Corruption takes center stage in ‘Cards’

I served Kevin Spacey a juice last summer. Not a traditional orange or cranberry juice, but a hippy-dippy “cleansing” juice made from kale, pineapple and all manner of unpleasant things. Under his baseball cap and glasses, he smiled when I delivered it to his corner table. His acknowledgment was enough to make that day the best ever. My love for Kevin Spacey runs deep.

The first season of “House of Cards” served to illuminate Kevin Spacey’s majesty. Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a conniving congressman whose major dramatic yearning is for power. He pushes Pennsylvania representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) to a breaking point and forces a position as right hand man to the President (Michael Gill). Claire Underwood, played to perfection by Robin Wright, complements her husband’s power as she navigates the non-profit sector to her own benefit.

There is something kitschy about this season. During the first season, Frank Underwood breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. At one point, Frank says to the camera, “You can either be the doormat or a matador. Guess which one I am,” and holds up a picture of a partially colored-in bull. I laughed aloud.

This is not to say the show is wholly flawed. Each episode leaves viewers in a state of eager anticipation. The first episode, “Chapter 14,” begins in a state of panic. Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), her boyfriend Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) and her colleague Janine (Constance Zimmer) try to uncover the water bill scandal and Peter Russo’s suicide while Frank grooms his replacement as whip, Congresswoman Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker). Jackie’s eagerness to enter a leadership position drives her to make cruel decisions, which primarily means giving up her mentor’s illegitimate daughter for success. Claire, meanwhile, is dealing with allegations by a former employee, Gillian Cole, that Cole was discriminated against for being pregnant. After a series of events, which includes Claire cutting off Cole’s healthcare, it is clear that manipulation is the name of the game.

Beyond a plot that includes anything to ramp up tension, secrets and ultimatums, “House of Cards” employs cinematographically significant moments to an excess. Rachel, a former prostitute, is shown in her apartment in almost complete darkness. Her features are hardly discernible. Lucas, a character with deep internal conflict, is constantly encompassed by lines, whether criss-crossing overhead or disguising his figure. At one moment, Frank moves a presidential bust, which is then replaced by another character’s head. Hilarious, but do these cinematic moments enhance the show?

They do not. The show is driven by a deep rooted trust that Frank will get away with the heinous behaviors he enacts and the conflicted desire for him to be caught, only to see how he will react. The show often feels to be at a point of climax, only for issues to be minimally resolved until the next big “to-do” erupts. The cast of characters are consistently too vicious to be relatable. As Claire coolly explains the ultimatum to her former employee, Jackie alludes to mass killings, and Frank forcefully shoves an informant in front of a subway, the audience experiences a familiar and pleasurable thrill. We are “in” on the game. We also, perhaps, know too much. Are we implicated?

The only character on the show that feels banal and repetitive, based on the four episodes I have seen thus far, is Lucas. He is too driven by morality and a desire for “justice” to succeed. He does not seem to exist in the same sociopathic function that the rest of the characters do. I imagine he will be gotten rid of shortly. My eagerness to see what happens next is tempered only by the increasing frivolity of the more stylistic elements exhibited. Hopefully in future episodes, less attention will be paid to text messages and asides, and more will be given to the development of the internal conflict of the audience. Do we want Frank to succeed or fail?

Spoiler: We crave both.

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