BINGE-R #51: House of Cards + Patriot
HOUSE OF CARDS S5
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 13 episode now streaming (plus S1 + S2 + S3 + S4)
As I’ve noted previously, House of Cards lost me halfway through the political drama’s second season. Recently, however, when I mentioned this to someone they told me that’d had similar problems with the show’s third season, so they’d simply skipped it and moved on. When it comes to television, I’m a committed linear watcher, but the sheer flexibility of streaming on demand means that as your tastes or simply your mood changes, you can double back and try anew. Given that I’ve already written about going back to properly savour Stan’s Hannibal [full review here], I decided to jump back into the show that launched Netflix’s era of original programming with its brand new fifth season.
What’s changed? Well, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), once the dedicated party leader in the U.S. House of Representatives in now ensconced in the Oval Office. As the President of the United States, having cleared a path to the top through treachery, he’s now standing for election in his own right, with his wife Claire (Robin Wright) as his now publically empowered running mate. But there’s a different pleasure in Frank, who was angry at being overlooked after years of dutiful work, turning on those who took him for granted against now ruthlessly fighting to keep hold of his power. Spacey still speaks directly to camera, like a Shakespearean usurper, but he’s a colder, remote figure.
That’s manageable because what this season increasingly suggests is that it’s Robin Wright’s show. No longer the icy offsider, jogging with frequent and anonymous fury, Claire is Frank’s Machiavellian partner, and the writers find more in her personal relationship, including with a speechwriter/lover, Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), than her husband. “Assumptions are dangerous,” she tells one associate, but the show itself is deep into ludicrous gambits. Frank manufactures a national security crisis, signs off on hacking sabotage, and goes back to the well of using murder as a cure-all. The amoral gambits of the first season, such as leaving a distraught Congressman to die, have been replaced by supervillain coolness.
The Donald Trump era gives House of Cards, which no longer has creator Beau Willimon on staff, an obvious connection, but the real White House is a crude, idiotic mess – they are two steps behind, whereas Frank is perpetually two ahead. It’s drily amusing to see Frank, a Democrat, using voter suppression and the war on terror, as his illegitimate battering rams, and the grand schemes and withering reduction of those opposed is almost reassuring. The series still knows how to invoke Washington history – Frank on the White House roof recalls Nixon up on his battlements – but I remain unconvinced by this sleek, soapy homage to power. I’m still not inclined to vote for the Underwoods.
>> Bonus Binge: If you want your fictional streaming power exercised with some panache and a generous dollop of strange synchronicity (not to mention a kangaroo), there’s SBS on Demand’s The Young Pope. Jude Law plays a new American pontiff who upends the Papal state, turning self-control into a spiritual crisis [full review here].
Streaming Services: Amazon Prime Video
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
The idiosyncratic is given flinty, farcical rein in Patriot, an oddball comic espionage thriller that suggests an extended riff on the Coen brothers film Burn After Reading. The plot is nominally simple: in 2012 a senior CIA officer, Tom Tavner (Lost’s Terry O’Quinn), charged with keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, deploys his son and subordinate, John (Michael Dorman), to work on the mission. We get the background via a folk song that John – whose passion and coping mechanism is making music – performs in his Bill Callahan-like baritone; very little rhymes with “Ahmadinejad” and “centrifuge”. As things often do for John, the first phase went badly wrong, so after hanging out getting high in Amsterdam he’s sent to Milwaukee to infiltrate an engineering company that will give him contact to Iranian assets.
Trained not to crack but nonetheless miserable, John exists at the centre of a cosmic conspiracy that turns his mission into a mess of spot fires and ludicrous demands. When a bag of covert bribe money is stolen by a Brazilian luggage handler in Luxembourg, John tracks the man down only to discover that he lives with his five wrestling enthusiast brothers – the fight scene that ensures is both hilarious in execution and despairing in outcome. Soon he has one fake colleague covering for him, and another trying to blackmail him. You can add a determined Luxembourg homicide detective (Aliette Opheim) and a fellow folkie who travels by canoe (Mark Boone Junior) to the mix.
Does it work? You need to be on the show’s wavelength. If you’re not laughing during the first episode go no further. There’s also a question over whether creator Steve Conrad keeps adding out there flourishes and non sequiturs to the narrative – hello 1983 Battleship World Championship! – in lieu of of developing characters such as Alice (Kathleen Munroe), John’s wife in Washington D.C. That said, the great New York comic actor Michael Chernus is a delight as John’s brother Edward, a congressman who tells wonderful stories about going to see the Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill tour when he was 11-years-old. John, performing at an open mix night after another setback, sums up Patriot best: it’s about “the little comedies that take the edge off”.
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