Dethroning the king

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Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) seeks shelter as his house of cards comes tumbling down.

Deep down, we all knew that Netflix’s House of Cards was trash. Relentlessly soapy, popcorn-blockbuster trash that can be marathoned in the same way college kids shotgun cheap beer. The show is high fructose entertainment disguised as hifalutin theater–all on the good faith of a rented tux.

Yet, Serious People watch House of Cards. Despite the soap, it remains a must-watch for the audience-elite. Blame it on David Fincher, who executive-produces the show. Blame it on Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, two of the finest actors of their generation, who star in the show. Blame it on its source material–a British book series turned BBC series. There’s a lot of surface prestige, but if you look closer (no pun intended, for all my Kevin Spacey fans out there), its first two seasons follow a man who almost too easily takes the American vice presidency and subsequently, the presidency, from opponents unworthy to rival him in a wannabe Shakespearean territory. Sure, it’s a show that sometimes wants to be about politics, but is actually more about one man’s ambition to the rule the world; at the end of day, however, House of Cards says very little about American government, but a lot about–well, a lot about something.

And therein lies the problem with the first two seasons of House of Cards–it’s a drama with a lot of showmanship, but not self-aware enough to know that it’s saying very little about any of the things it’s supposed to be about. Its opportunities to be more than a soap are vast, but all those opportunities are wasted on saying a lot of cynical things that we already know–politicians can be ruthless and dumb, journalists can be immoral and dumb. Reiteration is not insight.

In the third and most recent season of the show though, the tides have changed. The writers are now completely aware that their show is not so much a commentary on D.C. politics, but a commentary on, well, human nature–which is what they’ve wanted to explore all along, but were too afraid to venture too deep, too far, too fast. Yes, it’s still a D.C. show, but it’s now self-aware enough to acknowledge that it’s also a show starring Richard III and Lady Macbeth in all their theatrical glory. As such, the writers don’t have much to say about how the government run things, but they do have some things to say about the people running the government–and more precisely, people running things.

Season three has been criticized as being too slow, as Francis Underwood’s (Spacey) super-villainy begins to wane. Frank has attained the presidency, but that creates problems–his wife, Claire (Wright) has political ambitions of her own, he can’t get his damn bill past congress, his party doesn’t want to support him in the next presidential election, things aren’t going well with Russia–the list goes on. Broadly speaking, all of that sounds like a usual D.C. affair, but the details show just how uninterested the writers are about writing American political fanfiction.

As president, Frank desperately tries to push through a bill called America Works (AmWorks), which he considers the crux of his presidency–his legacy, if you will. AmWorks aims to create more jobs and hopes to succeed this by taking money of the Medicare budget and dumping it to businesses to create new jobs. There are, of course, a number of problems with this bill, the most obvious being (well, all of them are obvious) that there is no way in hell that this kind of bill would be championed by a Democrat, or even by any sane Republican. Any politician knows that social security benefits are a precious social commodity, even to conservatives. Predictably, Frank is met with opposition from both sides, including the leadership of his own party.

However, it seems besides the point to contemplate Frank’s foolishness. It’s clear that Frank is on a power trip and he wants to make a mark on history all with pure adrenaline, sans substance. And it begs the question: Is this what Frank has been all along–a political hack? And furthermore, is that what the show has been all along–a dramatic hack job, a much ado about nothing a la Entourage, but has managed to moonlight around as a serious show for serious people for two whole seasons? Perhaps, but with this AmWorks bullshit, the writers seem to wink at us, acknowledging exactly at what they’ve done.

And you realize that, just maybe, that Frank’s terrible bill is just the usual made-up nothingness consistent with the show’s capacity to be politically irrelevant. Even Frank meeting with the president of Russia (a Putin wannabe very well-played by Lars Mikkelsen) in the Jordan Valley is far-fetched and sort of, well, ridiculous. While The West Wing tried to play idealist politics and Veep wants to be a modern-day political satire responding to the Sarah Palin “what ifs?”, House of Cards is not concerned about how D.C. should or is running things as D.C. is merely a stage for whatever stories the writers want to tell about whichever people. It becomes quickly apparent that the writers want to showcase the women this season–not just women in politics, but women dealing with modern-day feminism, starting with Frank’s souring presidency/legacy being determined by the women who have the capability to save or destroy him. The female characters that populate House of Cards dwell in the Jezebelian age of patriarchal dissent–a faux feminist ideology that upholds independence and sexual prowess, yet ignores how often those two ideas contradict when intertwined.

This season, Claire proves that she could just be Frank’s Achilles’ heel. She has her eye on the open ambassador position, but she needs Frank’s help to get the position, which could be politically compromising for both of them. Problem is, Claire also views the presidency as theirs, but yet, deep down, it’s not–he’s made it and she’s trailing behind and needs him to set the score even; if so, were they ever truly equals? Or, was she just a politician’s wife who was tricked into the idea that her husband’s life was truly hers as well? We discover that, perhaps Frank loves Claire much more than he’d like to admit, but as the season progresses, Claire discovers that, perhaps, she doesn’t love Frank as much as she has admitted. Like most great tales, maybe House of Cards has really been about the Underwoods’ marriage all along because well, this season certainly is.

Then there’s Jackie Sharp (effortlessly played by Molly Parker), the former war veteran turned Democratic majority whip who owes Frank for turning her into a relevant political powerhouse in season two, but who also brews greater political ambitions of her own. Yet, politics is a hard game for a fortysomething woman who isn’t a wife and mother, so she’s forced into a compromising position, as she fights her lingering feelings for former lobbyist and current chief-of-staff to the president, Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali).

Also, enter Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), Frank’s major political foil this season–a morally righteous solicitor general with a wealthy family who is fighting a fight worth fighting for, despite that she needs to sometimes play dirty and certainly has the money for it. In Dunbar, we have someone to root for in a show populated by variations of villainy or unlikability because she’s a worthy political foil–she’s not another Russo who can be done away with the promise of a good time. Frank is unsure whether to place Dunbar as an ally or enemy because she’s smart enough to be a real threat on the other side, but she’s a good enough person to be a bane on his own turf. Dunbar is dangerous to Frank because not only is she one of the few people in the House of Cards universe that has a shot at heaven, but the audience has a reason to like her. Dunbar’s taking away Frank’s spotlight, despite the fact that we, as Frank’s audience, are supposed to root for him as he’s the one who has invited us into his world with those clever asides and we probably even cheered when he first entered the oval office and banged his ring on the desk and it faded to black. Above all else, this is Frank’s story and we’re all starting to like Dunbar more–and that’s why she feels like such a threat. And that’s when it begins to feel like Frank Underwood is no longer writing history like he so easily did before, in turn, unexpectedly humanizing him and making his story a bit more interesting than before.

Frank has a worthy foil now–she’s no longer just an inevitable loser to be destroyed on his way to power. Frank and Claire’s marriage has become more or less a fractured partnership. Frank’s protege doesn’t want to be a pawn anymore. Frank unintentionally bares his soul to the novelist of his propaganda biography (in a wonderfully understated performance by Paul Sparks, destined to be underrated) and we discover more about him than we ever did from his asides.

And, as a subplot that feels like it exists both in the same show and a different show, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, in a supporting performance for the record books), tries to claw back into Frank’s good graces as he also searches for his attempted murderer/obsession, Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). While Doug’s story line is a wicked slow burn, it’s also the most heartbreaking, frightening, and complex one this season–all that thanks to Kelly’s spectacular performance, worthy of an Emmy this year, or any other year. It’s hard not to be overshadowed by Spacey’s and Wright’s towering performances, but the show made the right decision to properly give Kelly his chance to carry his own space. Kelly reaches into every corner of Doug’s screwed up soul from every complicated, uncomfortable angle, just to find out that, deep down, Doug yearns for, well, embarrassingly enough–love and validation.

Not to say it’s not a season populated with other great performances–yes, Spacey and Wright are still fantastic to watch, especially in their last few scenes together. I almost forgot to mention Kim Dickens as as a White House journalist who is miles more likable than Zoe Barnes will ever be; in fact, Dickens’ and Sparks’ chemistry is one of the most charming parts of the season, if not sometimes oddly distracting because there’s a romantic comedy worthy of The West Wing in this bastard of a universe–it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but an enjoyable mixed bag, nonetheless. There’s also Jimmi Simpson as the hacker from season two and Kate Lyn Sheil as Rachel’s Christian ex-girlfriend whose stories unexpectedly intertwine in a very heartfelt, and sort of touching way.

Here’s a show that didn’t dabble in the matters of the heart, but now the show purely benefits from wearing its heart on its sleeve. Creator Beau Willimon’s staunch anti-sentimentality stance seemed to be running on empty and the show finally realized that to grow, we all need a little more than Claire Underwood feeling sorry for a middle-aged cashier lady (i.e., that brief moment of humanity in season one). Point is, Frank is not doing very well, personally or professionally, as president–which makes him less fun, but gives him more depth. Because the world around him is turning sentimental–or was it sentimental all along? And, maybe that’s part of the show’s point this season–it may have very little to say, politically, about foreign affairs, LGBT rights, racism, Medicare benefits, and unemployment as it handles all those issues quite awkwardly and there’s no reason to dwell on things that are clearly not meant to be done well, but it does have a lot to say about, well, humanity. The show has always been just that brash in its ambitiousness and it has taken three seasons for it to declare it with such honesty. And with such honesty, House of Cards is no longer trash–it’s the sustained operatic high note that it has always aspired to be.

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The boy who reaped

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In Golden Son, the line between enemy and ally is blurred, constantly.

Two months ago, I was sentenced by my office book club to read a dystopian YA novel, Red Rising, by newcomer (and now millionaire) Pierce Brown. A few chapters in, I discovered that it was certainly one of the most unoriginal, badly written novels I’ve ever read. Hyperbole, perhaps–to be fair, though, I was not a regular consumer of dystopian YA novels and I was not the intended audience in the first place; however, I was a regular consumer of literature and as far as I was concerned, Red Rising was an abomination to that institution as I knew it.

Firstly, the book is a Harry Potter and Hunger Games hybird/rip-off. I’m sure Brown would prefer the term homage, but we all know better. Yes, dystopian/science fiction/fantasy YA is a genre populated by literary theft, but Brown’s theft of very recent popular YA is almost too obvious to overlook.

Like most dystopian heroes who start from the bottom (i.e., Drake), Brown’s protagonist, Darrow, lives on Mars and is born Red–the lowest caste in a politically and socially repressive color-coded society ruled by the highest caste, the Golds. As though to beg for Hunger Games comparisons, Darrow works in the mines with other Reds in terrible conditions. One day, Darrow’s young wife, Eo, sings a song of political dissent and she is brutally executed by the Golds. Darrow, viewing Eo’s death as a sacrifice, buries his wife against the law (as the law says that traitors should not be buried because well, Antigone), and is also executed–only to find himself saved by secret rebel society, the Sons of Ares, who aim to break down the injustice the Golds have brought upon people of other colors.

The Sons then transform Darrow into a Gold so he can join the Institute and become a political superstar. At the Institute, Darrow is–get this–sorted into the House of Mars and I wondered why Brown didn’t just go ahead and name the school “Hogwarts” and the house “Gryffindor.” The Institute turns out to be a battlefield where the strong will prevail by killing the weak because, well, Brown read Hunger Games. There is also a scene where a girl nurses Darrow back to the health in a cave (if memory serves me correct) as a romance brews and at that point, I had hoped Brown at least sent Suzanne Collins a thank you card and a gift basket.

Secondly, I found Brown’s prose frustrating to read. He’s one of those brave souls who has the balls to write in first person present. Any sane person would know that writing in first person present is difficult–and Brown is certainly no master at it. Oftentimes, Darrow, his narrator would seemingly be able to read the mind of the other characters, without any explanation of why he came to that conclusion, which makes us all wonder–is his narrator hiding psychic powers from the reader? Unlikely, or else Brown would have some plot holes to defend. Also, Brown could not write a decent simile as readers are forced to trudge through description such as, “My wolfcloak is as as white as the falling slow. I’ve pulled its head up, so I look like a guardian creature from the colder levels of hell.” What is exactly is a guardian creature from the colder levels of hell? Beats me. Or this: “The men are freakishly muscular and tall. Their arms and chest beat with artificial strength, and they flaunt their muscles like girls showing off new toys.” I still have no idea what that simile is trying to say and honestly, I don’t care, because much of Brown’s attempts at poetic flourishes are ill-conceived and add nothing to the story, even if they had worked.

To make matters worse, my co-worker also dug up a Buzzfeed interview with Brown where the writer came off as pretentious and obnoxious with an aura of self-proclaimed boy wonder-ness. Here is just a taste of how Brown proved to be the worst:

“I was reading the story of Antigone,” he says before correcting himself. “Re-reading the story of Antigone.”

I went to the book club with so much ammunition for the book I’ve just read and looked forward to commiserating over the book’s shittiness, only to find out people absolutely loved it–loved it so much, some of them have even read the sequel. I was shocked as, going in, I was sure that I’ve read an unlovable book. I read a book that felt akin to a frat boy’s vile wet dream–an ardent blowjob to fanboy fanaticism at its most graphically violent and stupid; sure, there were pleads for love, for sympathy, but I was having none of it. So yes, I still believe that Red Rising is a terrible book–badly written, and worst of all, written by an unskilled literary thief.

Yet, I knew, deep down, Brown had a knack for character, setting, and plot. For a writer who struggled to convey any of that with style, I still knew that he had a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story worth reading–he just hasn’t had the chance to fully unleash that.

As fate would have it, Red Rising’s sequel, Golden Son was the March office book club selection. Due to my dedication to my office book club (it’s the only way I can consistently force myself to read a book once a month), I started reading it. And a miracle happened.

With Golden Son, Brown has written the best possible sequel for one of the shittiest books I’ve ever read.

Golden Son is spectacular. Spectacular, in the sense that Brown patiently concocted a fully realized political government that pays true homage to the history (and legend) of the Roman Empire. In Brown’s very political solar system, the characters are living, breathing chess pieces–with vivid hearts and minds, ready to kill and conquer, but also to love and protect when necessary. Unlike Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic or Hunger Games’ Capitol, Golden Son’s government is not merely a plot device, nor does it exists to serve a function–it’s an integral part of its story and its universe is infinitely richer because of it.

Without giving too much away, Darrow finds himself closely allied with ArchGovernor Nero au Augustus–the man who ordered his late wife’s execution and the father of the woman he fell in love with at the Institute. Darrow also finds himself allied with his former nemesis from the Institute, who is also the ArchGovernor’s black sheep son. Darrow becomes a target of the Sovereign of the solar system, who is out to strip Augustus of his power and replace Augustus with the Bellona family–a family out to kill Darrow who was forced to kill their son at the Institute. Despite everything, Darrow’s goal is to save the Reds and destroy the Golds by creating civil war among the Golds as a way to eventually render justice in the entire solar system within the castes.

That’s just a taste of the alliances and betrayals that populate this ambitious, complex novel. All of this adds up to some delicious scenes between enemies and allies: the first time Darrow and his former nemesis meet in the novel, the engaging psychological showdown between Darrow and the Soveriengn, and the finale–oh, what a finale!

Not to say that the sequel doesn’t have all the weaknesses that permeate the first novel. Some of Brown’s attempts to write elongated, descriptive passages fall on the weight of its own poetic ambitions; however, unlike his previous effort, some of his attempts do result in inspired prose. Brown’s battle scenes remain chaotic and sometimes incoherent; he has still yet to find that balance between what it means to convey chaos versus writing chaotically to a point of confusing the reader as to what exactly is happening in the scene. Also, there is too much wish fulfillment going on in many of the battle scenes–Darrow’s gut feeling is often too spot-on for a country boy fighting for his life in a high-stakes world.

But Brown’s writing soars in the quiet moments when he lays his characters bare in front of us–without the sci-fi gadgets, without the violence. When his characters are desperately trying to keep an alliance, gain trust, pursue loyalty, do the right thing, contemplate doing the wrong thing–that’s when Brown appears to have a startlingly deep understanding of the morally ambiguous human psyche. And Brown, as the creator of his universe and the characters who inhabit it, knows that the human tendency for moral ambiguity is both a frightening and sometimes beautiful thing as he allows his characters to struggle as much as with themselves as with each other.

And, in retrospect, Red Rising built up to the world the characters in Golden Son inhabit, so Red Rising was a necessary evil. Without Red Rising, the revelations in Golden Son would not be nearly as rich or as powerful.

I don’t know if Pierce Brown will ever get off my famous people shitlist (because of the Buzzfeed interview), but with Golden Son, he has written a novel that is not only a dystopian sci-fi/fantasy novel, but a thrilling emotional adventure as well. And I give credit when it’s due; maybe he is the boy wonder he thinks he is after all. So start reading the series before they fly off the shelves once the movie trailer comes out.