[SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVEALS MAJOR PLOT DETAILS FROM SEASON THREE OF HOUSE OF CARDS, BUT DON’T WORRY, IT DOES NOT MENTION THE BIG REVEAL THAT FRANK UNDERWOOD IS ACTUALLY A DEEP COVER SOVIET-TRAINED SPY. WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT AT ALL.]
The hardworking staff here at Spoiler Alerts powered through season three of “House of Cards” over the past few days in an effort to stay au courant with sophisticated readers of The Post. In the process, I had a realization: “House of Cards” is to American politics as “The Walking Dead” is to the zombie apocalypse. That’s both a good and bad thing.
On the plus side, both shows have excellent production values and genuine moments of quality drama sprinkled through their seasons. As for acting, I’d love to see Robin Wright (Claire Underwood in “House of Cards”) and Melissa McBride (Carol in “The Walking Dead”) swap stories about how to beautifully underplay when surrounded by lots of emoting actors and on-the-nose dialogue.
On the bad side, both shows are fundamentally limited in their worldview in ways that superior shows like “The Good Wife” or “The Americans” are not. “The Walking Dead’s” basic theme is that there can be no peace or progress in a post-apocalyptic world; the only realistic goal is survival. This is fine when there are the additional pleasures to hacking zombies, but after a while it becomes wearying.
The only theme in “House of Cards” is that to survive and thrive in politics, one must purge any inclination towards empathy. Throughout its three seasons, anyone who acts decently eventually pays for that gesture towards humanity. It’s the anti-“West Wing” that way but it veers way too far toward cynicism (though see also Alyssa Rosenberg’s shrewd observations about season three). And by this point, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood acts like some unholy mixture of Shakespeare’s Iago and Hasbro’s Starscream.
To put it another way: I enjoyed watching “The West Wing” from time to time, but this scene was ridiculous:
There’s a cathedral scene in season three of “House of Cards” that makes the above seem subtle and underplayed. I didn’t think that was possible.
This latest batch of HoC episodes was unique, however, in that many of the plot devices were likely to drive both policy wonks and political operatives insane. It’s unfair to ask any fictional show for complete verisimilitude — where’s the fun in that when watching “Scandal”? I don’t care whether the Putin character in “House of Cards” is really like Putin, or whether the Jordan Valley looks like it does in the show. That said, for “House of Cards” to work well, it needs to be politically believable on some level. And this season, it really isn’t.
The better question to ask is who should be more offended at the plot devices that impinge upon their business: wonks or operatives? It’s a close call, so I made a list:
OFFENSIVE TO POLICY WONKS:
- Underwood’s AmWorks program. It’s just nuts. I still don’t understand exactly how a retiree relying on Social Security benefits from Underwood’s jobs program. Mickey Kaus‘s effort to defend the fictional program doesn’t help either.
- Underwood’s Middle East peace plan. A U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Jordan Valley? With U.S. and Russian peacekeepers? Why does Underwood even need Russian involvement for this? Why trade off missile defense when Europe is way more strategically important than the Middle East? Why does Underwood promise to stick things out in the Jordan Valley, and then cut and run the moment things get even a little messy? Seriously, this plot line made my head hurt.
- The lobbying at the U.N. General Assembly. Some one should have told Beau Willimon to have read The Monkey Cage’s Erik Voeten on this subject.
So those are some serious policy problems. But now we get to the politics and campaigns of HoC:.
OFFENSIVE TO POLITICAL OPERATIVES:
- The role of the Democratic leadership in Congress. The first half of season three operates on the assumption that the Democratic leaders in Congress are the kingmakers who anoint the Democratic Party nominee for president. It pretends that the “invisible primary” doesn’t exist. I mean, I know the Democrats are more unified than Republicans right now, but still . . .
- Underwood’s plan for an AmWorks book. This plot line made the least sense of the whole lot. Why, exactly, did Frank Underwood think that a literary book about a jobs policy would tip the scales of public opinion in favor of AmWorks? Why is Underwood shocked that his prestigious author decides to write about Frank’s marriage to Claire instead of said policy program?
- The failure to acknowledge that even if Underwood wins the nomination, he loses. Underwood’s master plan is to pretend he won’t run again, and then change his mind and secure the nomination. But incumbents who face severe primary challenges — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter — tend not to win in the general election. At least mention this hurdle before magically giving Underwood the capacity to buck the trend.
So who should be more offended — wonks or operatives? I’m going to give this to the wonks. If I squint really hard, then maybe I can see a scenario where the politics of season three plays out. The show’s policy ideas, however, just don’t make sense regardless of ideology.
But it’s a close call, and I’ll be happy to entertain counterarguments in the comments.