DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! This post contains spoilers. Enter at your own risk.
Before I watched it, it seemed like everything I saw and heard about the Netflix remake of House of Cards came to the same conclusion: It’s so brilliant! It’s so witty! It’s so sophisticated! Hello? It’s so schlocky.
When I started watching, I literally gaped in shock. Not because this was the most amazing production to ever grace my laptop, but because I couldn’t believe the bill of goods I’d been sold. THIS was the show people were wetting their pants over? The one with Kevin Spacey breaking the fourth wall to growl, “I lurve that woman the way a shark lurves blood” in an accent that sounds like it was concocted in a laboratory by people unfamiliar with the English language? To paraphrase the wonderful Arrested Development: Him?
As I mentioned in my mini-recaps on Tumblr (and if writing about the egomaniacs of House of Cards isn’t the time to quote yourself, I don’t know when is), it’s full of faux profundities, unoriginal observations, and overwrought quotes like, “Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” (Duh.) There’s even a moment when something goes badly and Spacey turns to the camera and announces, “That went well.”
It’s incredibly po-faced, especially in the first few episodes, perhaps in an effort to convince the viewers it’s a quality show and investors that their $100m wasn’t wasted. You can almost hear the subtext screaming, “WE’RE AS GOOD AS THE WEST WING, RIGHT???” (No Sir, you are not.) It takes itself so seriously that it’s often unintentionally hilarious.
The opening moments, when Frank suffocates an injured dog, ostensibly putting it out of its misery but actually foreshadowing his sociopathic nature, are about as subtle as his accent. When political reporter Zoe Barnes calls by later that night to flash her cleave in return for access, she actually shivers after taking a sip of whiskey. ‘Cos she’s just a girl! (Oh, I get it. David Fincher thinks we’ve never seen a TV show or movie before.)
That doesn’t mean I didn’t keep watching. I might find it galling that people are hyping this show as if it’s quality TV, but I’m all about the schlock. I love Scandal, but I think even the most devoted fan would agree it’s often preposterous. Still, it’s superior to House of Cards in many ways (better characterisation, more diversity, a faster pace). Which is another thing that makes me roll my eyes: a twisty-turny politically-themed show with a black female lead is sold as soapy, a twisty-turny politically-themed show led by a white middle-aged man is portrayed as the second coming.
And House of Cards is definitely a man’s show. The main character is a man, it panders to the male gaze (boobs, boobs, everywhere!) and the people in power are so many, many, manly men. Of course, that’s exactly the point: the show illustrates just how much Washington is a man’s world. (All the much.)
But I care more about the women.
The most interesting character to me is Zoe, which might not be a reflection on the show so much as on my eccentric viewing preferences. Despite all the buzz, I had little interest in House of Cards until I heard one of the characters was a reporter, because I’ll watch pretty much anything where the protagonist is a journalist. (It’s why I first got into Sex and the City and why Superman is my favourite superhero. Seriously.) After 13 episodes, I’m still not sure whether Kate Mara’s dead eyes and flat affect are bad acting or an astute choice for this emotionally stunted character. But she fascinates me all the same.
Honestly? Sometimes I pretend I am Zoe Barnes. Standing by the cooker, having given my chicken breasts a quick stir, I’ll whip out my iPod Touch and compose a sensational tweet about Tilda Swinton’s bladder, thinking, “This is just like that time Zoe posted to Slugline from her smartphone!” Part of me wants to be her. Part of me can’t stand her. I liked it when her date expected to have sex with her and she firmly/rudely put him in his place. I liked it that she took the initiative in contacting Frank and later, that she barely hesitated before investigating his wrongdoing. I like that she is unabashed about her ambition. Not that she cares whether anyone likes her, which actually feels revolutionary.
Her sleeping with Frank to cement their bond, however… doesn’t. Mandy Stadtmiller wrote a passionately-argued piece for xoJane about the fact that the world isn’t black and white and that Zoe’s actions are justified in the cause of moving her career forward in a competitive industry. I get it: for years go-getting women have succeeded by circumventing the patriarchy, using their charms (whether negotiating skills or bods for sin) to get what they want.
I’m sure that IRL, a lot of journalists have had sex with politicos, and that’s their beeswax. But it was disappointing to see that happen here because Zoe didn’t actually seem to benefit from it, so it only highlighted how naïve she can be. And when the only two female journalists on a programme get ahead by their hard work on their backs rather than at their desks, it does promote the idea that women who make it onto the front pages (already a rare commodity) didn’t get there on the basis of journalistic merit.
Plus it forced Zoe and Claire’s relationship to become a jealous rivalry (even though the Underwoods’ marriage is more open that most) when they could have been something less conventional, like collaborators. Of course, Claire doesn’t trust anyone, or confide in anyone, or have anything but the most stilted/bossy conversations with anyone. Robin Wright imbues her with an iciness that’s compelling to watch, but she’s given very little to work with in the way of character. Janice is aggressively nasty to Zoe, Christina is a doormat, and Gillian is a drip.
It’s not just that the women on the show are awful, because the men are too. It’s that the men so often have the upper hand. Rachel the prostitute needed a man to save her. Linda Vasquez has influence over the President, but Frank plays her like a cello. At the start of their relationship, he uses Zoe to manipulate the news agenda in a way that suggests she has no brain of her own. And in the ongoing power struggle also known as their marriage, he continually gets the better of Claire.
Maybe this is intentional: maybe the show is trying to make a feminist point about the ways the patriarchy plays out in our personal lives. Maybe the balance will swing next season, and the women will be on an equal footing with the men more of the time. Or maybe it will be business as usual because House of Cards is just a soapy, steaming pile of shlock.
That doesn’t mean I won’t keep watching.