“House of Cards” (Final Season)–A Different Shuffle

House of Cards Season 6

In the earlier five seasons of House of Cards, Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) represented the Machiavellian Chief Whip then Vice President, and then President. As he manipulated his fellow party colleagues, foreign prime ministers (principally Russia), we witnessed the dark truths of American politics by a despotic megalomaniac.

Now, in Season 6, Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how.  His widow, Claire Underwood (the phenomenal Robin Wright) is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.

Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president.

Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret. But Claire’s late husband still casts a long shadow. “Frank’s legacy” is the cornerstone of the series finale.

House of Cards Season 6

The powerful ending of this season of House of Cards is dramatically sharpened and has an even darker theme: gender issues and patriarchy infused with a stench of misogyny. Claire’s dark secrets venomously boil over, ratcheting towards an ignominious confrontation with Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood’s obsessively devoted acolyte who cannot forgive Claire for what he imagines she is doing to Frank’s legacy.

Overlaid with the backlash of the first female President, we see Claire have to disassociate from her husband’s despicable acts. Nevertheless, her political enemies delight in accusing her of being guilty of Frank’s sins.

Frank’s reach is beyond the grave. As Claire’s enemies come close to impeaching her, Claire does what she and Frank did the last time they got close to defeat: she manufactures a crisis. Claiming that terrorists are attempting to acquire a nuclear bomb, she creates a military standoff between U.S. and Russian troops in Syria.

It’s the thunderous theme of House of Cards: Power is fragile– and we watch as the powerful can be brought tumbling down by the smallest misstep. Claire’s own reign is ultimately doomed to fail, playing a near-impossible game, but as we watch we don’t know how or when.

House of Cards in its final season ends on a dramatically different, more ambiguous and amoral note, than any of its previous seasons or its BBC predecessor. What Frank and Claire did may not really be out of the ordinary. House of Cards is more about the undetected, malignant form of insatiable power: more difficult to expose and defeat.

Totally unexpected, this season of House of Cards is a different and more frightening look at unhinged power. Robin Wright is a marvel to behold!

 

Note:  I have reviewed Seasons 1-4 previously.

 

“House of Cards”, Season 4: Still Stacks Up

House of CardsReleased on Netflix on March 4, “House of Cards: Season 4” grabs viewers yet again—primarily because of the spectacular rise of Claire Underwood (the incomparable Robin Wright). Equal to her husband Frank as a partner in crime (Kevin Spacey at his best), Claire’s rapid and ruthless ascension to power left this viewer breathless. For better or worse, this is a marriage like no other portrayed on television.

Season 4 weaves in past stories, corpses, ex-lovers, and accomplices at lightning speed, to remind us that what Claire wants most in life is to be significant: to be recognized for the power she has, with or without her husband. All of Claire’s hunger and dissatisfaction arise in fury as the woman scorned.

This season revels in the seesawing of the Underwoods: pulling together, then ripping apart. separating and reuniting, as the ultimate power couple realizes they are an inseparable force.   Formidable beyond measure, stronger when united, the Underwoods are nothing less than a molecular structure whose chemical bond creates a new element.

For the first time  Claire’s backstory helps us understand why she had become the person she is. A brilliant narcissistic mother (played by the elegant Ellen Burstyn) reveals the fractured relationship between mother and daughter, which has damaged Claire. Far more than the one-dimensional ice queen, Claire compartmentalizes her life in order to maintain control. For both of the Underwoods—as revealed in their backstories—power is their identity, in the absence of family love and acceptance.

As Claire, Robin Wright smoothly and with little affect cuts through their path to survival with increasingly more perilous Macchiavellian strategies . They have merged into a singular, ruthless force determined to be unstoppable.

In the final two lines of Season 4 we have a jaw-dropping moment, demonstrating Claire’s shift in strength, resilience, and as a catalyst for Frank. Two terse sentences uttered by Frank, but equally imaginable as spoken by Claire, frightened and stunned this viewer..   The paradigm and plot have shifted radically in Beau Willemon’s continued brilliance as a screenwriter. The newest season of House of Cards is indeed binge-worthy.

 

 

 

 

“House of Cards” –On the verge of collapse

House of Cards Season 3

In Season 3 of Netflix’s award-winning series, “House of Cards”, the Beltway game is passing Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) by and only he seems not to know it. This season is wife Claire Underwood’s story. Whatever the subplots and character arcs, this series continues to hinge upon the tortuous dynamics between Frank and Claire Underwood. They’ve been combustible before, but never quite like this. And now it is Claire’s turn to get center stage.

All thirteen episodes again are ready for binge-viewing and, are made for devouring before catching your breath and dissecting the scenes. Claire (Robin Wright), equally matched in jugular-jabbing duplicity to her husband, still stands by her man, but unlike Alicia Florrick in “The Good Wife”, Claire has yet to bloom. Her impending blossoming will be her husband’s undoing.

Showing hints of vulnerability — mainly through the voice and eyes of newly hired presidential biographer Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), Francis isn’t about to become anyone’s target. At turns revealing and concealing, Francis takes us on a journey to his inner hell. And author Yates is the catalyst for undoing the Underwood marriage and encouraging Claire to assert herself.

In an early episode, after first telling the camera that visiting his father’s grave makes him seem more human, Francis nonchalantly and joyfully urinates on the gravestone. In episode four he desecrates a crucifix while purportedly going to the cathedral for spiritual guidance.

“We’re murderers, Francis,” Claire tells him. “No we’re not,” her husband replies without affect. “We’re survivors.” Whatever it takes to survive is the only lesson worth mastering.

House of Cards 3

“House of Cards” is still playing with a full deck but the scabrous King and Queen are ready to collapse on each other, their marriage growing more wobbly in each succeeding scene. Spacey and Wright’s performances remain assured and extraordinary.

That Claire must ask her husband as a supplicant in her own eyes makes her vomit, and her growing popularity with voters is what Frank desperately needs at the same time he fears her influence. In a pivotal scene with an American radical imprisoned for his homosexuality, Claire sees the life she could have had, underscored later on by the presidential biographer Yates.

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The narrative’s dedication to Claire’s complex, perhaps inevitable, revolt against Frank keeps the series fascinating and surprising. This may just be the most well-written political drama ever produced for television or film by the incomparable Beau Willimon (of “Ides of March” fame).

Binge view if you can!

Note:  For my reviews of “House of Cards” season 1 and season 2, see February 11, 2013 (Season 1) and March 12, 2014 (Season 2).

 

 

“House of Cards”–Season 2: The Main Course

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House of Cards–season 2

I just binged on the second season of  the Emmy-award winning “House of Cards,” the Netflix-produced political saga starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire as it continues its narratively complex drama– even better than 2013’s!  (See my February 2013 review of the first season, “House of Cards”–A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?)

In this riveting thriller of political ambition, power, and hubris of Shakespearian proportions, we see the Underwoods cement their lethal relationship as the über power couple on the Beltway, energized by each other’s ruthlessness. Determined to leave no enemy unharmed, the two share everything:  strategy, tactical maneuvers, and annihilation without mercy. But both Claire and Frank have backstories, hinting at the damage that has been done to them.  Their wounds remain unhealed.

Claire and Frank Underwood pursue power without any internalized sense of obligation, morality, or responsibility resulting in the viewer’s fascination and fear of the Underwoods’  impending path of destruction. Frank is unmoved by barbecue vendor Freddy’s refusal to patronize a new butcher who tortuously slow-bleeds the hogs.  Slow-bleeding hogs do not even register on Frank’s radar, a  Vice President who wants policies made his way, and only his way.

In episode after episode of this alarming drama, this pair of frightening anti-heroes–nonetheless earn our reluctant admiration for their brilliant understanding of human psychology.  They can visualize motivations and blind spots even their foes are not fully aware of. Consequently, the Underwoods seem to have no worthy adversary except each other.

In the season finale, Frank is alone in the Oval Office –or rather, talking to us, the viewers on camera.  He taps twice with his ring, a lesson his father had taught him: knock once to toughen your knuckles for a fight and once for good luck.

Prepared, with bare-knuckle fighting almost certainly in his future, Frank knocks twice on the desk in the Oval Office.  But will Claire be the one he has to fight, the blind spot for him? The one he can’t overcome?  We’ll have to wait until February 2015 to see how this immorality play unravels, and how the toy soldiers Frank loves to create symbolize a challenge to his game.

“House of Cards” — A Bulimic Buffet for Couch Potatoes?

Why wait a week to watch another episode when an entire buffet is available?  A lot has been written recently about “binge-watching” the practice of sitting on the couch or in bed to gorge on an entire season or a majority of episodes of a television series in one batch.  The bulimic viewer was not possible before Tivo, DVRs and Netflix video streaming (aka Instant Queue). Netflix has given us 13 episodes of “House of Cards”, a reinterpretation of the 1990 BBC miniseries which starred Sir Ian Richardson as a conniving Parliamentarian who rose to the level of prime minister before meeting his fate.

This 2013 “House of Cards” is the first foray into developing original television content exclusively for Netflix members. What has been the unintended outcome of the release of all thirteen episodes of “House of Cards” on February 1 is that the critical reviews of “House of Cards” have been more about “binge-watching” and less about the plot of this powerful political minidrama.

With the genius of Beau Willimon, (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Ides of March”) and David Fincher (Oscar-nominated for directing “The Social Network”) we have a set of twisted plots worthy of Machiavelli or the Borgias. “House of Cards” has been transformed into a contemporary American narrative about a vengeful Beltway insider, US Congressman and House majority whip Frank Underwood.  Hailing from a nowhere town in South Carolina, Underwood masterminds the destruction of all those who blocked his appointment to Secretary of State.

Set in present-day Washington, D.C., Underwood (Kevin Spacey) decides to inflict his volcanic temper and impalpable revenge upon those who betrayed him.  With lethal self-centeredness he is successful in every detail.  Underwood and his wife Claire (exceptionally played by Robin Wright), epitomize an über power-hungry couple who stops at nothing to conquer everything.  Each needs the other in order to be lethal.   Ruthless and cunning, Frank and Claire bask in the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption, severing all ties with anyone who stands in their way.  Nothing and no one are beyond their grasp, no matter whom they hurt.  Both exploit even the good qualities in others to set them up for manipulation and debasement.

While I personally like watching more than one episode at a time, if the story is tightly woven and meticulously written, I want to savor every tasty morsel.  “House of Cards” has such biting dialog, stunning character work and a provocative exploration of contemporary politics that an “all-you-can-watch” buffet of episodes may result in indigestion. Use portion control in feasting on this series.

 

“The Conspirator”–Is Anyone Listening?

“The Conspirator” opens with a gripping Civil War battle scene and treats us to incredibly imaginative camera angles, shot in sepia tones to time-travel cinematically to the late 1860’s.

This is a story that sits underneath a story we all know– the history-book narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theater. What few of us know is the untold story– of Mary Surratt, (played by Robin Wright), a Southern middle-aged widow who ran the boarding house where Booth and five other conspirators plotted to either kidnap (an important distinction in the movie) or murder not only Abraham Lincoln, but also the vice president (Andrew Johnson), the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of War. Their seditious act was intended to overthrow the government and reinstate the southern states’ hegemony.

Frederick Aiken (superbly played by James McAvoy), is a Union soldier recently recovered from near-fatal wounds at the battle of Appomattox. He is given the insurmountable task of defending Mary Surratt, a civilian, in a trial before a military tribunal, instead of in a civil trial before her peers. Aiken’s revulsion at defending Surratt is palpable. His friends and fiancée’s revulsion is even stronger.

As her defense attorney, Aiken gradually realizes that a military court is trampling Surratt’s rights in order to draw out her son, John, who has fled the state. The viewer does not know whether Surratt is guilty or not, but the evidence is spuriously argued in what is undoubtedly a kangaroo court, and she is unjustly dealt with.

Mary Surratt became the first white female executed under Federal jurisdiction and was photographed in a white hood hanging from a noose alongside her three co-conspirators. This is a tour-de-force courtroom drama with lessons about the U.S. constitution in a time of national fear and war, lessons yet to be learned today. “In times of war, the law falls silent,” one of the military tribunal commissioners, states matter-of-factly. This film is about the unconstitutional acts Americans do when feeling collectively frightened.

I was surprised to find so many critics sitting on the fence on this one. The New York Times called it a “well-meaning, misbegotten movie”. Other critics considered the director, Robert Redford’s treatment of Surratt’s trial heavy handed, undoubtedly due to the parallels the viewer draws between the fear and vengeance of the post-Civil War days and the Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib events of our current political situation. The iconic canvas bags worn over the heads of the conspirators in the film cannot but remind the viewer of the grim photos of Abu Ghraib. The porous border between travesties of justice from the past and those of the present seems to have irked some of the critics.

Robert Redford, as director, has focused on the tragic deceptions people commit in order to save themselves. He has chosen his cast wisely. Robin Wright is the vulnerable pallid-faced prisoner, stoic and fiercely loyal to her son and daughter. The actress is virtually unrecognizable, practically silent throughout, but riveting in conveying subtle expressions weighed down by the burden of grief and bewilderment. At the heart of “The Conspirator,” is the interface between fear and injustice, the crushing of human rights. Who really is the conspirator and who is listening?