March 20, 2014

WANG | Ruthlessness, A Fragrance by Frank Underwood

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By ALICE WANG

Just as your retinas are recovering from the streaming marathon of everybody’s Valentine this year, Frank Underwood, Netflix has announced the official renewal of House of Cards for a third season. Just in time, as my blood thirst for the Underwood’s special brand of deeply satisfying depravity has renewed with vigor. With too much pesky morality creeping back into my consciousness, I pine for the dark camp of Kevin Spacey’s Underwood, of that monotone bastard formed in equal parts by masterful deception, Southern charm and Freddy’s baby-back ribs. To abate some of the withdrawal of your vicariously-experienced villainy, here are some instances of celebrated sin and slick verbiage delivered by an Obama-approved television POTUS.

“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or the useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”

David Fincher ain’t playing games, son. In Frank’s fourth-wall-breaking aside in the series’ opening scene, he snuffs out an injured dog without so much as a flinch. Purposefully, Fincher uses this line to set up the show for the signature perversion of HoC’s Machiavellian anti-hero. Its equally brilliant sister line in season two’s first episode serves a similar objective: “There are two types of vice presidents: doormats and matadors. Which one do you think I intend to be?” Both quotes embody the Underwoods’ philosophy of ruthless pragmatism that underlies the true sinister underbelly of American politics. This is one example of how HoC looks to some semblance of historical accuracy — though its entirety may be rife with laughable implausibilities. This scene reminds the viewer of the same ruthless pragmatism and corrupt bargaining that allowed Lincoln to pass the thirteenth Amendment, of George Washington’s family crest, “The ends justify the means,” of a callous America we’d like to malign but, in actuality, venerate. We have been weaned with an appetite for blood, both by the nature of the human condition and by the backbone of this country, and who can blame us?

“One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is overrated.”

Speaking of implausibility, there seems to be a barrage of journalism intent on dissecting the outlandish mechanics of House of Cards’ political plots. This, to me, entirely misses the point. While it’s true that Frank is simply too good at knowing how everyone will react around him to be a truly believable protagonist, HoC is not meant to be a strict imitation of reality. That is perfectly adequate. Not all political programming needs to be a probing indictment of Washingtonian affairs. In fact, come to think of it, how closely does real-life politics even resemble reality? And how closely does real-life politics resemble the barnyard shenanigans in Animal Farm? Unfortunately — or perhaps gloriously — the two may be more comparable than initially believed. Besides, HoC is wondrously binge-watchable because viewers get off on Frank’s ridiculous omnipotence. The audience is rewarded for their laziness of thought, for cracked plotlines and cheap twists (R.I.P., Zoe Barnes). After all, what the show does best is feed our addiction for how fucking awesome it would be to always get everything you want. And guess what? We are all hopelessly, happily enslaved by this fantasy.

“A great man once said, ‘Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.’”

Season two saw the re-characterization of Claire as the Lady Macbeth to Frank’s Richard III. It was about time HoC elevated her status from season one’s anti-feminist sidekick to a formidable co-conspirator. The couple traded mutual infidelity for intra-marital freakiness — get it, Meechum! — and it made for an overall more spirited story arc. Though the threesome seemed more like a throw-away to wrap up the lingering question of Frank’s bisexuality from his visit to his former military college, the rest of season two’s commentary on sex, power and the Underwood’s marriage was (almost) equally shocking.

“He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.”

Articulated perfectly by our favorite wordsmith, HoC once again elucidates the potency of the Underwoods’ shared motivation. For every backchannel political maneuver, for every loaded exchange amongst foe-turned-friend-turned-foe-again, the viewer jizzes just as hard as Frank on his power trip. Even better, as Claire adds her own trademark deceit into the mix, their collective ambition of upward mobility grows impossibly more intense. When Frank struggles between defending Freddy and regaining President Walker’s trust, Claire forcefully commands: “I’ve done what I had to do. Now you do what you have to do. Seduce him. Give him your heart. Cut it out and put it in his fucking hands.” Damn, Lady MacB ain’t fucking around. After all, D.C.’s a jungle. Hunt, or be hunted.

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