SPOILERS SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED THE SEASON STOP READING NOW
Roughly one third of the way through The Godfather, Marlon Brando’s titular character is nearly assassinated by hit men from a rival family. It’s a decisive moment in both that individual film and in the series more generally. Prior to that moment, we have a mob story in which everything revolves around an individual genius whose power and influence causes everything else in the story to live in the shadow of the protagonist. And that still manages to be interesting because the film realizes the historical moment so marvelously and the characters are so compelling. But then director Francis Ford Coppola pushed the story further with the near death of his star.
When Vito is shot, he’s taken out of commission for about an hour of story-time. And during that time we get to see how all the other characters in the show respond. We see Sonny detached from the mitigating influence of his father. We see Fredo left to fend for himself. And, most important, we see Michael transformed by the loyalty he has for his father into his father’s successor who will one day become the answer to the question “What would Vito Corleone be like without his family?”
When you have a dominant character like Vito—or Frank Underwood—benching them for awhile can work beautifully for the story by forcing all of the other characters to act in new ways, removed from the influence of that dominant central character.
Unfortunately, House of Cards move to sideline Frank for several episodes, though it does reset things for a season that started slowly, doesn’t work in the same way. Rather than foregrounding new characters who introduce new motivations, tensions, and ambitions to the story, sidelining Frank simply foregrounds new characters who… act just like Frank.
The problem here is with how singular Cards is in its characterization and themes. Telling stories where the vast majority of characters are motivated only by power and greed is not a problem, of course. If you read “MacBeth” (and this season of Cards has been compared to “MacBeth” by several reviewers) you’ll find that Shakespeare could tell stories like that quite easily. But “MacBeth” has other characters who are motivated by something other than greed and ambition—MacDuff most notably.
Cards goes beyond that; it’s not simply that the protagonist is motivated only by power and many of the secondary characters are as well. In Cards power is the only thing that exists. Even policy doesn’t really exist as a thing in itself in the show, but only as a useful lever that savvy characters can use to establish themselves or topple a rival.
It is striking, for example, how Cards mimics so many aspects of contemporary Washington in its story-telling yet in its approach to partisanship seems suspended in a kind of 1950s reality where neither party is deeply ideological. Policy isn’t simply a marginal concern for Cards, in many ways it is not a concern at all. Cards is a show about Washington in 2016 that somehow tries to convince us that the only time politicians are concerned with policy in when it connects to their own personal quest for power and influence. And while that may be true for some pols, the Cards universe doesn’t seem to have any room for people like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren on the left or Ron Paul or Rick Santorum on the right—people whose political skills may be questionable but who clearly believe in specific policies and work in politics in the hope of seeing those policies enacted.
The underlying issue here goes back to a quote I came across once that I think comes from Tolkien (please comment if you know the quote). The gist of the quote is that storytellers can only ever work with the raw materials that their experience of the world and beliefs about it will give them. The chief problem with Cards is that its creators have a very, very small amount of material to work with due to their fixation on power as the all-consuming obsession of literally every person we meet in Washington. And so even when they hit on an interesting plot twist that has the potential to breathe new life into the show—let’s almost off Frank and take him out of the picture for a few episodes—they actually can’t do anything terribly interesting with that because all they can do is given us another Frank.
The truly maddening thing is that the potential exists in these characters to be much more interesting. The prominence of Claire’s mother in this season creates all sorts of dramatic potential. But ultimately Claire’s mother is no different than anything else in the Cards universe—she’s a resource to be stewarded (exploited, really) for the sake of political advancement.
The point here is not simply that House of Cards has some sort of bad worldview or believes wrong things. This is about something deeper that speaks not simply to the beliefs of the story-teller but to the quality of the story. If Cards is derivative and ridiculous (and rescued chiefly by the one-two punch of stunning cinematography and campy story-telling that somehow still works), that is because the writers of the show seem to know of nothing but power.
So when they decide to tell their story, they can only tell different stories about betrayal, manipulation, and deception. And eventually one becomes weary with such things. One villain like Frank Underwood can be interesting. But spending 40 hours over four seasons with a seemingly endless supplies of Frank Underwoods or dupes to be manipulated by Frank Underwood… well, one grows wear of it.
CSL has a quote that says “The book cannot be what the writer is not” but I’m not sure that’s the one you meant.