Yes, everyone loves House of Cards, and everyone is excited about Season 3 impending breaking of the internet on February 27th. And yes, it’s because it’s very entertaining. But let’s talk about why it’s kind of dumb.
I’m not going to comment on whether or not it’s a realistic show, because I have honestly no idea. It seems pretty unrealistic, but, hey, maybe it’s all super realistic and most politicians do commit an average of one murder per political campaign. And the other thing I’m not going to focus on, but which does bother me, is the way Zoe Barnes’s character and her peers are little more than caricatures built out of buzzwords and blog posts about the sociology of “millennials.” But hey, maybe that’s also more realistic than I realize.
My concern is not with the content, but with the storytelling.
House of Cards is the kind of story that, the moment it has finished, “you want to watch it again.” Why? Because, once it’s over, with all the twists ironed out and the motivations explained, you want to see it again because, this time, you will really know what’s going on.
But all that really means is that it is dishonest storytelling.
Perspective is important. And the trouble with the way story is told in HoC is that it’s hard to tell why the characters are doing what they are doing. Yes, the show is suspenseful, but the only reason for the suspense is that we can’t figure out what’s going on. But this makes it cheap, easy storytelling, rather than gifted storytelling. If they want to give us an unreliable narrator, then Frank can be that unreliable narrator. After all, he has a tendency to look directly at the camera and tell us what he’s doing. The reason this becomes an even larger problem is that Frank Underwood regularly breaks the fourth wall, looks at the audience, and quips about the motives and justifications of what he is doing. And then we are given a scene in which he does what he said he would. But, meanwhile, the story regularly omits the moments in which Doug and Frank (and others) actually candidly discuss their plans and motives that, if it were shown, would explain what’s going on and clear things up.
For the most concrete example, consider the storyline of Peter Russo. Sure, on a second viewing, it makes sense that Peter Russo was going to collapse all along. But if Frank is our main character, our narrator, and our anti-hero, then why were we never let in on this secret? It especially becomes troubling when you consider that Peter Russo’s failed redemption is the main subject of the first season, and the pivotal element in Frank’s plan to become Vice President. Actually, it’s his entire plan. He knew it the whole time what he wanted to make happen. Doug knew it too. Perhaps his wife knew it, although the writers don’t seem entirely sure about that one. So why didn’t the audience know?
Yes, there are times when an author does not reveal everything. As referenced in earlier posts on this blog, subtlety can improve a story and a theme, such as Ned Stark’s secrets or Jake Barnes’s impotency. But those are painful aspects of their character arcs, things they can hardly admit to themselves. Frank Underwood is simply a manipulative murderer who feels no guilt, and regularly delivers monologues in a painful accent about this lack of guilt, directly to the audience. Surely there must be a better way to tell this story than to simply omit his motives and plans until after his crimes are committed?
Any story can become suspenseful if told this way. But it’s not fair to tell stories this way. A watcher of a show, like a reader of a book, should have a character with whom they can identify. If Frank is our anti-hero and our narrator, then we should be let in on his secrets and his plans.
For a good example of the kind of storytelling that House of Cards should strive for, consider True Detective. In that, we have unreliable narrators, but we are included on their unreliable narrations. It draws us closer to both the two protagonists and their story. We watch them lie to others, while they share the truth with no one but themselves and the audience.
House of Cards, through its shifty storytelling and dishonest approach, lands not in the same territory as True Detective, but instead winds up in a similar vein to stories like Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and the wildly nonsensical television show Gotham (about which, don’t worry, I will be writing soon).
All of this has only been magnified for me, as I tried watching the first two seasons of House of Cards in anticipation of the third season. And yes, I will watch the third season, and I might even like it. But I have a very strong feeling that, the whole time I’m watching, I won’t be able to stop thinking one thing: “This is kind of dumb.”