Thank you Netflix.
Thank you for saying “No. I’m sorry, but I will not do that.” to being just another streaming service. Thank you for stepping outside of the comfort zone and taking a gamble. And most importantly, thank you for changing the way we think about and consume media, forever.
Their first original series, Lilyhammer was very funny and very original, and gave me great hope at the possibility of Netflix breaking TV out of its suffocated and dumbed down box. The show was not interested in safely recycling tired plot lines or fully explaining how Steve Van Zandt’s character was able to grasp Norwegian so quickly. It did not even dwell on the ‘mob’ element but only used it as a catalyst. What it was interested in portraying was a fish-out-of-water American mobster trying to turn over a new leaf who struggles with immersing himself in the new culture and reverting to his old way of doing things. He wants to change, but like every relatable character, doesn’t fully know how. Now Steve van Zandt is not the best actor out there (it was basically a continuation of his Silvio shtick), but I found this quirky comedy to have a surprising amount of heart and was engaged by the culture contrast.
When David Fincher was approached by MRC with a new series idea, he was very interested in taking his film expertise and applying it to the small screen because,
“If you’re working in the movie business, you’re thinking in terms of you have this two-hour form that requires a kind of ballistic narrative that doesn’t always allow for characterizations to be that complex, or that deep, or that layered, or that you can reveal slowly and be as faceted. And I felt for the past ten years that the best writing that was happening for actors was happening in television. [Source]“
I could not agree more Mr. Fincher, and we are all glad that you feel that way. Netflix was able to outbid ($100 million!) the other networks (HBO, Showtime, AMC) and then request that all the episodes be released on the same day: Netflix style.
They know the market; they know you stay at home on Saturday and bang out the latest season of Breaking Bad in one sitting. They literally have the viewer analytics that say it. Kevin Spacey as well recognized the power of this new model and the rest fell into place when he signed on and Fincher miraculously was able to secure his first choice for every character, including the fantastic Robin Wright. Also it is important to note that Beau Willimon, who wrote a play at Julliard titled Farragut North which eventually got adapted into The Ides of March by George Clooney, wrote the pilot and was integral at providing the necessary political drama expertise that really grounds House of Cards into what I can only imagine is the reality of the D.C. power game.
Chapter 6 of House of Cards is not particularly better than the other episodes, nor is it a episode of finality. But it is my favorite because at every turn the writing dominates the screen (warning: intense quoting below). I consider it a study in showing, not telling, and is the best example of Frank Underwood’s character. Now, I am not one for spoilers, but some may follow if you have not seen up to this point in the story. Also, there is so much in this show to discuss and I cannot expect myself to cover everything, so I will pull out what I consider the most satisfying bits.
If I were to give the episodes titles, I would call Chapter 6: The Brick.
This simple, red building block looms over the whole episode, existing as both the impetus and the metaphor for Congressman Underwood’s brutish rise. Frank is a simple man playing a very complex game of chess, and this Chapter is where he finally decides that he must castle to win the President over. You can only castle once in chess, and Frank knows that if he goes wrong his quest will be all but over. Episode opens:
“This is the worst possible position to be in… Only total victory will put me back in his good graces. The alternative is exile, which would mean the last 5 months were for nothing and I cannot abide falling back to square one.”
This is going to be good…
Frank is able to pull off a wild manipulation of the teachers union, break in his new secret service agent and prove his capability to or more importantly gain the respect of the President, all in one installment. The snafu he suffers on the CNN debate was fantastically awkward and doesn’t seem to hinder him; it almost gives him a better understanding of the illusion of power. Frank Underwood is naturally Machiavellian: he does not want to throw his weight around, but he will if he needs to, and this entire episode is based on once and for all proving to himself, his peers and the audience that he can. Everyone around Frank, barring his wife and Stamper, severely underestimates his willingness to succeed and his understanding of power. Yes, it’s an illusion, but also is love, money, language and anything else we as humans have created. Without even a morsel of regret he shines the illusion back onto himself by exploiting the death of a child on national television. He also chides Marty Spinella into punching him in the face! Who can Frank not manipulat
“From this moment on, you are a rock. You absorb nothing, you say nothing. And nothing breaks you.”
The way he domesticates his new secret service agent, Meechum, is devilishly beautiful. He takes advantage of his greenness, pushes him away, and when it seems like he has no interest in him anymore, he pulls back on the leash hard and makes him his. This is the Underwood way. It’s all about leverage; make them owe you one and if they come out thinking you honestly wanted to help, you get loyalty. This moment reminds me of another from earlier in the series where he sets up someone to take the fall, but allows them to think its their idea:
But hands down the best moment of the episode is encapsulated in the title to this post. WHO HAS THE AUDACITY TO DEFY THE PRESIDENT? Frank Underwood does. And the way the president ignores him and carries on his work is excellent: that’s exactly what Frank wanted, to be respected. Sometimes you gotta say no to the President.
A couple other great moments (there are too many): the autotune of Frank’s slip up on CNN, Robin Wright giving their old agent a hand job, but the bow on top of it all is the last few seconds of him putting out his cigarette and the camera focussing on the brick as he walks away. All it took was that brick to send all of America into political chaos which he then rode up on to the feet of the President.
Underwood is not part of the herd: he comes from humble beginnings, and everything he has he has gained himself. I think he sums it up best:
“There is no solace above or below. Only us…Small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”
I pray Season 2 gets here quicker.
On a final note, I feel like a more effective person just having watched this show. Yes some of Underwood’s actions are downright deplorable, but he provokes me into recognizing that which I was not able to before: I am a person, with influence, and I should control that and not let it control me. Isn’t that the point of shared experience? Not since The Sopranos has such a character stirred the moral pot so deviously and with such magnitude. That fact complimented with House of Cards being Netflix’s flagship and their all-at-once model changing the playing field, I will be the first to say that House of Cards is my generation’s Sopranos.