Alternate headline: “Netflix releases sneak preview of next Clinton presidency.” Stop here if you’re worried about spoilers, needless to say.
No show about a guy having threesomes and pushing people in front of trains while, oh yeah, engineering a presidential coup can truly be bad. My problem with season two is that it sometimes felt like “Idiocracy” if Luke Wilson had been a villain. Is there no one in this entire imaginary world who can match wits with Frank, even if just to make him break a sweat? After about 30 serial betrayals, President Walker finally seems to see through him — and then is instantly won over again with Frank’s stupid letter offering to take the fall for the Chinese donations. Season one worked because Frank had two formidable nemeses: Zoe Barnes, the one character as cold-blooded as him (Claire’s ruthlessness is an expedient of power, I think, not something that comes naturally), and Raymond Tusk, whom you sensed might have the brains and wherewithal to take Frank down. In season two, Zoe’s dead within 20 minutes and Tusk, apart from digging up a little dirt about Claire’s affair, is forever playing defense. No one sees Frank coming, ever, even though he’s a terrible liar. Spacey can. not. resist. delivering Frank’s most egregious lies with a knowing half-smirk, his voice dripping with an almost sing-songy patronizing faux-sincerity. Even if you didn’t know for a fact that he was lying, you’d know. He’s John Edwards to the thousandth power. And yet his smarmy sh*t-eating grin works on everyone he needs to manipulate, all of whom are seasoned political pros with decades of Beltway experience. (The only time he feigned concern convincingly, I thought, was when his liberal colleague told him about his wife’s Alzheimer’s.) There isn’t one moment I can think of where he seemed in danger of being outwitted or of having overplayed his hand; the blame-me letter to Walker, in particular, was such a lame deus ex machina that I took it as the writers essentially giving up on presenting him with challenges. The fun of the show, I realize, is watching Frank pull people’s strings, but there’s got to be some resistance at some point. Otherwise you’re just watching a puppet show.
Two other points. One: I can’t get over the idea of the Senate passing entitlement reform entirely on Democratic votes. I can buy the idea of a VP nominee pushing a reporter onto the tracks at a metro station and no one noticing. I can buy the idea of a sitting president seeking outside marriage counseling and taking prescription drugs and then waiving his privilege against having that information divulged. I can even buy “Idiocracy.” But Democrats passing entitlement reform — in order to clear the way for the president to blather about China in the State of the Union? C’mon. Two: There are a lot of media cameos, especially from MSNBC hosts. I’m not complaining about it; whining at reporters for blurring fact and fiction imputes an ethical gravitas to them that shouldn’t be imputed. But it’s odd to see them popping up on a show that’s all about suckers having the wool pulled over their eyes. Except for Zoe and her two colleagues, no one in the media has the faintest idea that the “news” they’re pushing every day is just the residue of Frank’s murderous power play to steal the presidency. It’s surreal watching real TV personalities commenting earnestly — just as they would in real life — on scandalous little developments that you the viewer know are completely orchestrated by Frank and his enemies to take each other down a peg. This is, I guess, their way of winking at the fact that they know the people they cover are corrupt, but it felt strange, as if they were admitting it’s all a game and they’re in on it.
I’m taking it on faith that Frank and Claire will, eventually and inevitably, end up turning on each other. It’s worth watching the show going forward if only for that.