House of Cards, Netflix series, 2015.
First, a spoiler alert. Anyone who loves the Netflix series House of Cards and has not yet made it to episode six this season may want to stop reading now.
For those of my fellow avid fans who have gotten that far, can you join me in asking, what the…?
From what I can tell by looking at the listings, every American prime time drama these days revolves around people who work in crime labs in various cities. Public TV is now made up entirely of shows from Britain, often with exciting plot lines that revolve around dinner and committee appointments.
House of Cards, which in full disclosure was based on a British show of the same name before British shows got boring, is so refreshing because none of the characters are especially admirable, which makes all the characters interesting. There is no hero exactly. Just a ruthless Washington power couple named Frank and Claire Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.
As the third season unfolds, Frank has connived and plotted his way into the presidency, and he has appointed Claire ambassador to the United Nations, where she has been struggling to prove herself. Claire Underwood’s character has been steely in her ruthlessness, and she carries that into the halls of diplomacy. Things are really getting good.
Then you get to episode six, which starts out strong but ends in disaster.
It's as if the House writers had gone out for lunch, leaving the door unlocked, and the writers from CSI Miami walked in, found the unfinished script, and completed it for them.
In episode six Frank and Claire fly to Moscow to negotiate with the Russian president. Frank wants a Mideast peace deal and the Russian leader wants to defuse an international incident in which an American gay rights activist has been jailed in Moscow. The deal is that the Russian will agree to a complicated peace proposal if the Americans will give him a graceful way out of the incident with the jailed American.
It’s all set up to work until the American activist refuses to leave his Moscow prison cell because he doesn’t like a prepared statement praising the Russian president. The episode sets up a sophisticated tension between an individual idealist and real, hardball politicians. I started out on the side of the activist, and then, as the episode unfolded, I began to believe he was just being self-aggrandizing. Say a nice thing about a Russian leader you despise in exchange for a historic peace agreement that could wind up saving tens of thousand of lives. Doesn’t seem like a hard choice unless you’re really into yourself.
But what makes House of Cards such a great show is that that’s just the way I felt about it based on my experience in politics. You might look at the same situation and side with the activist. My point is that the show’s writers don’t usually tell you what to think.
So they brought us to the point in the episode where the activist had hung himself in his cell and Claire joined the presidents at a news conference where she read a carefully prepared statement in which she lied about the circumstances of his death in order to facilitate the broader, bigger peace deal. Unfeeling politicians doing a brutal thing to accomplish a greater good. The end does justify the means sometimes. Cheer that or be appalled by it, but it’s not the kind of childish, simplistic, mindless morality play that you’d get in most other places on the small screen these days.
That’s when the good writers went to lunch and the bad writers showed up to run the show into a brick wall. All of a sudden, out of left field and way out of character, Claire develops a malignant conscience. She stays at the podium and recants what she had just read. She insults the Russian president and scuttles the whole peace deal. It’s totally implausible both for her character and for the situation.
A good, thought-provoking episode comes crashing down in a hail of sentimentality and simplistic morality. In 30 seconds they took two and a half seasons of great television and blew it up.
Have you ever seen Four Weddings and a Funeral? You know the line, “Oh. Is it raining?” Yeah, it was like that.
I’m not giving up on House of Cards entirely just because one of my favorite calculating characters suddenly became Mother Teresa. I’ll finish the season when I can summon the strength, but for now I need to take a break from the show. It just broke my black heart.