[SPOILERS BELOW IF YOU’VE NOT WATCHED ALL THREE SEASONS]
I’ve just finished watching House of Cards Season 3. Did I enjoy it? I did. There is so much to appreciate in this Netflix show, not least the stellar performances of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as President Frank Underwood and First Lady Claire. The show is beautifully directed by David Fincher and his team; the whole package exudes quality.
However, there’s a huge problem at the heart of the show, and that’s the writing. You may wonder how I can have a problem with this when I’ve sat through all three seasons; indeed I’ve devoured Season 3 in just over a week.
So why have I enjoyed House of Cards so much?
The sheer quality of the central performances is key. Frank and Claire have a fascinating relationship; however I would argue Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s marvellous performances carry significant flaws in the writing. The show gets away with all manner of preposterous plot twists and character actions because of their raw watchability. There is also sterling work from a uniformly strong supporting cast.
Kevin Spacey is a brilliant actor, and he makes an absurdly written character believable. Frank Underwood is at best a pantomime villain; yes, he’s massively entertaining to watch as played by Spacey, but could this character – could this President – ever really exist in real life, and do any of his actions and their consequences really make sense? The answer, in most cases, is a resounding “no”.
Let’s take, for example, a huge moment at the beginning of Season 2, when Frank murders reporter Zoe Barnes by pushing her in front of a DC subway car. He’s wearing the comical non-disguise of glasses and a wide-brimmed hat; it’s a public place riddled with CCTV. Arguably it was a spur of the moment decision, but would he really get away with this? And if he had decided to kill Zoe in advance, surely he could have farmed out the task to someone like Stamper? Okay I get that it’s hella fun to see Underwood push Zoe in front of a train (and yes, I know it echoes a similar moment in the original BBC Series) but let’s at least see some kind of ramifications? Frank has just murdered someone in a fantastically careless way, but are there any consequences? Did Zoe’s murder come back to bite Frank in the ass at any point in Season 2 or Season 3? No, of course it didn’t.
Doug Stamper in Season 3 is another victim of absurd plotting. He’s obsessed with finding ex-call girl Rachel who nearly killed him – okay, this in itself is believable given Doug’s generally weird behaviour. But to eke out this flimsy plot line, with no discernible escalations, over an entire season? How many times did he meet with Gavin the guinea pig-loving hacker weirdo and have the same goddamn conversation? (As an aside I’m sure all of us are pleased that Cashew the guinea pig is safe and being cared for.)
And when Doug finally gets the information he needs, it coincides with his appointment as Underwood’s Chief of Staff … and only then does he take off on a trip to Caracas to bludgeon yet more information out of poor Gavin. Thereafter follows the most comical “look at me, I’m about to murder someone” sequence before Doug abducts Rachel and, after more hesitation, finally kills her. He’s the Chief of Staff to the President of the USA, for Chrissakes, and he just goes off on a little road trip to murder someone before officially starting work?! Furthermore, what is the point of any of this? Will it impact on Stamper or indeed Underwood in Season 4? Of course it won’t, because this is House of Cards, a magical make-believe world where actions, however criminal or amoral, never have any real consequences.
The writers also seem to be playing fast and loose with the process of government. Let’s take the “America Works” programme – which incidentally seems to be Underwood’s sole domestic policy. We are asked to believe he can somehow steal or “appropriate” millions of dollars from the FEMA disaster relief fund and use the loot to create a bunch of jobs that weren’t required in the first place, just for the sake of full employment? And, like, no one can stop him??
In the real world would any President be able to pull off this degree of tyrannical behaviour, especially an unpopular one who has both Congress and Senate working against him? Despite having watched the entire seven seasons of The West Wing, I wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on American politics, but I’m pretty sure it’s damn hard for a President to get anything significant achieved, especially a controversial policy like America Works. Yet Frank somehow steamrollers it through! Incidentally I just found this excellent article by Seth Masket that focuses on the absurdity of House of Cards’ treatment of American politics.
There are smaller niggles too – the moment in Season 3, Episode 12 where Stamper sets fire to the incriminating page of Claire’s journal. This in itself isn’t an issue. But hello!? He sets something on fire in the Oval Office. Call me naïve but wouldn’t they have some decent working smoke detectors in there? At least have Meechum run in with a fire extinguisher. Hell, then he could make out with Frank and Doug and have a threesome right there on the Resolute desk, what the hell, who cares anymore?
On that subject, towards the end of Season 2 Frank sensationally gets it on with Meechum at Claire’s encouragement and we assume they spend the night together. But is referred to or mentioned again? Are there any consequences, for the characters or the plot? No, nothing. What was, at the time, a sensational and unexpected moment is thrown away and we move on.
This is where binge-watching is a positive advantage for the producers – you almost don’t have time to realise what you’re watching is, for the most part, badly written junk.
Characters in House of Cards frequent act in illogical, nonsensical or downright stupid ways that are meant to service convenient plot points. This is lazy, shoddy writing.
Just compare the seamless work of Vince Gilligan and his team on Breaking Bad, and now Better Call Saul. These shows also boast marvellous direction and performances, but crucially they also have excellent writing to provide the complete package.
So will I watch House of Cards Season 4? Hell yeah – because despite the dubious script quality, the writers and producers of the show somehow, like Frank, get away with murder. In a world where quality writing is the hallmark of so many TV shows, House of Cards succeeds despite this one huge flaw.
I admit it’s a paradox. The show exudes quality on all sorts of levels. Classy performances from actors at the top of their game, led by the brilliance of Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright; wonderful work from David Fincher and his hugely talented team of quality directors; amazing production values at every level.
Just a pity about the writing.