Friday, December 25, 2015

The Force doesn't awaken so much as reboot

Let's get this out of the way right now: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW, so if you haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, you do not want to read what follows. Of course, if you really liked the film, you probably also don't want to read what follows...

Finn's (John Boyega) expression above is probably the best rendition I could find for what I was feeling through most of the movie. Note the mild scowl, the slightly cocked eyebrow, and the just parted lips, on the verge of saying: "Fer reals?" I mean, seriously, if I wanted to watch Star Wars: A New Hope again with flashier graphics, I can do that in about 15 different formats and for far less money than the full IMAX 3D experience that I sat through this morning. I say that because The Force Awakens is virtually a note-for-note retelling of the first film, down to the young person discovering the Force on a desert planet with a droid carrying a crucial piece of info, and getting transported to the Imperial base to both rescue a hostage and destroy the galaxy's ultimate weapon. The only real difference is that this time there's two of them.

Don't get me wrong. I respect JJ Abrams' attempt to put this thing back on track after Lucas' abominable prequels and if his route for doing so is essentially the same thing he did with Star Trek: rewriting the lore but with different people and a few funny moments, I can understand that. But that's exactly what it is: a reboot. That's not "Episode 7". It's a retelling of Episode 4, which comes out feeling like a cheat, rather than an actual step into the future.

So... you're saying you didn't like it?
The key thing for me in most films is story. I don't care about your flashy lights or beautiful people or funny one-liners or skillful camera work in and of themselves. I appreciate all of those things but, dammit, tell me a story. Give me an idea (or even more than one!) that makes me think while I'm watching; that makes me say to myself "Yeah, that's a good move there."; or, best of all, that lets me lose myself in the film as it's proceeding. The worst thing for most fictional tales is to lose your audience's immersion in the plot. The water for this one never even got to knee-high on me because there basically wasn't a plot that we hadn't seen 38 years ago and countless times since. Most adventure films can be broken down into the basics of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, but they can rarely be as linear as this and remain interesting, especially when someone has told the same damn story 4 decades ago. At the very least, tell me a story that equates to more than one half-hour episode of a Saturday morning cartoon (Hero discovers unknown power, hero finds friends who help her use said power, hero uses power against evilest people in the universe. The End.) The first film was never more than a straightforward fairy tale. Harlan Ellison dismissed it as the equivalent of a B-level Western. He was aghast that people would call it science fiction because he felt it lacked depth. He was right. It was never going to be deep because Lucas based it on old Flash Gordon serials that he saw as a kid and then perpetuated that monochromatic approach in the prequels. So along comes JJ Abrams with an opportunity to right some of the wrongs and instead he walks the road most traveled by and came up with no difference at all.

On the positive side, no one's performances were abysmal. I think Boyega and Daisy Ridley as Rey did well with the material they were given, which was far more than anyone else. The two of them functioned like actual humans in that they had lines that indicated that they were thinking and developing in the changing circumstances while playing their roles, rather than just regurgitating fan-serving one-liners like, say, Harrison Ford. Here's a key example: At one point, Han Solo asks for Chewbacca's bowcaster when the latter is injured. In two instances, he spouts lines like: "Wow!" and "I really like this thing!" So, you're telling me that in the forty-odd years of their association, through all of the shady deals and consequent gunfights, that Solo has never traded weapons with his Wookiee partner. Seriously? That scenario plays like a character who's hitting the screen for the first time, not a couple of SF icons who were given an opportunity to play up the legacy of their long partnership a few minutes earlier ("Chewie, we're home!") All it would have taken to make Solo an actual human with a history is a simple change. Instead of "I really like this thing!", you'd have "I always liked this thing!" That's a micro-intensive look at how these characters existed in the minds of the writers and the director. They're not humans. They're archetypes. But you can extrapolate that out to their presence as a whole and discover that Abrams really wasn't saying anything new. He was just getting the chance to say "Star Wars" for the first time and treating all of us like we were in the same boat with him.

Yeah, I kinda felt like this, too.
A perfect example is Carrie Fisher's role in the film. What was she doing there? What was her purpose? She was a minor foil for Han Solo (again) and then she kinda stood around and let people emote to her. They had to have her because they have the rest of the (still living) original cast and at least she's become a general in the Rebel- ahem, Resistance*, but she didn't actually do anything. She's a complete cipher with maybe two dozen lines and none of them particularly meaningful other than to tell her ex-husband to bring back their estranged son, the emotional baggage of which Ford had already expressed to Rey and Finn. I've seen a couple comments around the Web suggesting that she'll actually have something to do in the next couple films. But if all you're doing is a reboot, you could have summed up her role in the opening scroll at the start ("General Leia Organa, off-stage, awaits the return of her estranged son who now leads The First Order...") And that's the key problem again: this is just a reboot, not a story, because one of your supposed main characters has nothing to do in this film.

*And that's another thing. What exactly are they resisting? If the end of Return of the Jedi signaled the return of the Republic and if the First Order are determined to destroy the returned Republic (which they apparently do when we see the Republic's key(?) worlds for all of 5 seconds before being disintegrated by the Starkiller), that sounds like two competing states, not one dominant one with an internal rebellion. Is it a Resistance inside the worlds controlled by the First Order? If so, is the Republic operating a Contra-like army inside the opposing state? Is this a Cold War? None of this is explained because, for Abrams' purposes, it doesn't matter. The Resistance is just the Rebellion because all we're doing is a rehash.

So you're saying you've seen this kind of thing before...?
The aforementioned offspring, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is another fine example. This kid is Darth Vader. That's all he is, down to the same black armor and propensity for torturing people telekinetically. We've been here before. Hell, he even talks to the new Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke (Snoke? Really? Not menacing like 'Maul' or elaborate like 'Palpatine'. Snoke.) on a floor-lit hologram. If you're trying to tell a story about tragedy, it helps to not expect people to have an emotional response about the same thing you've been running with for 38 years. Driver, at least, was given a fine moment of patricide, where you could see him struggling with his inner demons, but the whole character was kind of a wash to me because a) he was Darth Vader and b) he was the son of two key people in the films. Science fiction will always involve suspension of disbelief by its very nature. But if you're expecting me to believe that the son of two people that were intimately involved with the former dark lord who led the destruction of the Jedi is now walking in those same footsteps because he was somehow corrupted, you're losing me. I get that unusual circumstances and heroic moments are what make adventure stories in the first place, but when it all keeps happening to the same family, we're getting more than a little Die Hard 2 here, which is a film that no one wants to be accused of cribbing from. And I haven't even talked about the fact that, since the Resist- ahem, Rebellion destroyed two planet-destroyers, the Resistance now has to deal with a star-eating, multi-planet-destroyer. This is straight out of Michael Bay. "We had 5 explosions per minute in the last film, so now there has to be 10 per minute! And bigger!" Seriously? This is what it took 4 or 5 years to come up with? Getting a cheap laugh from the audience when you do the "size matters" comparison between the Death Star and the Starkiller?

Snoke. Really. I mean, you gotta be kidding me. Snoke?
The other thing that's sure to initiate my departure from immersion is technological issues in a science fiction film. Yes, it's high tech and beyond that of our world, so it takes that suspension of disbelief I was talking about. I have that already when it comes to Star Wars when you consider things like hyperspace and lightsabers. But here we're talking about basic concepts like, say, navigation. The McGuffin in the film is a mini-drive containing the map to where Luke Skywalker supposedly resides. ... Why in the galaxy would anyone need a map when you have hyperspace travel? Wouldn't you just need coordinates? Give somebody an X, Y, and Z and they should be able to find what they're looking for as long as they have a consistent central point to orient from. If you're using hyperspace travel, you kinda need that central point in the first place. But we're talking basic astronomy here. Using a "map" means we've reverted back to second star to the right and turn left at the nebula. What it is, of course, is an excuse to replace the plans to the Death Star with some other piece of data that is presented as enormously important. Speaking of stars, was there any consideration given to what happens to a planet if you drain its host star of all its energy in order to power your superweapon? Or was that all just lost on the way to the next exponential function of Bayism?

Furthermore, said awakening of the Force was wildly inconsistent. At one point, you have Rey as young Jakkuan scavenger who has no idea what the Force is and wouldn't care since it probably can't earn her food from the local junk dealers. But then she has a series of elaborate visions just from touching Luke's old lightsaber. Guess there must be a deep connection that's been activated, even though she has no idea what it is or why it's happening. But then, somehow, despite Luke needing extensive training from one of the greatest Jedi masters to have ever lived, Rey employs an almost master-level technique with her power, from the brute force of resisting and then overpowering an acknowledged adept when she beats Kylo Ren (twice) to the incredibly subtle mind trick of confusing the guard of her cell at the Starkiller; all without any guidance whatsoever. And, oddly enough, despite the extensive visions that accompanied her grasp of Luke's old weapon, when she sat there for a minute of screen time in an invisible push-of-war with Ren, we got nothing but the two of them grimacing at each other. Wouldn't that have been a great moment to show how her resistance (ahem) was expanding her mind or exactly what kind of mental darkness Ren was throwing at her? Instead, we got two mimes in a slapfight.

This is the legion of fans who think I'm clueless.
This isn't a case of the film coming in below my expectations, because I really didn't have any. Lucas' prequels had mostly killed my Star Wars fandom 15 years ago. And, like I said, I largely agree with Ellison on the first film's storytelling merits. It's not something that's going to leave you pondering its nuances hours later. But the first film was groundbreaking because of both its visual effects and the broad appeal of its imagery and story. That's why it deserves a place of respect in the genre of science fiction. Why bother to mine that vein again? We've been there, multiple times. What's even worse is that, in the succeeding 4 decades, we've seen countless Star Wars comics and novels with ready-made storylines that were actually original ideas, from 20,000 years before the Star Wars films, to many decades after them. If Hollywood doesn't do anything but reuse established material at the moment, at least rehash one of those stories that dared to make its characters something other than figments of themselves from the 70s. And if I'm supposed to come into the theater and turn my brain off and just enjoy the visual ride (something which is, uh, not me, as you may have noticed) at least give me something different to look at than what I've seen before. Otherwise, it's like channel surfing and stopping on a movie you've seen 20 times because it's familiar and you don't really need to pay too much attention to it. Same thing here. I can do that without shelling out $30, thanks.

So, just like Guardians of the Galaxy, I have little doubt that I'm in the distinct minority on this one (94% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Lucas gave an apparently snippy response to someone asking about the new film, saying that he figured "the fans will love it", as it was made for them. My kneejerk reaction to that was: "You mean it has a screenplay above an 8-year-old mentality?" But, in the end, I think there is some merit to what he said, in that the fans revere the original trilogy and The Force Awakens is basically a carbon copy of the first of those films. Abrams isn't directing the subsequent episodes, so there's reason to believe we'll avoid the trainwreck that was the attempted rehash of Wrath of Khan (Star Trek: Into the Darkness of Screenplay by Committee.) But if the replacement is simply The First Order Hits Back, then I have zero interest in seeing any more of this. Do I regret losing the two hours of my life? No. I'm just wondering why, with all the possibilities, would you do this again?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Show without fear

Anyone who's read Frank Miller's and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One from the late 80s would have instantly recognized the setting and atmosphere of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It's inescapable. The aura of angst, shadow, and determination- the grit -is all there. It's a hallmark of Miller's storytelling. He once said that he wanted to be a crime writer who just happened to have a superhero or two hanging around. His Batman stories are essentially that, as they deal with genuine people trying to respond to unusual circumstances. The fact that they dress oddly in order to make that response begins to seem almost natural. Miller's Daredevil was where he developed that singular style that, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen and Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, became the defining oeuvre of comics in the 80s and early 90s. Appropriately, "grim and gritty" was the tag for that period and Netflix series creator, Drew Goddard, mined that same approach for Daredevil.

The obvious intent was to dial it back from the rapid explosions of the Marvel films like The Avengers to show how "regular people" get by in a world of thunder gods and narcissistic genius inventors. The fact that one of them gets by with an accidentally- and radioactively-induced radar sense that compensates for his blindness is just one of the things that seems "normal" when half of Manhattan has been laid waste by alien invaders from another dimension (and, no, Trump supporters, they weren't Mexicans or Syrians and you aren't "normal", either.) This is Miller to a tee. Daredevil's history up to the late 70s had been as a half-assed Spider-Man who regularly encountered other denizens of the Marvel Universe like Electro, Mr. Hyde, and Death-Stalker. A consequence by the late 70s was bimonthly publication and being on the verge of cancellation when Miller started drawing it and quickly convinced then editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, to let him take over the writing duties, as well. Why would anyone read about some human guy when you could have a spider-human in the same city and fighting the same threats? Thus are the eternal woes of DC Comics laid plain for all to see...

The difference, of course, is in the humanity. Marvel's trick was always to show costumed superhumans dealing with real problems: jobs, relationships, car problems, etc. Miller took a step back even farther from that and began to focus not just on Matt Murdock, crusading attorney of downtrodden Hell's Kitchen, but on the downtrodden themselves and much of what took place in the "real world" beneath the view of Asgard and the Baxter Building. Goddard's show has done the same thing, keeping the light touch of reference to things happening in the world so that the magic of the Marvel Universe is maintained, but refusing to step past that street level so that every inch of shadow can be explored by the one man whose vision can't be affected by any of it.

What helps Goddard in this respect is the excellent cast he managed to cobble together for the show; most prominently the supremely engaging Charlie Cox, as Murdock. As a comic character, Murdock was usually distinctly second-class to his alter ego. It's as if writing a character with a significant disability kind of put Marvel's writers off their game, such that Murdock didn't stand out as a personality in the same way that, say, Peter Parker or Ben Grimm did. But Miller changed that, giving him very distinctive drives and mannerisms, based in part on the extensive background detail Miller introduced to what had been a stock origin story. It's clear that Cox has studied all of this material, as he embodies the Murdock character as well as Robert Downey, Jr. does Tony Stark. You can understand the urge to act outside the law, given the rules and failings that so constrained his father. You can see the determination in the face of someone who has overcome blindness but has also overcome the barrage of sensory input that, in some ways, inhibits normal function even more than the lack of the primary sense that most of us have access to. There's depth here and Cox uses all of that depth to create a whole image.

Likewise, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich are whole people. They react as real people do to ostensibly real situations; with all the hesitation, uncertainty, and outright fear that most would in those circumstances. As I've mentioned before, Sansa Stark may be the most well-rounded character in Game of Thrones because she's reacted like humans would to terrible events. Page and Urich are in that mold and, even moreso, have often overcome that reluctance to perform heroic acts which is all we should normally ask of dramatic characters. Curtis-Hall, in particular, was excellent as he played my image of Urich almost note for note; the cynical, embittered, and yet quietly outraged reporter.

Adding Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk was kind of a coup. If you want to present a character who is enormously dangerous but still kind of a child inside, who better than Private Pyle? While still hewing to the Miller version of Fisk (and completely avoiding the character's original public title: The Kingpin), D'Onofrio presented a more sympathetic figure than the comics; one struggling with his own past and inner demons in a way that makes for a genuine "villain". Unlike Sauron, he's not acting out of pure malice or spite or ambition, but instead is performing his own drama that attempts to satisfy the circumstances that made and make up his existence. Upgrading Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) from the somehow-innocent waif of the comics to a starkly ambitious woman was another good step forward for the series.

Having said all of that, the one down note in casting and the screenplays, in general, is Foggy (Elden Henson.) Foggy was never that crucial of a character in Daredevil, even under more lighthearted writers than Miller. The idea of the goofy sidekick is one firmly embedded in comics lore, albeit one that has thankfully been dwindling away in more recent decades. Henson isn't a bad actor. In fact, I think he plays the part well. The problem is that the part sucks. Cox doesn't need more humanizing as Murdock. He does that well enough by himself. Trying to add in Foggy to give the more human angle to some of the ongoing events just ends up laying it on too thick. What's even worse is that most of Foggy's antics aren't even that funny, since they tend to contrast most of what happens in a rather jarring fashion.

That, of course, may simply be an aftereffect of the series' presentation as a whole. Daredevil is a story on the streets. It's dark and shadowy and, most importantly, almost always dark and shadowy when the good guys are present. Daredevil operates in the shadows, obviously, but it's interesting to see that even when Matt and Karen and Foggy and Ben talk strategy or simply about life, it's always in the darkened office or a dimly lit bar or Matt's apartment that lacks lighting other than the neon display. Most of the time, our heroes are in those shadows that the primary hero depends on and has had thrust upon him since he was 10. In contrast (literally), Fisk and Vanessa are frequently depicted in the well-lit gallery or Fisk's warmly lit apartment. The good guys inhabit the darkness in this tale, while the bad guys are usually in the bright light of day. It's a smart method to demonstrate how Daredevil's extra-legal methods may be the right thing to do, if not always the right thing to do.

But the show abounds with other little touches in similar fashion:

- Elaborating upon Stick and his crucial role in Murdock's development. The character is played by Scott Glenn, who resembles David Carradine of Kung Fu fame, who was the original visual inspiration for the character in the comics.
- Namedropping Elektra, Matt's old girlfriend and antagonist in the comics, and giving other vague references to The Hand (the opposite numbers of Stick's organization) which should excite old DD fans for season 2.
- Including Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, but who also is effectively Night Nurse from the early 70s and who makes an appearance in the Netflix series, Jessica Jones.

Again, this is all typical for the Marvel approach. Their universe is a living, breathing organism and events that take place in one part of the world will impact or at least be heard of in another.

But one of the key elements that was pointed out to me before I saw the series and which I also really appreciate is, again, that commitment to "realism". This is a man with a radar sense, sure, but this is also just a man. When they move to the action sequences, it's quite evident that it's two (or more) humans beating the crap out of each other and they're both feeling it. That's what action is like in the "real world" and that commitment colors this series moreso than most other Marvel productions because, again, the scale is reduced down to the level (or close to it) of you and me. I really hope that in season 2, even with the emergence of the devil costume, they continue to restrain the excesses of the Marvel Universe. Iron Man and Thor can have all the galaxy-spanning explosions they want, but Daredevil is not on that scale and the story will flow better if we can see that we're still simply dealing with a man without fear.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Late to the deal

Tricia and I have finally returned to Netflix and have, thus, begun watching House of Cards. My departure from the streaming service a few years ago had a little bit to do with money (when it's tight, you get rid of non-essentials, etc.) and a lot bit to do with time. There's so much good TV out there right now and so many good documentaries (two media that Netflix excels at providing) that I could easily find all of my free time consumed by watching the big, red screen. Given that I'm still trying to use at least some of said free time to create a career, that would be bad. But she decided to re-start her subscription on a free night and so here we are.

This had to be an 'Iron Throne' swipe, yes?
Overall, I like it. We've already blazed through season 1 and are two episodes into season 2. I think they've done a good job of injecting believable drama into what is ordinarily a fairly grueling and soporific process. No one likes to know how the sausage is really made and sticking a half-dozen suckers in a committee room for five days without showering is sometimes how it's made. In the same way that Veep took the driest and most pedantic of subjects and made it the funniest show on TV, House of Cards creates real tension around the process of guiding a bill through Congress and who gets sacrificed (sometimes literally) along the way. Oddly enough, they're the flip side of the same coin, in that Frank Underwood desperately wanted to be Vice-President (so far) and Selina Meyer wanted to be anything but.

What makes Veep work for me is that no matter how goofy the story gets, the characters remain largely authentic. I can still look at any given moment and say: "Yep, I knew someone on the Hill who was just like that.": Vainglorious, petty, oh-so-desperate to be seen as important but still smart, capable and ridiculously hard-working. That's essentially the consummate Congressperson and/or their aides/flacks/tools. HoC does the same thing, albeit with a bit less of the absurd as you might expect. That doesn't keep Frank from being contemptible at the same time he's being masterful in his manipulation of the world around him. Spacey's frequent moments of breaking the fourth wall as he snarls disdainfully about the inability of others to keep the proper Beltway pace don't hide the fact that what he most wants others to do is make him look good. That, in the end, is often what politics and influence are all about: ego, and Frank has plenty of it.

"I'm a good person! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!"
The one notable exception to that blanket statement of authenticity is, unfortunately, Spacey's co-star Robin Wright, as Claire. The character strikes me as a device and not much more than that. Her role is like a scriptwriter's photo album: ""Here I am ruthlessly destroying my idealistic assistant!" "Here I am enjoying my boilerplate tragic affair with the sensitive, creative man my husband can never be!" and so on. Her role apart from Frank seemed to be on shaky ground from moment one, since they've never really established why she'd be interested in running the Clean Water Initiative and why that would be crucial to their combined goals, as she repeatedly emphasized. Lots of Congresspeople have done quite well without their spouses running a charity and axing half the staff in the process. They've never stopped to say that Frank's campaign war chest was relying on the bleeding hearts of those concerned about water issues, Democrat or no, so Claire's "crucial" activity seemed to be more of an effort by the writers for her to simply have something to do other than plot to ruin people's lives and keep the window cigarette box filled. That's not to say that Wright has filled the role poorly. On the contrary, her shark's eyes stare has often been one of the more exciting performances to appear on the screen but she's not doing much other than be the female version of Frank and aspiring to far less lofty goals of her own.

OTOH, Kate Mara (when I first saw her, I was like: "I know those eyes. Is that Rooney Mara's sister?"), Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll, and Mahershala Ali have also been mostly excellent and quite textured. Kelly's Doug Stamper is kind of fascinating, in that the struggle in his eyes between his 12-step-influenced concern for others constantly loses to his absolute obedience to Frank. But the fact that the struggle is there makes him interesting to watch. You normally only get that kind of loyalty from someone who deeply believes in the person he's adhered to. Frank doesn't present as that kind of inspirational leader and it's Ali's Remy Martin who makes that most obvious, since he's been vibrating with disdain for Frank and everything he does since the moment he appeared on screen. Martin knows the truth, on both a personal level (as he points out that the first time he made it past Frank's doorstep after 8 years was when the latter actually needed something) and a policy level, but he's accepted that this is his world. I made the point more than once when I was with the Greens that to be in the game, you have to play the game, to one degree or another. Martin is clearly in the game, but his contempt for most of it constantly shines through.

Mara did some great things early on as the ambitious reporter, Zoe Barnes. Unfortunately, the writers didn't seem to give her enough room to really transition from partner-in-crime alongside Frank to seeker-of-the-truth against him. For the last couple episodes of season 1, I was regularly wondering just why she was choosing to pursue him so doggedly. Did she really perform an about-face that drastically when she decided to stop screwing him and become the daring reporter for the people? Was her pursuit just another aspect of her desire to show him who was really important in the context of their professional relationship? Or did it all boil down to her shock over Peter Russo's death? If it was just the latter, I didn't feel like it was spelled out enough for the character to make such a shift over that short span of time. Of course, I may be the victim of binge-watching, too.

Zoe was also part of my only true "WTF?" moment of the series, to date: her being ground under the tracks of a Metro train. Both Tricia and I had a "Wait... Wut?" moment when that happened. Everything that Frank had done to that point had been careful, planned, assured, even subtle. Suddenly, he was the VP of the country tossing someone in front of a train with three dozen potential witnesses nearby. That dog don't hunt. I guess it's possible that the writers had kind of cornered themselves with the Zoe storyline, knowing that she wouldn't give up and/or that her relationship with Frank was now a dead-end, since they'd never have the same level of trust. The only way out was to get rid of her. If that's the reason for it, it's clumsy, but it does leave the "crusading reporter" aspect running without the complications, since Sebastian Arcelus' Lucas will continue on in her memory and without the personal ties to Frank. That's the best way I can look at it. The worst way is to assume that they did it for shock value to kick off the second season and used the ever-more-frequent reasoning that "Game of Thrones does it!" I really hope that's not the case, especially since both Tricia and I thought that Frank's ascension(?) to the role of VP would have made a far better ending to season 1 than a beginning to season 2.

I was kinda thrilled to see Molly Parker show up, as I hadn't seen her in the last decade since Alma Garret and the rest of Deadwood fell victim to the ratings beast. Garret started slowly, but grew into a favorite of mine as the show progressed. I'm already intrigued by what Parker's Jackie Sharp could bring. I'm a little less sanguine about the storyline overall, since the essence of the show seemed to be Frank's maneuvering within the halls of Congress as a leader but not the leader. I thought there was still a lot of ore to mine in that vein. By assuming the role of VP (no one, and I mean no one, aspires to that office so this is clearly just a story step toward what Frank and Claire's "goals" have been this whole time), he's in the same quandary: he can influence the shots, but not call them. In that respect, the story dynamic hasn't markedly changed, but it's still a pretty rapid departure from what seemed to be the core of the idea. How long would people be willing to watch Frank stroke legislation in amoral fashion until HoC became a funhouse mirror version of The West Wing (all preach, no party)? I dunno. I guess we'll find out.