House of Cards, Ep. 1.07-1.13: Surprising character moves conclude solid series

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Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Frank and Claire Underwood

House of Cards, Season 1, Episodes 7-8: “Chapter 7”, “Chapter 8”
Written by Kate Barnow (1.07) and Beau Willimon (1.07, 1.08)
Directed by Charles McDougall

Season 1, Episode 9: “Chapter 9”
Written by Beau Willimon and Rick Cleveland
Directed by James Foley

Season 1, Episodes 10-11: “Chapter 10”, “Chapter 11”
Written by Sarah Treem (1.10) and Keith Huff & Kate Barnow & Beau Willimon (1.11)
Directed by Carl Franklin

Season 1, Episodes 12-13: “Chapter 12”, “Chapter 13”
Written by Gina Ginfriddo (1.12) and Beau Willimon (1.12, 1.13)
Directed by Allen Coulter
Premiered Friday, Feb. 1st on Netflix

As in its strong first half, the second half of House of Cards’ first season continues to prioritize characterization and performance, enriching the leads and bumping periphery players up off the bench. Though the visual interest and specificity present in the Fincher-directed pilot has been smoothed over in favor of a more consistent, glossy approach, the overall look of the series remains intact. There’s nothing in the cinematography or framing to rival the best cable has to offer, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or even Justified, but in its first season, House of Cards’ decision to focus on its central performances is an understandable one. Hopefully next season, assuming there is one, the directors will have more leeway to take risks and make the series as compelling aesthetically as it is storywise.

Surprisingly, given the way the finale leaves us, a second season pickup feels like a foregone conclusion. Due to the somewhat experimental nature of this dive from Netflix into original programming, many may be expecting these episodes to function as somewhat of an extended miniseries, with a natural conclusion, should the gamble not pay off, but that’s not what we get here. Yes, creator Beau Willimon does move central figure Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey, to somewhat of an narrative ending point, but none of the other characters have that same luck. From Frank’s wife Claire, Robin Wright, to reporter Zoe Barnes, Kate Mara, to any number of side characters, the end of the finale hits pause with the assumption that the PtB will have plenty of time to tell the rest of these stories later.

Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper

Unlike the beginning chunk, this later half sees the tone of the series transition from a character study set in the back rooms of Washington to a taut political thriller, complete with hushed conversations and clandestine meetings. This shift makes Frank’s confessional asides all the more distracting. If we’re no longer following his PoV, if we’re actively following those looking to take him down, rather than focusing solely on him and those characters who function as extensions of his reach, then why does Frank remain the only character aware of his audience? The shift in direction is a good move, forcing Frank to play defense and interact with people who are actually his political and manipulative equals. It’s fun to watch Kevin Spacey be smarter than everyone. It’s more fun to watch him squirm.

We also see more shading in Claire. The cracks in the Underwood’s united front are easy to miss at first, but once they start splintering, her eventual rebellion is inevitable and welcome. It’s great to see Claire relaxed for a while, to imagine the possibilities of the character outside of the world of Frank, but while Wright makes this version of Claire enticing, and Ben Daniels makes Adam Galloway far more appealing than his analogue on The West Wing (Jason Isaacs), her change is one the character, the show, and the audience know can’t last. Fittingly, it’s this fracture between Claire and Frank that predicates all the troubles we know are headed their way in season 2. The two may be all but invincible as a unit, and a lot of fun to watch, but invincible quickly becomes boring.

There’s also quite the shift in Zoe, but even more interesting is the increased role of Constance Zimmer as her colleague Janine Skorsky. After starting as a disappointingly stereotypical wet-blanket workplace antagonist, the character is able to grow into a well-rounded individual once she and Zoe can interact in a non-work capacity and develop some camaraderie. Giving Sandrine Holt more to do as Claire’s employee Gillian Cole provides a needed boost to Claire’s storyline and also nicely developed is Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper, Frank’s right hand. It’s a tricky role, one that could easily feel two-dimensional. Stamper is well practiced in suppressing his emotions and natural responses, but Kelly manages to convey his internal struggle beautifully.

Corey Stoll as Representative Peter Russo

The standout performance of the second half, however, is Corey Stoll as Representative Peter Russo. The arc for the character is incredibly well handled and the deftness with which Corey transitions Russo from being utterly unlikeable and pathetic to quietly noble is impressive.  His eventual turn is heartbreaking, a prolonged fall the audience keeps hoping will be somehow undone. It’s a testament to Stoll’s performance that he is able to get the audience so wholly invested in Russo’s fate.

 

SPOILER ALERT!
(Just in case.)

 

Unfortunately, that brings us to the weak point of these episodes. Frank’s murder of Russo feels out of character and is problematic for a number of reasons. The most glaring issue is the placement of Russo in the car- as soon as someone starts poking into his death, the fact that he’s found in the passenger seat will raise questions. The episode doesn’t establish enough self-preservational motivation for Frank to counteract the risk he takes, or it doesn’t sell it as an in-the-moment, necessary decision. Aside from that, the moment doesn’t fit tonally with the episode surrounding it. We don’t get any insight into Frank’s state of mind, via the asides, and though Spacey is great, we’re cheated of his reaction after the fact. Are we supposed to think Frank’s killed before? Or was this his first time? The fact that we can’t tell is a problem.

[/SPOILERS]

 

There are other issues too. The President is laughably malleable and his Chief of Staff’s loyalties are far too easily purchased. Despite these quibbles, however, House of Cards on the whole is a solid achievement and a clear success for both Netflix and Beau Willimon. It will be interesting to see what happens with it moving forward, should it get renewed, how long this new conspiracy angle can sustain itself, and how willing its big name stars are to be tied down by multi-year contracts.

What did you think of House of Cards? Did you marathon the series, like Netflix intended, or did you space it out over time? Were you surprised by the various character changes in the back half of the series? Post your thoughts below!

Kate Kulzick

6 Comments
  1. dbb says

    I marathoned the season over the past week only because I had not previously thought of watching it; but then learned Kevin Spacey was in it.

    I found the first half of the season fun but it then got stale as there wasn’t enough real conflict for Spacey’s character. He just walked through every problem with very little resistance.

    The lack of resistance was acceptable until he committed the murder of Russo. Totally out of character and in reference to other posters about his killing of the dog in the first episode; you are comparing apples to oranges. Killing a dog on the street has no consequences compared to murdering two people.

    Which brings me to the murders committed in the first season; I thought this was a political drama? When did it become Seven? Are we going to have a modified version of Mel Profitt going around killing people like John Doe in Seven? I keep waiting for Brad Pitt or Morgan Freeman to show up asking questions.

    High level congress men/vice presidents/etc don’t go around killing other people. They have their underlings do it.

    With this in mind, I’m done with the show. The entire first season is destroyed by these rookie writing mistakes.

  2. Indie Dive says

    I am based in Europe and just finished with the first season of House of Cards. I like reading your review. Thanks!
    Yup, I think the death of Russo in passenger seat should raised questions from the police. Somehow I can see Frank U could do such action, in fact he would do anything to reach his goal, even sleeping with a man. Remember the first episode when he killed a dog as he said he could not tolerate useless pain. I think this is what he viewed on Russo drinking problem and perhaps also Russo became his burden to reach his goal.
    I think his main goal is actually to be the number 1 person in USA govt and he shared this goal only with his wife. I wonder what it will be in the second season, I bet his enemies will appear one by one to crush him, including the guy from the teacher union and off course Zoe…and I hope it will come up that Russo was murdered instead of committing suicide on the next season.

  3. CafeGirl says

    Actually, I’d say it does fit within the character and it is foreshadowed in the first episode. When he puts the dog out of its misery….

    1. Kate Kulzick says

      Interesting and valid point, CafeGirl. But I’d argue the rest of the series doesn’t support enough or build enough to this choice for it to really work. Yes, we start with a very applicable scene, but this relationship of Frank with death isn’t maintained at all throughout the rest of the series.

  4. Kate says

    I definitely agree with your spoiler alert paragraph about Frank’s murder of Russo. The act doesn’t seem to fit with his character….or at least, as you point out, we don’t know if it fits with his character. Also, up until that point I was, to a degree, invested in Frank. I mean, I knew all along thst he was a “bad guy” and definitely sucked into all the machinations of Washington, but I was kind of (sort of) rooting for him….until I saw that he was capable of murder. Also, his previous acts of deception involved skilled manipulation and obvious intelligence. His murder of Russo was so spontaneous, desperate, base, so in my opinion, unlike anything he’d done before. It was a cheap shot. So yeah, that’s been bothering me. Now, when I watch the second season, I’ll be interested in the storyline and the other characters, but I won’t care too much what happens to Frank, and if a show causes me to lose interest in the protagonist, that can’t be a good thing. On another note, the rest of your review was right-on. I agree with everything you said.

  5. Jeff says

    /Agree with the spoiler paragraph.

    Also, he wasn’t that likable to begin with, now he gets away with murder?

    I hope you don’t become VP, fucker!

    (They incited me to find a place to comment, I suppose that’s an indication. I would recommend the show!)

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