About a minute into the first episode of House of Cards Francis Underwood—the scheming politician played to oily perfection by Kevin Spacey—finds a whimpering dog that’s been struck by a hit-and-run driver. We don’t see the dog, just Underwood staring down. He lifts his eyes to the camera and addresses us directly. “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong. Or useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act and do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.” He quietly puts the dog out of its misery, washes the blood off his hands, and heads off to the inaugural ball of the new President.
It’s a great introduction to the character who will continue to whisper asides to us as he begins to insinuate himself into the new chief executive’s inner circle. “I’m just the lowly House Majority Whip,” he tells us at the President’s celebration. “I keep things moving in a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude. My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving, but I won’t have to be a plumber much longer.”
Underwood has positioned himself to become Secretary of State, but when the new President (Michael Gill) and his chief of staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) take office, they pick someone else.
“I know the President made you a promise,” Vasquez tells him “but circumstances have changed.”
Underwood responds in a cold fury, “The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances. Let’s be absolutely clear, you wouldn’t have won without me.”
Neither the President nor Vasquez realize what kind of hatred they’ve unleashed. We do, though. So does Underwood’s equally calculating wife, Claire (Robin Wright). “You should be angry,” she advises him, a piece of advice that is part emotional support and part political strategy.
Over the thirteen episodes of House of Cards, the Underwoods turn their anger into schemes, converting their betrayal by the President into a power grab of Shakespearean proportions.
The Shakespeare comparison is inevitable. Like its direct inspirations—the BBC miniseries of the same name and the political thrillers House of Cards, To Play the King, and The Final Cut by Michael Dobbs—the series takes a major cue from the Bard, particularly Richard III, complete with Underwood’s acid-tongued soliloquies to the audience.
The American version of House of Cards is a huge bet by Netflix, the home entertainment giant, which bankrolled the production to the tune of a hundred million dollars and is releasing it exclusively as a streaming feature for its customers. All thirteen episodes were released on February 1.
How good is it? Well, I started watching it on Monday night just to check it out. By Thursday night, I’d finished the first season. If I hadn’t had to eat, sleep, and go to work I probably would have finished the damn thing in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
Produced by Spacey, David Fincher, and Beau Willimon, House of Cards is essentially a grand political soap opera. In addition to the Underwoods, we follow the rise of an ambitious young reporter named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and the descent of talented but self-destructive junior congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). Thirteen episodes gives these characters a lot of time to develop and a lot of space for their stories to intertwine with the ruthless Underwoods.
Shot in D.C., the show is beautifully produced. Episodes were shot not only by Fincher (who first worked with Spacey on Se7en) but by impressive hands like James Foley (whose After Dark My Sweet was the best film noir of the 1990s and who also worked with Spacey on Glengarry Glen Ross), Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil In A Blue Dress), Joel Schumacher, and Charles McDougall. The writing by a talented crew headed up by Beau Willimon (the show’s real mastermind) is snappy but also allows supporting characters like Underwood’s chief political enforcer, played by the wonderfully steely Michael Kelly, to grow on their own.
Of course, at the heart of the show are the Underwoods. As Francis, Spacey hasn’t been so great in years. I won’t say it’s a comeback because he never really went anywhere, but I’d wager a bet that as more people find this show, Netflix will see a spike in viewings of Swimming with Sharks and other Spacey greatest hits. He just plays a son of a bitch better than anyone. The direct address to the camera will doubtless strike some people as little more than a gimmick, but I love it. Underwood is a man who’s always performing, a man whose whole life is political theater played at the highest level. Like Shakespeare’s Iago or Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford, Underwood tells us his dark secrets while performing a pious public self for everyone else.
For me, the real breakout performance of the show is by Robin Wright as Claire Underwood. In some ways, she’s never been better. The lovely young woman of The Princess Bride has been replaced by a icily beautiful D.C. Lady Macbeth (if Lady Macbeth had been married to Richard III, that is).
Claire is a brilliant creation. The executive officer of a huge clean water lobbying organization, she’s a couple of things we rarely get to see, even in premium series television like The Sopranos, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad:
First, she’s a woman whose life is not defined by her relationship to her man. The Underwoods are a political team and Claire has as many irons in the fire as her husband. It’s a brilliant stroke of the series to make her a member of the non-profit industrial complex—a system that sucks up billions of dollars while shrouding itself in righteousness and deserves all the scrutiny it can get.
Second, she’s a woman whose eyes are open. I mean to take nothing away from fascinating creations like Carmela Soprano or Betty Draper or Skyler White (much less from Edie Falco, January Jones, or Anna Gunn) when I say that those characters all have a similar arc of being, in one way or another, asleep in their lives and growing into some kind of larger understanding of their own culpability. From the first episode of this series, though, Claire Underwood is as much a fully formed, if tragically flawed, person as her husband.
House of Cards is pretty damn great. Here’s hoping the Netflix experiment pays off in dollars. I’d watch another season right now.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.