Spoilers below spoilers below do not blame me for spoiling it if you read this there are spoilers below. Ahem.
Since the debut of House of Cards‘ third season last week the reviews have been a mostly consistent blend of “meh” and “zzzz.” Those reviews are basically right, but a further point needs to be made about the show’s failings in order to understand why the show has gone from an exciting (if also horrifying) first season to a mostly dull and tedious third season.
It’s become a cliche to contrast the 2010s Washington-based hit TV show about politics, Cards, with the 1990s version of the same, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In most ways the contrasts are obvious–Obama-era disillusionment with Clinton-era hopefulness, Obama-era crises with Clinton-era solutions, etc. But in one way the two shows look more alike than different: for both to be seen and to be in Washington doing political work are one and the same.
Near the end of West Wing‘s run President Bartlett’s former chief of staff Leo McGarry gives a memorable speech to the rest of the Bartlett staffers, telling them that they only have a short time left in the White House and that they can accomplish more good in that limited time than most people can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Though quite different in how it sees the work done in Washington, Cards has a similar tendency.
It’s not just that characters who get killed disappear completely–that’s to be expected although one can’t help wishing that the show had done more with the Russo and Barnes storylines. It’s that any character who falls out of the immediate orbit of the upper echelons of the DC establishment disappears too. Janine Skorsky and Lucas Goodwin were both interesting characters who completely disappeared after Skorsky was intimidated into dropping an investigation and Goodwin was thrown in prison. Likewise in season three we never once see Raymond Tusk despite his being Underwood’s only even somewhat capable rival in the show’s first two seasons. Tusk isn’t a player in Washington anymore so he isn’t a player in the show.
This then explains why the show doesn’t work as a relationship drama, which is what it’s attempting to be in season three: none of the characters exist in actual relationships with one another. Rather, they exist only to the extent that they concern Frank’s Nietzschean pursuit of power. If the show wanted to be a relationship drama, it should have kept Lucas and Janine in the frame this season rather than introducing more minor characters who orbit around the Underwood ego for a short time before passing off the scene just as they are starting to be interesting.
What allows us to love characters, to hang on their choices and thrill to see what they do next, is to see them acting in all areas of life. When Hank Schrader was just a big-mouth bigoted cop from Albuquerque in Breaking Bad‘s early seasons, no one much cared about him. But when we saw him recovering from life-threatening injuries, caring for the White family’s kids, and forming a tragic friendship with Walter we suddenly became enamored with him. He became one of the best heroic characters in recent television or film. But we had to see him outside of his identity as a cop to get there. Likewise Eric and Tami Taylor became far more interesting once we began to see their marriage and how it shaped their whole lives. As a football coach and guidance counselor they are occasionally compelling but nothing like as interesting and remarkable as they would become as husband and wife.
It’s in these ordinary happenings of life that the drama lives. When Admiral Adama is an uptight, aging military commander he’s a cliche. When he’s a frail man broken by his wife’s death and his estranged relationship with his son he’s interesting.
The trouble with these Washington shows, for all their other differences, is that they make it difficult for us to see the ordinary lives of these characters simply because all of it is crowded out by politics and power and Washington. In West Wing we at least saw the staffers’ lives outside of politics, even if politics invariably shaped and confined what shape that life would take, as in Josh’s attempt to date the rather odious Amy Gardner. It’s perhaps telling that none of the characters ever become particularly active parents, a couple episodes with the Bartlett family not withstanding, even though several of them have kids. You can politicize a dating relationship far more easily than you can a relationship that consists of changing diapers and reading Goodnight Moon.
Cards is a step worse than West Wing in that we don’t even really see what our characters are like in the parts of their lives not immediately concerned with politics. Sex and a pale shadow of friendship exist in the Cards universe, but both are impossible to understand apart from their relationship to partisan politics in Washington.
In the final episode of season three, one major character in the show says that she simply wants to disappear. She wants to go where “no one can ever find her again.” She wants to forget her old life in Washington and all the things she had to do. But House of Cards doesn’t know how to acknowledge a place other than Washington and work other than the grittiest sort of modern politics. To exist outside of Washington and to not exist at all are basically synonymous in Cards. And so, rather fittingly, it is only a few minutes after giving that speech that this character is killed.