Despite the enthusiastic promotions of Netflix (which is a company I generally approve of) and the presence of Kevin Spacey in the starring role (a man I find both oddly-attractive and an excellent actor) I was reluctant to click on the huge WATCH THIS NOW banner that suddenly appeared at the top of my Netflix homepage the day this launched.
It’s not really hard to fathom why, though. I mean, you couldn’t get a much more patriarchal image than the above: a middle-aged white man sitting on a marble throne that looks an awful lot like Abraham Lincoln’s colossal monument of Massive Marble Manhood and Political Domination. I mean, I’m assuming it’s meant to be ironic: a political schemer dripping blood from his fingers to stain the great man’s chair, but I wasn’t feeling it. No, what this image said to me was POWER. I knew exactly what the program was going to be about and I hadn’t watched it, yet. Clearly Kevin Spacey was playing a Magnificent Bastard in the US political arena. And that was the story. Right there. Wow, look at the middle-aged white man go. And, I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect it to be badly acted or badly written – I respected the team and the actors – I just expected to find it dull and utterly unsurprising. I am bored to tears with ‘dramas’ about middle-aged white men running circles around everyone else. They aren’t dramatic, anymore, they’re expected, tiresome, depressing.
But I ran out of Hemlock Grove and my interest was piqued by the large number of women in the supporting cast: Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Sakrina Jaffrey, Kristen Connolly, and Constance Zimmer, and more!
Francis Underwood (Spacey) is a US congressman who at the start of our show expects to be made Secretary of State, but his ambitions are unexpectedly thwarted. Plastering a smile on his face, he begins to plot both his revenge and advancement to an even higher position.
Claire Underwood (Wright) is Francis’s wife. Ambitious and steely in her own resolve, she works in the not-for-profit sector, spearheading the Clearwater Initiative. She seems to genuinely care about her charitable work, but this doesn’t stop her from being uncompromisingly ruthless when she believes it to be in her or Francis’s interest.
Zoe Barnes (Mara) is an ambitious young reporter who thrusts herself into the fore by snapping a fortuitous picture of Underwood admiring her rear. Underwood enjoys her audacity and sees the value of using her to strategically leak stories.
Peter Russo (played by Corey Stoll) is a US Representative addicted to drugs, alcohol and prostitutes. He’s divorced and engaged in an office romance with Christina Gallagher (Connolly), but seems like his heart is in the right place.
Russo is caught drunk driving with a prostitute in the passenger seat and Underwood sends his Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), to sweep the matter under the carpet, giving him a hold over Russo, upon whose unstable shoulders many of Underwood’s plots will turn.
How was it?
Eh… I don’t know, really. I suppose it was much as I expected: well-written, well-paced, well-acted, and… disappointingly predictable. Not in the individual twists and turns, but in that it was about a white, wealthy, middle-aged man tying everyone else in knots. And watching privilege seek revenge for a comparatively minor slight is… not that satisfying?
Spacey was exactly what he needed to be. Robin Wright was completely spot on as the ice cool hard-ass who still believes in making the world a better place and believably struggles with her love for the ruthless Underwood and her attraction for the more free spirited Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels). Corey Stoll is sympathetically a complete mess for whom you root to get his act together. Kate Mara is appropriately annoying in her ambitious forwardness, and carefully balances the line between being unlikability and hidden depths.
The ingredients are right, but the recipe creates a dissatisfying result for the modern mouth. I kept thinking: this could have been awesome if they’d given the Francis Underwood role to Robin Wright. If you’re finding the name familiar, by the way, let me help you out. You may be recalling Robin Wright from all time classic satirical romantic adventure story, The Princess Bride.
Quite apart from it being a pleasure to see her again (took me about half way through the series to work out where I knew her from), this couldn’t be a more different role. Buttercup from The Princess Bride was all softness and sweetness and innocent belief in true love, barely concealed under a veneer of haughtiness which is really just another facet of her naivety. Claire Underwood, by contrast, is quiet spoken and beautiful and works for a good cause, but is self-possessed and a real force to be reckoned with. In the first episode she gets her manager to fire half her staff so that she doesn’t have to accept a donation that would compromise Francis, and then lets the same manager go herself. We instantly know this is a woman to be reckoned with, and Robin Wright’s performance is perfect. I would have been much more interested in her performance of a truly uncompromising role, like that of Francis.
Instead, her steely resolve is ultimately undermined. Despite what she claims, she isn’t quite as independent from her husband as he is from her. Not that either of them is fully so. One of the more interesting things about the show is their relationship, which is both open and governed by strict rules. Both Claire and Francis have lovers, and neither keeps this from their spouse; it is always understood that the affair is to be fleeting and useful. Despite the fact that jealousy does cause occasional tension, this seems to work for them. Nevertheless, whilst both partners show weakness, it is Claire who seems to truly reach out for love and for comfort in her lover, it is Claire who secretly longs for children and comes to regret accepting Francis’s decision not to have them, it is Claire who always returns to Francis – drawn by his power and security.
None of this is inappropriate for a character or wrong for a woman. But it’s part of that sense that this is always how women are presented. You can have a woman show strength on-screen, just as long as you undercut that strength in some way. Show that she does really want love, and to have children, and that, despite her protestations, she will endure subservience… maybe even likes it a little.
You could have believably gender-flipped this show, and seeing as they transplanted the original British concept to an entirely different political system, it’s not unreasonable to think that they might have experimented with the form some more as well.
But they didn’t. And whilst there are plenty of strong women, Francis Underwood gets the better of them all. Even when they do start to mount an attack on him, it is something they must band together to perform. And although the issues surrounding women using their sexuality to get ahead are touched on, I found the analysis one-sided and a little shallow. Yes, Francis uses sex to get what he wants, too, but it’s by assuming a stereotypical older-man-using-younger-woman role, which is questioned, but never really unseated. I kept hoping that the title was a hint that Underwood’s delicate plan was doomed to come tumbling down, but it never quite happens.
And… and it’s not enough to show the flaws of the patriarchy anymore. I’m bored with it. I know what those flaws are. Show me something new. At the end of the day a show about a patriarchal figure who abuses his power is still a show about a patriarchal figure. It’s not just that it’s sexist it’s that it’s… uninteresting. We’ve seen The West Wing, and Yes, Minister, and even House of Cards itself, before. If you wanted to remake a show, why not use that venue to propose something new. That would have been actually provocative and interesting.
So, yeah, if you’re looking for time to kill, there are worse ways to do it, but I’m not going to say this is Must See Television (or webivision, or whatever) because it’s not. It’s a very well-made version of something you’ve seen hundreds of times before.