In case you weren’t aware, I have a few problems with the show House of Cards. Too many problems for one article, as it turns out.
One thing I didn’t really get a chance to touch on is how stilted and awkward the dialogue can be. In a show focused on power relations between characters, the way people talk to each other is often the central dramatic force, which is why it’s so baffling that the dialogue often fails the all-important litmus test of: “Would a person actually say this?”
Underwood’s soliloquies get a free pass. They’re supposed to be performative, a bit of ego-stretching that happens outside the narrative time. I still don’t think they qualify as looks inside his head; Underwood seems to be conscious that he’s on a stage, never letting his guard down even as he spills all his plans to an unseen audience.
But the same grandiose, theatrical dialogue doesn’t work for two people who are supposed to be having a believable conversation. For a show that pushes realism, characters shouldn’t be spouting lines that feel so consciously constructed. Dialogue is a device to move a story, sure, but it shouldn’t feel like one.
During one threatening conversation between Underwood and Raymond Tusk toward the end of Season 2, Tusk intones, “Your hubris has given you delusions of grandeur, Frank.”
Um, what? A sharp, wealthy businessman with political cunning shouldn’t be awkwardly throwing around undergrad buzzwords. It’s also a classic example of overexplaining, or dialogue that really just says, “This is what’s happening right now,” or, “Here’s how the audience should perceive us.”
Clunky dialogue can also lead to clunky character development. Things happen in Season 2 that are nearly unexplainable. Like, for instance a threesome between the Underwoods and one of their loyal security detail.
Meechum had been established as a puppy dog-type for awhile, and it was clear he might have had an eye for Claire. But it took very little convincing, and even fewer drinks, to get him to steam it up with both Claire and Frank.
It confirmed the hint dropped last season in the academy reunion episode that Frank Underwood is indiscriminate of gender in his sexual desires, but the weird suddenness of the threesome is just too much to be believable. Plus, in true House of Cards fashion, it’s never brought up again. Wouldn’t there be consequences of this? At the very least wouldn’t we see them at least sheepishly avoiding eye contact the next morning, uncomfortably asking each other how they slept and clearing their throats loudly?
But no, the bizarre sequence seems to be only a spectacle. If House of Cards wants to traffic primarily in spectacle, as it has through most of Season 2, that’s all well and good but it’s not what makes a show great.