House of Cards Season 2 Episode 1 Review – with Austin G. Mackell

In what might have been the most anticipated TV event since the final episode of Breaking Bad, the second season of House of Cards was released on Valentine’s Day. It did not disappoint. The following is a real-time email review of episode one between myself and fellow pop culture harlot Austin Mackell. Above, Austin and I discuss the show with Kenny Laurie. CONTAINS SPOILERS. 

Patrick

to:

Austin

Date: Fri, Feb 14, 2014 at 10:17 PM

Subject: HOC se2e1

We need to talk.

Austin

Yeah holy shit.

I watched it twice.

Patrick

So there’s no point avoiding the episode’s (and quite possibly the series’) biggest moment. You wrote at the end of season one how you weren’t convinced by the opening scene, where Congressman Frank Underwood kills a dog. Where do you wanna start with him killing Zoe?

Austin

I liked it is the short answer.

I was slightly disappointed because I thought the writers had actually started to address the issues we discussed about their treatment of her character in the previous series, specifically, that she was presented as a sex object, and that her work as a journalist mostly seemed to revolve around trading sexual favours for scoops. This might seem strange as the first scene after the credits is her as she is lying passively, getting fucked from behind by her boyfriend and would-be defender. After this however (and I know there was much more to the that scene than just sex – but let’s leave it for now…) she seems to start to kick into gear. This is marred for me by her breaching journalistic protocol by lying to the manager of the restaurant where Rachel worked, about who she was and what she was doing.

This reminded me of the scene in the first season where she recorded her boss “the Hammer” without telling him. To secretly record conversations with colleagues, even during a dispute, would be something that would be thrown back at her in a way that never happened. Zoe is meant to be at least a little bit smart right?

This is also an issue regarding (and ok ok i’ll cut to the chase) the scene where Frank kills her. It does seem a little stupid of her to go to him without even informing her colleagues, and then over to the only part of the platform where he could conceivably pull it off.

It can be made partially believable if one accepts that Zoe just couldn’t imagine Frank (or whoever might have been behind him in those shadows) doing a thing like it, but hey, I did.

That might have been because you mentioned a non-specific Big Twist to look forward to. Despite this and the other reservations I mentioned above, I think it was a nice way to up the stakes, and the shooting (of the whole episode) was done in a way that created a real sense of suspense for me throughout.

I think my favourite part was the pig kill monologue in the BBQ place… I jumped when he slammed the table.

You?

Patrick

It’s not often you get a genuine mouth-on-the-floor moment from any series – or at least not so soon into a season. Think of all the suspense and anticipation that’d been brewing for months before the mood of ep1 (as you say, that “created a real sense of suspense throughout”) had even been established. We’ve been going over various permutations in our heads and – myself especially – all those permutations involved Frank and Zoe in some capacity.

I was all geared up for a real sort of Woodward and Bernstein investigation all the way to the White House and I was very interested in how Zoe’s proximity to Frank would either accelerate or allay that. That’s all gone now. We have to reevaluate the whole paradigm of the series. But, yes, you’re right, some things remain the same or even more uneven, most notably the treatment of the female press corps.

You wrote about how all the female journalists in HoC were intent on, to quote Janine “fucking their way to the middle”. Now we have the most dynamic female character – the most enterprising, at least – dead, and the veteran hack scared into the outback of Ithaca. It’s left to Lucas to pull the remaining strings, and I just think that’s less plausible. (He’s a bit of a drip that was counselling caution right up until Zoe was murdered). But it’s early days and I think the success of the first episode will rest on how well it can continue the narrative without its second protagonist.

I do totally take the point of journalistic ethics and Zoe’s relative lack, but I think her subsequent subterfuge is perhaps justifiable, if a little desperate. It was a really high stakes game and I think she didn’t realise (as I too did not) how high they really were. Which makes me wonder: If Frank wanted this story to go away, why kill Zoe? Why not the prostitute, who’s all but dispensable at least from the POV of those on the Hill? Kill a journalist in broad daylight, in public, or off a hooker using Doug Stamper’s curious physical strength in the privacy of a Maryland bedsit?

I’ve moaned before how HoC has virtually no dramatic irony. In casting Spacey as the all knowing character, and, through soliloquy, the omniscient narrator, it never really felt like any development was totally unexpected. FU makes it his business to know everything and anticipate every move. That doesn’t always happen (the lost house vote in season 1 being a good example) but it’s always a collection of eventualities that one feels Frank has at least anticipated. The writers did well I think by doing away with Frank’s soliloquies until the end of the episode with the effect being the production of a real “holy fuck” moment.

House of cards1

I too liked the pork death dialogue and, as ever in HoC, what appears at first witty interchanges actually become maxims for character behaviour. “The humane way to do it is to do it quick” is something Frank appears to have taken to heart.

So what now? Frank’s still our main character and narrator. Do we hate him? Should we? Who’s side are we on?

Austin

Before we leave the topic of Zoe’s murder, I guess the reason I like it is that it I’m always excited by a TV show that is prepared to make big changes, and this is surely that.

What’s more, I anticipate another one I think you have missed. “why kill Zoe? Why not the prostitute, who’s all but dispensable at least from the POV of those on the Hill?”

I see a fission coming between Frank and his enforcer. I think  NAME is in luuurve with the stripper.

Dun dun Darrr…..

Patrick

Doug? Yeah, he’s used a fair bit of his disposable income on her already and has shown excellent taste in take out cuisine. Frank relies hugely on Doug. He’s SEEN stuff. That’s a wrinkle I look forward to.

In terms of TV shows prepared to make big changes, I can’t help but think of The Wire. Killing D’Angelo early on? He had it coming. The death of String? Same. What really gets me more than any of the others on each rewatch is Omar. You really invest in him and think that he (along with Bubs, you’re hoping) might be the one who gets out of this whole rain of shit intact. Not so. As I tweeted last night, Frank killing Zoe would be like McNulty killing Kima in Se2E1. Perhaps it’s more like Avon killing Kima, given they’re on different sides. But even David Simon didn’t kill off Kima.

I admire the gonads, I just fear (and this will become apparent in episodes 2 and 3) that the narrative will have to delve into the world of the implausible to keep up the external threat to Frank. We’ve talked briefly about the internal threat.

Forgive the repeated question, but what do we think of Frank now? It’s not often you have an objectively bad lead guy. Even Walter White did it for the “right reasons”. But Frank. He’s just Macbeth, right?

Austin

I like the way the character has settled into a solid psychopathy (and yeah – my notes contain the word EVIL in big capital letters like that, though that referred to both frank and Claire- [ok sub wow- just wow- we'll get back to it]), I think it (along with the excellent timing you mentioned above) helps make the soliloquies more spooky.

I kind of see the darkness of Frank’s character as a metaphor for The Darkness In Washington, and in that regard like that no punches have been pulled.

A lot of people I know really liked the show the Black Mirror, in particular the episode where the prime-minister fucks a pig on live television.

I actually really didn’t because it failed, I thought, to give an adequate portrait of power, which as far as I can tell mostly gets more and more terrifying the closer you get to it.

I do want a serious protagonist to back, actually, and hope the show provides.

I’m still half praying for a Helen Thomas tribute character to show up and kick everyone’s ass, but might feel cheated if it all ends up being such a tidy morality play.

What would be your big hope for the season in the wake of this big black begining?

Patrick

It’s hard to see the series as a playout between pure good and pure evil and I think the writers have been very good in ensuring that any good or bad (morally speaking) move by any character is calibrated entirely by vested interest. The thread I see is what Macbeth calls “vaulting ambition”. Everyone is after aggrandisement and so The Darkness, in Washington, as you put it, is thick, but evenly spread.

That being said, if everyone is kind of a bad guy, that means that we as viewers are more inclined to back characters that do evil for good reason. Jackie Sharp has this down to a tee: she is necessary evil.

I guess I hope to see a rally by the journalists, and I include Janine in this, who I refuse to believe will acquiesce, especially given the lengths the writers went to to show us her professional background. I’d also like to see a return (and this happens a little in eps 2/3) of the lobbyists. Tusk is the obvious one but Remi also. I loved how HoC told it like it is (lobbyists run the place) without putting too fine a point on it in season 1. Remi, remember, offers the sexual frisson with Claire (and I think I dislike Claire more than any other character, save possibly Tusk). I’d be disappointed in the writers if this avenue isn’t explored more – just as I’m still baffled as to why they’d bother including Frank’s homoeroticism in the library without seeing it through. Like Rawls going to the gay bar in The Wire. Never draw your gun unless you intend to use it.

At some point we need to talk about Claire. Where do we place her? Lady Macbeth?

Austin

Actually, Claire opens up interesting possibilities for me.

When she threatens the pregnant former employee’s health insurance, then offers her the company… that might be an expression of what is meant to be the expression of some redeeming quality?

Could frank also be about to save the world or something and it is all pure utilitarianism?

Could that even be pulled off in a way that isn’t cartoonish?

Then again… I didn’t like The Watchmen at first for the same reason (it seemed to endorse an absolute dedication to the principle of the lesser evil, and along the way the idea it’s ok to lie and kill if you Decide it is Right)  but it has stayed with me…

I hope the writers surprise me.

Patrick

The scene that seals it for me is when the news of Zoe’s death is read out on TV and Claire just nonchalantly continues to comb her hair. She knows. Frank knows she knows.

I can’t see any redeeming quality for Claire, I’m afraid. “I am prepared to see your baby wither and die” is the language of a character who is either mean or acting mean and neither really appeal. At the same time, she’s one of the few empowered female characters. At least she has agency. It’s her power (over Francis, over Remi, over Gillian) and it will be fascinating to see what she uses it for.

Miss Lebanon 2011: Yara Khoury-Mikhael with photos

Yara Khoury Mikael (19) waves after winning the Miss Lebanon 2011 beauty contest in the commercial center of downtown Beirut on July 11, 2011. AFP PHOTO /JOSEPH EID

Last night was Miss Lebanon 2011, a show so glitzly you needed sunglasses just to watch it on TV. In the end, Yara Khoury-Mikhael, armed with little more than a degree from LAU, some strategically placed masking tape and an army of Facebook fans blew away the competition to take the crown.

Here’s how she managed it:

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General Insecurities: Movies Banned in Lebanon

Jane Fonda: Menace to Society

Not that this is remarkably new, but a few choice tweets today reminded me of the hilariously arbitrary compendium that is the list of movies banned by General Security in Lebanon.

Or, rather, it starts out at hilarious. It ends up being enraging.

Many films are banned due to ‘erotic’ or ‘obscene’ content; others for being potentially offensive to Arabs.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is blacklisted for ‘sexual content/it shows David’s star/too much Jewish innuendoes and possibly shot in Israel’ [sic].

One reason for outlawing that repeatedly crops up is simply ‘Jane Fonda.’

One tweeter, @toufoul pointed out why General Security might be so adverse to letting flicks featuring Fonda into the country.

@matthewteller @RHallDailyStar Fonda visited Lebanon, not Israel, & entertained Israeli troops during siege of Beirut http://bit.ly/9FExMZ

@RHallDailyStar pointed out that prominent journalist and byword for Lebanese coverage Robert Fisk has just travelled to Israel with total impunity, something which is itself illegal here, yet his articles aren’t banned.

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Tea with Hizbullah

“Well, I’ve never done that before,” I mutter as we walk down the stairs.

The sweet tea we’ve been given cloys at the back of my throat and as we emerge into the clamorous streets of the Dahiyeh, I suddenly realise I have absolutely no clue where were are.

A non-discript suburb of Beirut, up an annonymous set of stairs, is perhaps a fitting place for the headquarters of Hizbullah.

When I pitched an idea to my editor earlier in the week and told her the area I intended to do it in, she looked a little unsure and suggested that I go to meet her contact at Hizbullah, you know, just in case one of their depressingly numerous thugs decided to take a dislike to me.

So the next day we take a taxi through the sprawling, faceless suburbs of South Beirut to meet a representative of the Shiite group. A meet and greet with an organisation, the members of which are banned from travelling to the UK.

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The Apprentice: contestant preview

appre1

That time of year has arrived, so wondrously coincidental with the coming of spring flowers. The Apprentice is back.

What difference a year makes. This time in 2008, Alan Sugar was still banging on about being worth eleventy billion pounds as he took a helicopter ride around Canary Wharf.

This year, with the world in the grip of the worst recession since the Thirties, the tone is likely to be more sedate. S’rAlan is unlikely to come across as so beligerently loaded. But will the contestants follow suit?

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VAT cuts? So last year

 

Gordon Brown sounded positively Rooseveltian yesterday:

The old orthodoxies will not serve us well in the future. We’ve got to think the previously unthinkable. We’ve got to do what was previously undoable.

 The question is, for whom was it ‘previously undoable’? For Brown this could mean tax cuts – genuine income tax cuts, to a token diminishment of VAT – as is now being hinted.

The amount the government receives from income tax has fallen 11 per cent since last year, providing a January surplus of only £8.4bn - a virtual halving of monthly intake.

With government borrowing predicted – by Darling (with pinch of salt) – to reach £77bn by the end of the financial year, it’s staggering to think where Britain is going to get its money from.

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The best things in life are free

Yesterday, as most of Britain frolicked in a winter wonderland, businesses were counting the cost of the heaviest snowfall for almost 20 years.

It’s estimated that “snow day” cost Britain in excess of £1bn and that figure could rise to £3bn as the cold front looks set to remain for the rest of the week.

Over one fifth of all British workers (at least those who aren’t striking) couldn’t make it to their desks as transport links across most of South East England were disrupted. Of those who clambered through the wilderness to make it to work, 80 per cent of them did so late. Britons yesterday essentially pulled a nationwide sicky.

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We’re all Slumdog Millionaires now

Congratulations to a gushing Kate Winslet. Congratulations too, to those who worked on Slumdog Millionaire, the film that last night won five awards at the 66th annual Golden Globe Awards.

Based (loosely) on Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q & A, about a Mumbai chai boy winning the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It’s a game show that the producers hope will never be won for one reason: they don’t own the jackpot.

Well-educated doctors and lawyers rarely get past the 60,000 rupees round, so imagine the public’s surprise and joy at a slum-dweller bagging the billion grand prize.

Slumdog Millionaire is an important film for these times for a few reasons. First are the parallels we can draw between the financial management of the game show’s organisers and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and Bernie Madoff.

All have been subsequently reviled for being perfectly happy in betting long and hoping that they will never lose; assuming an elaborately packaged web of debt would never catch up with them.

Slumdog Millionaire marks another significant step forward by Indian movies  in Western film industries.

The film’s most important facet in a recession is its rites-of-passage plot focusing on social mobility. A lower caste individual climbs the financial and social ladder, demonstrating such a possibility to the countless millions starting in his position.

The last decade of prosperity has seen an increase in wealth disparity as the rich, taking risks with money they already have, get richer and the poor stay the same. Such a failure by a Brown-financed Labour government has led the PM to draft in arch-Blairite Alan Milburn to get British social mobility moving again.

The number of entrepreneurs increases during recessions. Resourceful individuals see gaps in a market in the first throws of re-finding its feet and act decisively. If they are are suitably financed in the short-term (this is a big if) they can emerge richer from slumps.

Another reason people move up the wealth ladder during recessions is that they recognise what goods and services consumers need, not necessarily what they want. Recession tightens the belt and focuses the mind.

One can only hope the banks allow the next generation of entrepreneurs the finance to kick-start their dreams, and our economy.

Moaning about the BBC is not a legitimate hobby

People shouldn’t be allowed to criticise the BBC. If they are offended by prank calls, obvious jokes and patronising journalists, they have a choice – don’t pay the license fee.

The BBC is run and moderated not by some grey beards in their ivory tower but by a trust – it has become more diverse, representative and progressive, as we demanded. Now stop it. Change the channel. Watch Five, if you think it’s any better or palatable. Go see a play – although I should warn you that Titus Andronicus is a little racy and has little by way of complaints procedures.

Just because we pay a license fee, it doesn’t mean we should have a say on BBC content. Do you call up Number 10 whenever you disagree with how your income tax is being distributed? (Actually, if you have enough time on your hands to be offended by a television show, you probably do. But you’re not normal.)

The simple problem with a system of complaints employed by the BBC is that very often a) people don’t know what they want and b) what they think they want is not what the vast, sane majority want.

For those delicate little flowers who disagree with Paxman’s interview style, Jeremy Kyle is marginally less coarse. Upset by the cut of Lisa Snowdon’s dress? Then marvel at Simon Cowell’s reassuringly high waistband. Does Clarkson’s profligate use of the word ‘prostitute’ hurt your feelings? Watch the drivel that Bravo spews out with the bald one and the girl who weren’t interesting enough for the consistently stunning Top Gear.

Brian Eno, on (the BBC’s brilliant) Question Time, suggested this week that the BBC World Service is “one of mankind’s greatest achievements”. Anyone who is very occasionally disgruntled by the BBC ought to bear in mind that fact that it is a lot better than the alternatives.

Woss all the fuss about?

For a minute there, you’d be forgiven for forgetting the world is going to hell in a handcart.

Almost all the papers splashed today with the fallout from Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’ poorly judged prank calls to actor Andrew Sachs, alleging that Brand had slept with his granddaughter. Who is hardly a shrinking violet herself.

Brand has fallen on his sword and issued a heartfelt apology for any offence this unfortunate episode may have caused Mr. Sachs. I’m not sure what the other 27,000 callers were offended about. It was a prank, and its biggest error was being neither funny or particularly subtle. But for Brand to feel compelled to resign due to the public outcry is the most lamentable thing of all.

The sheer weight of criticism aimed at the beeb for its part in all this is thanks in part to its anomalous position as a non-governmental state broadcaster. We pay for it, yet we don’t always get a huge say in what it shows. Not that that has stopped the big clunking fist weighing clumsily in:

“BBC audiences accept that, in comedy, performers attempt to push the line of taste. It is clear from the views expressed by the public that this broadcast has caused severe offence and I share that view,” said the Prime Minister, taking time off from saving capitalism.

One can’t help agreeing with Telegraph blogger Bruno Waterfield: “What is worse? That this rubbish goes out on the BBC or that it comes to dominate the political agenda at a time when there are many, many more important issues to get agitated about?”