The End of House of Cards: Sound and Fury Signifies Nothing

p15818372_b_v8_aaWell, not nothing. There’s something to the final image in the final episode (I’m not going to spoil it. Watch and you’ll understand me). But it comes across as incredibly anti-climactic, given the sturm und drang it tries to build. I watched it last night, and my initial response was “non-ending”. Which, on further reflection, it isn’t exactly. I suppose the real meaning of the ending is that we’re right back at the beginning and nothing really has changed.

The mammoth task of ending House of Cards without its main character would probably have defied any creative team. But there was another problem: the character they had, by default, to replace him with was an enigma for six seasons, and the new season did nothing to illuminate her.

Who is Claire Underwood/Hale? What does she want?

One did not have to ask these questions about Francis Underwood. He was a politician;  he wanted power. He was Richard III re-imagined as an American Congressman, complete with scene-chewing asides and soliloquys thrust like a dagger through the Fourth Wall. The point of this was to take the audience on a journey into the dark heart of the City of Washington, to show us how the sausage is made via one man’s struggle to be the Greatest of Butchers.

And yes, the exercise wearied after a while, became a parade of improbables and extra-constitutional fancies, with freshly-minted secondary characters acting without clear motivation (Who the hell is Mark Bishop? Who the hell is Jane? What are they doing? Why?). Like Richard III, Frank Underwood loses his control of events when he wears the crown, and that got dull to watch.

But Claire is an enigma wrapped in a duality and seasoned with progressive bromides. Am I really supposed to believe that the woman who made the office manager of her charity foundation lay off half the staff, and then fired her, is a feminist? Am I supposed to buy that the woman who murdered her lover considers herself somehow better than Frank? Based on what?

The charm of the first season was that these two schemers were a team, they understood and complemented each other’s darkness, strengthened and enlightened it. Claire wasn’t, like Lady MacBeth, full of the wish to murder and empty of the capacity for it. She wasn’t Frank’s driver, she was his partner.

And then, for some reason, she wasn’t. At the moment of triumph, she pulls away from him. Sometimes it’s because she feels guilt, but only sometimes. Sometimes it’s because she feels like she wants her turn, but when Frank offers her exactly that, she becomes his enemy. Nothing she does makes any sense, except in the context of “I want it all, and I want it now.”

Which, I understand. Which even makes sense for the tone of the show. So why can’t she just come out and say it? Why does she have to pretend that she’s somehow better? Why can’t she wryly analyze the difference between her exoteric discourse, the performance for everyone else, and her esoteric doctrine, which she lets the audience see? In the end, it’s precisely when Claire broke the Fourth Wall that I found her least truthful. Unlike Francis, who showed us without shame the foulness within, Claire seems oddly insistent that I find her heroic. Sorry, lady, but the blood on your hands is the same as your husband’s. He was no hero, and neither are you.

There’s a lot of threads in this final season that go nowhere. The App business. Mark and Jane. The Shepherd’s family secrets. Eventually all these become nothing more than red herrings meant to drag our attention from the true conflict of the season, that of Claire vs. Stamper for control of Frank’s Legacy. Which has a logic to it: Frank as the Dead Prophet with a schism between a guided caliph (Stamper) and a blood caliph (Claire), to put an Islamic cast on it. I just wish I came away from the closing credits with a feeling of something other than “that’s it?”

Why Netflix is Still the King…

Politics is the ultimate entertainment.

Over at The Atlantic, a sober estimation of why TV is outperforming movies as quality entertainment:

Networks love the cable bundle for the same reason that viewers hate it: It’s a relentless (i.e. dependable) transfer of money from households to networks, regardless of what television or how much television we watch. “Basic-cable channels have to broadcast shows that are so good that audiences will go nuts when denied them,” Adam Davidson wrote in the New York Times. “Pay-TV channels, which kick-started this economic model, are compelled to make shows that are even better.” Thus, television has seen a race to the top while Hollywood has experienced an ostensible race to the middle-bottom.

Back to Netflix. The company’s business decision to chase exclusive TV rights was not an act of charity for TV fans; it was a business decision. Netflix has two things going for it: its deep library and its wonderful streaming technology. Keeping the library of quality titles deep is getting very expensive very quickly. And Showtime and HBO can compete with Netflix on streaming tech, even if they’re also tethered to the cable bundle. So, Netflix needs to increase its value in the eyes of the 120 million households who aren’t Netflix subscribers. Following in the footsteps of HBO and Showtime by going after original titles is the smart next step.

I’ve been watching House of Cards, Netflix’ original series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and directed by David Fincher. It’s fun, even if not quite as epoch-making as Mad Men or Breaking Bad. A Machiavellian congressman with an unctuous South Carolina accent is a good role for Spacey, and the writing is smart. If Netflix has the money for Oscar-caliber actors and directors, then they have the money to compete with the Premium channels without drastically altering their price point (that $8 a month may creep up, but that’s still nothing compared to HBO on top of basic cable service).

Netflix is no longer the only streaming service out there, but it’s still the best. When I got my Roku XD box, I discovered that I could also stream Amazon Instant videos, some of them free with my Prime Membership. But Amazon’s library of free videos is small compared to Netflix, its browsing display shows you the same titles over and over again, and its streaming just isn’t as reliable. Last month I finally got around to watching Ted. It wasn’t a Prime video, so I had to pay $3.99 to rent it for 48 hours. It skipped and hiccuped in the last third of the film, and kept re-streaming at a lower quality rate, until by the end it looked like I was watching a VHS copy that had been soaked in bleach for a few weeks. I’ve had this happen a few times with Amazon’s streaming. It never happens with Netflix.

HuluPlus, which costs as much as Netflix, has a needlessly complicated navigation system, still doesn’t have distribution deals with CBS and F/X (No HIMYM, Sons of Anarchy, or Archer) and has several titles still Web only (I haven’t seen an episode of Happy Endings in months, as we can only watch it on wifey’s computer upstairs in bed, and I keep falling asleep). Netflix is elegantly simple: the stuff on your Queue, and the other stuff, broken down by genre.

The others, such as Crackle, VuDu, etc., are all so much background noise, me-too services. I imagine everyone’s going to set such a service up eventually, and eventually some of them will be able to compete with Netflix. But everyone who declared it dead when it split it’s DVD and streaming services turned out to be dead wrong. They’ve sucessfully shifted from being  the all-online Blockbuster to being the streaming king, and now they’re about to trade punches with the cable heavyweights. Invest in popcorn.