House of Cards in One Day; or, A Tale of Bravery

The fantasy of binge viewing is the fantasy of the cocoon. It is an intoxicating promise, sinking into a world where nothing matters except a story. In pursuit of this feeling, some friends and I made a deal to take Tuesday, February 19 off (n.b. none of us have real jobs) to watch season two of House of Cards in its entirety.

We were a foursome: Miranda, a couple named Sam and Daisy, and me. Miranda is a writer. Sam works on campaigns. Daisy does something with windmills that looks utterly terrifying. There was talk of a guy I didn’t know named James coming as well, but he didn’t answer any of the group emails meticulously planning the event, and he was reportedly drunk when he expressed interest, so we thought he might not actually show up.

All of us but James had detailed assignments. I was bringing spaghetti sauce and one bottle of wine, Miranda was bringing parmesan cheese and two bottles of wine, Sam and Daisy would make coffee, buy pasta and host. I volunteered to bring biscuits, and the fact that people were excited about this filled me instantly with a sharp resentment, because I knew I would not actually make them.

Sam was adamant out our all being there at 10 a.m. sharp and I took this request seriously. Sam is a river rafter and a child of San Francisco liberals who tends to a sort of incensed inflexibility. (I am as often fond of Sam’s worst qualities as I am annoyed by them. Our town is a mountain town where an “It’s all good, bro” ethos is king, and I find it familiar and comforting to be around someone who believes in both anger and accountability. I had lived here for about a year when I met Sam. In my memory he was wearing a Columbia sweatshirt [though he swears he doesn’t own one] and impatiently explaining the difference between bring and take [no attempts to deny this] and I grabbed him by the arm, looked into his eyes and cried out, “Please be friends with me!”)

I try to stay on the right side of Sam — it’s just easier that way — and I assume others do as well. That’s why Monday night, when I returned from buying organic canned tomatoes and the loaf of Truckee sourdough at SPD in place of the biscuits, I was very surprised to see that Miranda wrote on the group email to say she was playing tennis Tuesday morning and would be there at 11. This was the sort of thing that just makes Sam go fucking apeshit — and, actually, me too, but with Sam around, I knew I didn’t have to bother. Miranda said she’d watch the first episode on her own and arrive at 11. Sam, after a few snarls, seemed to accept this.

I was looking forward to this event as I had looked forward to nothing since Christmas 1976.

•••On Tuesday I was walking out the door at 9:40 A.M. with everything I was supposed to bring packed neatly into a bag when I got a text from Sam: “I forgot to get pasta, can you pick some up on the way?” We live in a rural area, and while there is no “on the way,” there is “please drive extra five miles.” I was about to text back, “You have got to be kidding me,” but then I erased it. Here I was, an adult taking a Tuesday off to watch a television show. It was only by the grace of God I was not spending the day sweating in a factory, or washing seven-year-old underwear in a toxic trickle of water. I was lucky beyond reason and I would behave as someone who recognized this. So I wrote: “Sure, no problem! See you soon.” I felt simultaneously virtuous and good about my decision not to make biscuits for people who couldn’t even remember to buy pasta.

I arrived at 9:56. Sam was writing an email and Daisy was just walking around the kitchen. They were both drinking things out of mugs that were not coffee and I was mystified that they had seen fit to putting liquids into coffee cups without somehow thinking, “Oh, we should make coffee.” Plus, an important part of my cocoon fantasy, which had been encouraged by Sam’s insistence that we start on time, was that I would just walk into their house and be seated and all of this stuff would already have been taken care of.

“Oh, do you want to put some water on?” Sam asked in a casual tone.

“I confess that I thought you were going to be running a pretty tight ship around here,” I said. “I didn’t go to yoga because I thought I really needed to get here right at 10, because I wanted to be a team player.” I don’t know why I had been fooling myself with my Attitude of Gratitude bullshit. It felt good to be real.

“Oh,” Sam said, looking at his computer. “I guess I’m sort of dropping the ball.”

This might have been a good time for me to say, “It’s OK, I’m probably being hard on you.” But the best I could do was, “I will get over it, but yes, I am annoyed.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” he said. I didn’t reply. I felt suddenly trapped. I started making toast. What else was I supposed to do? Daisy started to make eggs. At this point it was 10:20, and I did not feel that we needed eggs, and I definitely, definitely did not think we needed eggs with mushrooms and scallions and red peppers she was cutting up, but far be it from me to tell any woman who grew up in Northern California that sometimes people just want to eat and get down to business and not have the full fucking Alice Waters experience.

We had the eggs and they were quite good. The coffee — Fable Coffee roasted right here in Nevada City — was also good. The toast was amazing. When we sat down for Episode 1, I discovered that each episode was 45 minutes, not an hour, and this had the effect of completely eradicating my annoyance. This was probably a good idea, since my annoyance was an entirely private and useless experience, and Sam and Daisy were both nice, and good friends, and I have committed similar crimes. But what would life be without the thrill of being constantly wronged?

Miranda arrived at 11 and at 11:18 we finished Episode 1. By 11:20, were on to Episode 2. Daisy had been tasked with fast-forwarding through the lengthy credits. The idea was to stop on the image of the Capitol so we could see who wrote and directed the episode. By Episode 3, which we started around 12:20, we had a joke that we were in a frat and Daisy was the frat little sister and her only job was to fast forward the TV to the correct spot in the credits and we rated her one through 10 for how close she got to the exact right image, and wasn’t she so awesome at it, high-fives all around!

I was finally starting to feel like I was in a cocoon.

At the end of the episode Miranda got a text from Alex, a guy who works in the same co-office where she, Sam and I generally spend our days, and he said he was on his way. I generally don’t like surprises, but this was fine with me, especially since he said he’d bring whiskey, which the characters in House of Cards were putting away at an alarming and enviable rate. Halfway through Episode 3, James showed up. He had watched one and two on his own and was happy to be caught up on three: he had the right kind of attitude for a latecomer. If I had showed up in the middle of an episode I would have been much more intrusive. I started thinking about what a jerk I was and how I should be more like this person James who I didn’t even know. As a result I missed a key plot point. I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler: I never quite got what the deal was with that bridge.

The highlight of the post-Episode 3 bathroom break was eavesdropping on James telling Sam about a men’s group he had been attending. Sam was trying to seem open to it without promising to go, which I knew he would never do in a million years, and I quite enjoyed his maneuverings.

We began to reassemble. The screen menu was open, and Miranda began to read, aloud, the Episode 4 synopsis, which I am totally making up here — really, it is complete fiction — as to not give anything away: “Claire meets a new friend. Frank decides he’s going to tell Bob everything he knows about the accident. Banana exports top the President’s worries.”

Sam started yelling at her that he didn’t want her to read it and she kept reading it anyway. At which point Sam began to shout, “I seriously don’t want you to read those. I can’t make myself any clearer,” and Miranda just laughed as if he weren’t actually mad and kept reading it and Sam yelled more. It was pretty clear to me that Miranda came from a family where people made jokes about conflict and that Sam came from a family that thought knowing anything about a show before you watched it should be a capital crime and it was a pretty lethal combination. “Yikes,” I said to Daisy, who just looked at her lap and said, “Don’t fight. It’s Christmas.”

We somehow got everyone into their chairs and down to the business of Episode 4. When it was done, we decided to make lunch, and Daisy, who is generally dependable this way, suggested that we open some wine. At this point, Sam saw that Alex had texted him about an hour and a half ago and said, “I’m not coming over! Duh. Tell Miranda she is gullible.” I was very confused, and gradually came to understand that the “joke” was that Alex had a real job and also children and was thus not available for the sort of nonsense we were and was never planning on coming over in the first place. Miranda seemed kind of upset that everyone might find her gullible. I was simultaneously confused and annoyed at my inability to refrain from trying to figure it all out: not the show, but this question about Alex.

We ate spaghetti with my marinara sauce. I told everyone how to make marinara sauce and no one listened. Daisy had made a really good salad, with fan of sliced avocado across the top, and fennel, and I remembered with some embarrassment having once explained to her how to cut fennel and how she had patiently nodded at me the whole time, doubtless thinking, “Would you please shut the fuck up?” I told everyone a story about a girl we all knew delivering a 10-minute soliloquy on the life of John Denver in which she had gotten absolutely every detail entirely wrong. “It was as if she were talking about Ronald Reagan, and she was like, ‘So, Ronald Reagan was Asian, and he grew up in Flushing, and he was a closeted homosexual.’” James showed us something called “The Deep Web” that they kept talking about on House of Cards and we decided there should be a calendar, “Men of The Deep Web.” Miranda expressed more annoyance with Alex and everyone wondered how we were going to get whiskey without leaving the house. James left. We moved into Episode 5. “Please do not read the synopsis,” I whispered to Miranda, and she giggled, like she was actually considering it. “I beg you,” I said.

We made it through Episodes 5 and 6 without further incident. Then Daisy and Miranda went to buy whiskey. I was glad Daisy had gone on the errand because she never hesitates to buy top-shelf liquor. In the meantime, my boyfriend and his friend texted and said they were coming over so I boiled water for more spaghetti. Sam and I tried to talk about the show but realized we had nothing to say about it, other than that everyone in it was bad. We found ourselves trying to unpack, once again, why it was that Alex actually thought any of us would know he wasn’t really coming over. I said, “I don’t know the particulars of Alex’s life and how plausible or implausible it is that he might take a brief vacation from it to watch television. So when he said he was coming over, I had no reason, and nor did anyone else, to doubt this was in fact his plan.” Sam agreed with me.

Miranda and Daisy came back from the store with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, which — spoiler alert — A Character Orders In A Scene In House of Cards. My boyfriend and his friend (let’s call them Karl and Eli, and by the way, all fake names in this piece are metaphorically approximate to the real ones) arrived. We drank whiskey while they ate.

Then we watched Episode 7. I only drank about a tablespoon or two of whiskey — my body is a temple, except for sometimes, of course, when I get kind of hammered — but I think Miranda and Sam perhaps had more because when we reassembled for Episode 8 Miranda was reading the synopsis aloud and Sam was screaming at her. “I just don’t understand why you’re reading it when you know I don’t want you to!” He said. “It’s just like when I told you not to say that I was drunk on Facebook and you did it again.” Whereas before Miranda had said she was just reading the synopsis out of habit, she now admitted that she was “getting back at you because you and Alex were making fun of me,” at which point Sam tried to walk her through the time frame of those texts and how he was as mystified as anyone why Alex had said he was coming and then actually wasn’t, and then Miranda started to read the synopsis again, this time perhaps unconsciously, and Sam threw a quilt over the television and shouted, “For the love of God shut up!” at which point Miranda grabbed her keys and ran out the door but not before passing by the kitchen where she demanded of Karl, “What are you laughing at?”

Karl, who really hates being yelled at, said he was going home to pack for a trip.

Miranda ended up coming back. “I realized I was being immature,” she said. Also, there is always a policeman parked by the fundamentalist church on the main road near Sam and Daisy’s house, and it’s not a good idea to leave the premises less than entirely sober. She and Sam had some sort of hug-it-out thing on the porch to which I was more than pleased not to be privy, and we watched Episode 9 without incident.

We had to stop after that. It was 10:30. We could take no more media.

I returned the following night for the last three episodes. Miranda, who had to go visit her parents, was going to watch the rest of them on her own. I ate the rest of Daisy’s wonderful leftover salad, with her perfectly sliced fennel, and we drank some more Johnnie Walker Black.

When it was all over we sighed. “That was hard,” Sam said. Miranda texted us: “I am halfway thru 11.” We texted back, “Jealous.”

Thursday morning, Miranda said her butt still hurt so much from sitting she couldn’t sleep. “I had dreams about people being mean to each other,” I said.

“Oh, from the show?” she said, looking at Facebook, not really paying attention.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “From the show.”

Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl. She lives in Nevada City, CA. Follow her on Twitter @sarahlovescali.

Photo via Iain K. Macleod/Flickr