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

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

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