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Mr. Arkadin

House of Cards

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8 episodes in, however, and if I was asked to describe the show's moral compass, I would describe it as the pursuit of power. For the majority of characters, my impression is that the highest good for them is power. Why would you say my impression here is wrong?

Yeah. It seems to me that you're mistaking the individual outlook of the characters for the moral outlook of the show itself.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Yeah. It seems to me that you're mistaking the individual outlook of the characters for the moral outlook of the show itself.

Hmmm ... that's certainly possible. Of course, with a rather appealing narrator who constantly breaks the fourth wall to explain his moral outlook, it may be that that is where my difficulty lies.

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Yeah. It seems to me that you're mistaking the individual outlook of the characters for the moral outlook of the show itself.

Hmmm ... that's certainly possible. Of course, with a rather appealing narrator who constantly breaks the fourth wall to explain his moral outlook, it may be that that is where my difficulty lies.

Do you have similar problems with LOLITA or RICHARD III?

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Do you have similar problems with LOLITA or RICHARD III?

Good question. No, I don't. Why not? I didn't find anything really admirable about Humbert or Richard III. I do find Frank Underwood admirable. But whether I find a narrator admirable logically should have nothing to do with what the moral point of the story is. I just can't help wondering what the show's creator's opinions are on the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli.

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Jeremy, I felt similarly at the same point where you are right now. The show didn't seem to want to be more than a political version of Breaking Bad ("check out how this nasty guy gets out of this situation!"), but having finished episode 10, I think that's been turned on its head.

It really snuck up on me, but I am loving everything to do with Peter Russo. Corey Stoll is terrific here.

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Finished it last night. I was glad that that no one got shot in the last few minutes, or something similar, but did anyone else feel like the last episode petered out too much?

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Darren H   

I watched episode 4 last night and am struggling to muster much enthusiasm for the show. This probably isn't fair to House of Cards, but I've also been rewatching the first season of The Wire. They're very different shows, obviously, but when I hear Jeremy wonder what (if any) moral stakes are at play in Cards (and I agree!), I think about all of those shots of kids running through the background of The Pit in The Wire. Both in the scripts and the filmmaking, David Simon prioritized the human consequences of every institutional failure. Cards barely even gestures in this direction -- there's that early scene of Claire trying to buy coffee from an older woman who doesn't know how to use the new-fangled cash register and Russo's comment after learning he'd have to let the facility close in his district ("Those 12,000 people are my friends").

Formally, the only thing that interests me so far is how James Foley was able to direct within the Fincher rule book. I'll watch a few more episodes just to see how Schumacher handles it.

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Russ   

Only 2 1/2 episodes in, but I'm already jonesing for a Youtube supercut of all those scenes where Spacey and his wife have those stupid and bizarre mecha-Machiavelli exchanges.

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Darren H   

It gets worse, Russ. I assume Netflix is able to pull all kinds of interesting audience data, and I assume it reveals that Darren Hughes of Knoxville, TN was one of thousands of people who gave up on the show for good midway through episode six, after Frank's appearance on CNN. Because that was one of the dumbest things I have ever seen.

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Well, I finished it. I enjoyed it and yet still can't shake off the feeling that there is something important that is missing.

Ryan, you cautioned me not to confuse the moral compass of the show with the moral compass of Spacey's Underwood. My problem is that while I'm willing to distinguish between a main character's point of view and that of the storyteller's, there are times when it is difficult to find a reason to do so. For example, I think David Milch managed to create such a compelling character in Al Swearengen, that often it seemed like the main points of Deadwood were made by Al's soliloquies and casual asides. Other than occasionally showing the story through Zoe and Peter's points of view, House of Cards doesn't really seem to have much to critique about Underwood. In fact, Zoe and Peter contrast with Underwood in that they are naive or delusional when he is not.

You also drew a comparison between this show and Shakespeare's Richard III. I find that to be a good comparison, and yet, Shakespeare's sense of moral stakes (even if rather lopsidedly put in either Richmond's voice or Richard's occasional self-awareness) is hard to be found in House of Cards. It wasn't until the last few episodes of the show that I realized how Machiavellian or even nihilistic Underwood really is. But if that is all he's reduced to, then he suddenly becomes much less complex as a character.

I can't help but turn to Chesterton on this one:

... Nietzsche, as every one knows, preached a doctrine which he and his followers regard apparently as very revolutionary; he held that ordinary altruistic morality had been the invention of a slave class to prevent the emergence of superior types to fight and rule them. Now, modern people, whether they agree with this or not, always talk of it as a new and unheard-of idea. It is calmly and persistently supposed that the great writers of the past, say Shakespeare for instance, did not hold this view, because they had never imagined it; because it had never come into their heads. Turn up the last act of Shakespeare’s Richard III and you will find not only all that Nietzsche had to say put into two lines, but you will find it put in the very words of Nietzsche. Richard Crookback says to his nobles:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,

Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

As I have said, the fact is plain. Shakespeare had thought of Nietzsche and the Master Morality; but he weighed it at its proper value and put it in its proper place. Its proper place is the mouth of a half-insane hunchback on the eve of defeat. This rage against the weak is only possible in a man morbidly brave but fundamentally sick; a man like Richard, a man like Nietzsche. This case alone ought to destroy the absurd fancy that these modern philosophies are modern in the sense that the great men of the past did not think of them. They thought of them; only they did not think much of them. It was not that Shakespeare did not see the Nietzsche idea; he saw it, and he saw through it ...

If all House of Cards is giving us is a tale of political intrigue with clever plot twists about the rise (and perhaps the fall) of a nihilistic power hungry manipulative Congressman, it can obviously still be enjoyable with some good acting on Spacey's part. But there's a further level that it seems to be deliberately refusing to rise to.

As I think this through further, I will probably be able to more precisely describe what the trouble is. I will say that House of Cards isn't the only show that has this problem. HBO's Boardwalk Empire has been bordering on the lack of a moral center ever since two characters were lost (and two other characters seem to have given up). Thankfully, BE still has Richard Harrow who provides a striking contrast to almost everyone else. HoC has ... well, he doesn't really have a personality, but ... Lucas?

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4 or 5 episodes in. I'd like to write an essay about David Fincher-styled office spaces.

Spoiler Alert

Closest thing to an interesting suggestion (morally speaking) is when Spacey's wife has the graveyard running moment, which seems to shake her for a time (it's right after she has fired half her employees I think). The next time she returns, she stops at the gate entrance to the graveyard, and church choir music cues--transitions to Spacey's speech in front of the church in his hometown.

The social media aspect is interesting so far, and I like how the show transmits text messages for us to see.

Edit: About the issue of a "moral center"--this reminds me of how I sometimes think about BREAKING BAD versus MAD MEN, two shows that I enjoy. It seems to me that BB has something of a moral center that MM doesn't. MM is like Updike without any available Fritz Kruppenbach's. Then again, I suppose that's the whole point with each show--it's in their very titles.

Edited by Nick Olson

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I'm only two episodes in. So far I am liking it...but I am pretty much enthralled with Fincher's visual style.

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Only seen two episodes so far, but I kinda like it. I can see what Zoller Seitz means about Spacey's asides being a little too redundant and/or on the nose, though. Still, there is some juicy writing here ("I love her more than a shark loves blood...").

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Tyler   

This was inevitable, I suppose:

Also, I decided to give the show another shot (after not liking the premiere) and finished it around a week later. It definitely gets better as the show progresses, but I still feel like it's more interested in the characters as chess pieces than as people. That's not automatically bad, but I think they could have done more to care about the characters. (Doug Stamper is probably my favorite.)

I definitely would not have predicted Joel Schumacher to be the directing MVP, either.

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I was sick last week with a cold and so I watched a lot of television. I got through House of Cards and enjoyed it but then I decided to watch the BBC series its based of off of. It's interesting seeing the similarities between the two. Francis Urquhart (F.U.) breaks the fourth wall even more than Spacey's character.

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NBooth   

I'm on the fifth episode now. Really enjoying it. I do like Spacey, and his turn here is particularly fun to watch. So is the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood. As a matter of fact--as well as Spacey does the scheming, the wheeling and dealing--the most enjoyable scenes, to me, are the ones where the Underwoods talk about--well, anything, really.

The asides don't bother me at all--except the one in the church, which really broke the momentum of the scene. [The rest of that scene was pretty great, though]

One thing that intrigues me here is how comforting the series is. Frank Underwood is thoroughly amoral, but he knows what's going on. He's on top of things (at least, up to this point). And, most importantly, he's able to make the system work. Given the current political deadlock in the US, the world of House of Cards seems more of a fantasy of effectiveness than one of power, exactly. We need to feel, I think, like someone somewhere has their hand on the levers; even if it's an amoral dark god like Frank Underwood (see also: conspiracy theories of all stripes). The idea is comforting--particularly in a time when I think many people in the US are doubting that anyone has their hand on the lever.

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NBooth   

Why Francis Underwood is a Democrat:

There’s a catchphrase in the British version where Francis Urquhart says, “You very well might think that — I couldn’t possibly comment.” It was something I wanted to resurrect in a couple of places as an homage. It just felt wrong to do “House of Cards” and not have that line exist somewhere. The problem I ran up against in my mind, is that this is not the way Americans talk, it is not idiomatically part of our vernacular to speak with that diction, unless you put it in the mouth of someone with a South Carolina upcountry accent. Then it rolls off the tongue and kind of works.

My dad’s side of the family is from South Carolina, and I know that accent well, and then it got me thinking about what Frank Underwood’s story might be. The American mythology is that anyone could be president — you could be from a town called Hope and be president — so I thought him coming from a small town and coming from nothing is a much more American tale, as opposed to coming from aristocracy, which is much more a British political trajectory.

And so I asked my dad if there is a small town in South Carolina that would be appropriate and he mentioned Gaffney, which, of course, is perfect. It was represented for years by a Democrat, John Spratt. Underwood is in no way like Spratt, but the fact that a Democrat represented a mostly rural district in a mostly red state is fascinating.

The things people will find objectionable about Underwood will be about deeper ethical belief systems that transcend political affiliation. If you look at Underwood and what he’s actually doing, he is not someone who binds himself to any particular ideology. His ideology is quicksand, and he would say that the only way to truly survive in Washington and to be effective is to be adaptable.

So even though he’s a Democrat, you find him pushing for an education bill that many Republicans would happily support, a bill that tends to be with many of its planks more on the conservative end of the spectrum.

That’s the hardest thing for us as Americans to swallow: that in order to uphold the rules you sometimes have to break them. And we’re told if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed — that’s the mythology of the Great American meritocracy. Yet again we see people who drop out of college, who leave their job who then succeed. We also believe in this strong brand of individualism, but individualism is about breaking the rules.

I've got four episodes to go. This show really sank its teeth into me, I guess.

EDIT: One more quote from the interview, which speaks [i think] to the kind of thing I was talking about in my previous post:

At a time when we have a Congress choked by gridlock and an administration struggling to push its agenda forward, someone who gets things done may be attractive to people, even if he happens to be compromising.

That's the thing, I think. Underwood, as a person who "gets things done," seems to promise that--beneath the gridlock--someone must know what's happening; someone must be in control. The alternative is too terrifying to contemplate (though I do wonder what a political series where no one knows what's going on would look like).

Edited by NBooth

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I've been watching this series in two-episode chunks, but last night I got to episodes 9 and 10 and... I had to watch 11. Thankfully, 11 ended on a note that allowed for a pause. So, now I just have to find time to watch 12 and 13.

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NBooth   

Just finished. The ending felt a bit--anticlimactic?--but on the whole I'm very positive and look forward to them continuing the series.

Nothing really to add to my comments above; my affection for the Underwoods as a couple remains undiminished; I kept thinking the whole time I watched that they felt very like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth--a little digging around has shown that the original novel/series is intended to evoke both Macbeth and Richard III (hence the asides to the audience)--so I think that the fact that I thought of those very plays constitutes a success on the part of the series? Anyway--as I said above, the scenes with the Underwoods smoking and discussing (anything, really) were the highlight of the series to me; their relationship is such a thorough mixture of fearsome and oddly admirable that there was never a dull moment when they shared the screen [it seemed to me that Russo and Gallagher were moving this direction until late in the series].

Incidentally, can it be a coincidence that the guy tapped to replace Russo is named Capra?

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Just finished. The ending felt a bit--anticlimactic?

Spoiler Alert

At the end of the second to last (third to last?) episode, after Francis has killed Peter, and the show ends by cutting to the credits with the Underwoods offering their deep condolensces to the reporters, that, to me, was the season's climactic finale. It was such a gasp-inducing moment--a most shockingly representative scene of a show that wears its dark heart on its sleeve with total self-awareness. The rest of the season, save for a great Francis-at-church-confessing scene, is prep for season 2.

Edited by Nick Olson

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Coming to DVD and Blu-Ray in June. So it's not *just* for streaming. It's a Netflix *original* but not a Netflix *exclusive*, per se.

Nick: Delayed reaction here, but I am sympathetic to your perspective on the 11th episode. (The events you're referring to were definitely in the 11th episode; I was watching the series in 2-episode bites, but after the cliffhanger of episode 10 I had to watch episode 11 right away.) Among other things, it brings the series back full circle to the opening scene of the 1st episode, while also escalating things. (Killing a person is way more serious than killing a dog.)

I am also intrigued by the way the journalists in the final episode seem to think they have uncovered a conspiracy of sorts -- a "master plan" on the Spacey character's part -- but my memory of those early episodes is that he *didn't* have things mapped out the way they finally transpired. It would be interesting to go back and re-watch those episodes and see if the journalists' theory holds water, though; and, if it doesn't, it will be interesting to see how the Spacey character deals with their efforts to make him out to be even more cunning than he actually is.

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I just like the Netflix description of episode 11. "Francis crosses a line."

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