Last year at this time, I enjoyed the full glory of my looming empty nest by binging on the first season of House of Cards in one setting. My wife at a conference, my teenage daughters occupied with teenage occupations, I laid down in bed with my trusty mutt, Apple, to catch the first six hours of the 12 episode program. I started at 6 PM, with the hope that this early bird could make it to midnight.
By the time the new day arrived, I turned off the TV to catch some shuteye before finishing the show in the morning. But I couldn’t fall asleep Not even close. The show had so mesmerized and enchanted me that I had to turn on a few more episodes to get the show out of my system. Again, after episode nine, I tried to sleep. No luck — I endured the true House of Cards all-nighter, finally coming up for air around 7 AM.
The show was terrific. Not Breaking Bad or The Sopranos terrific, but it certainly made my second-tier of all-time favorite shows — on a par with The West Wing and Homeland and Mad Men. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect — as someone who’s been immersed in the political life for decades, I found several elements implausible — and my fellow RP Jeff Smith did a brilliant job here outlining what was true and what rang false about Season One.
But it was less the politics that was hypnotizing, and more the brilliant, albeit over-cynical view of interpersonal dynamics. I loved the business partnership marriage of the lead characters, the Underwoods (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright Penn), particularly how the program showed a deep love and respect underneath their highly unusual hyper-ambitious pairing.
But the most powerful dynamic of Season One came from the extraordinarily tense and exhilarating relationship between Spacey’s Francis Underwood and the reporter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara. Their interactions were at times creepy and deeply disturbing, and other times filled with passionate, revelatory moments of shedding masks and dripping true emotion. Their interaction literally kept me up all night.
So when my dog and I reached the end of the first episode of Season Two, and — HUGE SPOILER ALERT, I REALLY MEAN IT — Francis pushes Zoe to her death in front of a speeding subway car, I was disturbed — but in a bad way this time.
The murder was completely implausible — it was unnecessary to protect Francis’ reputation, and it was way, way too risky for such a careful politician. His murder of Congressman Russo in Season One was carefully managed, meticulously avoiding any fingerprints. It was a complete fluke that this time he didn’t get caught — for such a rash, impulsive action.
Worse, it killed off the best narrative element and the most watchable character. I’ve suffered through 4 episodes so far, and frankly I’m bored. The politics are still there (a lot less interesting, I’m afraid), but without the Zoe/Francis interplay, the sexy tension that was so vital in Season One has completely disappeared.
Unless Zoe’s demise was necessary for practical, contractual reasons — Was Kata Mara too busy on another project? Was she asking for too much money? — I think this was a very unwise decision on the part of House of Cards producers. It certainly was shocking — but shock for shock value is emotionally empty. Unlike the well-reviewed killing off of major characters in say Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey, Zoe’s death serves no purpose other than its shock. And at least through four episodes, it’s left a narrative gap that has not be adequately filled.