Jun 232015

The first season of House of Cards was extraordinary television. Frank’s and Claire’s ambition, their intelligence and their controlled advance toward their goal launched the entire show beyond ordinary concerns and into a realm that recalled Shakespeare.

After sitting through the first few episodes of season three, that description sounds exaggerated to me: how could the show I’m watching now have been that good in that first season? It’s hard to believe because the subsequent seasons have shrunk down to mere roman à clef cleverness and posturing.

In that first season, Frank was a post-Nietzschean MacBeth unencumbered by conscience. Now he’s just mean, desperate, and listless. I’m so uninterested that I don’t expect I’ll even finish the season.

Oct 142014

House of Cards began as a study of amorality that took power and marriage as its subjects. [note]These may look like unequally specified terms but “marriage,” despite appearances, is as abstract as “power.”[/note] Season one offered up a political story in which primary passions were channeled through a patient and passionless rationality. This story was completely unfettered by the moral prejudices that generally keep us from seeing clearly what people do while doing very little to keep people from actually doing what they want. Perhaps even more radically (given the way “family”—another abstraction—acts as a moral touchstone today), the show portrayed a successful, intimate, adult marriage that is not at all about kids.

Season 2 changes all that, offering up a story of an immoral couple willing to do anything to take control of the Presidency. Perhaps this is intentional, a suggestion that amorality always falls into immorality in the way that excess falls into decadence. Maybe, but I don’t think so. Watching it and seeing how, specifically, they changed Claire’s character, I think that the writers had a failure of imagination or lost their nerve.

So Claire. In the first season, she was in every way Francis’s equal. So much so in fact that you had to wonder sometimes if she wasn’t pulling all the strings. She was powerful, intelligent, creative, and self-aware. She understood how others reacted to her beauty, her position, and had the self-possession to choose—always to choose—how she would act. Two pinnacle moments expressing these qualities: when she turns the violent sexism of the dying man’s fantasies back on him and when she creates the origami sculpture out of her lover’s photographs.

In season two, she leaves her job to become something like Francis’s legislative assistant, and worse, her former career is redefined as the obstacle that kept her from fulfilling her role as a mother. The shift toward morality here is subtle and consists in assuming that her basic and proper role, a role which she must have consciously rejected, is motherhood. Is this perspective reflective of contemporary cultural assumptions? Probably. Almost certainly. But it’s not the assumption underpinning the marriage developed in the first season. In that marriage, motherhood is an option that Claire chooses not to take, which is something very different.

Claire’s representation is potentially contentious because she is so central, but the shift toward morality is visible even in incidental details. Take for example Claire and Francis’s shared, late-night cigarettes. In the first season, these cigarettes were deliciously transgressive and expressive: they were a sign of the intimacy and aptness of a couple that make choices for themselves. In season two, they share an e-cigarette and exchange lifeless banter about cigarettes not being good for you. Then they go jogging. Where’s the iconoclasm in that?

Ultimately, my dislike of the second season has helped me see more clearly what it is that makes television viewing difficult for me. I tend to engage quite heavily in what I read and watch. Yes, I have a strong commitment to seeing what is there in a text and accounting for it honestly (these logs are intended to help with that), but I also keep a close eye out for what is not there. These places are the field of my imagination. They are where I read in a writerly way.

In a show like House of Cards or Damages, first seasons, which are powerfully suggestive but also necessarily fragmentary, are like traps. When later seasons make choices about what was not said previously, the contradictions between them and what I loved–which is necessarily an amalgam of textual detail and the products of my imagination–make later seasons a real disappointment. In pre-internet days, water cooler talk might have regulated my fancy, but in the world of Netflix, I watch seasons quickly and alone and love what I love on my own terms without check. And that makes later seasons hard to swallow.