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The Instant Movie Club: House of Cards – Chapters One & Two

Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they smoke some cigarettes on their windowsill while answering a series of discussion questions. This is The Instant Movie Club.

This week we’re watching the first couple episodes of House of Cards. We’ll be throwing around spoilers, but only for the episodes we’re discussing (we haven’t watched too far ahead). Maybe more to come later this week? Like politicians, we don’t make promises. Er, wait…

Next week: Set Up. Bruce Willis, Ryan Phillippe and 50 Cent star in this direct-to-DVD thriller about a heist gone wrong.

The Netflix Originals Monument

CHAPTER ONE:  After a promised promotion is yanked away by the new President, Majority Whip Francis Underwood (D-SC, Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) decide to enact slow, subtle political revenge on the administration. We also meet: Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a young congressman with a history of boozing and whoring who Frank owns after he makes a drunk-driving incident disappear; and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) a hungry journalist to whom Frank starts leaking sensitive information.

In the first episode, we spend most of our time with Frank as he literally talks us through the Washington political scene. What kind of first impression does Spacey make?

Jeff Hart:  Not a great one! We first meet Frank when he’s putting down a wounded dog – bare-handed, in the street – and he immediately begins narrating this symbol. Something about power, I think? I forget. Spacey is good at delivering these arch soliloquies throughout the episode and while they’re meant to set Frank up as the smartest guy in the room, they aren’t very interesting by themselves. It’s a device I’d like to see a lot less of. Also, I have a hard time buying a guy that would happily coin “trickle down diplomacy” as some kind of Washington genius.

Jeremiah White:  There are worse ways to spend your time than having Kevin Spacey lecture you on Washington power dynamics, but the narrative bits certainly don’t make the most of his talents. They are present for Underwood to serve up exposition and Washington platitudes as much as to give us greater insight into his personality and brilliant machinations. At least they set up one good laugh in the form of Underwood’s sly wave at the inauguration.

Jeff Hart:  Beyond his boner for power, we don’t get much insight into what makes Frank tick. The show’s slogan is “Bad, for a greater good” but we get no hints at what legislation Frank is actually passionate about. He, and his wife, comes across as villainous bordering on inhuman. When they smoke cigarettes at their window, I wonder if they’re gazing back at their home planet. That’d be a good twist.

Jeremiah White:  At this point, Underwood is nothing more than a charming vessel for political revenge. It’s fun to watch him manipulate the system, but the lack of depth is troubling. Don Draper was a similarly opaque character after the first episode of Mad Men, but it’s also clear right from the start that we are slowly going to learn more about him. I don’t have the same confidence in House of Cards.

So far, is there anyone in the cynical House of Cards universe worth rooting for?

Jeff Hart:  Naturally, I found myself drawn to Zoe Barnes early on. The journalism storyline is more compelling to me because the characters seem more like real people, rather than archetypes ODing on Zack Morris timeouts and mustache twirling. I also liked Peter Russo’s drunken antics. His relationship with assistant/girlfriend Christina (Kristen Connolly, Cabin in the Woods) is instantly more accessible than the icy alien communication happening in the Underwood house.

Jeremiah White:  I gravitated toward the newsroom and Peter Russo for the same reasons. But I’m not sure I’m rooting for either of them. Zoe’s eagerness to become a politician’s mouthpiece is icky, and Russo’s behavior reeks of unearned entitlement. I agree that so far Spacey is a one-note Machiavellian villain, but I can’t help but enjoy seeing him get one over on the president that spurned him. I’m rooting for him in spite of myself. Maybe those soliloquies do actually work.

Much has been made of the Netflix binge-watching strategy. If, instead of getting dumped online all at once, House of Cards was on week-to-week, would you keep watching?

Jeff Hart:  I definitely didn’t love the first episode. It’s a 5/10 for me. But, it does look really good (we haven’t mentioned Fincher yet, he’s solid) and has the star power behind it that it’s almost something you’re forced to give a second chance. That’s easy to do with it on Netflix but, if it was on TV, I probably wouldn’t go looking for it. Exhibit A: that one episode I watched of Boss.

Jeremiah White:  On a weekly schedule, House of Cards would fall out of my rotation based on apathy rather than active dislike. It’s fine, but not good enough to earn a place in my crowded dramatic television viewing, even during a slow period for established shows. On the other hand, I was perfectly happy to let the Netflix auto-play take me right on to Chapter 2. When it comes to mediocrity, binge-watching is the way to go.

"How very Deep Throat of you."

CHAPTER TWO:  Francis maneuvers himself into the lead position on education reform, supplants the president’s nominee for Secretary of State with one of his own choosing, and sends Pete Russo to hang out with a Libertarian recluse. Meanwhile, Claire is forced to cut the fat at her clean water non-profit.

With Frank’s manipulation of the education bill and his wholly concocted controversy over the Secretary of State nomination, do we have a clear idea of how politics works in House of Cards?

Jeff Hart:  This is a soul-crushingly cynical show, where one ruthless politician whose goal is the continued amassment of power for the sake of power, manipulates government with no concern for collateral damage. This government runs like a business (I wonder if Frank coined that phrase, too). I’m not sure if we’re meant to be rooting for Frank’s success or his eventual comeuppance. I lean toward comeuppance, but what do you think?

Jeremiah White:  I think we’re meant to root for Frank, or at least sympathize with him in the wake of the president’s betrayal-by-proxy in the first episode. We’re still in the “bad, for a greater good” phase, but that could easily change as we learn more about him.

Jeff Hart:  I actually appreciate HoC’s ugly cynicism; it feels real to me, which I suppose says as much about my view of government as it does the show. The educated liberal senator getting thrown under the bus for being too progressive on education? Yeah, that sounds about right. I also like that the show isn’t shy about pointing out who’s Democrat and who’s Republican, although so far our cast of scumbags are entirely Democrats, with the Republicans mentioned only in hushed asides like Voldemort.

Was Claire cleaning house at the Clean Water Initiative successful as this episode’s B-story?

Jeff Hart:  In the sense that the storyline reflects on the episode’s main theme – fuck the little people – yes, it was successful. As compelling television? Eh, I don’t know. I’m not very into Claire’s charity work at this point for the same reason I’m having trouble connecting with Frank; I can’t pin down whether or not these efforts are sincere. Do the Underwoods care about education and clean water, or are they just stepping stone interests on the way to power? Do the Underwoods even know the answer to that question? Perhaps, corrupted by power and aspiration, they’ve forgotten themselves, which is why they’re so consistently inscrutable.

Jeremiah White:  The lack of details and background totally sinks this plot. When Claire is explaining to her office manager that they need to cut staff, isn’t that the first time we’re really aware of her charity? I know there are some mentions of the big corporate donation in the first episode, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was plagued by all the same questions that Jeff lists. There may have been some thematic consistency here, but the CWI scenes simply aren’t interesting enough to warrant so much screentime. They should have brought the Bobs from Office Space in to do the firing.

Don’t libertarians look like fun?

Jeremiah White:  Yep, they’re awesome. Just bring over some liquor and coke, and they’ll gladly lie just for the honor of being a puppet in Frank Underwood’s political power struggle. All kidding aside, it’s nice to see Russo sent on a task he is so uniquely qualified for, and getting out of the stuffy Washington corridors of power and clean water is a nice change of pace.

Jeff Hart:  Pete Russo’s storylines continue to be the best part of HoC. The libertarian conspiracy theorist, while tip-toeing a little close to caricature for me, does demonstrate a sense of humor I think was lacking from episode one. Although the sexy girl shacked up with this small government goofball definitely strains credulity.

How does Chapter Two stack up to Chapter One?

Jeff Hart:  I liked it more. Showing how the Underwoods hurt people is a step toward raising stakes – stakes which I think Frank forgot to mention during his abundant pilot narration. They need better episode titles, though.

Jeremiah White:  This “Chapter” business is so lame. They couldn’t come up with titles but they thought this was more prestigious than just calling them “Episode _”? Anyway, I liked this chapter about as much as the first chapter. It’s mostly better but the non-profit stuff knocks it down a few pegs for me. I am getting a little concerned that Frank is too good at all this plotting. He’s encountered 0 difficulty so far and is making short work of his rivals. This Lex Luthor is in desperate need of a Clark Kent, or maybe a Darkseid considering the show's cynical worldview.

BINGE VIEWING?? Read about Chapters Three & Four!

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  1. The Instant House of Cards Club – Chapters Three and Four | Culture Blues
  2. House of Cards – Chapters Five and Six | Culture Blues
  3. House of Cards: Chapters Seven and Eight | Culture Blues