Monday, March 10, 2014
March 10, 2014: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Peter and Zoe
[To balance out that series on non-favorites, here’s a series inspired by my recent viewing of Season 1 of a new favorite show, House of Cards. Spoilers for that first season, but not for the recently released Season 2, follow! Please add your thoughts on this complex and compelling show, ahead of a special weekend Guest Post!]
On the American narratives behind Season 1’s two most striking arcs.
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are the two big names attached to House of Cards (and are playing two very juicy characters to be sure, on whom more later this week), but for my money Season 1’s two best performances belonged to Corey Stoll (playing junior congressman, gubernatorial candidate, and tragically doomed alcoholic Peter Russo) and Kate Mara (playing junior reporter, blog sensation, and sometime Spacey mistress Zoe Barnes). Or more exactly, Russo and Barnes had by far the most significant and compelling character arcs across the season, not only in terms of the changes and yet continuities from their starting to their end points, but also because of how much those arcs echo and engage with longstanding and evolving American narratives.
Peter Russo represents an interesting combination of—but also contrast between—two sets of national narratives. On the one hand, he’s an iconic self-made man, a son of impoverished South Philadelphia who has risen from among his shipyard-working brethren to become a Congressman and then fast-tracked candidate for Pennsylvania Governor. In the episode when we follow Peter back home, the show goes out of its way to emphasize just how desperate those origin points were, and how far Peter seems to have come. It’s difficult, however, to separate those origin points from the tragic flaws that doom Russo—his addictions to drugs, prostitutes, and, most prominently, alcohol. But obviously anyone from any background can be defined and destroyed by such addictions, and to my mind this side of Peter is more influenced by American narratives of naturalism and Social Darwinism, of whether we are each defined by some core, inborn strength or weakness that shapes and limits our identities and lives (Spacey’s character says as much of Russo’s flaws). If that’s the case, nature tragically triumphs over self-making in Russo’s case.
Zoe Barnes seems equally defined by a particular dominant character trait, one at the other end of the Social Darwinist spectrum from Russo’s weakness: naked ambition, a willingness to do whatever it takes to get ahead. This ambition pairs her with Spacey’s character even before the two begin their affair, and links her to a narrative often closely connected to that of the self-made man: the robber baron, and the associated win at any and all costs mentality that seems to define many American icons. But of course, when a young woman pursue such ambitious victories, she is often categorized more negatively as a social climber, as sleeping her way to the top (which, in a way, Zoe does—and which her older reporter colleague Janine later admits to having done herself) and the like. It would be interesting to consider whether this gender dichotomy contributes to Zoe’s eventual split from Spacey’s character, and whether it likewise distinguishes Zoe from Spacey’s wife, Wright’s less feminine ambitious woman (a topic on which my Guest Poster will have more to say). In any case, Zoe’s arc, while complex and still evolving, is far less tragic and more in-control than Peter’s.
Next House analyses tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?