House of Cards, Season 4: No Good Deed

House of Cards, Season 4: No Good Deed

Minor spoilers, because I do not really care for this show. 

I’ve endured another season of House of Cards hoping against hope that it finally lives up to its namesake and comes tumbling down. The shenanigans and tomfoolery that Frank Underwood has either orchestrated or somehow wiggled out of are stretching the bounds of believable at this point with the character himself absent of any of the charm or devil-may-care attitude that made him so watchable in the beginning. Now he is simply an asshole politician, if you’ll excuse the lack of delicacy. A lot of the fun of the first and second season was in watching him maneuver and beguile his way into power using his wits and bloodthirsty instincts. Even as bad a man as he clearly was, Underwood fascinated by winning at any cost and an audience loves a winner, morally bankrupt or not. It was classical, compelling, and Machiavellian until around the third season when the show shifted gears completely and became the Evil Twin of The West Wing, a far superior show in terms of scale and verisimilitude. Because as much as the acting and production quality had not changed much, the last thing we want to do, as an audience, is watch Machiavelli run for office, let alone attempt to govern. Make no mistake, though, the fourth season is a drastic improvement and a near return to form but like every season before it I was left with the exact same feeling by the end: just dirty all over.

When last we left off Frank is trying to save the economy by sacrificing Social Security and (failing at) matching wits with a thinly veiled mock-up of Putin (who is written as not such a bad guy, only putting up a front) only for Claire, his serpentine wife to turn her back on him at his most vulnerable, having suddenly come to the revelation that her ambitions would always come second to her narcissistic, murderous, amoral, power-hungry husband. Uhm. Hashtag Feminism? This abrupt about-face was supposed to leave us on the edge of our seats but instead felt unearned and not because her betrayal was unjustified, just long overdue if it was valid at all. And so from the start of the season Frank is scrambling for sure footing. Thankfully, the rift between the two of them is the dealt with efficiently allowing the rest of the story to mend itself into something resembling the real drama and suspense of a Presidential election. Because there isn’t nearly enough of that going on in the news.

Joel Kinnaman. Well. Joel Kinnaman is exactly as charming as a big wet blanket that someone has drawn a very handsome face on. I don’t understand the casting here because although he can play smart and confident, he’s absolutely tone deaf as a politician. I’m hoping that this season of House of Cards gets the Emmy nomination for Special Effects for its depiction of the man delivering a motivating speech to a crowd and then loses because I didn’t buy that shit for one second. His character Will Conway is very interesting, however, and a Conservative wet dream: Handsome? Check. War Hero? Check. Stepford Wife? British and hot, double check! Charismatic? ……….Pass. He’s also extremely tech-savy and morally flexible so he makes for an excellent opponent to Frank Underwood and a believable front runner in an election. Also, Neve Campbell is in this season. That’s really all I have there. The rest of the supporting cast does a lot to keep the plot moving along and is an absolute boon to the show as a whole. And they are finally, finally starting to close ranks around Frank. Suffice it to say things actually start to happen in this season and the high-wire act appears to be reaching a middle. For the first time since the end of the first season, I am genuinely looking forward to the next so whatever Beau Willimon put on his Wheaties, he needs to stock up on it. Oh, wait what? Strike that.

I don’t know if I’m masking my contempt for this show very well but let me be clear. I get that it is a quality television program with often great acting, good writing and directing, and the production value is on par with most HBO offerings, alright? That, I get. What I don’t enjoy is a show that bandies me about the head with hopelessness and despair from scene to scene. I’ll admit that I enjoy a show like, let’s say Breaking Bad, as dark as it is, because at most points there’s someone I can either relate to or root for and that’s just not the case in HoC. Every time a character even attempts to do the right thing or be good in some way the repercussions are almost instantly and staggeringly bad for them. I know this is the aesthetic that the show is aiming for, that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and only the strong survive and it achieves this kind of drama very effectively. But, and I know this is simply my personal preference, that’s just not the kind of world I want to settle down in for 13 hours at a time.

I will say this about Netflix’ flagship series House of Cards: it is a dark glass to see through that makes honest attempts at integrating real world scenarios into its plotlines. And where the aforementioned West Wing, which was admittedly an idealistic look at White House politics, would attempt and often succeed at solving these conundrums, HoC does no such thing. Instead, these events are used, as they often are in real life, to obfuscate or manipulate other players on the chessboard, or the public as a whole and again, although I respect that approach, it reminds me why I have such a hard time enjoying the show. The world is a cold enough place. Speaking of cold, my God the finale was chilling. Effective and truly disturbing, it stuck with me for a few days and, despite my preferences, I offer my sincere respect for how well it was executed. Which is the good thing to do, I feel. Which means if we were in the world of HoC I should subsequently be abducted by a pack of rabid dogs and framed for high treason.

 

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Daredevil, Season 2: When a Good Man Goes to War

Daredevil, Season 2: When a Good Man Goes to War

I had a difficult time believing that the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil could outdo the first, which was mature and complex as well as intelligent and incredibly grounded for what it was. It never felt like a comic book adaptation and not simply because of its literal and thematic darkness; Drew Goddard and Co. seemed to take the source material earnestly without forgetting that storytelling isn’t just about beating your audience about the head with seriousness and themes (House of Cards, I’m not so much nodding in your direction as I am staring at you with piercing, accusatory crazy eyes). Storytelling can also be, you know, fun. It’s escapism. And as horrible and violent as Hell’s Kitchen seems to be at points, you never want to look away from the screen. It’s oddly beautiful in its own way and populated, lived in. Like these characters are living and breathing even when we aren’t around to see. I was wrong about Season 2. It not only embraces what was strong and effective about Season 1, it finds a much steadier and consistent tone, expands on an already great cast, and, like any good literature, explores some very interesting and divisive ideas, namely when, if ever, is killing in the name of justice justified.

It’s such a thrilling time to be a comic book fan, when comic book shows and movies are being made by other comic fans rather than adapted and watered down to satisfy a larger audience by people who seem to have a disdain for the source material. Mostly. Drew Goddard, again, did a great job as a writer and producer on the first season and has gone on to be nominated for adapting The Martian, so things are on the up and up for him. But he is also a Joss Whedon alum which is a good and a bad thing. The knack for story structure is there and he is still exec producing on DD but the humor, specifically the quirky, witty, often self-deprecating dialogue always felt a little forced to me when it’s coming from anyone but Joss. In Season 1 it often nagged at me, particularly coming from Foggy and the evil Warden from The Shawshank Redemption. With Whedon you are either all the way in his world or not at all, and one of the first things I noticed about Season 2 was an absence of that humor. This could have been a dangerous thing in an already dark and violent show that is introducing one the most dark and violent “heroes” in the Marvel Universe, Frank Castle as The Punisher, but it never seems to matter as the writing succeeds in accomplishing what it sets out to do. Of the three live action attempts at the character, all have succeeded in pissing off one audience or another. I would argue that the Thomas Jane film is not nearly as disastrous as people make it out to be and that I actually kind of liked it but I also don’t really want to be hunted down in the streets. So let’s pretend that I did not.

My opinion of Jon Bernthal was complicated in that during his run on The Walking Dead I hated his character. I was uncomfortable when he was on screen, even frightened of him as he was clearly becoming more and more unspooled but the funny thing is, as soon as he was dispatched from the story (spoilers, omg that’s like five seasons ago wth) I suddenly realized that I missed him. Desperately. He was the only interesting and compelling character at that point. While everyone else was hand-wringing and whining about all the things, Shane was quietly going insane which was awesome. And where Charlie Cox’ Daredevil is all focused and peripheral awareness when suited up, Bernthal takes that quiet rage that he bottles up so well and absolutely kills it as Frank Castle. The dynamic here is fantastic, I felt like a kid reading the page again simultaneously rooting for them to fight but also wanting them to become BEST FRIENDZ.

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I’m not your buddy, guy.

This season also improves the presence of supporting characters Foggy and Karen, who, up until this point in the show again, have been about as interesting and compelling as two characters named Foggy and Karen. The latter did have some kick ass moments in Season 1, but this time around she has actual agency and I found her interactions with Frank to be genuinely touching. Foggy also gets something to chew on this season, rather than being just the comic relief/complaining best friend, although he has not left that all behind just yet.

When it was announced that Elektra would be introduced my first thought was, there is no way that they can top the action/sexual tension of the film version, it’s impossible. And of course they pulled this off by ending their first confrontation, this time in a boxing ring, with its logical conclusion (minor spoiler alert): boning. To be fair, all they really needed to do to top the film in terms of drama and action was roll two russet potatoes down a slight incline and film it. The worst part? Affleck and Garner got married. How do you miss out on sexual tension between two people that are legitimately sexually attracted to each other? I digress. Elodie Yung is a definite improvement on the character and an exceptional femme fatale: at once bored and intelligent, deadly and sly. Like a….spider? A sexy spider. (Do not google ‘sexy spider’. Oh Lord.)

 

Elektra Casting 01
An apology for the sexy spider metaphor.

 

So that conversation about killing, essentially a dialogue about the death penalty, is handled pretty literally. I remember being in support of it most of my adult life but now I am less convinced of its utility. Oddly enough, it was a comic book hero from my youth that introduced me to the debate years ago in the Spider-Man series Maximum Carnage, spread across 14 different issues and publications. Basically, the symbiotic offspring of Venom named Carnage goes on a mass killing spree through New York City and Spider-Man has to team up with a ton of other heroes in order to stop him. But every time Spidey catches up he stops short of killing the bad guy and instead tries to apprehend him which invariably leads to another escape, and another spree. More innocent deaths. I was confused by this as a kid and asked, as some of the characters do, at what point is Spider-Man responsible for some of those murders? For not taking that final step? It’s never quite resolved or explained well enough but years later, I have a better answer than what was offered before. The fundamental difference between Daredevil and Punisher is doubt or an absence of. It’s a subject the first season explored to great effect and what makes Daredevil the hero that he is: as a lawyer and a vigilante he is perpetually in conflict, constantly questioning the validity of his actions, much like the law should in a free society. When they have their showdown, their opposing ideologies come into conflict and where Castle is eager to play the role of executioner, Murdock makes his case. What about hope. Redemption. It’s real and it’s possible. The people you kill deserve another chance…to try again.

Season 2 of Daredevil is a phenomenal success and, again, raises the bar for what comic book properties can deliver in terms of dynamic, exciting storytelling. This may be a bold statement but with Phase 3 of the MCU set to kick off with Captain America: Civil War, the film universe will have its work cut out for it.