Alright, House of Cards essay part two. Let's go. SPOILERS GOING FORWARD
Part of what got to me was that the dialog was not doing it for me. Now, dialog is especially subjective. They way people talk is so varied by nature and in art specifically it can be used to convey story, theme or character in so many different ways that saying any particular style of dialog is bad as opposed to you think it’s bad is a bit foolish. So let me say, I think the House of Cards dialog is bad. See, the dialog’s rote. Very, very rote. There is an air of importance and elegance to it, a style clearly modeled after Shakespeare and other regal models of speaking. And there are some moments when this pay off in dividends and the lines crackle with life and intrigue, such as:
I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep. Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs. – US Housed Majority Whip, Frank Underwood
Spacey really nails the dialog as Frank, taking potentially corny lines and selling them with a Southern drawl and a slight smirk. But there are far too many moments that leave me cringing and pretending I did not just hear what I heard, such as when a journalist is also debating the nuances of sex with Frank Underwood:
Time is precious; powerful people don’t have the luxury of foreplay – Poorly Written Journalist Character, Zoe Barns
...or when said journalist’s called a cunt fired by her editor and she tweets about it, telling him why he’ll regret this:
Call me what you want, but you should remember that these days when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand. – Really, A Character So Bad And Poorly Conceived I Fear The Essay’ll Descend Into Irate Babbling If I Get Into It, Zoe Barnes
That last bit right there is performed with the air and bravado of the final moments of Braveheart while having the actual resonance and quality of something more along the lines of my 9th grade one act play about the President contemplating leaving his wife while in office for an old high school flame. Dialog like this, very wordy and ornate, needs to be saying a lot while also leaving some things off the table. But the characters are always speaking in one off aphorisms like they’re some tear away cat calendar sitting on somebody’s office desk that’s weirdly political. Deadwood had a similarly obtuse sense of language but then the words fuck or cocksucker or hooplehead would be uttered every other five seconds and that would really help to undercut the more up-its-ass moments of linguistic brandishing. On House of Cards, the ornate dialog comes across saying a whole lot about not that much at all just to show they can. And Frank ends up being the only character to make any of the dialog work. Though that may result from a more dire issue I was having with the show.
Aside from the alcoholic Peter Russo and Frank, no character did all that much for me. Everybody on House of Cards wants something but that’s all most do. Work to get what they want and then either succeed or fail. All characters in any narrative want something, that or they want to want something. But the best writing brings characters beyond that. The characters feel conflicted about their wants, their wants get in the way of their own best interests, they have multiple wants all at once and they exist in vicious conflict with one another. All this spools out into dynamic, well-realized characters that are far more complicated than just their goals or the plot they take part in. House of Cards never arranges its characters in meaningful enough situations to ever pull of half as messy a confluence of motive as its characters need to thrive. Instead they succeed or fail and then move onto the next opportunity for success. These characters, in their most boring insipid moments, are lifeless husks of wants. It leaf a real sour taste in my mouth and left me thinking even worse of Washington D.C. than I already did.
Many people have testified to the authenticity of House of Card’s depiction of modern day Washington D.C. And while I did not necessarily dispute these claims, I did think the show was squandering this realistic atmosphere. Authenticity is powerful a powerful narrative device because when the viewer is presented with an at least a credible facsimile of reality, they are far more open to accepting the lessons and virtues of the narrative. But House of Cards does nothing with this. No time is spent exploring or explaining the sociological, psychological or even ethical circumstances that birthed such a corrupt and cynical environment as Washington D.C. It just is the way it is, apparently. The one attempt it makes at achieving something like this is also, not coincidentally, its most successful character, Peter Russo.
On a show filled composed power players that only calculate and seek, Russo is just a refreshing mess. Drunk, divorced, sleeping with employees. Underwood himself finds him drunk driving with a hooker. He gets Russo out of jail on the condition Russo abandons the project he’s been working on for his hometown longshoreman. Going back on promises that got him elected torture the man, and it becomes clear this is a good enough man who just got caught up in the fire and fuel that corrupts all power. It’s the rare moment on House of Cards that does not work on a “Damn that was smooth and clever,” level but an “Oh please make this end please this hurt my soul,” one. For a moment, House of Cards says something substantial with its narrative and I was encouraged by this plot development. Maybe the show has secretly been about him all along. An example of how a good heart does not get far in Washington D.C. and the choices, the compromised he has to make along the way.
Underwood later pays Russo for his sacrifice back by getting his name on the ticket to be the democratic nominee for the Governor of Pennsylvania. Granted, the audience does not know where this fits into Underwood’s plans and the writers did not either as they later admitted but I was still pretty happy my boy Russo was getting his shot. Watching him go back to those same longshoremen to convince them he was worth fighting for and then winning them over with pure honesty, that was powerful. Encouraging. Russo became a sole pulsing heart in the real dark soul of the show. His presence both conflicted and empowered its cynical tone.
Then they blew it. Then they made clear what the show was really about then I started my bile spewing. More on that next time!