Alright, SPOILERS FOLLOW. IF YA CAN'T HANDLE IT MOVE ON. Part three, now.
Peter Russo dies. He doesn’t just die. Frank Underwood kills him. See, he lapsed back into alcoholism and botched his chance at being Governor. With nothing left he wants to atone for his crimes and come clean about all his illegal backdoor politicking. That’d put Frank in an uncomfortable spot. So he picks up Russo from a drunken stupor and drives him to a garage, leaves the car ignition on, rolls down the windows and shuts the garage door. The U.S. House Majority Whip Leader did that. When I expressed some mild reserve regarding the plausibility of such an event to two avowed House of Cards fans, they looked at each other and then to me.
“What else was he gonna do?”
Anything. Anything at all. Frank Underwood, the viewer is led to believe, is capable. A man able to manipulate the subtle nuances and impulses of the human mind to his advantage. He knows where every piece on the chessboard is, where they will soon be and how they’ll get there. Five turns in advance. So he looks at this man, a drunken wretch of a human being who’s only been talking about coming clean while disastrously inebriated to absurd proportions and may very well wake up the next morning and see the light and laugh off what he was saying the night before, Underwood sees this man and believes the only solution to be murder. And the moment’s not treated as a mistake made amidst a paranoid haze of anxious uncertainty but a cold, deliberate decision. As if no other option remained. I’m sorry but fuck that.
Aside from the whole murder thing being all sorts of stupid, Frank got an emotionally unstable alcoholic to go on a high profile, high stress election campaign that would leave him more tempted than ever before but did not consider the possibility that he may in fact relapse as 75% of alcoholics do within their first year of recovery. A smart man would see that risk and not take it. If he did, he’d plan a variety of backups to cushion the potential fallout. But Frank is surprised as anyone else when it happens. As for the actual murder, really, what the fuck, there were so many other possible solutions. Discredit the drunken alcoholic as a crazy person in the press, threaten his family, bribe him with all the money in the world, manipulate the events publicly so that he looks like the one who masterminded it all, drug him and ship him off to Guam or something. At least Guam would’ve been a fun sort of camp. It’s just crazy that Frank murders Peter in order to avoid the possible legal ramifications should Peter come forward and speak up but anticipates no apparent consequences for fucking murder. Granted, the issue rears its head in the first episode of season two when a reporter suspects him of the Russo murder. So he pushes the reporter in front of a train. Then that thing is all null and void. Okay then.
It is not as if television shows can’t explore the creative potential outside the realm of possibility. Many of the great shows thrive off of the implausible, often achieving their most powerful moments via batshit-when-you-think-about-it means. But these moments all function within the boundaries the shows set for themselves and never come at their own expense. House of Cards set the boundaries as a tell all fictional tale of the true nature of Washington but then shits all over them with murder. Twice. It took its carefully crafted verisimilitude and tore it asunder. At the same time, it’s not like it’s some frivolous soap opera where the stretching of reality does not matter either. Between the dialog and all the interviews about commitment to reality and the episode being called “Chapters,” as if there was a grand literary scheme to all this and the narrative wasn’t just riding by the seat of its shit stained coat tails to an ending.
Much of my anger stems from the disservice the show did to Peter Russo in his final moments. Part of it comes from the fact that everyone else thinks the show is great and it’s not and everyone thinks that moment is great and harrowing and it’s not and how I wished the show was great but it’s not. But most of my anger comes from the realization of what about show is really about.
See, the show was never about Russo. He was a narrative pawn, a character that existed just to die and provide emotional watershed. It’s not about politics. It just does not have enough to say about the subject. Hell, it’s not even about Frank. It’s about his slow and often illogical ascent to power and all the giddy kickass moment that accompany it. The entire dramatic thrust of the show, what entertains the viewer and guides the narrative and provides catharsis, is Frank winning. The other characters don’t complicate or challenge him in anyway. They exist solely to be beaten and disposed of in the wake of his path. It ends up being some high-class snuff film with flag pendants and cuff links and C-Span. Ascent narratives are a delicate art and they botch it. Breaking Bad, another one of the great shows, centered itself around the inherent thrills of an ascent narrative as well. But that narrative worked in large part due to its attention to the side characters. Their existence outside of the main character’s was fully developed and entertaining in its own right. This gave them the air of not obstacles but complications. So when the main character inevitably hurt those side characters on his way up, it complicated our joy and sympathy for the main character and the ascent itself, and at a certain point for many viewers out right displaced the sympathy. House of Cards is too careless with its side characters to ever pull of such a delicate balance of thrill and empathy. But it does try and it does fail, reaching for these overly dramatic moments that seem like needless and preposterous story beats intended to inject stakes and emotional heft into the narrative but end up just completely undercutting every emotional moment that proceeded them, like some bogus shot of adrenaline bought off some shady dude in an alley that sends the user into an even worse state, ultimately rendering them a lifeless corpse.
House of Cards spends too much time trying to be great without doing any of the groundwork that helped create a strong foundation the actual great shows used to ascend into greatness. And so it ends up being a good show that thinks it’s great. And a smart person who thinks they’re the smartest in the room will always irritate more than a dumb one that knows he’s dumb.
People buy into it because of the pedigree of it all. Smoke and mirrors. For me, it’s like if everyone else in the world looked at wrestling and thought of it as a deeply engaging narrative with a lot to say about the barbaric state of violence in society, with out of nowhere plot twists that are really gratifying and some nuanced, well balanced character work that meshes real well with the visceral physicality of it all.
It's a shame because we deserve a show like this to be great. It just didn't happen. Oh well!