On Writers & Conviction

writer

Don’t just sit back and be quiet. Be ready to say something. There is a subtle culture war raging against the individual holding resolute and objective beliefs in just about anything. Writers in particular can be vanguards in countering this, both in movement and in idleness. Freedom from fear of offending. Freedom from fear of bridge-burning. Freedom from fear of loneliness and guile. This mix is the writer’s juice, his only passage through the armed checkpoints of manner and polite society.

The writer will be told to “write what you know,” a ploy meant to imprison really complex and nuanced ideas and instead “output” (like machinery would) standardized, flat and “universal” meanings (the dreaded “universal themes” trope). All in the name of selling, rather than conveying, to an audience. When he writes what he knows, he relies on filtering the external onto the page. This results in factory-style writing wrapped in a big game of pretend and mimicry. This is writing merely as craft, which can be boring, trite and laborious.

Additionally, part of the writer’s task is to make-believe: To inhabit the world and minds of people they aren’t and make them into characters that see the world through the writer’s lens. That is what the literary giants do, for example, Woody Allen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who wrote some of the most unique, authentic and varied female characters in modern literature. Pieces of themselves projected through the writer’s lens into a completely different human being.

In order for the genuine and the original to find its way onto the page, the writer imbues his characters with his own ‘Philosophy On Everything,’ from the puny to the profound. This applies to characters old, young, decrepit, corrupt, evil, good, unrequited and redeemed. It applies across genres as well. Genres, of course, are additional ‘containers’ meant to limit actual exploration through the ‘craft’ of writing. Writers shatter their ‘Philosophy On Everything’ into a million pieces and reform its core components in their characters and the story they live. In that story the writer’s core beliefs, and all their underlying contradictions, coalesce back into a simultaneously original and new whole being pulled at from all sides by the characters themselves. Like a circus big top being pulled taught by a thousand tent polls.

Authentic characters believe and give voice to what the writer believes and either live that truth or rebel against it on the page. Writing, even if trivial, resonates when there is conviction. This conviction that everyone and everything in the universe on the page lives and breathes; either, in support, ambiguity or as anti-thesis. In other words, at the risk of marching a maudlin parade, it’s not about merely writing what they know; rather, it’s about writing who they are.

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Big Week Ahead For LITHOC

LITHOC Ground Zero.

LITHOC Ground Zero.

HOCsters, our relocation is now complete. Been busy settling in to our new home in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia (Hollywood North).

Big week ahead! Here’s what’s coming your way:

1. Chapter 6 analysis and more graphic word art!

2. This morning we chatted for nearly an hour with the lovely and incredibly charming Sakina Jaffrey (@sakinajaff), who plays President Walker’s top advisor Linda Vazquez. Will have that interview up for you by mid-week.

3. Tomorrow we chat with the man behind the SAN CORP curtain, Mahershala Ali (Remi Danton).

4. Wednesday is huge because we are scheduled for a chat with the creative boss-man himself, Beau Willimon (@BeauWillimon). Will have that interview up for you sometime during or after the weekend.

It’s on like Tron. Now to IKEA for some furniture.

LITHOC (@livingintheHOC)

 

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Full House: Django Unchained & The Wretched of the Cinema

django_unchained_dicaprio_foxx

FULL HOUSE is a new feature on LITHOC (@livingintheHOC) that dedicates itself to expanding our format of sociopolitical analysis beyond the lens of House of Cards and framing our commentary through classic and contemporary films. In our first installment we dive into Quentin Tarantino’s riveting, brave, thought provoking and controversial Django Unchained. 

“Violence alone, perpetrated by the people, violence organized and guided by the leadership, provides the key for the masses to decipher social reality. Without this struggle, without this praxis there is nothing but a carnival parade and a lot of hot air. All that is left is a slight readapting, a few reforms at the top, a flag, and down at the bottom a shapeless, writhing mass, still mired in the Dark Ages.”

― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Django Unchained illuminates the artistic possibilities that exist when we break down the monopolies on suffering and oppression. In his latest cinematic outing Quentin Tarantino, a white Writer/Director, is having his usual fun but also working at new levels of complexity, subtext and courage. Tarantino declares that nobody owns any particular human narrative while adopting responsibility for reflection and myth making against the backdrop of one the darkest periods in American history. In his own idiosyncratic way, Tarantino tells us that as filmmakers and as artists, we can lay claim to any ideas or experiences we choose – including Slavery, Inquisitions, Holocausts, Naqbas and Genocides.

With art in particular, one does not require direct access to these disasters, through ancestry, ethnic affinity, or experience in order to comment or access the psychological and physiological imprint of human suffering and crime. This is why stories are written, why songs are sung, why music is composed, why paintings canvassed, monuments erected and films made. Through these, we can access and express experiences foreign to us in genuine and visceral ways. Even through the cathartic lenses of genre, kitsch, violence, pulp and comedy.

Failing all of this, we would wish that human empathy, as powerful as it can be, might be all that is needed to understand the horrors of something like Slavery. More often than not, it isn’t enough and nor is it guaranteed. Whichever the case – these experiences belong to all artists and we are responsible for them. By extension, these experiences belong to all of us, people, to address, reflect upon and provoke.

A shackle on the use of language is another kind of slavery in contemporary art and primarily in Cinema. Language, if it is to speak to truth, should by definition increasingly enrage – for the truth, just or otherwise, is always enraging someone somewhere. Which can be a great thing, for if history is any indication; offended sensibilities are often a prerequisite to enlightenment. Language, even the vile epithets of the oppressor, should be accessible to the artist as a matter of necessity and integrity.

Racial pejoratives, if they are to be weakened in their power, should be opened up to any art form and any artist willing to yield them like a Verbal Excalibur, articulating brutal realities imposed by people onto one another. And not only opened up for use by the victims of this language, but also to those who descend from its perpetrators. Through war, bondage and even love language must belong, unhindered, to the artist so that the audience may judge his merit from a place that is as close to truth as possible. Truth in an artistic context shouldn’t be confused with ‘fact’, for fiction can often more powerfully and profoundly reveal truths that reality cannot.

The proliferation of the N-word in Django Unchained, has offended many particularly because of the deep scars that it re-inflicts. Especially in the community of Black people – African-Americans and others — who feel it is theirs to control, contextualize and render disempowered in ways they see fit. While justifiably understandable, as an exercise in unmitigated revolt, if the ‘logic of offense’ or conversely the ‘logic of ownership’ is applied to language then why wouldn’t the same apply to the imagery and sounds of racism or American Slavery? The sounds of a slaver’s whip, the image of hounds ripping a runaway slave to shreds and the rows of chains dragged by rows of African-Americans through the mud and the dirt in a sub-human existence. Are these not equally offensive then as the words can be? If so, should they then be regulated only by its victims?

History belongs to the artist so that she may begin to offer up a present we can all understand and live with. Making exceptions and equivocating hinders our examination of the human capacity to inflict pain and horror in rather ingenious, industrious and bureaucratic ways wholly unique to our species. It also hinders our ability to provide cathartic therapy – and in many ways Django ‘getting paid to kill white people’, and doing it, is horrifyingly cathartic for all who have been discriminated against, oppressed or exterminated. To say that it wasn’t cathartic for me, an Arab Muslim in the age of the ‘T-word’ (Terrorist, Taliban, Towel Head) would be disingenuous. Mix this catharsis with the irony of shame that Arab civilization was one of the many that facilitated the global slave trade – African or otherwise – and you have a volatile potion of stirred emotions. A visceral reaction that illustrates how miraculously, through art, can someone like Quentin Tarantino unleash a war on the appropriation of language by colonized or colonizing communities, Blacks, Whites, Arabs, Asians, etc. An appropriation that only hastens to reinforce racism, not fight it.

In this regard, we cannot fear audiences. We cannot fear that audiences may come away without a proper understanding of the material. That audiences may misuse the artist’s content, a byproduct that is an unavoidable certainty with all artistic endeavors. It is the risk we always run with regards to the truth and with art. That said, it’s incumbent not only on the artist to be as informed as possible (only because it makes him more prepared to address those who will inevitably disagree with her), but it is even more incumbent on the audience to learn. This applies to all kinds of audiences, particularly those on the polar extremes — passive on one end and dogmatic on the other. These ‘extreme audiences’ are what all artists fear most, particularly when they are engaged with such heady and mortal material like slavery. It is because of this fear though that the artist must plow forward regardless.

One of the more provocative and fascinating portrayals in Django, (the marvelous Leonardo Dicaprio as villainous plantation owner Calvin Candy being one of these), is that of the house slave. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is not just a tragically comedic character, but also serves as a narrative accounting for how greed, power and the ingenuity of self-interest can manifest itself in the ideas and behaviours of the enslaved. Also the corruptibility we are all susceptible to when the rules of engagement are not equal, or to our choosing, when another enslaves us – there is no choice in the matter. It is not only a giving in to our natural survival mechanisms, but also to our natural inclinations to maintain an order that gives us even illusory control over our destinies. The enslaved, through oppressive hierarchies, are forced to participate in the industry of enslaving their own kind – ethnic, racial and human – and themselves, soul and body.

Stephen is beholden to the whims of his master, but also the whims of his own delusions of grandeur. The minute Django arrives in Candy Land; Stephen sees Django as a threat not just to the order bestowed by Candy; but also to the order that Stephen himself has known his entire life and one that he now, after years of agony, subservience and pain, presides over. The tragedy of Django is that Candy Land is in part Stephen’s making, nightmare and punishment all at once. Therein is the sheer malice and pain of slavery. Further proof of Tarantino’s intention, that Stephen might be one of the worst kinds of Django’s many enemies, is that Stephen gets his comeuppance in a climax that serves to categorizes this iteration of the house slave among the other white ‘cinematic villains’ in the film. Stephen is in some demented fashion, also a member of the Candy clan. He is the oppressor and the oppressed, at once – again something uniquely human.

As for the issue of caricature, everybody in Django is portrayed in a hyper-real mirror of what really was. The manner of speech, dress and attitudes displayed by all characters – wretched, hero, evil or noble – can in no way adequately mirror the reality, only truthfully reflect its echoes. The brutality and triumphs portrayed in art can only be trumped by the brutality and triumph that actually is.

“When someone strives & strains to prove to me that black men are as intelligent as white men, I say that intelligence has never saved anyone; and that is true, for, if philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.”

― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

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Chapter 5: Peter Russo & The Spear of Destiny

Peter sells his loyalty for a month of sobriety and a chance at becoming governor. His destiny is set.

Peter sells his loyalty for a month of sobriety and a chance at becoming governor. His destiny is set in motion.

Chapter 5: Directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Sarah Treem
Follow us on Twitter: @livingintheHOC

Power is as much about optics as it is about the practical maneuvering of military and economic might and infrastructure. Power can be crippling, leaving one leaden, anchored to the bottom of the ocean by the gravity of history and thousands of pounds of expectations. The calamity in Syria, the non-existing Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”, the brewing face plant with North Korea, drone warfare, torture and the slow band-aid peels that are Afghanistan and Iraq all point to an increasingly impotent United States. Let there be no doubt: America remains the most powerful nation on Earth, but a good mix of international blunders and domestic economic and political grid-lock seems to be weighing down the practical machinations of American power. Perhaps it’s just President Obama being his prudent, pragmatic and (let’s face it) deadly self, but I’m more inclined to believe that while America is too big to fail, it has become too big to move without destroying everything in its wake.

The common refrain is that the president is the most powerful man in the world. But is he really? Who is more powerful? The leader of a powerful democracy with institutions of governance leaving it unable to act quickly, decisively, morally or in a unified manner or a third-world dictator who merely has to wish his nation into action. Power can be illusory.

In Chapter 5 we begin to see Frank buckle a bit under the weight of his growing power and influence. In many ways it begins to hamper his ability to get things done, particularly when the minions around him each want a nibble of the big juicy pie he wants all to himself. Claire, Zoe, Linda and Marty Spinella are all becoming distractions from the big prize even though each of them plays a crucial role in Frank’s journey to the top. Frank is powerful, but he is not a dictator who can simply eliminate those he wants out of the way. He must negotiate, deflect and decoy his way in and around at every single opportunity in order to get the chess pieces precisely where he needs them to be before launching the check mate. Chief among these useful distractions and petty pawns is Congressman Peter Russo, who at this point has been firmly established as the a crucial emotional and moral core in the bleak universe of House of Cards.

Peter's losing everything and he knows it.

Peter’s losing everything and he knows it.

Peter Russo: As Good As It Gets

In Chapter 5 we get to see Peter taken to the depths  as his life and career quickly unravel: He sold out the Philadelphia shipyard, realizes that he has betrayed his friends and the people he represents, Christina leaves him, he’s a drunk and a drug addict and Frank has him wrapped around his little finger. The are only two directions Peter can go after Chapter 5: Up or out.

If I were ever tasked with something as trite as choosing a ‘favourite character’ among the lot of dastardly debauchers on HOC, I might single out Peter Russo as the most complex of the lot, if not necessarily my ‘favourite’. Peter is the everyman who finds himself mired in the political morass unsure of how he turned into a political chump in a game that is larger and more complex than he can possibly imagine. Up to his chin in shit, Peter is treading his way through a cesspool of political chicanery. A single dad unable to shape the future he may have foreseen for his two young children, disenchanted by a less than ideal political geography that probably was not so welcome to what may have been naïve idealism when he first got into the game. Peter didn’t get into politics for power, he’s that guy in college who headed the student union, who went to all the rallies and who organized all the community pot-lucks. One day he found himself a congressman and with that came the realization that he was more powerless in the sordid hallways of Washington D.C. than he ever was on the streets of Philadelphia. Peter is like any of us when mired in the dilemma of loving what you do but hating your job. Too far and too long into it to leave and the way out too distant to bother even trying.

Peter comes face to face with the consequences of his actions.

Peter comes face to face with the consequences of his actions.

It says a lot about the world we’re in when someone as fucked up as Peter is the most relatable of the bunch. If we were to zoom out and look at our entire cast of characters, Peter is as good as it gets and he kind of knows it, or at the very least, he wants to believe that he’s a good man. His tragedy is that he has allowed himself to be manipulated by Frank, and others like him, so far and so deep that he simply can no longer legitimately claim to be a ‘good guy’ without first making some drastic changes in his life. He wants so much to go back to his hometown and look his friends and family in the eye with a sense of integrity and pride for having looked after them and having done right by them. Peter isn’t a victim in the scheme of things, he knows that he screwed up and made decisions that lacked fortitude and ethics, and that’s ultimately what makes him a believable and universally relatable character. Many of the questionable choices we make in life, particularly when we are bestowed with a relative amount of influence or power over other people’s lives, are banal in how quickly and idly they are made. The banality of evil is defined by the ability of the every person to make terrible decisions that can adversely affect thousands of people in terrible ways.

Peter & The Puppet Master

Frank has other plans for Peter of course. As always, Frank is playing the long game and he sees an opportunity to get the vice president, a Pennsylvania native himself, out of the way. Peter will make a perfect candidate for the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania and and allow Frank to pull the puppet strings in a key Democratic battle-ground state, particularly in the lead-up to mid-term elections. Peter’s destiny was set in motion back in Chapter 4 when Frank corners Russo into not testifying against the closing of the shipyards in Philadelphia. The shipyards were a big part of Russo’s mandate and he had to sell that promise out as soon as Frank pulled the trigger. This established Frank’s ability to ‘own’ Peter’s loyalty.

Why would Frank get behind Russo for Pennsylvania Governor? The answer doesn’t reveal itself for another few chapters, but we get a hint of it when Frank realizes that the VP is from Pennsylvania. We see the machinery start to churn in Frank’s head because while Peter Russo is someone he can control almost completely, he realizes that Russo’s recklessness might be at just the acceptable threshold to provide an opening when the time is right. Frank is less concerned with Russo’s eventual victory and more interested in gaining control of the gubernatorial seat itself. Russo is just a means and an in, not the end itself. He wants to be able to use Russo to take control of the governorship only to put in place whomever will make it politically expedient for him to move up in the ranks. I don’t think Frank really has much faith in Peter, but he knows that Peter earnestly believes he has what it takes to make a difference and change his life for the better, and perhaps recover some of his bygone ideals. Frank reads Russo’s desperation and is going to milk it for his own purposes.

The Spear of Destiny & The Fatal Wound

The Spear of Destiny. The Golden Dagger. The stab in the back. You get the idea.

The Spear of Destiny. The Golden Dagger. The Proverbial Stab In The Back. You get the idea.

The scene where a drunk and high Russo is reading abusive e-mails from constituents establishes his deep desire for redemption. We want him to redeem himself as well and to establish this emotional connection with the audience is crucial (and a testament to Corey Stoll’s incredible performance) as Peter’s story plays out. More than any other character, our emotional investment in Russo is required to heighten the drama and stakes that form the foundation of his character arc. It’s a difficult balance as a performer and as a writer to do this with a character like Peter Russo only because he has so many fatal flaws. In drama there is a thin red line between a character who is universally fucked up and an unbearable asshole.

Peter’s arc has a fatalistic quality to it in the sense that tragedy hovers around him. Nothing about this seems like it will end well for him; in part because its not in Frank’s interest for it to and in part because HOC is just not that kind of show. There are no happy endings in this neo-realistic world of power-hungry double crossers. The question isn’t whether it will end tragically for Russo; the question is how, when and at what price? Whose soul will be forever sold as a price for Russo playing an unwitting role in Frank’s thirsty journey for power?

Peter’s destiny is symbolized by the golden letter opener he fiddles with during the drunken scene in his office. I kept thinking of The Spear of Destiny, the Roman soldier’s blade which pierced the ribs of Jesus Christ while he was on the Cross, inflicting the wound that many believe hasted his death. Peter stabs the golden dagger down into his desk in a rage, unable to come to terms with his having sold out his community and his followers. The dagger has, in a way, already pierced the fatal wound in Peter Russo,  who is the sacrificial lamb (much as Jesus was) in the unyielding and unforgiving quest for control. The wound is already spilling his blood and he is slowly but surely dying.

Although I often don’t like kids being used to set up a character’s stakes (because everyone loves kids right?), Peter’s rapport with his children makes it difficult not to see someone with a moral core who we want to see succeed and overcome his demons. We get a deep catharsis watching Frank expose the hypocrisies and double standards of the political game, but in contrast we need someone like Peter to root for and though we can foresee the oncoming disaster, we sincerely hope Peter will overcome any of Frank’s manipulations. It’s strange, on the one hand wanting Frank to will his way to the top but cringing at the possibility that Peter will be collateral damage. For the first time a character we love is in danger of imploding. But that’s just Good Storytelling 101.

Wading In The Water On The Wrong Side Of The Tracks

Peter's losing everything and he knows it.

Peter’s losing everything and he knows it.

At the end of Chapter 5, Peter gets all Philadelphia in Frank’s face for forcing him to betray his community. Peter knows that Frank took advantage of him, but Frank doesn’t flinch. Instead he offers Peter the cowards way out: A bath tub to lie naked in, hot water to open up the capillaries, Aspirin to thin the blood and a razor to slice his way with the tracks. Frank offers Peter the opportunity  to quit with all the whining and end it all.

There are so many layers in this scene, but there are three beats in particular that “jumped off the page.” The first beat is simply the visual of a naked Peter in the bath of the devil himself, in a way being reverse-baptized and “re-born” as a disciple of the prince of darkness. It’s ironic that Frank is offering Peter a way out by giving him a choice: He can drift off into the warm bosom of oblivion, or carry on by choosing sobriety and a political ascension to the Pennsylvania governor’s seat, where he might have a chance at political and personal redemption.

The second beat is when Frank explains that it’s better to cut with the tracks (i.e. veins) and that cutting against them would be a “rookie mistake.” Perhaps a throw-away line, but I think it hints at the possibility that Frank might have been here before himself. Perhaps Frank, in the nascent crevices of his political youth, once had to make the same choice: The coward’s way out or perseverance.  Like many character beats in HOC, the writers choose not to reveal too much and leave us grasping at the mysteries and allowing us to fill in the gaps. Mystery is good, especially when it’s not trite and makes characters robust and real. Mystery is smart and incredibly compelling to watch when it grows narrative entrails.

The third, and partially hidden, beat in this scene that I found interesting and which echoes loudly in later chapters is that this won’t be the first time Frank manufactures Peter’s suicide. The seeds are planted that Frank may end up with Peter’s blood on his hands.

Peter decides to preserver, offering exchanging a promise of sobriety for Frank’s support in winning the governor’s race. Frank has Peter exactly where he needs him to be. Peter’s wading into the bath that Frank draws for him and being re-born a sober, willing acolyte with a renewed sense of direction reminds me in part of the Negro Spiritual, Wade In The Water:

Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God’s gonna trouble the water.

wadeInTheWaterLg

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House Keeping: The Weeks Ahead On LITHOC

House_of_Cards_Spacey_BW

Hope you politics, film and House of Cards junkies are holding up well and having as good a time as we are on Living In The House Of Cards (@livingintheHOC). Catching up with you all and letting you know what’s going down in the weeks ahead. Here’s what we’re working on for the next few days of House of Cards geek-outs and overdosing:

1. Character and broader contextual analysis for Russo (and by extension Christina), Janine, Stamper and Remy. Each of these characters are representative of a sector of politics, media and corporate America and as such make a considerable amount of commentary on the state of these institutions.

2. Gearing up for Chapter 5 & 6 analysis and the half-way mark of Season 1.

3. Zooming out for a bit of insider industry flim-flam when we profile the work and legacy of Kevin Spacey & Dana Brunetti’s Trigger Street Productions and Trigger Street Labs.

4. Cast interviews and much more!

Stay close on the ol’ Twitter feed and feel free to drop us any feedback about what you’d like to see on our blog.

LITHOC

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Chapter 4: Part 2: The Good, The Bad and The C-Word

The Man With No Name...and no politics.

The Man With No Name…and no politics.

Chapter 4: Directed by James Foley, Co-written by Rick Cleveland & Beau Willimon
Follow us on Twitter: @livingintheHOC

The Man With No Politics

We’ve established Frank’s apolitical nihilism centered on an ideology of power and control. Two compelling comparisons come to mind when trying to define the deeper layers underneath this essence. The first is to the hired gun drifter in Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy played by Clint Eastwood. A nameless man whose only ideology was his own, and to which he paid homage by playing various antagonists against one another to come out the winner. The moral ambiguity of Eastwood’s epic anti-hero, in its own odd way, taught us something about the way the world really worked and about how we as people manage to survive in it. It made the brave statement that the best way to face a fundamentally unstable and screwed up existence was to let the world go at it while you climb to the top of the wreckage heap, with your dignity in tact.

The second comparison comes in the form of Tom Reagan (a Man With No Name derivative character), played by Gabriel Byrne in the Coen Brothers masterpiece Miller’s Crossing. The Coen Brothers drew on thematic and visual motifs from Leone’s films as well as from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. In that film, Reagan starts as a Machiavellian number one to an Irish-Mob kingpin as the latter goes to war with a local hot-headed Italian Don. Byrne’s character plays both sides off one another in a complex web of manipulations, which even the audience is kept in the dark about until the end. However, Reagan’s motivations are less about power and chiefly about his freedom and independence (much like Eastwood’s character), costing him his soul and friendships in the process. In an early scene Reagan can’t bring himself to execute John Turturro’s Bernie in the woods at Miller’s Crossing in a classic and heartbreaking scene that will leave you blubbering in a pool of tears  (“look in your heart!”). Reagan’s morals get the best of him and as a result Bernie comes back haunt him in more ways than one. Later, at the climax of the film, the scene in the woods is mirrored when Reagan has the one-up on Bernie again. He is begging for his life and shouts the familiar refrain, “look in your heart!”, to which Reagan this time replies: “What heart?” before shooting Bernie dead.

Frank gets a kick out of calling out Bob's "Manhood."

Frank quips about “Manhood.”

Politics & Promises

After a closed-door meeting between Congressional Democrats and President Obama in early February of this year, various news outlets reported that several democratic congressmen were angry with the president. Anonymously quoted attendees described the president as “aloof”, “disengaged” and “unresponsive” to concerns that he had not cultivated relationships with Hill Democrats since he’d taken office. The same Hill Democrats who hooked their boot straps to Hillary Clinton during the primaries were expecting some Obama lovin’. So much for integrity. Some congressmen were even quoted as saying Obama was “acting like a Republican.” All of this of this probably a hold out from four years of what seemed like Obama compromising too much on principles and relinquishing too much to the Republicans, particularly during the 2011 budget and debt ceiling fiasco (if there had been a movie about that period it could have been titled Fiscal Cliff: The Beginning). In essence, to Democrats, Obama was behaving like a Republican and to the Republicans Obama was a socialist cypher. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Oi!bama!

Cut to Chapter 4 and Democratic Speaker of the House Bob Birch (Larry Pine) telling Francis Underwood that he won’t budge to a Democratic president “acting like a Republican.” Bob is also upset that the president won’t meet him directly about the issue. Frank wants to include an anti-collective bargaining provision in the bill as leverage to wrestle performance standards from the teacher’s unions. Problem is, Birch won’t have any of it and it won’t see the light of the House floor as long as it’s even a consideration. Birch is Frank’s immediate boss and doesn’t mince any words when he says Frank is resorting to lying because he had told Spinella (in Chapter 3) that collective bargaining was off the table. Then a terse but fascinating exchange:

Frank: “No, I revised the parameters of my promise.”

Birch: “Which is lying.”

Frank: “Which is politics.”

It seems like an intuitive point but essentially reaffirming that a politicians promise is revisable at the precise moment of political expediency and as far as the morality and ethics of “lying” goes, politics inherently is about misdirection in the process of negotiation and self-interested strategic thinking. “Which is politics” is Frank’s way of saying “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

Most of us hate both.

Taking the piss and marking territory.

Taking the piss and marking his territory.

Monumental Finks and Phalli

Linda tells Frank that Bob gets no face time with the president before the bill goes to the floor and that she won’t budge on collective bargaining despite Frank’s advice that the provision be struck from the bill so as not to burn bridges with House Democrats. For the first time we see Linda and Frank butting heads and having conflicting desires. Despite Linda’s gratitude for Frank’s advice, she doesn’t take it (at least not this instance).

The next scene at the urinals does a couple of things. First off we see classic male pattern insecurity as Birch takes a piss to mark his territory and flashes Frank his, presumably large, nether regions to reassert his authority. Frank doesn’t flinch and I wonder if the writer’s are winking to us about the late-season reveal about Frank’s sexuality or just telling us that he isn’t phased at all by Birch’s posturing. Either way, Bob is flippant about what the president wants and uninterested in Linda Vazquez’s demands. Bob tells Frank “I don’t care what he ran on, he can’t steamroll the House…You work for me, not for him…if he wants something on the floor he’s going to have to talk directly to me.”

Frank delivers a speech laced with one honking double-entendre about “Manhood.”

“I know you take a lot of pride in your Manhood, Bob, and it’s impressive. But as big as it is, Linda can still shut the door on it.”

This won’t be the first time this chapter we see an establishment old white male losing it after being nipped in the bud by a woman with considerable amount of power.

The Washington Monument's first cameo of Chapter 4.

The Washington Monument’s first cameo of Chapter 4.

Aside from the literal phallic drop employed by Bathroom Bob, phallic imagery appears in symbolic ways in this Chapter. In the opening scene in Bob’s office the Washington Monument peeks through the window. Not its last cameo of the chapter.

Speaking of monuments it really is true what they say about the universal male compulsion to compensate for their shortcomings isn’t it? Don’t believe me? Here’s a small sampling:

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Machiavellian Copyright Infringement

The Man With No Politics rears his mighty head again when, in a meeting with Vazquez and President Walker, Frank reverses on his earlier advice to strike the anti-collective bargaining provision. Vazquez, with her own Machiavellian panache on full display, steals Frank’s idea and he doesn’t miss a beat in countering her “advice” to the president. Frank tells the President that the provision should be kept in, with the Bill going to the House as is, because kneeling down to Birch would mean four years of impotency with congressional Democrats (sound familiar Obamamaniacs?). Vazquez doesn’t see the reversal coming of course but she can’t say much without outing herself. The president agrees to let Frank work his magic.

Not on my watch.

Not on my watch.

Frank confides in us on his way out about her stealing his pitch:

“That was her trying to take credit for my idea, advice she wouldn’t take from me. Unacceptable. I will not allow her to sell my goods when she cuts me out of the profits.”

If this isn’t enough to sell Frank’s apolitical nihilism, I don’t know what does. It’s a good move for now, but it’s going to leave him with the same Birch problem he was trying to get rid of. A new approach is called for and we’ll see it unfold in the rest of the chapter in a brilliant sequence of calculations that we’ll talk about later this week.

Margaret Tilden, the owner of the Washington Herald.

Margaret Tilden, the owner of the Washington Herald.

Reclamation & The C-Word

Feminist literature is littered with theories about the “reclamation” of oppressive patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist language, including the C-word. Much in the same way that sectors of African-American progressives believe the reclamation of the N-word has allowed Blacks to control the terms of engagement in terms of its usage, power, politics, cultural cache and meaning. Chapter 4 makes astute commentary on this when the C-word shows up in this memorable scene between Tom Hammerschmidt and Margaret Tilden (Kathleen Chalfant), who are exchanging views on Zoe’s recent recalcitrance:

M&Tom

Not only does Margaret’s anecdote get the point across that Zoe’s agitator-in-chief qualities are good for business and readership, but it also reveals Margaret’s cynical motives. Margaret is using Zoe too because despite appearances, she isn’t as concerned about journalistic standards as much as she is with “cutting through the clutter” and stemming the tide of a dwindling readership.

Margaret’s anecdote also makes subtle commentary on class and culture. Namely Southern culture and its penchant for pride, integrity and blunt honesty. It also seems to imply that there isn’t really a “Northern” culture in the United States, only money and class. Money and class is what stands for culture in the blue-blood North East and the rust belt to the South West (i.e. the Union “Yankee” States). Southern Culture is as much about religion, tradition, dignity and rebellion as much as it is about money, class and race.

Tom Hammerschmidt takes taken down. Get a cell phone, dude.

Tom Hammerschmidt gets taken down. Get a cell phone, dude.

In this scene we also have another successive sequence of a female authority figure cutting a man down to size. Vazquez indirectly keeps Birch at bay, while here Margaret tells Hammerschmidt what’s what. In many ways it’s also about the white male establishment watching the way things have been begin to crumble to economic, technological and sociopolitical pressures.

This exchange echoes into the later scenes between Zoe and Hammerschmidt, who offers our intrepid reporter a promotion to Chief White House Correspondent. A quantum leap forward for Zoe, but one can read this as a roundabout strategic move by Hammerschmidt to handcuff Zoe and getting her out of the way (one wonders if this is the same tactic he used with Janine in years past).

Say what?

Say what?

Surprisingly, Zoe is hesitant to take the job, for one because she’s got to check what repercussions this has for her arrangement with Frank and for another she needs to ask herself whether this is really what she wants. A talking head press-points regurgitation-machine isn’t exactly a path to a legendary and powerful career. Remember Frank’s wise and apropos philosophy about the easy win:

“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”

In many ways big and small, Zoe is thinking along the same lines. This isn’t just about getting the cushy White House gig and melting into the comfortably numb bubble of oblivion. This is about joining the ranks of journalists who made and changed history by speaking truth to power and exposing corruption and crime at the highest levels of American power. This is about exposing lies: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Libby-Plame Affair, Abu Ghraib, “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” and the Drone Program. It’s about leaving a journalistic legacy at any price.

Fast forward to a few days later and Zoe’s gotten the harsh flip off from Frank who sees her consideration of the promotion as a violation of their pact:

“This changes everything…call me if you find yourself available again.”

In words of Donald Trump: "You're fired."

In immortal words of King Douche-Bag, Donald Trump: “You’re fired.”

When Zoe goes back to Hammerschmidt to turn down the promotion, he flips his lid and unleashes the C-word on her. This pays off the set-up from his exchange with Margaret as Tom has taken her rather liberal use of the C-Word as some sort of passive permission to wield it himself. Bad move. It may sound like a double standard but the rules of reclamation say that when a woman uses it, the context of its meaning is altered, but when a man uses it, its misogynistic.  Reclamation is about re-appropriating powers originally in the hand of the oppressor, so within that context it’s not a double standard, it’s simply trying to level the playing field.

Even as Hammerschmidt is kicking her out of the office, she’s coolly sending a text of the incident into cyberspace. Like all things Zoe, she’s got a plan B and this is going to come back and bite Tom in the ass:

“Call me whatever you want, but you should remember, these days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand.” 

This is about old/young, man/woman and digital/analogue. Classic stuff.

Gillian, Remy. Remy, Gillian. Awkwaaaaard.

Gillian, Remy. Remy, Gillian. Awkwaaaaard.

Zoe = Claire = Zoe = Claire

We’ve made a big hullabaloo about the motifs that overlap, contrast, mirror and repeat themselves in terms of the relationships Zoe and Claire share with Frank. With that in mind, lets jump ahead to Remy’s arrival at CWI to meet with Claire, only to bump into Gillian. Remy’s in search of the dearly departed Evelyn, with whom it seems he knew well enough to drop in to say hello . Gillian introduces herself and when she asks Remy whether he works with Claire, his response is cryptic: “In a way.”

Gillian begins to sense that things aren’t as they seem at CWI and the writers begin to plant the seeds of eventual differences between Gillian and Claire. The same differences we outlined a few posts ago about Gillian being the ‘anti-Claire’. The Claire-Remy-Gillian triumvirate will ultimately cause some dire complications for Frank later in the season even though we don’t see them yet. I love these moments because they show a writing staff thinking several steps ahead and when you get the sense that there is someone at the wheel guiding you down an orchestrated path, it makes for good television.

Let’s get back to the Zoe/Claire dichotomy for a minute. Re-treading for a moment (bear with me, I’m heading some place with this): Zoe gets an offer she can’t refuse from Hammerschmidt, an offer Lucas Goodwin explains he would have killed for when he first got to the Herald, and that she was only recently begging him for a leg up. Zoe sees the White House as a ‘graveyard’ as opposed to when she was younger (perhaps a zing at the Obama Administration’s notorious unavailability with the WH Press Corps). Zoe hesitates as well because she has to check for Frank’s approval first. Frank, at least for the moment, controls her fate; she can’t make a decision like this without his blessing. She tells Hammerschmidt: “I need to think about it.”

Remy meets with Claire and makes her an offer she can’t refuse as well. San Corp has reversed course, as a practical matter of optics, and is now ready to pony over a $1.5 million donation. Claire can’t believe it, but immediately she’s skeptical that this is just a means to more leverage over Frank. Remy pleads innocence and that accounts are even-Steven and that this is purely a matter of PR. Much in the same way that Hammerschmidt seems to be attempting to get Zoe out of the way, Remy seems to be trying the same gambit with Claire. Or at the very least, attempting to drive a wedge between Frank and her. Speculation aside, the other parallels are evident as Claire is also hesitant; even though it’s something she would’ve killed for two chapters ago. We get the sense that she too needs Frank’s approval as well. Both of these women are inexorably tied to Underwood’s whims. Claire’s response to Remy is the same as Zoe’s: “I’ll think about it.”

Claire tells Frank about Remy's offer.

Claire tells Frank about Remy’s offer.

The parallels don’t end there. Claire goes home to tell Frank. Just as with Zoe, he’s not happy about it, “you know better than that”, he tells Claire. Just as we see the first signs that Linda Vazquez and Zoe’s interests begin to clash with Frank’s own, we start to see the weeds of division begin to sprout between husband and wife. In all scenarios, Frank is putting his own plans ahead of theirs but this one seems to bite the most because it’s been largely understood that Claire is his partner in ambition:

Frank: “I’m asking you.”

Claire: “No you’re not. You’re telling me (gets up to leave). I’ll tell you what I told him.”

Frank: “Which was?”

Claire: “(defiant) I’ll think about it.”

Unlike with Zoe, to whom Frank basically said “it’s you’re call, but suffer the consequences”, Frank pleads with Claire not to take the offer. She is his equal and he knows it and he genuinely loves her, or so we think. Also unlike Zoe, Claire leaves him in a lurch and takes the prerogative from him defiantly. In terms of their behaviour and Frank’s corresponding reactions, thematic parallels and foreshadowing contrasts continue to show themselves in compelling and dangerous ways.

There’s also a deeper message in Claire’s dilemma. Claire is genuinely keen to follow-up on Gillian’s plan to build a flagship water well in the South Sudan. But as much as with anti-collective bargaining provisions in a historic education reform bill, politics is trumping useful policy that could benefit millions. Politics is winning out over progress.

Claire talks to Michael Fassbender...er...we mean, Adam Galloway.

Claire talks to Michael Fassbender…er…we mean, Adam Galloway.

Back at her office, in addition to pressure about budget numbers from Gillian, Claire gets a package from Frank. It’s a framed campaign photo of the two of them on the trail from back in the day. Better times. A hand-written note on the frame says, “you don’t need San Corp, you have me. xx, Frank.” Her fate is sealed and she’s got to sort out some other plan. The photos on her office wall remind her of her more noble objectives but also of an old friend. She picks up and dials photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels channeling a bit of Michael Fassbender), an old friend. But Claire betrays sadness and nostalgia; perhaps she’s been looking for an excuse to make this phone call. The subtext behind her words to Adam is clear: “I need to use you.” Indeed, in more ways than one.

I'm looking at the man in the mirror. I'm looking for him to change his ways.

I’m looking at the man in the mirror. I’m looking to change his ways.

Nothing Is Ever Black Or White, Except For Dresses

Back at the Underwood household mirror of horrors, we find Frank and Claire together in reflection once again with him peering from behind her (this time from the bed) and again futzing about a dress.

Claire is preparing to go see Adam, presumably to prostitute herself for a major donation to CWI so that she won’t have to take Remy’s offer. The subtext is so thick in the air it’ll fog your computer screen. With little to be said, both of them implicitly know that this is what must be done to meet their ends.

The most interesting bit by far, which will pay off later in the chapter, is when Claire asks Frank what colour dress to wear. Black or white? They both like the white dress, one that looks precisely like Zoe’s white tulip dress, we might add. Frank curiously remarks that “the first one’s better,” and after realizing that Claire is on her way to “raise money,” Frank’s reply is laced with pragmatism and exemplifies his philosophy on everything:

Frank: “Did you speak to Remy yet?”

Claire: “I haven’t.”

Frank: “If you want to look inviting, wear the black one.”

Ice cold right? The underlying philosophy here is that it’s not about what you like, it’s about what works. What gets the job done and achieves the ends. The means are the ends as we like to say.

Washington D.C. isn't the only white male phallic in this frame.

Washington D.C. isn’t the only white male phallic in this frame.

Monumental Levels of “Excitement”

The Washington Monument makes another cameo appearance as Claire struggles to do the deed with Adam at his hotel room. Her conscience, or so it seems, gets the best of her and she can’t go through with it, getting Mr. Euro-Cash in a lurch just as he’s ready to get it on. The monument is majestically lit outside and in center frame, telling us rather emphatically that D.C. is not only a male-dominated patriarchal wasteland of penis-measuring Neanderthaloid white men, it’s also one big “fuck you” to the world, isn’t it? The monument is at once a finger to the universe and a giant pathetic white phallus left hanging, like Adam Galloway, all pent-up with no place to go.

What's another window and another cigarette and another man.

What’s another window and another cigarette and another man.

Adam shares a nicotine-free cigarette with Claire at the window, calling it an “illusion,” not unlike their relationship. You don’t have to be a genius to see the parallels to her sharing of real cigarettes with Frank at the plotting window.

Back At The Plotting Window

Claire shows up at home after ditching Adam, again subtext hanging in the air like the smoke from Frank’s cigarette.

Claire: “Adam is staying at the Mandarin.”

Frank: “And you?”

Claire: “Here.”

Claire heads back home to find her man at their window.

Claire heads back home to find her man at their window.

With that brilliantly written little exchange we all understand that she didn’t go through with it.

Frank continues: “I appreciate this was not easy.”

Claire: “We don’t like easy, do we?”

Frank: “All evidence would suggest it.”

Frank not only managed to avoid the Remy dependency but his wife didn’t sleep with Adam after all. Claire’s going to have to do this the old fashion way: Fundraise. And Frank is going to help her by rounding up his Washington pals. He owes her one.

So long, assholes.

So long, assholes.

Zoe’s New Dress

After her blow-up with Tom, Zoe leaves the Herald. She goes for a couple of stiff ones at the bar, where she’s contemplating next steps. Determined she gets up to leave, but not before a cool little beat with her drink, which she gulps down confidently. Remember when Frank offered her a drink in their first meeting and she coughed up a storm after a sip? That was a test of strength then and now with a defiant gulp we can see that Zoe is stronger than ever.

Zoe pulls the trigger and invites Frank back to her apartment. She makes herself available.

Zoe pulls the trigger and invites Frank back to her apartment. She makes herself available again.

She makes a call to Frank to let him know she gave the Herald the bird and was now free and clear. Frank is pleased of course, “you’ve made yourself available,” he says. In more ways than one, she is. Zoe is playing her game, the same game that Claire had to consider only Zoe’s going to go the distance. She invites Frank to her apartment, and of course he accepts. Notice that in the limo behind Frank, centre frame, is the Capitol Building, another one of Washington’s towering monuments looming over the seduction between Frank/Zoe, as one did over the seduction scene in the hotel with Adam and Claire. These monuments to democracy have been built in part by this process of seduction; centuries of lust, greed, ambition and manipulation.

Frank accepts Zoe's invitation. Note Congress, another D.C monument, in the background.

Frank accepts Zoe’s invitation with the Capitol Building watching over them in the distance.

When Frank arrives Zoe is ready and waiting in a, wait for it, black dress, thus paying off Frank’s earlier exchange with Claire about the dresses. He likes white, but black works especially if she wants to “look inviting.” It seems Zoe has had the same thought. The white dress she wore before was nice, she liked it and so did Frank, enough for him to check her out in it. But the black dress will do the job and seal the deal.

In these subtle ways are Zoe and Frank’s methodologies and philosophies matched and amplified. Just as Claire wore black to seduce Adam, Zoe is wearing black to seduce Frank to meet her own ends. Zoe may be young and a bit naïve, but she isn’t stupid. In many ways she is both a victim and reinforcing the patriarchal systems that she battles, having to stoop to getting ahead by selling her body. That and perhaps there is a genuine attraction to Frank, something which remains to be seen. What we do know is that Zoe is going to go the lengths that Claire couldn’t and perhaps the lengths once taken by her Herald nemesis, Janine .

The lady in black awaits.

The lady in black awaits.

The exchange that caps the chapter is telling:

Frank: “Are you cared for? Do you have a man who cares for you? An older man?”

Zoe: “No.”

Frank: “But you’ve been with older men before?”

Zoe: “Yes.”

Frank: “Then you know they hurt you. And after they hurt you, they discard you.”

In other words “don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

Zoe: “You can’t hurt me.”

I see this as a veiled threat delivered partly in drunken jest.

Frank: “Take your heals off.”
(SMASH CUT TO BLACK)

If that doesn’t bring you back for more, you’re a lost cause.

Ribs, fridges and the meaning of life.

Ribs, fridges and the meaning of life.

Fridges and Fate

We’re going to leave Frank’s machinations with Bob Birch and David Rasmussen for our dedicated analysis of Peter Russo later this week because the story line has as much to do with Frank’s political progress as it does with setting into motion Peter’s tragic fate. In that piece we’ll also talk about the role Christina (played by the wonderful Kristen Connolly) plays in Russo’s life. In addition we’re going to deliver dedicated character breakdowns for Janine Skorsky and Doug Stamper, examining their motivations in the show so far and contextualizing their characters with real world parallels.

In many ways this chapter reinforced Frank’s on-going battle against fate, randomness and the meanderings of a careless God. Frank ensnares everyone around him: Claire, Russo, Zoe and by extension unassuming do-gooders like Gillian, getting them to compromise their principles and, if they have none, at least their own best interests.

Going back for a moment to the phone call Zoe makes to Frank when he’s chewing down on his favourite ribs and learning about meaning and causality at Freddy’s. Zoe wonders where Frank is and he says:

“I’m on the other side of the tracks trying to find the meaning of life.”

Every existentialist who ever lived will tell you that suffering, not joy is what gives life meaning.

Zoe’s response: “Find anything for me?”

On the surface she’s fishing more another scoop but at a deeper level she really means find any meaning for me? Because guess what, she’s already suffering and still can’t find a reason for being.

Either way they are both on a raging journey to find meaning in the meandering corruption of their D.C. existence. They demand it and while God has given everyone else reflexes to get out of the way of wayward flying fridges, both of them believe it’s actually the fridge’s job to swerve out of theirs.

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Frank Explains Why Money Is Fleeting & Power Is Forever

Chapter 2

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