'House of Cards,' Believe-ability, and Breaking the Third Wall

This topic contains 11 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Gab 4 years, 9 months ago.

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  • February 3, 2013 at 10:29 am #27921


    Netflix just released an entire first season of its first original series, House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. They released a number of trailers beforehand, all showing the central character (Spacey) breaking the Fourth Wall, such as here:


    I watched the pilot episode, and I was quite surprised to find out that this kind of situation is not something they made just for the trailers- Spacey’s character constantly has asides with the viewer(s), and sometimes gives little nods to them. For example, he tells the audience something he thinks another person about to enter his office will say; when that person does what he predicted, he gives the camera a little, “Didn’t I tell you?” kind of look.

    None of the other characters ever notice this narration. It’s sometimes done in ways that they may not notice, but others, such as that inaugural moment in the trailer (which was pulled directly from the episode) happen- moments where one would think the other people would pick up on a dude in a suit talking to nobody (except himself, the voices in his head, etc.).

    I don’t think it being on Netflix has anything to do with this narrative choice.

    I do, however, think it works. And it has me thinking, why? I’ll need to watch more to see if it continues in the rest of the series, but as of now, I think my answer to that question is it 1) adds some humor, since a lot of the jokes come from his snarky comments about things when he breaks the Fourth Wall; 2) helps you understand who he’s talking to and why. I find this wall-breaking more enjoyable than exposition through bad dialogue- it seems more realistic for a savvy politician to explain something to someone as an aside than have two or more characters talk it out (as in, “Soandso, you mean the Secretary of Blah Blah?” “Yes, the person that did the thing that one time.” “Oh, and he also is married to Yadda Yadda, but had an affair with…”). That clunky dialogue is really hard to pull off.

    So that makes me wonder, did they do those asides because of this latter part?

    I’ll say this, I enjoyed this pilot so far. The wall-breaking moments make it feel almost as if one is an apprentice or shadow to this guy- a very likeable character.

    I would actually really like to dissect the opening scene a bit, but I dunno if anybody is interested. But I also think this could lead to a broader discussion of the Fourth Wall and when breaking it works versus when it doesn’t, and why for both. And different ways it’s done. Because I think it’s a sliding scale- narration is a lighter way, while something like this is the most extreme.

    February 3, 2013 at 10:32 am #27922


    I called it the Third Wall in the title of the thread… gorrammit…

    February 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm #27992

    Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff

    I wonder what breaking the third wall would be? I guess that’s when one character has a conversation with another character?

    Gab, if you’re loving the show as much as I am, take a look at at least the first episode of the BBC series it is based on. It’s on Netflix, which you definitely have! Underwood addresses the camera all the time, in an even more challenging way. For instance, after a particularly cold-blooded scheme, he turns right to the camera and stares at us: “Well, what would you have? Britain must be governed, and you know who will do it best.”

    The American version is actually using it very sparingly, but I think it’s an effective device. It’s conspiratorial.

    February 5, 2013 at 6:12 pm #27993


    Hm, this is totally doable- the British one is only three parts.

    February 5, 2013 at 6:13 pm #27994


    Also, how ’bout that first scene with Kevin Spacey and the dog, eh?

    February 6, 2013 at 12:18 pm #28006

    Ben Adams OTI Staff

    I think breaking the Third Wall would be talking to the CREW instead of the audience. The “Three walls” are presumably the walls of the set in a play, and who’s behind those? The tech guys.

    February 7, 2013 at 10:03 am #28012


    Hm… If we stretch the “tech guys” to mean something more like assistants or helpers, we could create our own class of people on the “set” or with the characters. Because I think one reason this narrative structure seems to work for me is it feels like he’s talking to an apprentice or student of his, be that me or someone that just happens to have a view of what’s going on (and a camera). I have an inkling to believe I’ve seen things like that, where it’s made explicit that the person being spoken to in asides is supposed to be learning or observing- they’re addressed directly and given orders to pay attention, even appealed to a little. But this one is slightly more subtle- I can’t remember, as I think back, any moment where Spacey directly addresses the viewer with a pronoun, nor an order of any kind. And most importantly, there’s no sort of justification or appeal- he does what he does because he is who he is and that’s what he needs to do, which makes it really easy to fall into that. As if the appeals bring about a “doth thou protest too much?” situation in other ways of doing this wall-break that are supposed to make us feel closer to the character(s), sure, but also remind us of any immorality or wrong-doing.

    Also, I’m watching the British one now, and it’s interesting to see how a few detailed actions were lifted almost directly, while others are more a same general goal or feeling. I appreciate how Robin Right’s character in the American version has more of a role, and I wonder if they did this to show us another character scheming and such but consciously with-OUT the wall breaks- her moves are much more discomforting in contrast to Spacey’s character, and I’ve no doubt that’s because we’re not given the same window into her consciousness.

    February 7, 2013 at 7:57 pm #28014

    Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff

    The more I watch the show, the more I’m enjoying Claire. There’s that episode where she gets scolded for running in the graveyard. The next day you see her run BY the graveyard, but decide not to go in. The next day she goes in and sees two kids making out. I love it.

    I definitely respect this show’s ability to let some moments just be small, instead of blowing them up into big deals. The episode I just finished shows the Vice President sneaking in the Oval Office and sitting down at the desk. I was totally expecting him to get caught. In way, what’s the POINT of him doing it if he’s not confronted? But it’s precisely that he’s NOT caught that makes me like it. That would have been too simple. The point of the scene was revealed at the very end: the Vice President will risk everything to steal a pen, while Frank will give away the pen without a second thought and then use it to open a bottle of wine.

    A lot of the reviews I’ve read say the show is very good, but also kind of formulaic. I honestly don’t see that at all. I’m more then halfway through the season, but I have no clue at all what Frank’s plan is. I THINK he’s trying to get himself appointed Vice President, and I think poor Cory Stohl is going to have something to do with it, but I don’t really see the plan. I can’t wait.

    February 8, 2013 at 1:26 am #28015

    @Ben Adams –

    So then…would breaking the “third wall” would be something like those Stage Manager Kevin sketches on All That? Or would it be more like Christian Bale’s infamous rant towards McG on the set of Terminator:Salvation?

    February 8, 2013 at 1:44 pm #28016

    Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff

    The all-time best example of breaking the third wall is the ending of Blazing Saddles, in which the Old West fight spills into another movie, then into the movie studio, and finally ends outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre.

    February 9, 2013 at 11:27 am #28017


    Mel Brooks tends to do that a lot in his movies, or things similar and perhaps not as extensive as the end of Blazing Saddles. Like the part during Marion’s song in Men In Tights where the camera breaks the window (or also during the final duel, Robin skewers a camera guy’s hot dog with his sword).

    And actually, could his self-referencing be considered another wall? Because his later movies often make references to his older ones. And those are definitely nods.

    Anyhoo, speaking of House of Cards. (Epic transtions!)

    Obviously, to say this show is about power is one of the most underthinky things to say. However, the nuance I see here is that a lot of it comes down to sexual power dynamics, either directly between the two parties involved, or indirectly because of information about sexual relations. Granting permission for a spouse to have sex outside the marriage is a key power-play between the Underwoods, for example- and how they react to the other choosing to follow through is telling of their personal insecurities over their position(s) in their relationship. I especially liked how Claire asks Frank what his having sex with Zoe would give to them, not him.

    So, to just cut myself off before I ramble for another page, as with a lot of political dramas, this one uses sex as a tool for leverage and control- or to demonstrate a lack of it.

    February 17, 2013 at 11:43 am #28051


    Has everyone else actually finished the season? I think another way to talk about the series, especially the finale, is the way the camera does a lot of the talking- or, at least, how so much is conveyed without dialogue. Be it showing the texts, or that awesome montage of the empty house with the cell phone ringing at the end. Maybe this is more like gushing, but the uncertainty you’re meant to feel is heightened by how we don’t see Stamper on the other end, waiting for Francis to pick up.

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