Hard Work Isn’t Enough
Zoe Barnes, a plucky, small beat, chronic nail-biting reporter at The Washington Herald, was trying to do things the right way. A year into her tenure at the WaHe, Zoe is sick of covering the Fairfax County Council and tired of having to remind the paper’s editor-in-chief Tom Hammerschmidt, what her name is. Hammerschmidt considers her a speed bump on the way to get coffee and barely acknowledges her existence. We meet Zoe eavesdropping on her editor, Lucas Goodwin, strategizing in the paper’s cantina with Hammerschmidt about scooping President-Elect Garret Walker’s legislative agenda. Like Jay Leno hiding in the closet, she perks her ears, searching for a crack to slip herself into, all in the service of catching a break and getting ahead.
In the canteen, Zoe pleads with Goodwin to assign her an on-line political blog, “I’ll go underground, into the back rooms, the urinals. I’ll win over staff. They need a place to rant.” Zoe clearly wants a platform which will allow her to rub shoulders with those in the hallways of power, even though she expresses a noble desire to “lift the veil and tell people what’s really going on.” Goodwin thinks she just wants to kiss and tell, starting a political TMZ, to which she asks, “do you know how many people watch TMZ?” Zoe believes print journalism is dying because it is living in the 20th century and lacks imagination, to which Goodwin can only rebuff her. This will come back to haunt him and everyone at the WaHe.
Zoe then approaches grizzled, overworked, underpaid and no BS White House correspondent Janine Skorsky to offer up her skills as a researcher. Janine chides Zoe for being another blogger who thinks she’s a real journalist. Janine is from the same school of hard-nosed, uncorrupt, advertiser unfriendly journalistic traditions that she grew up with. The generation of Watergate, Cronkite and the golden era of the Washington Post. It also goes without saying that Janine’s got no time to be “anyone’s training wheels.”
These two scenes illustrate the quintessential problem facing emerging young talent, in any profession, especially in a brave new digital world cosseted by a post-Great Recession economy, a decadent democracy and a youth brimming with entitlement. Zoe’s journey of ambition is stymied by established professionals who saddle a pre and post-digital professional landscape. Established pros, even mid-career slugs like Lucas and Janine, who fear that their way of doing things is quickly passing and what awaits them should they ever find themselves unemployed and replaced by people like Zoe. What awaits them is an middle-age eternity of over-experience but under-qualified job hunting. T
These scenes also serve as a practical storytelling device to introduce on of our central characters and as a means for getting Zoe to a psychological place of exhaustion with the ineffectual nature of legit avenues of career progression. We as an audience need to get a sense of Zoe trying to get her break, know that she’s paid some dues and watch as her efforts are carelessly rejected by the powers at be. Once this is establish, we can begin to believe the desperate measures she eventually takes in striking a faustian deal with Frank midway through Chapter 1.
Crackhead Mayors and The New Puberty
Zoe lives in a post-Bush, post-Great Recession, hipster-dominated, man-child worship era where the promises and comforts foretold by the 80s and 90s have been withering away. The spiraling value in post-secondary education, the death of middle-men, the permanent prison of non-existent job security, stagnating wages and more young adults moving back in with their parents than ever have in the post-New Deal era, has made the 25-35 age bracket (Zoe Barnes is 29) ‘the new puberty’. Add to this nearly a decade of mediocrity worship (everybody is “special”) that has altered meanings of celebrity, success, the American Dream and earning the stones that pave your road to material riches. This era which saw superlatives like “genius”, “brilliant”, “amazing” and “best ever” lose all meaning thanks to irresponsible overuse. They used to say “everybody’s a comedian”; well, now everyone’s a genius.
Speaking of comedians, Chris Rock once joked about then Mayor of Washington D.C, Marion Barry: “How can you tell little kids not to get high when the mayor’s on crack?”
“Don’t get high — you won’t be nothin!”
“I could be mayor!”
Apply the same joke to youth today watching reality TV. ‘I could be Snooki!’ You better redneckognize!
I read an article in The Globe and Mail recently written by a 29-year-old educated job seeker, Rob Carrick, who put it both blunt and eloquent terms:
“I should also tell you that not everyone I know has suffered the same fate as I have. A select few of my friends made it out of school and got decent jobs. Most still aren’t making enough to save, invest, or buy a place. Many barely get by, doing low-level work they don’t really believe in with little job security. Exactly one of my friends has “made it,” so to speak. He’s on partner-track at one of the big accounting firms. Sounds good, right? It is, except for a few minor issues. First, the likelihood of ever reaching partner is so slim that it’s essentially non-existent. Second, the hours have nearly killed him. His average workweek is 65-70 hours. Average. It’s higher some weeks, topping off at nearly 90 hours/week. Yes you did read that right. He and his wife did at one point own a rather nice place. His wife still does, but with the guy she’s with now that her lawyers are finally done with my friend through the divorce process. Happily, his firm offered him legal assistance. Why? Doing so made it a lot easier for him to continue working an average of 65-70 hours/week. How kind of them… “
To put things in perspective, the average age of someone working at McDonald’s has skyrocketed from 20 to 28 in the last decade. In the midst of the Jersey Shore idolaters, fighting the good fight, is the artist (writers being part of this group) — adamant as ever that she can eek a living out doing something great with her life and leaving a legacy of literary/visual brilliance that will change lives and societies. Lofty and delusional, but admirable nonetheless. And relatable. This is the world Zoe finds herself a product of, where every blogger with a laptop attains a worldwide following. It is certainly democratizing, but also frightening and in many ways degrading the discipline of thinking before writing.
Zoe is a hardcore journalist who wants to succeed and report the truth, but she understands that to survive she’s not only going to have to navigate male dominated politics and journalism , she’s going to have to get creative, because hard work is not enough. Working hard, paying your dues and nurturing mentorships with those who paved the way for you is not enough anymore. Zoe is going to start literally at the bottom, sitting on the floor of her dingy apartment with a bottle of wine at the helm of a make-shift office. How many writers haven’t found themselves in this situation. In many ways, I empathize with Zoe and route for her as someone from the same generation and in the same profession: facing down the blank page, day in and day out. In Chapter 2, as Zoe pieces together the shreds of the leaked Education Bill, David Fincher shrewdly gives us a telling overhead shot of Zoe at her desk which reveals an Oval Office like space. This shot tells me that someone is dreaming big and is in the process of taking her destiny into her own hands. She’s going to have to be what she wants to do before she can do it.
The New Economy, The Dying Meritocracy and Dwindling Knowledge
How does someone like Zoe maintain professional and personal integrity in a “New Economy” and a dying meritocracy? Western capatalist Democracy promised Zoe that demand for educated, talented and passionate professionals would, by virtue of her merit, provide her the opportunities and rewards she deserves. Zoe has realized that this promise has been broken and merit has become negligible, and she’s rightfully angry about it. So if merit doesn’t get you by anymore, what’s left is that enviable and evolving amoeba that makes or breaks everyone: networks. In all their manifestation, digital or otherwise, it used to be that hard work and being in the right place and right time with the right people will create a healthy brew of circumstantial inertia that will give you the big break you deserve. That system is dying if not dead. Western societies are evolving quickly into plutocratic islands whereby money dominates the discourse. Maybe the reason the gap between rich and poor is widening so rapidly, and the middle-class pushed out of the way so unceremoniously, is so that the 1-percenters have some place to store their money. The old saying goes that “it’s what you know and who you know”, which might as well be reconstituted as “how many rich people you know and how much money what you know will make them.” In the high-stakes context of DC and sociopolitical gamesmanship between journalists and congressman, those who Zoe knows may end up killing her.
House of Cards as a high-concept political drama itself, in content and distribution, is indicative of Zoe’s philosophy: HOC was released exclusively on-line to an audience whose attention spans are almost non-existent, demanding immediate gratification and with little time for old-fashioned appointment viewing. The digital audience wants information and entertainment faster than they can synthesize and absorb it into actual knowledge or a satisfying experience. This societal shift creates monsters like a broadcast news complex competing for eye balls with increasingly more bombastic and sensational content. CNN spends days covering a stranded cruise ship while the Middle East burns, Europe is in financial disarray, East and South-East Asia rises in power and influence and Africa continues to spiral into civil conflict and poverty. People have more access to information than in the history of mankind, at their finger tips and in their pockets. What’s missing, it seems, is knowledge because a waterfall of information means nothing if it can’t be translated into learned and formed ideas and innovations which contribute to a new body of knowledge. This is part and parcel a part of America’s current innovation deprivation nightmare, the same one the Bush administration helped foster and which the Obama administration now struggles to revive the country from. It’s no irony that as House of Cards gets under way, an Education Bill plays the role of hot potato thrown around carelessly by the media and the politicians they’re in bed with.
The End of Personality
Zoe gets branding. She know the importance of a ‘first person blog’ because it will allow her to reach a large audience in her own voice. In a world where young job researchers are resorting to snazzy, over-produced video resumes, taking out billboard space to publicize their resumes and working for free to get a foot in the door, we are all living and breathing brands. Our personalities have become branded by social networking in particular and like all brands, as the market and economies of scale widen, it is even more difficult to maintain ones integrity, authenticity and appeal. Those who want to carve out a niche for themselves in the Fifth Estate compete with the artistic and journalistic equivalents of the Home Shopping Channel. The status update generation barely knows how to converse or physically interact anymore, let alone read and write in a newspaper.
There will come a time when only a small handful of people will remember what it was like to have newspaper ink smudge their finger tips.
Even the fundamentals of entertainment value, comedy and creativity are falling into the murky deconstructionism of the Internet. Case in point, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On. Some schmucky short about a baby-like talking sea-shell with shoes on, mumbling incoherent ramblings under the guise of a sub-textual whimsy and the perceived novelty of what I will term only as ‘crapimation’. The lack of thoughtfulness, detail and magic is glaring. And hey, it’s a hit. Where is the integrity of the creative experience, for journalists, writers or filmmakers against this beast? If post-modernism was meaningless, post-post-modernism (neo-modernism?) is meaningless and terrifyingly random. Pick your ‘ism’ and add a ‘post’ in front of it.
An aging Generation X (Janine and Lucas) are colliding with the hyper-confidence and hyper-awareness of Generation Me. The latter a scattered amoeba of armchair impresarios, one mouse-click and snarky tweet away from ruling the world and with their Bieber-Bangs flowing in the wind. Generation Me trades in snark and status updates. Hey, guess what? They bought low and sold to us high. Culpability and complicity is a super, high-tech nano-virus, and there’s an app for it. In the chasm between these two are people like Zoe – something close to Generation Y, my generation, probably the smallest generational epoch in modern history – still feeling responsible for our aging parents and the echoes of an attachment to our analog childhoods, manifesting itself in 70s and 80s nostalgia, while also fearful of our passing lives. This same generation that is now facing the pressures of professional white-collar jobs that only allows them to live in quasi-poverty, much in the way Zoe lives undignified in her dingy dwellings above a grocery store.
Young Ambition: Persist, Insist and Resist
After the insecure and insular ‘effing off’ from Lucas and Janine, the Uncle and Aunt Beru of The Washington Herald, Zoe sets out on her own course. In this way, her destiny is set by the recalcitrance of her colleagues, who lack vision and ‘imagination’. Zoe’s journey of ambition mirrors Frank’s journey of retribution in that both have been wronged after having tried to use legitimate channels to achieve their ends. Frank was next in line for SecState, but was instead passed up by the schemers around him, a betrayal that set him on his path of revenge. Zoey, like Frank, has paid her dues and is ready to ascend to the next level but like Frank she’s been held back. Together they will persist by making themselves vital to powerful people, insisting that they belong and resisting those who stand in their way.
The Oscar For Best Performance In A G-String Goes Too
Let’s talk about the moment of the truth in front of The National Center For The Performing Arts when Zoe passes Frank as he checks her out, Obama style.
Little does Frank know that a WaHe photographer is clicking away across the street. After Chapter 1 was over, it’s still up in the air how this was orchestrated, but I have a nagging feeling that this was Zoe all the way. After the rebuff at work, Zoe decided to take matters into her own hands. Doubtless she must have known the concert would collect some of DC’s biggest dogs and came fully prepared. It just so happens that it was Frank who fell into the trap. Could Zoe have guessed someone powerful would check her out and assigned a photographer to capture the moment? Later at her apartment, after she unceremoniously dumps poor Brian (classic line: “If I was gonna fuck you, you’d know.”), she gets an e-mail with the photo. The WaHe staff photographer opines to her, “If you want ‘em to take you seriously, maybe wear more than a G-string?”, to which she replies, “he seems pretty serious.” Zoe has found her mark, though little does she know she may be the sucker after all.
If The Flying V Is Good Enough For The Mighty Ducks…
Next we find Zoe knocking on Frank’s door and unfolds a scene that will go down as one of those foundational moments which define a series throughout its entire run. This is that scene for reasons of writing, subtext, tension, themes and filmic grammar. Five pages of gold expertly written, directed and performed by Willimon, Fincher, Mara, Spacey and Wright. A scene delivered with such a sense of pride, sincerity and commitment by all parties involved, renewing and affirming my faith in the power of the cinematic medium. The scene also establishes the beginnings of the most complicated relationship in HOC. In this scene we will see Zoe make a brave offer, throwing her integrity to the wind to get ahead. A tragic moment to be sure, watching a young ingenue corrupt herself, but this is a show interested in telling the truth. We’ll also get our first glimpse of the similarities of between this Gemini-like pare and why it will make perfect sense when they grow to rely on one another. Let’s have some fun by breaking down this scene so we better understand the ‘terms of engagement’:
Off the top, this is yet another time that Zoe has to identify herself to a figure of authority who presumably has no idea who she is. This identity motif about Zoe’s ‘visibility’ will continue to make cameos well into Chapters 2 and 3. When Zoe pulls up the photo of Frank checking her out, not only is she making an implicit threat, she’s immediately implying similarities between the two of them. Frank doesn’t miss a beat and plays wise to her scam, in the process letting us that he already knows what she’s about. This ain’t his first shake down. It starts to make sense to us that Zoe was at the symphony as part her bait setting:
This is not the first time we’ll see Frank test the mettle of those he knows he controls with a neat scotch. This is his way of declaring his superiority and illustrating how relatively evolved and dignified he is compared with his counterpart. We see it later in Chapter 1 during the courting of Peter Russo. Scenes of Frank having a drink with other characters recur throughout the first few chapters of the show and what’s more interesting is that he drinks scotch with those he seeks to control and tea with those he might deem equals (twice with Claire and once with Katherine Durrant in Chapter 1 alone). A neat scotch seems to be the drink of choice when signing your soul away:
This part of the exchange establishes that this relationship, whatever it might evolve into, will not begin with any sexual overtones because Frank is smarter than allowing that to happen. Frank’s nonplussed response to a garish flash of cleavage confirms he won’t be falling for cheap ploys because, well, that would be ‘sloppy’. Frank won’t accept that by any party he deals with, especially himself. Zoe’s line about power and foreplay at the end of this exchange is interesting because I begin to wonder if she already gets a sense of the power she’s already gaining or could wield by being in the room with Frank. She too does not have the luxury of foreplay, so what does that say for those with no power?
The momentum is with Zoe up until this point. She got through the door and knows she might have something Frank wants. This is her chance:
This is a big ask, but a ballsy one. But then the momentum shifts back to Frank when he reveals that he knows her:
The crux of it is that a Zoe and Frank are both being passed over, they are in the same position of having been held back from something which they deemed there’s. “I’m better than what they have me doing. You know what that feels like.” In other words, you may know who I am Mr. Underwood, but I know who you are and what ails you. When Frank finally asks how he can be of help to her, it’s a victory for Zoe because she’s impressed him and confirmed that she can help him as well. Zoe goes for the jugular and asks for details on the Walker Administration’s legislative agenda, which pays off why its important she overheard Lucas and Hammerschmidt’s discussion earlier in the chapter. Frank makes her take a few guesses, both in the spirit of plausible deniability and as a test to examine her intellect and intuition. Truth is, Frank realized who she was the minute he opened the front door and realized he’d been handed a gift. A young, ambitious woman ready to do his bidding in his quest for revenge. Another tool in the box, on a silver platter, and sure he’ll hand her a few necessary wins along the way. Zoe takes a few stabs before finally hitting the mark:
“You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment,” as we’ll learn, is Frank’s paradoxical trademark of non-committal affirmation. The stage is set and despite appearances, the terms for the beginnings of a fustian deal have been laid down. As Frank walks Zoe to the door, Claire appears and when she questions him about the effectiveness of the low-cut v-neck t-shirt, we begin to wonder whether she had been listening in on their conversation the entire time. Did Frank know she was there? Was he surprised? From top to bottom, it’s a fantastic scene that will go down in HOC lore.
Future Faust/Love Sounds
Staring at an impressionist painting of two rowers paddling a scull down a river, the faustian pairing of Frank and Zoe is solidified. The die is cast and the only way around this mountain in the middle of the river is to row right through it. Frank hands Zoe the incendiary far left Education Bill and with that leak, Mephistopheles has reeled Faust in. The faustian deal is a bit of a literary cliché, to say the least, but what’s often not examined is the complex dynamics between Faust and Mephistopheles (a minion of the Devil, not the Devil himself). Some interpretations imply that not only was Mephistopheles a guide to Faust, but a served himself up as a cautionary tale. Mephistopheles confided in Faust that he longed to return to God and warned Faust of following in his footsteps. Frank isn’t nearly as repentant as Mephistopheles is but he does offer Zoe his own subtle warnings perpendicular to his efforts to lure her in. Additionally, the tragedy of Faust (like the tragedy of Zoe’s self-corruption) is that Mephistopheles approached him knowing he was already a corrupt man, much in the way that Frank immediately sensed that Zoe is already corrupt when he facetiously questions her with, “you’re a fan of the symphony?”
Jumping back briefly to the tragedy of an already corrupt Faust, we suggested that Zoe seeking Frank out reflected a kind of self-immolation of sorts. She actively decides to take the corrupt path, even though she could have chosen to stay on the path of integrity. This self-destructive strand of her character may be mirrored in her constant nail biting. In some extreme cases, nail biting is not only a sign of deep anxiety and stress, but also a form of self-mutilation and in some schools of thought out there it is considered a kind of self-cannibalism. Profoundly symbolic no? Let’s pocket that idea for now and go back to Faust.
In other interpretations, Mephistopheles is also a lover to Faust (Chapter 4 anyone?). Faust is incapable of finding a mate and through various forms of metaphysical chicanery, Mephistopheles makes himself available to Faust in the form of a woman. Zoe says to Frank in his living room, “I need someone I can talk to,” which I think has several meaning in the context of the faustian relationship. Zoe is single and views men her age beneath her and more important not equals. Note how dismissive she is of her immediate boss, Lucas at the WaHe, and her unceremonious brushing off of her symphony date, Brian. Men are simply in the way, but Frank is not like those other men. Frank does not fall for “cheap ploys”, and when she tells him that she needs someone she can talk to, in many ways it’s also her way of saying she is looking for an equal. Someone who will go to the same lengths she will by taking the risks and row with her down the river, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, burning and pillaging. The natural inclination in this analogy is to place Zoe as Faust, as I’ve done; however, it’s not a stretch to assume Frank could be Faust and Zoe could be the Devil’s minion who arrives to make him a deal. Zoe makes the first move and in this sense has she assumed the role of Mephistopheles. Maybe they are both at once Faust and Mephistopheles? It’s an interesting dichotomy we’ll go back to time and again, while examining this relationship further, particularly when we deep dive into Chapters 3 and 4 later this week. Something to think about.
At the end of the scene at the museum, Frank affirms to Zoe that they are in the same boat and warns, “don’t tip us over because I can only save one of us from drowning.” The implication is that he can only save himself, but he doesn’t specify, which I found an interesting writing choice. Who will drown if the canoe tips over?
Fight The Monster And Become One
In Chapter 2, Frank and Zoe have succeeded in ousting Frank’s potential replacement, Senator Michael Kern. Zoe meets Frank at an underground train station and the next move in their long con chess game is to have Katherine Durrant nominated for Secretary of State. The scene is a dark and ominous one and when Frank reveals to Zoe the fickle nature of the truth in the media, and in politics, the relationship takes on a Sithian scale:
“Katherine Durrant. As soon as Kern withdraws, you say she’ll be the replacement.”
“Is that true?”
“It will be after you write it…say that name. Katherine Durrant. Say it over and over. Tomorrow afternoon, write it down. Then watch that name come out of the mouth of the President of the United States. This is where we get to create.”
Woah. It’s like that scene in Star Wars: Revenge of The Sith, when Senator Palpatine explains to Anakin Skywalker that there are elements of the Dark Side rarely explored or considered unnatural, some of which can prevent people from dying. The truth is a creation, a whimsy, a calculation and a performance (remember Zoe’s at The National Center for the Performing Arts? So do Frank.) Frank is declaring that not only will the truth set them free, but it can be whatever Zoe wants it to be. This is a powerful Sithian power that Frank is passing on to Zoe. Like all things Dark Side, will it come back to haunt him much like it did the Emperor?
Delusions of Grandeur
Frank confides in us that “proximity to power deludes some into believing they wield it”, a lesson he has surely learned time and again. It might even be said that power can be wielded more effectively the further one is from position of power. Perhaps that’s why Claire says to a friend that “Frank feels more at home in Congress anyway” and why Claire turns down the promotion to the Herald’s White House Correspondent? Positions of absolute power are dangerous, positions of only relative power make one impotent. Either way, Frank himself tells us in Chapter 1 about the importance of political real estate and geography, with greater power wielded by those just on the peripheries of the throne. Seems contradictory, or perhaps just selective, but contradictory thoughts can be part and parcel of a complex intelligence.
Like A Virgin
Chapter 2 is very much about Frank and Zoe removing the respective thorns from their sides, in particular Kern and Janine. Both of these obstacles are ruthlessly thrown aside, especially by Zoe who quickly ascends from a nobody to being called in for meetings with Hammerschmidt. In one telling moment, Zoe interrupts an editorial meeting by peeking through the door, to which Hammerschmidt says “we see you, Zoe.” Everybody sees Zoe now, as before she was listening in from the shadows and peeking in through cracks in the walls, but now the editor-in-chief is inviting her in for meetings. Threatened and unconvinced, Janine confronts Zoe just as she is ready to go live for a ‘remote’ interview from the Herald’s offices for broadcast news. Janine levels her own brand of ‘girl talk’ at Zoe: “Who are you fucking?” Zoe returns the favour from Chapter 1 and effectively effs her off. What goes around, comes around. Which got me thinking of a quote posted by a friend of mine on Facebook:
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”
—Toni Morrison, American Novelist
From this talk of sleeping her way to the top, Zoe sits down for the camera and the camera man asks her whether she’s “done this before”. Her response is quite apropos: “this is my first time,” evoking a loss of a certain kind of virginity.
BFFs and Frenemies
In many ways Frank and Zoe are equals, creating together and creating one another like twin Dr. Frankensteins or worse, twin Dr. Pretoriouses. They are re-incarnated into their new selves, executing a vision borne by enlightenment. Whether there is a burgeoning friendship or not (I don’t think there can be), it remains to be seen who exactly is more dangerous and cunning. After the first four chapters, the pendulum seemed to be swinging in Frank’s favour until the last beat of Chapter 4 (won’t spoil it now for those who haven’t gotten that far).
As we continue to examine this relationship, doubtless things will get more layered and complicated particularly if and when the relationship becomes sexual. If and when Frank does fall for Zoe’s “cheap ploys”, it will be a calculated move on both of their parts. I doubt either are unaware that creation goes hand in hand with destruction, including their mutual potential for becoming bitter enemies. Which they might become if and only if it falls in line with their objectives. Whichever it is, neither of the two make these kinds of important calculations so long after sunset and so far from dawn.