Controlling the Binge: TxM Watches HOC — Pt. 2

[Pt. 1 of this set of posts can be found here]

GB: Controlled viewing of this season of House of Cards is paying off, I think. They are cramming a lot more information into these episodes, and I’ve found myself legitimately thinking about the plotlines and how they intersect in the time when I’m not watching. This contrary to the binge mentality of: absorb enough information to get to and understand the ending, then assume you’ll watch it again. Through episodes 5–8, my biggest questions related to the auxiliary characters, mainly Stamper and Dunbar. If House of Cards is a show about the power dynamics and relative intensity of the political arena, isn’t their depiction kind of painting them as in a different (lower) league than Frank? Stamper seems split between the two goals of finding Rachel and helping Dunbar, with no real endgame in either. Whereas Dunbar is clearly a crowd-pleaser who doesn’t really understand how to play chess. The middle part of this season just made me feel like Frank was getting set up to crush them.

NA: Agreed. The middle episodes of the past two season always had a coasting feeling that doesn’t leave until you re-watch them and realize the depth of HoC’s plotlines and characters. The major difference here is, whereas in 1 and 2 the depth of the characters were revealed (Stamper’s alcoholism, Underwood’s exceedingly complex sexuality, etc.), season 3 deals with actual change in how the characters act. With Stamper, he has been placed in uncharted grounds after being ditched by Frank and seems to have no clue how to react. With Dunbar, she started out as a respectable adversary, but now she seems cartoony and — oddly — fake in her authenticity in dealing the public and others (which contrasts sharply with Frank’s ruthless lying to everyone in the show, but likeability to the viewer). Either way, while other seasons obviously had their major moments (DC’s subway will be forever scary) this season has been pivotal in the minutiae.

What the hell do you make of this “America Works” obsession?

GB: I see it as kind of a vector for what we were talking about before with regards to Frank needing a trajectory. It’s the only way for them to give him a conflict as president apart from being assassinated or impeached — to set him a political task.

America Works itself is a bizarre idea. It’s obviously referencing The New Deal, but in an almost half-assed way, since I’m assuming the writers are only willing to hold one niche market (political vs. historical) in high honor. However, the focus in everyone else’s minds, both in modern America and in the show, is far from jobs. As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes, jobs being available isn’t really the issue, it’s the jobs people want to do.

This is interesting for two reasons: first, Frank was always willing to do whatever job was necessary to meet his goal, thus America Works sheds a light on his dedication by giving a sliver of opportunity to everyone who has access to the program. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, it allows for contrasting perspectives to the political players the show focuses on. Freddie ranks up there with Rachel as one of the most important apolitical characters in the history of the show — by bringing him back in the context of America Works we are reminded that there are Americans outside of the political arena. Freddie isn’t willing to take whatever job he’s given and he doesn’t see a light at the tunnel no matter how hard he’s willing to fight. America Works is the way that we see the contrast between the lawmaker and who it affects. It’s Frank’s delusion embodied.

NA: That’s a great point. The first half of the season has been somewhat anti-climactic. We wait the first 2 seasons as Frank scraps for more and more power, and when he finally has (almost) everything he wants… he does a shitty job. To get pretentiously postmodern, David Foster Wallace wrote/spoke:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

As we saw, Frank certainly doesn’t worship any god. He made that pretty clear by hawking a loogie on good ol’ JC. He worships power, and I doubt he’ll ever have enough of it. America Works — in its own way — shows that. Frank thinks it will work if people just follow his lead, i.e. if he had the power to force it into action, it would work. But the viewer knows it’s a shitty idea. For me, this is the first time I truly saw Frank do something — not wrong — but ineffective.