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This is Lorraine Toussaint as Yvonne “Vee” Parker. We might call her a new character in Orange is the New Black‘s second season, but she’s well-known to two of Litchfield’s current inmates… for complicated reasons. She is the best female antagonist I’ve ever seen, and one of the best antagonists ever.

To Taystee (Danielle Williams), Vee is the foster mother who finally gave her a home. Sure, that home was the locus of a powerful drug corporation. But Vee knew how to inspire loyalty and a sense of family — and we can see her use exactly the right strings to pull Taystee back, to transform her into the loyal soldier she used to be before prison.

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In flashbacks we learn exactly how Vee has earned such loyalty from Taystee: by providing exactly that feeling of belonging and family — as well as just the right dose of race pride — that her life lacked beforehand. Moreover, Vee is the best possible “mother”: smart, powerful, admirable. The fact that she runs a drug empire is incidental to her maternal effects on the lonely Taystee.

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Once Taystee is on board, Vee pursues the loyalty of a small group of other young Black women to build her prison “family” — using a variety of the same techniques carefully calibrated to each woman (maternal gentleness, tough love, gestures to racial unity and vague promises of uplift and power). But not Taystee’s gay best friend Poussey (Samira Wiley, whom the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum aptly describes as “radiant”). Vee persuades Taystee to join in the exclusion and demonization of Poussey, a mean-girl process so real and devastating that I almost couldn’t watch those scenes.

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Red (Kate Mulgrew) also has a history with Vee, but in her case it goes back to earlier prison days as competitors for control of the prison’s black market. Witnessing Red’s anxiety about talking to the leonine Vee for the first time gives us an insight into her character that we hadn’t seen before: for the first time in years, she worries that her aging will lead Vee to sniff out her weakness. In anticipation, she visits Sophia’s salon to amp up her fierceness.

And yet when they meet, they embrace warmly, like old friends.

Indeed, it is Vee’s capacity to convey warmth and insight that makes her so powerful, and so capable of deception. Witness her effect on the perpetual outsider, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba). She insists on calling her Suzanne. With a few correcting glances from Vee, Suzanne stops undermining herself and her mental stability, and speaks with new confidence. Under to heat of that seeming maternal affection and guidance, Suzanne glows like a light bulb and happily serves as Vee’s henchman, the muscles to Vee’s brains.

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With everything else going on for me this summer, it took me forever to finish Season 2 — but throughout I marveled at the manipulative twists and maneuvers of Vee, who is the best antagonist I’ve seen in FOREVER. And it’s partly such a great character because she’s a woman who has learned to use people’s assumptions about her to her advantage. Think about it: we love a good bad guy — Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, Kevin Spacey as the horrifically Bible-obsessed baddie in Se7en — but when was the last time you saw a female antagonist worth remembering, for all the reasons why women learn how to extract power and manipulate others using their femininity?

But don’t get me wrong: this is not just a portrayal of a great female antagonist. This is the best antagonist in years, full stop.

Feast your eyes, friends.

 

Very mild spoiler alert. If you, like me, are waaayyyy too busy in your work life to binge-watch and have yet to start the new season, and you don’t want to know even the slightest thing about this first episode — well, you’ve been warned.

house-of-cards-s2-trailerThe season opener is just as chockablock as you might imagine — intrigue undertaken by ruthless people capable of 3-D chess — all of which makes you question whether you can stand watching this level of immorality within government and media organizations.

The one thing missing: those moments when Frank breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to us, sharing his scary brilliant philosophy.

But then, at the very end, as Frank gets dressed in front of the mirror, he says in that voice, “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you wish I had,” and he explains exactly why he committed one of the most stunning plot turns of this episode.

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 9.17.48 AMWhat he says, of course, is chilling; because Frank Underwood (that’s F.U. to you) tells it like it is. And yet. This intimate moment is like all the other ones he shares with us: he takes off his mask, reveals his thinking, rationalizes his moves. But he also frames the whole thing in an elaborate metaphor that — well, when it comes flowing out of his mouth, with all those turns of phrase and that ballsy certainty, us viewers become implicated in the crimes.

How is it possible that when he peels back the safe-for-the-public face and speaks to me directly, Frank makes me feel … relief?

How delicious. Can I also say that Claire’s clothes (and moral ambivalence) are just as gorgeous and watchable as in Season 1? I can hardly wait for more.

hoc-ph-22120r-babd299b44de4b096fc2d563c31bb2398737e5d5-s6-c10This is a list, in order, of the first things you notice about Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in the new Netflix series House of Cards:

  1. She has the best haircut.
  2. She is a walking advertisement for the virtues of pilates. That posture!
  3. Her jaw and eyes are so steely as to render her the handsomest mannish woman ever.

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What takes longer to notice is that she appears in only three colors: white, black, and grey. Grey more than anything else. Perhaps the costume experts wanted to convey an ice queen, but I want to believe they were going instead for a statement about her moral ambivalence. (Or was it to capture the grey dreariness of D. C. in winter?)

(No plot spoilers here, I promise.)

With only minor exceptions, the character of Claire has proven, to me, the most interesting aspect of this series. No — she’s the best part of the series. And what I want to emphasize most of all is her physical acting, as you’ll see farther down the post.

You’ll be forgiven if you fall for the obvious and think this is Kevin Spacey’s show. As Claire’s husband, the brilliant and Machiavellian Sen. Frank Underwood, Spacey turns conspiratorially to the camera and fills us in on at least some of how he wages the warfare of politics and power in Washington, D. C. He’ll talk us through his rages and his machinations, but he hides from us too: it takes forever before we see his true endgame, and the show gets progressively darker as we get closer to the truth — and see how he’s willing to get there.

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Perhaps Claire’s nonprofit, the Clean Water Initiative, might appear a convenient vanity project for a beautiful woman whose primary job is to make her husband look good. Certainly the CWI rises and falls with Frank’s political tides. And he shows no hesitation in using its green bona fides for his own political ends. But you’d be mistaken to think her work with the group doesn’t matter to her, or that its goals always compliment Frank’s.

The calculus of fidelity in their relationship is, hands down, the most interesting I’ve seen for ages. I love the way the show leads you at the very beginning to make assumptions, for Claire and Frank look like people who’d hold secrets from one another or lead completely separate lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. That single cigarette they share late at night is a measure of their utter complicity, their frankness and love for one another. But neither do they consider monogamy to be interesting or important. As a result, their loyalty to one another is both all-encompassing and yet still fragile to the upheavals of circumstance, unrelated to sex.

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Most of all, what Robin Wright gets so utterly right about this character is her physical presence. Take another look at the way she plays every single scene, and you’ll know what I mean. Wright certainly doesn’t get the best lines, but she carries her history and class around on her ramrod posture and carefully draped limbs in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman achieve onscreen. That body is saying, “I am a refined woman who commands attention,” but it also conveys, “I am a coiled spring, a panther waiting to strike.” Wright’s achievement with her body gives her a fascinating dimension she doesn’t get with her lines.

No wonder we don’t know what to make of her. We don’t encounter this kind of woman in our lives.

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No, that’s not exactly right. We’ve encountered lesser versions of Claire Underwood — middle-aged women who still wear the same clothes they wore in high school, women who attract men to them through a certain beguiling passivity that seems to call forth from men a fantasy that she might be theirs for the taking. Women who don’t dwell on the past. The only things we learn about Claire’s past are that 1) her mother wanted her to smile more; 2) she turned down many offers of marriage; and 3) Frank promised her (correctly) that life with him would never be boring.

This is not a woman who thinks that sex equals power. Claire is far too smart for that; she’d doubtless look down her nose at such a crass calculation. She doesn’t carry herself as one who needs any man to be attracted to her. She takes it for granted they will be, and doesn’t particularly care.

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If we know enough about her bearing to know she’s not to be trifled with, we also know that her body is vital to her entire persona. It takes only the slightest tweak for her to shift from a finishing-school elegance to a cat eyeing its prey. Indeed, watch Robin Wright as she squints her eyes slightly. Only a fool would believe those eyes could twinkle. Physical control is Claire’s raison d’être. See that, Mother? we can imagine her thinking at some point, years ago. I didn’t need to smile more.

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Sure, you can call this a color beyond black-white-grey if it suits you. But it’s so close to that palette that it’s not really worth the fight, is it?

We see only a single moment when her body moves differently. She has temporarily decamped from D. C. to New York and has donned a man’s button-down and pants for a party of artists in a loft. She is dancing the salsa with another woman (Claire is leading, natch) and what we see in this brief glimpse is a very different woman, a woman whose hips no longer appear rigid. She dances expertly, moving her hips fluidly with the dance and touching her dance partner with warmth and the sexual allure of the salsa. Sure, we still see the panther in her body; this is not Claire Gone Wild. Rather, outside of her black-white-grey palette and the always-vigilant D. C. political world, she has allowed herself a different bearing, a different physical relationship to the world. For a moment, anyway.

Of course she leaves New York and returns to being the other, controlled version of Claire. The one whose manners smooth over Frank’s self-described “cracker” background, whose class seems inextricable from her hard body, and whose height gives her a distinct advantage over virtually all other women.

One of those shorter women is Zoë, the journalist Frank cultivates. In one key moment the two women meet — I would say “one to one” except that Zoë simply doesn’t have a chance during that encounter, and barely counts as one. The dialogue between them is unimportant and not terribly well written. What matters is Claire’s physical presence during this encounter, the way she moves into Zoë’s personal space in a way that seems all the more threatening for the springlike energy making every muscle taut. She “wins” this meeting merely by making another slight tweak to her body.

Panther, I tell ya.

HOUSE OF CARDSHouse of Cards occasionally pops in some dialogue howlers — clunky bits that seem almost like a first draft rather than a polished script — but on the whole the show offers a pretty riveting story. With David Fincher at the helm, you know it’s probably worth watching, right? And because Netflix dumped the entire 13-episode series online at once, you also have the chance to binge-watch for a lost weekend (or, if one possesses a Claire-like self-control, one can dole it out over the course of a couple of weeks).

My sole request to you is to look beyond the mere words of this talky series to consider the terrific acting done by Wright, a woman whose beauty has often relegated her to pretty parts from Buttercup in The Princess Bride (1988) to the appalling Message in a Bottle (1999). What she has done here to inhabit the bony body of Claire Underwood deserves an acting prize. She’s riveting.