Blythe (Reed Birney). If you recall, Donald was our Education Bill martyr and now wears the legacy of the debacle around his neck like the scarlet letter. Meanwhile Claire is at home with Connor preparing for the joint interview that is to take place later that day. As they walk through the line of questioning, which will inevitably include the “why no children or did you eat them?” queries, Claire enters her walk-in Wardrobe to select an outfit. It has the colour palette of and E L James best seller (don’t pretend you don’t know the books I’m referring to…). I’m beginning to think Claire might bleed charcoal. Elsewhere, Lucas is enduring Hackers Boot Camp with Gavin and Cashew.

“I don’t hold grudges Frank, I just don’t negotiate with people who are fundamentally deceptive.”

You know Frank’s in for a tough day at the office when Donald is obstinate from the moment he walks through the door and makes even the attempt to get him a drink difficult. He finally settles on a Seltzer as he has an aversion to caffeine, I wonder how he’s lasted in politics so long, I’m not worth speaking to until I’ve had my first heart-starter for the day. As Frank goes to work on wooing Donald in Jackie’s office, Frank’s old office, a White House Aide is about to open a letter that will set off a chain of events even Frank couldn’t have foreseen. The letter contained white powder, the Aide, looking like she’s had a minor coronary; is covered in the substance. Nancy goes into “like a boss” mode and initiates lock-down procedures. With less than an hour until the vote, Frank and Donald are trapped. Frank makes contact with Claire to provide reassurance that the scare will come to nothing but confides the vote looks shaky “If we’re lucky it’ll be anthrax and I won’t live long enough to see the bill fail”, way to instil confidence Frank. In scenes reminiscent of Outbreak, the HAZMAT crews flood the offices and are working to identify the substance. It’s during their time of confinement that we learn Donald’s wife Marjorie has Alzheimer’s, you can almost hear the weapons system recalibrating as Frank acquires a new target “I should have thought of this before, appeal to the heart, not the brain.” Frank probes Donald about Marjorie’s illness and how awful it must be for Donald, there’s some flattery as well, but it falls on deaf ears. Donald won’t budge. Things go from bad to worse when inconclusive test results mean the quarantine is to continue for another four hours at least, prolonging Frank and Donald’s captivity. The silver lining to this Addams Family cloud? The vote has been delayed.

“Good things happen to good people.”

With all communications in and out of the White House being jammed for security reasons, Frank is able to use his powers, for good instead of evil, to facilitate contact with their respective wives. On Frank’s say so, Claire will go ahead with the interview solo, while Donald is able to speak with Marjorie who slips into non compos mentis mode; the strain on Donald is visible. A supportive hand on the shoulder and a stiff drink breaks the tension between Frank and Donald. Frank discloses that he wouldn’t know what to do without Claire, or if she couldn’t remember him, it’s likely the most sincere thing Frank will say throughout the whole ordeal. The truce is short lived however when Donald reacts to what he perceives is Frank’s attempt to use his wife’s condition as leverage for his vote. That’s the end of that and Frank concedes defeat to the audience. Back at the house, Connor is putting the final polish on Claire’s prefabricated response to the question of children, she’s a veteran, that much is obvious. Across town Lucas prepares to debunk from Hacker Boot Camp to cover the white house lock down but is slapped, literally, into submission by Gavin. Ouch! Gavin doesn’t like the pattern that is forming with Lucas’ movements in and out of his lair and needs to ensure if they get caught Lucas goes down too. Lights, camera, action! Claire Underwood, one on one with Ashley; Frank and Donald in less than companionable silence take up viewing positions in their cage. The interview starts out with some glimpses into Claire’s childhood including a “hearts and minds” story about her Daddy taking her to where Kennedy was shot. I’m not even a citizen and I want to vote for Frank! The questioning moves to Claire’s affluent upbringing and how her family money financed Frank’s ambition. Claire dances with the finesse of a member of the national ballet.

“Some people think that your marriage may be a bit more calculated than you let on?”

Thanks Captain Obvious, Ashley clearly hasn’t watched the last sixteen chapters. But the question of connection beyond political benefit has been posed, Claire launches into a grand jete “our partnership extends far beyond that” and, nails the landing. We cut to Frank looking on with distinct pride and affection at his other half, we can see their relationship extends beyond anything mere mortals could ever understand. Wright is positively luminous in these scenes and absolutely owns this chapter. Frank and Kevin respectively, take a back seat. However, after rolling out the “party line” on the question of children, Claire baulks at a report that she was pregnant during Frank’s second congressional campaign. I heard the collective squeaks, creaks and groans of millions of couches as we all leaned forward in anticipation of the response. What comes next must have put more than a few of us on the floor, all now wondering what this will mean for Frank’s career as we dust ourselves off and climb back into our seats, poor Connor looks like a cod fish. Claire admits to a pregnancy and an abortion, career suicide as I understand it in American politics. Cut to Frank and it’s Donald’s turn to ply him with alcohol. By the look on Frank’s face though, whilst he doesn’t seem to have had any advance warning of this reveal by Claire, he doesn’t look like someone who’s concerned with setting any records for being the shortest serving Vice President either. He’s calm, ponderous, “what’s she up to?”. Connor on the other hand has gone into damage control during the break requested by Claire. To add to the PR nightmare she tells Connor there were actually three abortions, running through the circumstances of each as though she’s ticking off all the places she normally leaves her car keys, in a bid to work out where they are now. Connor calls for a full retreat but Claire disregards his counsel and goes back for more, I’m with Frank; what on earth is she up to? I quickly sort back through my long term memory and locate Claire’s nightmare about “the children”, Frank comforts her at the time as she’s genuinely distraught. One moment Claire is stalked in her dreams by the loss of children then as we’ve already seen previously in season 2, has about as much regard for them as something she’s almost stepped in but narrowly avoided. Claire’s complexity is turning into a Rubik’s Cube torment.

“Francis pinned stars on him.”

In a contrived moment of tactical brilliance, Claire re-rails Frank’s career, de-rails another, redeems herself; and sets up her next cause. Claire fingers General Dalton McGinnis, on national prime time television, as a sexual predator responsible for assaulting her; the unwanted pregnancy being the result. Frank did say that only Claire could “stop the bleeding” when it came to the McGinnis wound, did he know then that she was a combat medic in a previous life? Consider that wound sutured! Queue the end of the lock-down saga and Frank, like a father late to his daughters recital, can’t get out quick enough. There’s an exchange between Frank and Donald as they’re liberated from their confines, Donald tells Frank he has a brave wife, to which Frank replies that he does to; he will get Donald his research funding regardless of how he votes. I want to believe that through a shared love for the women in their lives, who have suffered such grievances, that Frank meant what he said to Donald and he will come up with the funds. The alternative is that Donald is right and Frank really is that fundamentally deceptive. As he barrels his way out, Frank bumps into Jackie and concedes defeat in the battle for Donald’s votes, without a hint of bitterness or implied retribution. Jackie however, isn’t going to let Donald off the hook so easily though; Donald’s big picture stance gets a lot bigger when Jackie confronts him. I bet Donald was wishing he was still in the cage with Frank now. Frank arrives home on the tail end of Claire’s interview, instead of joining her he admires her from the shadows as she basks in the sunshine of her glorious victory over McGinnis. Stick a fork in him, McGinnis is done! We move from the Underwood’s briefly back to Gavin, who in a cliched moment meets his new handler, Stamper’s buddy; on a dark and rainy night in an empty car park. Gavin is a snitch for the FBI, the price of his freedom for past crimes, a price he is starting to think too costly. As far as chapter endings go, this is one of my favourites. We return to the window of casa Underwood for a victory cigarette, the impostor promptly replaced when Claire declares she would prefer the real thing. Frank had at some point secreted one under a lamp, conniving to the last detail “I’m always prepared.” Silhouetted by a moonlit sky, the two share their precious contraband and Claire asks Frank to sing her something. My heart skips a beat, I know that Kevin is an accomplished singer but its been a while since he’s done any crooning. He breaks into a rendition of the Stanley Brothers’ murder ballad “Pretty Polly”, the hair on my neck stands up. Whether it’s because I know that the song is about a man who kills his wife because of her past, or because I’m in swoon mode; I still can’t decide. The southern bayou vibe, moonlight and murder, it’s a poetic end to the chapter and we fade out to the sound of twanging strings entwined with the orchestral standard. Magic!

House of Cards: Chapter 16 review

“There are two types of Vice President, door mats and Matadors. Which do you think I intend to be?”

Well I don’t think it’s going to take a degree in political science to work this one out! This is the question Frank poses to us as chapter 16 opens. President Walker is fretting over the State of the Union (SOU) address and the VP is bored out of his mind, his well endowed doodle of a bull evidence of his contemptuous inattention. Tusk on the other hand is paying close attention and is none to pleased with the domestic focus of the draft address, Tusk needs international affairs to be front and centre, with the podium draped in the Republic of China flag just so there’s no confusion. As we now know China has the precursor Tusk’s nuclear plants require to keep glowing, and like Monty Burns he’s nothing without his radioactive industry. The domestic nature of the address plays into Frank’s hands, (surprise surprise) as an ongoing beef between the democrats and the republicans over raising the retirement age becomes the poison chalice threatening to sink the SOU address; and leave the Government dead in the water. Who doesn’t love a good Government shutdown? Apparently not Frank, Tusk or the President, but this will turn out to be the only thing they all agree on for some time. Now, we know how much Frank dislikes sludge clogging up the pipes so it’s time to get his hands dirty, again; by accepting the inevitable and acceding to the republicans who are in favour of raising the age of retirement. Hey presto! Avoid a shutdown, spice up the SOU address and get China back on the agenda for tiresome Tusk. Three of a kind baby! Then there’s the rub, the President will have to backflip on his retirement age stance, he’s firmly against it. Frank’s about to break this to the President when Tusk decides that he might be better placed to play devils advocate on this one, and with all the sincerity of a used car salesman, Frank agrees and stops just short of rolling out red carpet for the Presidents “trusted confidant”. Frank now has three days to bring in the herd and push the amendment through the Senate, no pressure… Something has caught my eye in this scene, apart from the President looking a little frazzled all of a sudden, it was Christina’s elevated profile. The President appears to have become quite reliant on Christina, but is it for more than just coming up with a good tagline? While Walker doesn’t have that ‘any intern will do’ feel about him there’s definitely a connection of sorts that he doesn’t have with Linda “tougher than a two dollar steak” Vasquez.

“I can’t have this conspiracy stuff going mainstream.”

With only three days to strong arm the retirement age amendment through the Senate, Frank gets to work on the Republicans, he dangles leadership support; staving off the freeze and bipartisanship in front of a reluctant Hector who also has the Tea Party to contend with “you’re the Senate Majority Leader, you don’t have to sell, you can dictate.” Lucas pops back up like a crazed stalker accosting Christina on Pennsylvania Avenue. He tugs at the Russo heart string to get Christina to sing like a canary on Frank. Fail. Christina’s not having any of it, she’s put Russo behind her, traded up for the President and doesn’t mind dropping Lucas in it with the VP if he doesn’t make like a thousand startled gazelles and get the flock away from her. It’s just getting a little embarrassing now Lucas, Frank’s murder count is clocking higher numbers than your fan club, and people actually like you. A routine threat assessment brief to Linda by the FBI and the Secret Service, involved the usual apparatus measuring between agencies, but with a lack of credible threats the all clear was given; the President and VP are SNAFU, that is Situation Nefarious All Frank Underwood (work with me on this one, I think it will stick). Stamper’s old buddy the FBI Executive Liaison was holding out however, he has already passed information on to Stamper, found by one of his agents, that there is some deep-web VP activity (sounds like nerd porn doesn’t it?) that isn’t looking good for Frank. In the best interests of the VP, this VP “digging” turns into a potential VP “threat” and the threat must be contained. It will need to be off the books of course and Stamper morphs into a Frank mini-me regurgitating the “I’ve got White House influence now” pitch to close the deal with his FBI buddy. Frank would be so proud. Meanwhile, poor Rachel has gone from working Johns to working phones in an equally unsatisfying job at a call centre pedalling firearms education and legislation awareness (yawn). Visual: she finally drops her bundle and goes postal, irony? I’ll check in with Alanis and get back to you… What Rachel does do is call her mother, which is interesting because she told Stamper she couldn’t go home in season 1. We know from Zoe’s snooping that daddy dearest may have been the problem, so her reluctance to have anything to do with home could be because Mum and Dad are still together. Whatever her reasons for distancing herself from her family, they’re now being overridden by her natural instinct to seek the support of her mother, a sure sign that life is starting to overwhelm her. I do hope she doesn’t capitulate, there’s fight in Rachel, a drive I don’t think she’s recognised yet.

“Francis faints at the sight of his own blood, he won’t even let them break the skin.”

Now we meet Connor Ellis (Sam Page), a delightful piece of soft, mouth watering eye candy, amongst some bland hard boiled jaw breakers. Connor is vying for the role of the Underwood’s Media Advisor, spin doctor, or professional redecorator as I like to refer to them. Claire is quite taken with Connor’s initiative “When I want a job, I do my homework” and gives him a little assignment of her own before he can be permitted membership to team Underwood. As Claire sees Connor out, and I do a neck muscle trying to follow him beyond the edge of my TV screen, the President with entourage in tow; barrel their way through the corridor. Who do you think Claire and I both spot looking more like a limpet than a staff member attached to Walker? Christina. I know what you’re thinking Claire, I’m hungry too… oh, and what is going on between those two? We know flirting when we see it don’t we ladies? Speaking of flirting, Frank, with the added aesthetic appeal of Claire; turns his attention to persuading the democrats that unity can be achieved with the republicans on the retirement age bill. This is done over a few glasses of wine, a seemingly innocuous activity that Frank and Claire still manage to make look downright sinister, I don’t think Judas would have been the problem if these two had been at the Last Supper. While Frank and Claire are busy dining on the souls of democrats, Lucas is tethered to his laptop and I suspect, begrudgingly to his melancholic existence as well. Even the sudden explosion of porn on the screen proves nothing more than an irritation until Zoe’s face pops up, mocking him from the grave. Low and behold it’s the hacker he contacted previously, cruelly tormenting him then enticing him with the promise of information. Progress at last! In a scene that could have been in any number of Bond, Bourne or Mission Impossible movies, Lucas is directed to a diner where an iPad is delivered to him; it would have been less obvious if he’d had ‘rookie operative’ tattooed to his forehead, he’s no Ethan Hunt! It all starts to get a bit techno-geek from here and there’s a freaky talking avatar, some fingerprint scanning, and “this iPad will self destruct” stuff going on but in a nutshell Lucas has to help the hacker get into the Washington Post system. Lucas does this under the nose of the most oblivious IT support guru in the known universe and, mission accomplished, he sends the data to the hacker and waits for further instructions; the instructions turn out to be a meet. Tusk lets Frank know the President has agreed to green light the retirement age amendment and the SOU address is being worked on accordingly, although Tusk is apprehensive about including details until Frank can lock down the agreement between the democrats and the republicans; who are now bickering over the implementation timeframe. Time is running short for Frank and he still has to mitigate Tea Party filibustering of the final bill through the house, so the last thing he needed was to hear from Stamper that Lucas is now another ball that requires juggling. Ever the diligent servant, Stamper takes the lead on this loose end but one gets the feeling Frank wishes the Washington Post would go up in flames.

“The higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”

Lucas comes full circle back to Janine who still isn’t playing ball. Lucas it’s time to suck it up and get it over with, I’d rather give myself paper cuts then keep watching you search for validation and get shut down every time. No such procrastination from our smiling assassin Frank, he’s back to playing moderator between the democrats and the republicans only this time he gets his hand-shake deal and it’s smiles all round, no threats of violence or career destruction required; how disappointing. My disappointment soon turns to intrigue as Rachel pops up again. Rachel makes a friend on the bus who’s giving off a ‘Woodstock’ vibe, I can see her singing folk music and eating lentil burgers already, but she is affable and Rachel seems quickly at ease with the stranger; if a little drained from her day job. Our flower power girl gives Rachel a flyer for her church group and invites her to come and check it out. Stamper is going to flip if he finds out Rachel is making friends because I have a feeling this isn’t the last we’re going to see of our free love stranger. Jackie makes a brief appearance, long enough for her callous elimination of Congressman Havemeyer to come back to haunt her, momentarily mind you and she completely denies any involvement and moves on. On to getting some wicked ink in the form of poppies and barbed wire, Frank and Claire aren’t the only masochists on Pennsylvania Ave. I’m beginning to think there’s more to Jackie than just ambition, something even Frank isn’t aware of, I can’t quite put my finger on it; she’s had a traumatic military career so I haven’t ruled out PTSD. Whatever it is, Frank will sniff it out. Back at the White House Claire and Frank seem to be settling in and we now start to see them interact in new environs during the daylight hours, like normal mortals, it’s something of a novelty really. They are enjoying a salubrious lunch together in Frank’s office when Claire asks if Frank has noticed anything about the President and Christina, in typical male fashion he hasn’t, but on recalling the SOU meeting he joins a few dots of his own and like a pair of gossiping teenagers they toy with the possibility of a torrid affair. Hold that thought, Stamper’s here to ruin lunch, the Tea Party faction of the republicans has spooked Mendoza and the retirement amendment deal is off. Damn! That salad looked so good, I’ve been binging for nearly 3 hours by now and my stomach is rumbling, time for a fridge dive; I can’t watch what happens next on an empty stomach. I fear the next few scenes will make the opening 20 minutes of Saving private Ryan look like a Looney Tunes cartoon.

“I need to prove what the Vice President is capable of.”

Frank tells the President of the reneged deal, which went down about as well as you would expect when you’re swallowing razor blades, this will impact the SOU address and the relationship between the two men “Don’t embarrass the Administration Frank, you’re part of it now.” Once again Tusk has been duplicitous and given the President a different version of the conversation that transpired between himself and Frank. I can’t see Frank being quite so humane when it comes time to do what is necessary for Tusk, can you? Frank is now at DEFCON F.U. and when Mendoza refuses to back down the war machine is put into active duty, the Senate is about to become a battle ground. The camera work here is a standout again, following the action down the stairs and along the corridor, capturing the posse as they talk tactics on the fly and thunder along like Abrams tanks. Frank acts quickly to “stack” people and shift votes, favours are being dropped like propaganda flyers from a C130; and there’s so much leveraging even my TV looks like it has a slight lean on it. Assembly is about to start and a quorum is required for Frank to push his amendment through now that he has the numbers. In a move rarely seen, and presumably to maintain control and expedite the process, Frank takes his seat as the President of the Senate; this is going to be political Opera! As the roll is called the republicans work out what Frank is up to and bail like rats from a sinking ship. But Frank and the war machine anticipated the move and enact their contingency plan, the Sergeant at Arms is called upon to compel attendance. I’ve leant forward on my couch again, scanning the Senate floor for stashed weapons and land mines, Frank’s probably got the duress button under the desk wired to nerve gas! When news breaks of the unfolding drama “The Vice president is replacing democracy with tyranny and the Senate has been transformed into a Police State”  Claire is with the eye candy, I mean Connor, discussing the benefits of a joint interview for the Underwood’s. Connor, having already viewed a 1980’s joint interview, explains that the physical gesture of Claire running her fingers through Frank’s hair was an intimate moment; one that will draw votes, and if replicated will give them time to fly under the media radar. Cut to the search for the absent members of Congress and it’s like watching a well orchestrated prohibition raid! Hector’s worried and heads in to the democrat bunker where Frank is as calmly as you like sipping, of all things, tea. Frank’s got enough numbers to push the amendment through in whatever form he likes, but he’s only interested in the original hand-shake form and will settle for six of Hectors M.I.A to reach a quorum. Hector strikes his deal with the devil. The six republicans are hauled into the Senate to the sound of the fat lady singing, the roll is called, quorum is reached. The Tea Party ring leader moves to filibuster and threaten the bill in the House but is thwarted when Frank reveals the deal with Mendoza “read the fine print Curtis, it’s much more important than the selling price”, you see passage of the amendment constitutes passage of the bill; two birds, one bullet. Frank, you’ve outdone yourself this time.

It’s ok Raymond, Jesus forgives you.”

Our lentil burger friend is back, her name is Lisa (Kate Lyn Sheil) and the lure of good music, cookies and cake proves too much for Rachel; she’s off to church. Good for you Rachel! Frank calls Tusk out on his two faced politics with the President, telling him he’ll receive divine forgiveness, omitting any forgiveness of his own. Tusk does not look at all comfortable after their phone conversation is ended abruptly by Frank. What did you expect Tusk? Flowers and a box of chocolates? Lucas decides to go deeper into the deep-web and heads to the meet arranged by the mysterious hacker. On arrival Lucas is greeted by a late twenties or early thirties, well dressed, red wine sipping, hacker in a fancy looking apartment. Not at all what I expected, I thought we were going to see a pimply faced 16 year old with coke bottle glasses working out of his mothers basement. Lucas is interrogated one last time just to make sure he’s not law enforcement, gets a quick lesson in National Security and is introduced to Cashew. Ok, here is the oversized rat I spoke about in my opening review, this compensates for the lack of pimples, coke bottle glasses and basement; and is probably weirder. As we close the chapter, Lucas, Gavin (Jimmi Simpson) and Cashew; are watching the Presidents SOU address on the multitude of screens that feature in the apartment (I wonder if this set is modelled on NSA?). The President, flanked by the Vice President and House of Rep’s Speaker Bob Birch, is spruking retirement entitlements and a strong America. Frank, looking very pleased with himself, has secured the retirement bill for now along with Bob’s support; the pipes are clear of sludge and…

“I used to be on the edge of the frame, now I’m only three feet away.”

House Of Cards: Chapter 15 review

“One heart beat away from the Presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”

We open House Of Cards chapter 15 with renovations of casa Underwood in full swing and news outlets headlining Frank’s “uninspiring appointment as Vice President, while he preens himself for the quiet swearing in ceremony; which will take place amongst the chaos of buzz saws and hammering. Preening complete, Frank makes his way downstairs stopping just long enough to have his privacy bubble burst when he sees the security cameras being installed, he won’t be pushing anyone down those stairs anytime soon. Stamper is subtly interrogating Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffery) about Christina’s fairing as the Presidents new help, in a not so subtle attempt to keep her occupied in the wake of inquiries into Russo’s death, and you just know there will be the obligatory strings attached. In the aftermath of chapter 14 we see Lucas drowning in grief over his “Twitter twat” girlfriend. He is abandoned by Janine whose fight or flight instincts have kicked in and she can’t flap her arms quick enough to migrate anywhere Frank isn’t. In lieu of Janine, Lucas is left carrying the truth crusade torch and eventually wins the sympathy of his law enforcement source; who lets him view the train station security camera footage of the incident. As Lucas watches Zoe’s last moment of horrifying human existence, followed by her bug into the grill of a Mack truck end; he’s gutted. You can almost see his soul shrivelling up in front of you. It’s a brilliant, pure and tortured performance by Sebastian Arcelus; who even gets the gentle rock on that people in shock sometimes do. I didn’t feel for any of the characters this season as much as I did for Lucas in that moment. Despite the footage supporting the Police finding of accidental death, Lucas, far from convinced; enlists the help of former Washington Post boss Tom “The Hammer” Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), whose most memorable moment of season 1 was informing Zoe that she was a repository for the male reproductive organ. Classy. Tom, looking a little worse for wear since being cast out of the paper, and with a six pack of beer (the preverbal all-purpose thirst quencher & problem solver), visits Lucas at work. For the second time Lucas doesn’t get the support he craves for his conspiracy theory. Back at Pennsylvania Avenue, the battle between the Whip candidates heats up and tensions grow between Frank and Tusk; the sparring becomes more vigorous. In one of the lighter moments so far there’s a particularly humorous awkward moment of expectant silence between Frank, Tusk and the Secretary of State that had me chuckling to myself; we’ve all been there. They exchange jabs down the telephone line over back-channeling the Chinese, with Frank playing the President off against his long time billionaire, bird watching (yawn) confidant; although I prefer him for a puppeteer. Meanwhile Frank is pulling a Geppetto of his own on Secretary of State, Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson), in his subterfuge of Tusk and the President over the Cyber-espionage sub-plot with the Chinese, while Jackie is busy setting her own table for a course of congressman hide; medium rare.

“Cathy, if you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.”

There’s a new thread woven into the fabric of Claire Underwood in this chapter that reveals as much about Frank as it does about Claire’s past. Claire is to accompany Frank on his first public engagement as Veep, dishing out stars to newly commissioned Marine Officers. As Claire’s assistant reads out the recipient list Claire becomes almost disorientated when one name comes up. The name is General Dalton McGinnis and he’s to be promoted to Commander U.S. Strategic Core. Claire discloses to her assistant that they went to college together and quickly moves on with the business of the day, which also happens to be the first time we hear Conner Ellis’ name; he’s on a short list of candidates to become Claire’s spin-doctor; more on him later. I thought the McGinnis thing would lead to a story arc of ‘the one that got away’, the first love, blah blah blah and cause friction between the Underwood’s. I would be wrong (Strike 1). All seems to be going well at Frank’s inaugural outing until Cmdr McGinnis, all chest and ribbons to match, avails himself at the Underwood’s table. McGinnis rejects Claire’s outstretched hand and instead lunges in with a kiss which does not go unnoticed by Frank. (I clear my throat. Awkward…) None the less Frank’s attention to the overly familiar greeting is fleeting once their five minute Harvard relationship is divulged, and Frank returns to his very informative breakdown of the three major crop yields in his home state. A short moment later Claire takes her leave looking rattled. Frank doesn’t miss a beat and he also excuses himself. In typical Frank fashion he has little regard for social etiquette, sends the Secret Service agent packing; and joins Claire in the ladies room. Claire, visibly distressed, tells Frank “it was him”, “Freshman year.” Frank seems to know exactly what ‘event’ Claire is referring to (my mind is running scenarios and narrows it down to one) but he’s apparently been blissfully unaware of who the perpetrator was all these years. The ‘who’, has just been identified as McGinnis. It’s a revelation that unhinges Frank, enraged he sets out for McGinnis; nice knowing you McGinnis, you’re probably about to wish you died as quickly as Zoe Barnes. Claire reigns Frank in before he passes the point of no return, working frantically to placate him and stop him from disembowelling McGinnis, consequently derailing their push to the top in the process. It’s a genuine moment and the first time we see spontaneous, reckless anger from Frank where there has been no real lead in; he’s been blind-sided before but he’s in the passenger seat this time, watching Claire take the full impact. There’s little doubt that had Frank escaped the ladies room it was going to be a blood bath. A persistent knocking on the door by the Secret Service Agent is a fortuitous distraction and Frank has to redirect his agitation. Spacey does well here, both in believability and managing overlapping dialogue between Wright and the soon to be redeployed Agent at the door. The crafty camera work lends some weight to Spacey’s aggressive posture and he cuts a formidable looking figure, one capable of punching you in the face for a change instead of stabbing you in the back. Claire is finally able to bring Frank to heel but not before he attempts to satiate himself by inflicting grievous bodily harm on a lamp. As you can imagine during the star ceremony Frank radiated residual heat towards McGinnis with a fixated, unblinking stare that would have caused most of us to spontaneously combust. Those stars may as well have been daggers Frank was driving down through the Commander’s clavicles.

When the Underwood’s arrive home later in the evening Frank takes a gentle tone with Claire, one we’ve only heard a few times previously. He does have the emotional capacity to actually care about this woman in isolation from the empire. Again I berate myself for being drawn in by this show of compassion. When he is shut out by Claire who retires to bed, Frank mopes around the townhouse, practically dragging his knuckles from the demoralised slouch he’s adopted; restless and lacking in purpose for the first time since chapter 1. He finds no solace in the online virtual butchery of his Playstation due to the connections not being secure, and is left equally unsatisfied with his proxy vice; a vapour cigarette. I wonder how long his “addiction without the consequences” will last. Defeated, Frank finally goes upstairs. Still awake, Claire recollects details of the rape (Hah! I knew it!) to Frank, who just listens. Claire’s confrontation with her past goes someway towards explaining her icy demeanour, even in this raw state she might as well be standing behind bullet proof glass; insulated. The weight of the reveal is too much for Frank, when he informs Claire he won’t be able to sleep, he is sedately banished back downstairs, You’ll still feel the hate in the morning, you’ll use that, but not on him.” I’m struck by the range of emotions Claire can elicit from Frank, like the tides affected by the moon, Claire can push and pull Frank at will. Is Claire Frank’s achilles heel? The gap in the armour? In the absence of any intimate moments, it’s difficult to get a handle on the touch-point between these two, it goes far beyond the biology of symbiosis, but how far; and to what end? These two intrigue me.

“I strangle her Francis, so she doesn’t strangle me. I have to. We have to. The alternative is unliveable.

Lucas commences his extracurricular deep-net exploration in light of the Chinese Cyber-espionage controversy, seeing an opportunity to contract a hacker in order to get hold of Frank’s cell phone logs. Lucas, I feel for you buddy but you don’t mess with National Security, this is destined to end in tears. Frank’s reshaping of the President like a lump of plasticine has paid off with a show of strength against China, a backflip that sends Tusk into a tailspin. Jackie, doing her best Frank impersonation, is trying to divide and conquer the other two Whip candidates of Webb and Buchwalter in the interest of self promotion. Her only bargaining chip is the very man responsible for her career and long time friend, Congressman Ted Havemeyer; so Jackie seeks Frank’s counsel to find an alternative. When Frank is not forthcoming with one, Jackie’s desire to move up wins out, and she deftly drops the axe on Ted. Jackie exposes an old affair and the subsequent, hidden, offspring; a daughter with cerebral palsy. “I hate myself, but I’ll get over it.” Damn! I need my sweater from chapter 14, that’s below zero. Can you imagine Jackie and Claire teaming up together? What was that movie about the two lions that hunted and ate humans for fun? The Ghost and the Darkness, that’s it! That would be them. Jackie must have left her conscience behind in Frank’s office, occupational hazard I think, he probably keeps them in a draw and feeds them to a snake or something. Be careful what you create Frank. At the close of the chapter the Underwood’s are home and for the first time since the renovations, the townhouse is eerily quiet…

“We have our fortress now.”

House Of Cards: Season 2 + Chapter 14 spoilers!


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.”


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.

Happy hunting!

“This is the part where you leave.”