Netflix released the second season of House of Cards last weekend, offering 13 binge-worthy episodes of backstabbing and score-settling, scandal and spin, duplicity and double-crossing.
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), now the American vice-president, pretends to take political stands while pursuing a purely personal agenda of power grabs and payback, usually involving fake-folksy billionaire Raymond Tusk. This alpha-male posturing seems like the least interesting part of the series. Build a bridge, don't build a bridge. Who cares?
The show's women, on the other hand, are something else, especially Robin Wright as the monstrous, magnificent Claire Underwood.
Frank likes to talk to the audience in arch asides, implicating us in his misdeeds. Claire remains opaque, whether she's ruthlessly gutting a philanthropic organization or skilfully manipulating the skittish First Lady. The occasions when she drops her perfectly made-up mask are rare, and therefore precious.
They can also be revealing. There's a scene in Season One in which Claire stands in front of an open fridge trying to cool her hot flashes. I mean, wow. This is an entirely new look at menopause.
Female characters are often overlooked and underwritten in prestige (and faux-prestige) television. Or they are offered up as a moral counterweight to a misbehaving male protagonist, a thankless job, as the experience of Breaking Bad's Skyler White has proven.
To see not just a woman but a woman "of a certain age" stealing some thunder from a top-billed antihero is a treat. There's something perversely admirable about Claire's pursuit of equal-opportunity badness. She could even be seen as a feminist icon (in a sick, sociopathic sort of way). She's certainly the show's best character.
First of all, Claire is very watchable. One of her very few human-being moments comes when she stares at her reflection, trying to decide whether the mirror is a friend or an enemy.
I'd say friend. The onetime Princess Bride has become far more interesting with age. Her blond beauty is now pared down to its cool essentials -- faultless bone structure and a daringly short haircut. Then there's Claire's wardrobe of black, white, grey and taupe shift dresses and pencil skirts. It's irresistible, in that sexy-severe way.
It's also fascinating to watch her marriage to Frank. In the original British version of House of Cards, the wife is evil but underused, relegated to a supporting role. Frank and Claire have a modern partnership, like any two-career Washington power couple. They also have an old-fashioned partnership, like, say, the Macbeths.
Their relationship is not sexy in the conventional sense, but their twisted mutual attraction comes out in the illicit cigarette they share at the end of each day. As Frank and Claire channel their erotic energy into smoking and scheming, we feel the ferocious loyalty they hold for each other.
Frank declares that he loves Claire "more than sharks love blood," which is his pathological version of sentiment. When Frank vows to obliterate a rival, Claire adds that they need to make him suffer first. "I don't know whether to be proud or terrified," Frank says to the audience. "Perhaps both."
Claire's efforts at "leaning in" (and leaning on) usually end in her favour, but she sometimes runs into obstacles, ones that highlight actual feminist issues. A key point in Season Two involves her live television interview with Ashleigh Banfield. (Yes, that Ashleigh Banfield, former Winnipegger and wearer of signature glasses.)
Claire's calculated preparations for the interview underline the impossible expectations set for powerful women. She knows full well that she has to be perfect but accessible, attractive but not sexy, determined but not obviously ambitious. As well, she's expected to smile while she explains on national TV why she doesn't have children. No wonder Claire occasionally acts out.
Responses to Claire raise that fraught notion of "likeability," an issue that follows around female TV characters as well as real live women. It only takes one of Claire's imperiously icy glances to blast the whole notion of likeability into irrelevance.
Nobody on House of Cards is likeable. This profoundly cynical series is set in a post-Hope White House, where JFK's assassination is invoked only to score cheap political points. The characters are mercilessly divided into predators and prey, being either criminally guilty or hopelessly gullible.
Claire is undeniably a moral monster. The show's second season has made some attempts to understand her, offering fleeting glimpses of vulnerability -- possible regrets about being childless, emotional holdovers from a traumatic event. But I wish the scripters would lose the back story. I prefer Claire enigmatic and evil.
In a pop-culture landscape where middle-aged women are usually pigeon-holed, patronized or rendered invisible, Claire stands out. Malevolent and murderous she may be, but at least she has our attention.
I don't know whether to be proud or terrified. Perhaps both.