The Best 20 Seconds of the State of the Union

This week Jim Kelly and Margaret Carlson are corresponding about Washington's moment on the small screen. Kelly is the former editor of Time magazine (and of Carlson) and is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

Margaret: Two clashing deadlines this week had me toggling: the State of the Union address and "House of Cards." To watch the last episode of the latter, I gave up my favorite part of the SOTU -- the Cabinet and Supreme Court marching in, followed by the president submitting to a group grope as he walks past those hearty, ambitious souls who'd waited for hours to get a seat on the aisle. A good parlor game would be picking out the Frank Underwood wannabes in the crowd.

Jim: You missed the president shaking hands with the members of the Supreme Court? For me, that is the best 20 seconds about power on TV every year. Those appointed by the sitting president, more than any Cabinet member or even the vice president, owe their jobs to him.

As for those who were not appointed by the man giving the speech, well let's just say it is fortunate no one is packing gavels under those robes. Justice Antonin Scalia, as usual, did not show up. "It has turned into a childish spectacle," Scalia said. "I don't want to be there to lend dignity to it." Good thing Scalia isn't a writer for "House of Cards," since I am sure he would have major characters staying away from major dramatic scenes lest they look undignified.

Margaret: As the series ended, most of my attention was on Underwood's wife, Claire. Underwood is so broadly drawn -- the chess master with an insatiable hunger for power who is mostly up against his inferiors (including the biggest drip to play president I've ever seen) that his victories feel hollow (as he does). A few episodes ago, it looked as if Underwood was up against a worthy adversary, the head of the teacher's union. Then he socked Underwood in the face, drawing blood. There went the teacher's strike.

It was that swing and the killing of Russo that have detracted from Underwood. He should live entirely by his wits, as real-life masters of the Capitol have to. You think I was overly sentimental and unappreciative of the needs of drama because I was saddened by the killing of the hapless Russo, the screw-up who wanted to straighten up for his kids and be governor. But I was also upset because Underwood has turned into a thug, relying on brawns not brains.

Jim: That is exactly what I like about Underwood! I will save you all the writing tips I picked up from attending the Learning Annex course entitled "You Too Can Write for HBO and Get Free Premium Cable for the Rest of Your Life," but for "House of Cards" to join the pantheon of "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad" and "Homeland," Underwood had to kill.

Margaret: I loved the last episode. Journalism had its moment, and even friendship made a cameo. Zoe, the hot girl reporter and stenographer for Underwood, sees the virtues of the older colleague she'd pushed out of her job. They link up at an online site that publishes stories with no pretense of editing. Together they use shoe leather to untangle Underwood's web of deceit.

So Zoe has found a seemingly healthy relationship to replace her sick one with Underwood. But the engaging subplot is now Claire. When she finally asserts herself, it's in pure Underwood fashion: She stabs her husband in the back so that he loses a vote he predicted he'd win. She then goes off for days -- without a change of clothes! -- to the loft of the dashing Brit photographer who'd done work for her "public interest" environmental group.

Jim: Claire has nothing on Elizabeth Jennings, the KGB agent played by Keri Russell in my new favorite non-Netflix show, "The Americans." I have to believe this is Peggy Noonan's favorite show as well, since the series so faithfully recreates Reagan-era Washington and has plot developments revolving around the likes of Caspar Weinberger. Unlike "House of Cards," "The Americans" is being shown the old-fashioned way, one episode per week, but so far I would feel safer running into Claire than Elizabeth on the Georgetown towpath after dark.

Margaret: Well, Claire eventually does come home. Power trumps love (or sex), but the usual political-wife cliches are more complicated than usual. Their default position of sharing a late-night smoke sitting in the window of their townhouse (a townhouse no mere member of Congress could afford) suggests that enduring affection, if not hot sex, is keeping them together.

It's plain now that he needs her more than she needs him. They'd both agreed not to have children; she's changed her mind. Will she change his, and will his murderous lust for power change them both?

Netflix says "House of Cards" is the most watched program on Netflix at the moment and 13 more episodes are on the way. Same time, next year.

Jim: I hope next season the House and presidency remain in the hands of the same party. We live with the drama every day of the Republicans controlling the House and the Democrats occupying the White House. What "House of Cards" shows is that brother plotting against brother is far more interesting than Democrats plotting against Republicans. But I guess Chuck Hagel could have told us that.

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    To contact the authors on this story:
    Margaret Carlson at
    Jim Kelly

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