I’d like to start with an apology.
Or more precisely, an explanation. House of Cards – all 13 episodes of it – dropped on February 1, 2012. Anyone who didn’t have access to advance screenings of the first two installments surely got their thoughts online by the following Monday. I wasn’t one of those people and at first it bothered me, but then a funny thing happened. I mounted a valiant effort to watch the whole thing by Sunday night and failed miserably. But once I got past those first two episodes, I noticed that a lot of the broad conclusions some were drawing about the show felt strangely incomplete.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard about what a game changer House of Cards supposedly is how it upsets the traditional television model and is ushering in a bold new era in entertainment. It’s too early to know to what degree any of that is true, and given the tendency toward hyperbole that exists online, I’m going to go ahead and say the jury is out. But one thing is clear; House of Cards is not really a traditional television show, and it’s not really meant to be viewed as one.
It doesn’t entirely adhere to the five act structure we’re used to in an hour long television drama. In fact it almost feels like its one long 13 hour chain of events that they chopped up purely out of necessity. There are no recaps, no blatant expository dialogue designed to get new viewers up to date. And while the episodes themselves are quite well structured, the priority is placed on long term arc and not “end of episode” resolution. They want you invested in this show, and they want it to happen as quickly as possible.
So if you stopped at the first two episodes, you haven’t seen anything yet.
House of Cards is based on a somewhat ancient BCC show of the same name, whose most memorable plot device involved the protagonist speaking directly into the camera. The device lives on, with Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) stepping out of his Georgetown home to investigate a disturbance and finding his neighbor’s dog struck down by a hit and run driver. Realizing the animal is beyond saving, he gazes coolly at us and declares that the key to power is having the stones to assess a situation quickly and make the tough decisions others won’t.
Then, he dispassionately puts the dog down with his bare hands. He explains that what he’s doing isn’t an act of mercy. It’s happening because useless suffering, like the kind you experience when you’re mortally wounded, is a waste. In fact, it pisses Frank Underwood right off.
Like everything he does, this is the calculated act of a man almost psychotically preoccupied with writing his own destiny – and it’s the primary impetus that drives the show forward. Every time Spacey leans toward the camera and addresses us, we’re his disembodied accomplice, privy to his inner thoughts and complicit in his depravity. It should get old but doesn’t, because it’s Kevin Freaking Spacey. He’s an ideal lead for this sprawling saga about some incredibly entitled people, most of whom have long ago lost the ability to distinguish the difference between “resolute” and “ruthless”.
For the record, Underwood is the House Majority Whip, which is either a kind of sexy evening item or what they call the guy who trains the King’s dogs. But don’t worry America; you won’t actually need to know anything about government to understand what’s at stake here. Having played a key role in his party winning the White House, Frank was promised he’d be made Secretary of State. When the President changes his mind, saying he needs Frank’s influence in Congress, the Majority Whip kind of…well…cracks.
Yes, I really said that.
So rather than chuckle at the irony of one politician breaking a promise to another, Frank resolves to do everything in his power to discredit and destroy the new Administration. He immediately sets about sabotaging the President’s policies and nominees through a fiendishly elaborate system of manipulation and disinformation. But that’s not even the best part. Frank is married, and not just to his job.
Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) works for an environmental non-profit that depends in part on her husband’s influence to survive. She’s as hungry as he is for him to succeed and at first she pushes him like an indignant Sith Lord. Their marriage is a partnership – one where Frank is allowed and encouraged to do whatever – or whoever – he has to in order to achieve his political agenda.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit one sided, you’re not alone. Early on the imbalance becomes clear to Claire as well, and as her personal goals threaten to put her at odds with her husband’s incessant scheming, a deliciously deep reservoir of tension begins to fill. But she isn’t the only one whose fortunes are tied to Frank’s, seemingly for life.
Pete Russo (Corey Stoll) is a congressman who owes his career to Underwood, thanks to the latter’s help with a certain drugs-n-hooker related problem. As penance Pete is forced to make painful choices that cost him dearly with those closest to him. The alliance infects his life like a cancer, and Russo begins to resemble an obvious metaphor for those who entered politics for the right reasons, only to be consumed by the same forces they once hoped to control.
And then there’s Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) of the Washington Herald. We know she’s ambitious, because her first moments on screen are spent lecturing one of her superiors about how hungry she is for the truth, offering to engage in whatever filth is necessary to get the Big Scoop. It’s supposed to sound like the dogged determination of a trained professional, but it comes across like the myopic rant of a hypercompetitive sociopath. Be sure to take notes if you’re a real journalist, because by God someone in your profession must to be willing to ask tough questions and get their hands dirty in the name of the truth.
Her reckless conviction is obviously meant to echo Underwood’s dog-choking, I’m just not sure it works as well. I’m also not sure what’s more absurd – Zoe believing she’s the first reporter to ever think this, or that the person she’s talking to seems to think so, too. It feels like a lazy shortcut, expecting viewers to confuse such brashness with bravery. Add to this some baffling early choices, and it’s a little hard to take Zoe seriously. But later installments account somewhat for Zoe’s initial impression, and you’ll either accept it in the name of entertainment or you won’t.
The show takes a very cynical view of politics and journalism, and naive viewers might believe what they see. But with those first two episodes, director/producer David Fincher sets the tone of a grim morality play, wasting little time diving into the murky universe his characters inhabit. It’s like being at a swanky party, surrounded by tons of expensive food. Stop complaining and eat – prosciutto wrapped dates don’t come along every day.
And neither does such decadently irresistible drama. House of Cards is slick and ambitious, with high production values befitting its pedigree. The opening credits hint of the permanence of government and power against the backdrop of a changing world. Jeff Beal’s professional grade score is ominous, but not overbearing. Nary a moment of screen time is wasted; none of the characters feel superfluous. This is a show driven as much by character as concept, and the cast isn’t as top heavy as it looks on paper.
Points go to Kristen Connoly as an idealistic campaign aide, Sebastian Arcelus as Zoe’s idealistic boss, Michael Kelly as the aptly named Mr. Stamper, and Mahershala Ali as the face of a shadowy corporate lobby with fingers in everyone’s political pie. None of these people seem realistic on an individual level, and they shouldn’t. They’re not merely characters, they’re archetypes. And House of Cards is not just a drama – it’s a fable about power, and the destruction that can result when those who have it see it threatened.
So for the record, you’d be hopelessly naive to view any of this as realistic. If it was this easy to derail a presidency, we’d all be speaking Russian by now. If everyone in Washington was this gullible, America would collapse on its own (save your tweets, Ted Nugent). But real politics truly is full of spiteful people, drunk on power for its own sake, who’ve forgotten the reason they were elected in the first place. Frank represents these very real people, and we all have an unwitting role to play in the way they shape our world.
And every time Kevin Spacey winks at us, or snarls a secret in our direction, he lets us in on it. It’s hard to resist, and this is what Netflix is counting on.
Because of this, much has been made of the binge-viewing model House of Cards endorses. Will people embrace it? Can Netflix make money on it? Is it sustainable? What does Manti Te’o think of it? So far, the answer appears to be yes, maybe, maybe and pound sand. I say that if something is really that good, people will find it. And if you give them access to as much of it as they can stand, they’ll gorge themselves. To Americans, entertainment is as essential as food, water, sugar, fat and caffeine. And it does a really great job of setting up, posing and exploring a question that’s fascinated people for eons:
When we dare to set in motion events larger than ourselves, do we ever really have control of them?
“I love her more than sharks love blood,” Frank purrs at the camera, referring to Claire.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that about House of Cards, but another season on this could undeniably be one of the best shows on smartphone, tablet, console or – for those who still use one – television.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."