I’ve Decided To Re-Watch House Of Cards
And Try to Answer an Argument Whether The Artist Defines Art
Late last year in an article I wrote on Chris Noth, I raised some questions about how much the scandal behind certain actors and directors have affected our ability to consider their art. This year I have decided, in a way, to try and answer that question.
When Netflix premiered House of Cards back in 2013, they put themselves on the map as a force for original programming as well as effectively creating the model for binge-watching. I was a huge fan of the series the first three years it was on the air — and then in the spring of 2016, I just stopped watching it. It was one of those shows that I always meant get back to but the preponderance of other must-watch series that deluged the market (in large part because of House of Cards) I never quite got around to looking at again.
Now of course the world would like to pretend it never happened. You can find this when you look on Netflix’s website. There are all kinds of original series that are easy to find on the first page — Orange is the New Black prominent among them — but you have to work to find House of Cards. Considering the importance of the series, one could compare it to doing a course on the history of important American cinema and omitting The Birth of A Nation entirely from the discussion. You can understand why it would be done, but the omission is glaring.
And we all know why. When various claims of sexual allegation hit series star Kevin Spacey in the fall of 2017 Netflix ended up going into damage control. They fired Spacey, announced that Season 6 would be the last one, had his character killed off and wrote him out of the scenes he’d already shot for the first two episodes. They then tried to do a shortened sixth season with Spacey’s character gone.
Now for all the talk of Cancel Culture that has gone on over the past several years, it needs to be made perfectly clear: Kevin Spacey may be gone but he is not forgotten. I have movie channels that show L.A. Confidential, Seven and The Usual Suspects; American Beauty appears on some channel every cycle (though for the record, I wouldn’t mind if that movie were cancelled) and I have a satellite channel that every few weeks cycles through the episodes of the groundbreaking crime drama Wiseguy. Certain episodes are omitted from that run: Spacey’s breakthrough performance as Mel Proffitt aren’t among them. And we all know by now how the cycle of Hollywood works; there will be a period of exile for Spacey, and he’ll start getting cast in movies again. (I’ve already ranted against this part of it, so I won’t repeat myself.)
Now considering that I argued heavily against watching series that heavily feature so many of these actors accused (and most likely) guilty of assaults, the obvious question is: why would I choose to do just that? Well in part as a psychological exercise/social experiment. If you know that one of the forces behind an art you enjoy is a horrible and truly hideous person, can you still enjoy the work of the art they do? Considering that Spacey is the star of House of Cards and that I enjoyed the series in large part because of his performance, the question is valid in this case.
More to the point, the series was never entirely about Frank Underwood. It was just as much about Claire, memorably portrayed by Robin Wright for six seasons. The moment I saw her I realized that Wright, an actress who had spent much of her previous quarter of a century in Hollywood constantly being miscast, had found the perfect role for her. In many ways Claire was as ruthless, cold-blooded and ambitious as her husband, if not more so. I stopped watching the series just before her character began the more relentless march to power that would make her, by the final season, President. Wright was as vital to the series as Spacey and deserved to win a Golden Globe as much as he did for his role in the series.
And let’s be clear, a lot of great stars in film and television launched their careers in House of Cards. Rachel Brosnahan, Mahershala Ali, Kate Mara and Corey Stoll all got their big breaks on House of Cards with the first three getting Emmy nominations for their roles. The series also pushed the forefront several actors and actress who’d been working for awhile and hadn’t been getting their due such as Molly Parker, Elizabeth Marvel and the late great Reg E. Cathey as Freddie, the only actor in the entire series to actually win an Emmy for his performance on the series. But if I’m being honest, the character who drew me in for the entirety of the series wasn’t either of the Underwoods but rather Doug Stamper memorably portrayed by Michael Kelly.
Doug was utterly devoted to Frank, just as ruthless as he was and often less sympathetic, but due to Kelly’s remarkable work, I couldn’t look away from him. He rarely even raised his voice, was never angry and seemed patient despite everything. When it seemed likely that his character had been murdered by Rachel Brosnahan’s character, the escort with whom his obsession would lead to their near mutual destruction, I was in agony at the end of Season more than I was for any character that seemed on the verge of death then perhaps at any time during the 2010s. When I learned that he was actually alive at the beginning of Season 3, I was overjoyed. One of my biggest regrets about leaving the series after Season 3 is that I never saw what happened to him. (Yes I do know what he ended up doing and his ultimate fate, but part of me wants to see how he got there. And I’ll be honest, that may have been due to desperation on the part of the writer’s following Spacey’s forced departure.)
Now aside from everything else associated with the series, there were a couple of charges against House of Cards that repeatedly come to play. The first is that over time, the characters who died, often at the hands of the Underwoods, were out of context with the nature of the series. I find this charge laughable, particularly given that many of those same people had no problem with the much higher and often more ludicrous deaths that occurred on a series that was House of Cards’ near contemporary Scandal. There’s also the way that certain members of the media have spent tearing down the policies of Netflix and the show’s writers for allowing Spacey to work there despite the rumors. This has a level of hypocrisy I think Frank Underwood would approve of. Anyone who watches even an episode of the series knows how many pundits and reporters from the media were more than willing to make cameos on the series over its six years on the air. (And for the record, this is one of the occasions where ‘people on both sides’ has merit; Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow appeared in the same episode.)
So I have decided to something that I have the habit of doing anyway every year. I’m going to rewatch House of Cards and this time go through the entire series, warts and all. Every time I get through a season, I will post an update on my blog of my impressions of that particular season, whether it held up well, the highlights and nadirs of it and when (or if) it becomes something of a slog. Because I think we, as an audience, need to decide where we stand when it comes to television and far too many fallen idols.
Because whether or not the artists are pariahs, the art isn’t disappearing. No one had stopped listening to Michael Jackson more than a decade after his death. Woody Allen may not be able to make any more movies, but they haven’t been taken down from any streaming service or cable channel that I’m aware of. And Netflix may not want to admit that House of Cards was their first big success, but they haven’t taken it down. It’s neither gone nor forgotten. So I’ve decided whether or not I still like the series even given everything I know to be true about Kevin Spacey. Does that make me a hypocrite too? Well, to quote Frank Underwood: “You might very well say that; I could not possibly comment.”
(One last thing before I go: Ian Richardson always delivered that line better.)