SPOILER ALERT: The following article includes spoilers about Netlfix’s House of Cards.
Binge Watchers (Not So) Anonymous
With the advent of streaming services like Netflix one can watch whatever they like. Whenever they want. Not only that, but now entire seasons of shows are released in their entirely: Orange Is the New Black, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the final season of Arrested Development call out, “Go ahead, the laundry can wait, you can have ALL OF ME.”
Waning are the days where you catch up with your pals to discuss the latest singular (ugh) episode, but now exists the game of, “Have you watched the whole thing yet?” Damn you if your answer is no, because there is always someone with the luxury of time who’s dedicated thirteen hours straight to get to the finish line before you. Spoiler alerts (see above) label our comments and conversations more than ever.
Binge. A term once reserved for the indulgence of food or alcohol. Now, the term has entered our lexicon to refer to the act of taking in hours of television while sitting in one’s own mess. Some abstain from the practice, but I have to admit I am guilty.
With a multitude of TV shows easily available at one’s fingertips, I ask the question: I can binge watch, but should I?
WARNING: No one will talk to you at dinner parties if you don’t love House of Cards.
For my first case study in the effects of inhaling a series over a very short period of time, I choose Netflix’s House of Cards. Full disclosure — I didn’t go into this as a fan of the show. I attempted to watch the first few episodes a few years back and nothing about it seems to stick.
Cue the backlash.
Upon revealing my (obviously wrong!) attitude about HoC I’ve been met with avid derision. A co-worker tried to explain to me why I was so stupid, “It’s about power,” he claimed giving me a condescending stare.
“Oh fuck, right. Power!” Now I get it. I love power. In all forms: bars… naps… ades (blue). Alright, I’m kidding, it wasn’t my contemporary’s absolutely compelling argument that made me take a second (very long) look at the show, instead it was the fascination with how the show’s fans so dutifully and religiously binge watch it. Specifically this past February when it’s third season debuted, it was as though it was all people could talk about. Someone actually cancelled plans with me to stay in and watch.
So herein lies the account of my Binge of Cards because, stares directly into the camera, There are some things one just has to know.
WARNING: Everything is dark
The very first scene of HoC shows main character Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) killing a dog with his bare hands while speaking about different kinds of pain, so that’s all you need to know about tone. Be warned, you are entering into a world where people are capable of terrible things: deception, betrayal, murder, guinea pig torture!
To remind you of how fucking serious this whole thing is the lighting is literally dark (but seriously David Fincher sometimes I want to SEE). Nobody turns on all the lights in their house. Many scenes in silhouette. Sketchy deals occur at night or under some kind of strange day twilight. Consuming all three seasons in one go will give you the sense that you might be going blind. If you dare leave your place of residence to refill on the sugary drinks and new specialty flavoured Lays chips required for your binge, you can’t help but wonder to yourself, “My eyes! The light!” You may have to slowly reintroduce yourself into a room lit more than 40%. Try turning on a new light every day. Don’t rush yourself.
Lurking in the shadows is one of the major players in this drama, Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), who he loves more than, “a shark loves blood.” A Macbethian lady who, like her husband, isn’t afraid to screw over anyone to get to the top including threatening to take away a former employee’s health insurance so that her fetus will “wither and die” inside of her unless she does what Claire asks. Indeed, like the Southern lilt in her speech, Claire Underwood will stomp out all imperfections that could possibly derail her successes.
She jogs. To get all the feels out. And stares at herself in the mirror. Or takes baths. Like the novel Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) writes that will likely never see the light of day, this show is about the marriage between her and the Monster Frank. With the “out damn spot” moments like standing up to Russian Presidents, staircase weeping, kitchen sink gag cries, and fuck-me-nows she’s not an innocent who will ultimately be killed, destroyed, or maimed, nor is she completely devilish — she’s a dim star flickering between the brightness of remorse and the darkness of evil. Without her, Frank’s scheming would be too unilaterally awful to stomach.
WARNING: Random asides become frequent
This House might have four walls but Frank will reach right through and explain all the inner workings of the White House — and of his mind. Like Jim from The Office, there are moments where these confidences are simply exasperated glances that offer mild comedic relief, but for the most part his parables and one-liners are there to give you glimpses into his twisted agenda. “I despise children.” he says. Well, yeah duh, of course you do. You’re so nefarious!
You think about how this would work in your own life. Making breakfast now entails you staring up to your invisible viewer saying things like “You have to break a few eggs…” and the like. Although there’s no creepy opera singer to underscore your frying pan.
Frank’s political maneuverings and homicidal tendencies in the pursuit of absolute power are so outstanding mostly because there seems to be no reason for his ambitions in terms of taking the Big Chair and be a Big Man in the White House, other than to just have it. There’s no agenda in terms of making the world a better place, enriching his country, or helping the people. But it’s obvious he’s not the only one to sacrifice the needs of the general population for political gain or simply buckling under pressure. There’s a dwarfing effect on one’s own sense of control and well-being. This man who was able to become president without a single ballot cast in his name (could this actually happen? — you google it). Terrifying. At the end of season two after his ascent to president, Frank bangs his fists on the desk of the Oval Office. Season three ushers in a new Netflix logo with the sound of his knocking. HIS INFLUENCE IS EVERYWHERE! It gives one pause, certainly if there’s an election going on in your own country, leaving you feeling like casting your vote is akin to pissing in the wind.
Speaking of urine.
“Let’s not turn this into a pissing contest,” say most of the characters at some point in the series, usually in someone’s office. However, there is evidence to the contrary for a show that’s just as much about making political moves as it is about making water. Frank pisses on his father’s grave to prove the not-so-nuanced point that he hated his daddy. Claire makes the Russian Ambassador stand in the women’s washroom under the pretense that she has to finish her make-up but then proceeds to drop trou with the stall door open to make the point that she’s the boss. When Rachel’s in the back of Doug’s murder van she says she has to go, but he’s not going to accompany her to any facilities because last time he turned his back on her she bludgeoned him with a rock. Instead she let’s the stream go to prove she isn’t kidding — one final act of defiance which causes him to roll down the window because apparently her urine is smelly (maybe she had asparagus or something).
Taking a bathroom break between episodes you wonder about all the precious liquids you’ve been wasting when all this time you could have asked for that new promotion, or let your distaste for a person be known with a simple tinkle.
WARNING: Sex is not sex. Sex is not sexy.
“A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” Oh boy, was Francis not kidding about this one. I enjoy sex, as one does. But ripping through three seasons of HoC will give you a dizzying array of ways human sexuality is utilized or suppressed to serve at the pleasure of Machiavellian pursuits. Also, it’s male gazey as shit (AKA we get to see the ladies naked, but where are the penises?! Are they all just smooth down there like Ken dolls?) Sex is a pressure valve on House of Cards, possessive, tense, and sometimes very sad (mostly just one quasi-handjob).
Frank’s sexual orientation is one that’s been in question (although it does seem that he’s homosexually inclined), but it appears the upper echelon of power is more beguiling to him than the flesh. It becomes obvious his marriage to Claire is at least partly about appearances. The threesome with Meechum was a compelling scene because it was more like Claire giving Frank permission to sleep with a man in order to get a good night’s sleep. Uncharacteristically, Frank doesn’t break through to explain this to us, not even a little Judith Butler quote, “Like the bourbon I happen to have imbibed in last evening, gender is ever so fluid.”
There’s a few mutually pleasurable sexual relationships that don’t seem to have anything to do with back channeling or nominations or a journalist trying to get a story. But those trysts are usually snuffed out quickly, like Rachel and Lisa when Doug goes all Gollum about Rachel and can’t stand the idea of someone else having his prostitute/daughter/mother/human audio book/alcohol substitute. Or Remy and Jackie. Poor Remy, all he wants to do is love Jackie and finger her while she opens up for one goddamn minute, but nooooo he worked for Tusk and she has to marry a doctor. They’re getting it on again, but now she’s a married woman. Not that monogamy is a consistent character trait for any of the characters on HoC, like Claire’s fuck-buddy Adam (a super cultured hunk) who she loves (apparently) but can’t be with him because she’s hitched.
Sex is access. Zoe Barnes (Kata Mara) is a capable and hungry journalist who wants to get the inside scoop. Her sexual relationship with Frank is why I stopped watching the show the first time around. It still rings hollow in my mind. When her boss tells her to not “fuck her way to the middle” I understand the show looks at the way a woman’s body is seen as a bargaining chip, but it’s just the same ol’ same ol’ when it comes to male fantasies (so many young hot women having sex with middle aged balding dudes!).
And the not so same ol’ when Zoe stays on the phone with her dad while Frank eats her out. Hang up Zoe! Call him back! Send a card for Father’s Day! That sex is creepy.
It takes some time for Zoe to get over the grip Frank has on her, leading her to be rude to her boyfriend Lucas while the two are having sex, and suffering from some kind of PTSD where she showers with the curtain open just enough so we can see her butt (seriously, won’t water get all over the floor?)
Whatever her autonomy, it seems useless to argue about it after Frank throws her into the path of an oncoming subway train.
WARNING: There is no justice!
Frank’s voice goes into a deep growl whenever he’d like to convince us of how bad-to-the-bone he is. Or he spits on Jesus. There are some actions that speak louder than words like two murders almost back-to-back. Both Zoe and Peter Russo threatened to expose Frank and he quickly framed their deaths as suicides. He does the murdering himself; not asking any lackey’s to commit the deeds for him. He doesn’t get caught because of course he doesn’t. Apparently if you dress like Inspector Clouseau and stand just in the right spot in the Metro there are no cameras to capture your comings and goings.
Sure Lucas tries to unveil the truth, but he has to go it alone because Janine’s too freaked out when she gets copies of the naked pics Zoe took of herself for Underwood. I know there’s a lot of debate about the possible effects of taking nudies of yourself, but THIS?
Lucas starts to work with a weird hacker who sends him messages through some strange bird hybrid avatar. I guess it’s really easy to get caught up with a crazy-eyed coder who seems to be eating all the time and listens to music that sounds like if the cast of STOMP decided to do an experimental album while on acid. He’s also a reluctant double agent, because INTRIGUE! Needless to say, the truth stays buried and Lucas goes to jail because there is no accountability.
“Can we trust them?” again, asks pretty much everybody on the show at some point. The answer is: NO. YOU. CAN’T. Everyone will potentially screw you over. To ensure some kind of allegiances people on this show seem to love giving gifts. They have long drawn out stories about who gave it to them (ugh, isn’t regifting kind of gauche?). You wonder if you’ve been giving presents wrong all this time. Never wrap them. Unless it’s in black paper. Always explain, “When I was a young child, my mama always took me to Reitman’s. The cardigan is a symbol of my friendship, the colour of blood that represents the depths of our friendship.”
WARNING: Everything is kind of terrible
You’re in the final stretch of the last season and you’re lying down now because the stress of this is too much. You get some texts and emails from family and friends and you wonder “Why? What do they want? Why aren’t these messages floating in the air?”
The decision to heartily immerse oneself into the world of House of Cards leaves you with a sense of distrust, a constant ticker tape of asides running through your mind. In the last scene of the season, Claire walks out on Torvald Frank because, you know what, FUCK THAT GUY.
There is no more. For the time being Netflix will no longer asks, “Are you still there?” There’s a buzzing feeling in your brain as you rise from your binge wiping your bleary eyes and the soundtrack from the opening credits rings in your ears. Perhaps it’s time for some fresh air? You want to know what happens in the next season (is Frank still in power? Where does Claire go? Is Rachel actually dead? Will Remy ever get the love he deserves?), but for the time being it seems like you’ve driven yourself insane for no reason.
So you decide to leave the House for a while.