I promised a full review of House of Cards after last Friday’s preview, and here it is. My verdict: It’s good but not great, intriguing but not revolutionary, unsatisfying in big ways but very satisfying in small ones. I’m glad I watched the whole thing in one chunk, but I’m not sure I’d approach the already-in-production season two in the same way. I always get an adrenaline rush from binge-watching whole seasons of shows, and sometimes the excitement inflates my esteem a bit. So if it seems as though I’m tamping down my enthusiasm in this piece, well, that’s why.
Based on the 1990 U.K. series — and nicking its big flourish, having the hero talk to the audience à la Richard III — it moves and feels like a reasonably grown-up pay-cable drama, only much handsomer, thanks to executive producer David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac), the king of glossy decay. The only thing about it that’s really “new” is the behind-the-scenes innovation of releasing all thirteen episodes on Netflix on the same day, as if it were a superlong film. In theory, this will draw new subscribers to Netflix and keep current ones on the site for days at a time, consuming chapter after chapter.
But it would be a mistake to downplay that innovation’s importance, because the show seems to have been written with it in mind. As overseen (and often screenwritten) by Beau Willimon, House of Cards’ finest quality is its unhurriedness. It takes its time introducing the main characters and setting up its plots. Then, once we’re in the thick of it (as it were), it has the courage to let moments breathe and to be okay with lingering on uncomfortable silences and letting important moments play out in a wide shot rather than in a tight close-up (TV’s default mode). The show doesn’t seem terribly concerned with hooking you into watching the next episode, either — probably because the storytellers know that if you’re watching House of Cards, it means you have Netflix, and the next installment is a click away, so what’s the point of a hard sell? These characteristics may seem minor — just a style thing — but I think they’re the key to whatever distinctive flavor the show has.
I was also impressed by House of Cards’ ability to weave social media into the fabric of the story and make it dramatic, by showing people pausing before texting a reply to somebody, deliberately not picking up a call and listening to the message moments later, or finding words to make dishonesty sound principled in an e-mail (as Cory Stoll’s pathetic, doomed Peter Russo fails to do in an e-mail to a constituent outraged about his silence in the port shutdown). The show’s sophistication about technology seems of a piece with its nature as a Netflix original. I like that it has decided to take place in 2013, in which a congressman’s meltdown during a CNN debate can be turned into an AutoTuned YouTube dance track mere hours later.
The characterizations and performances are hit-and-miss, ditto the plotting; the latter’s weakness are often bound up with the former. Kevin Spacey’s house majority whip Frank Underwood is indeed a brilliant puppetmaster, or maybe chess master, though not as brilliant as he thinks — a fact driven home in the final stretch of the season, in which his wife Claire (Robin Wright) stabs him in the back politically and briefly leaves him for dashing British photographer Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels). He’s so nervy and clever, and such an unrepentant bastard, that after a while I wasn’t quite so bugged by his fourth-wall-breaking asides; I just enjoyed watching him be a snake, tempting the weak and infuriating the impulsive into destroying themselves (like Al Sapienza’s union rep, who gets baited into blackening Frank’s eye and inadvertently ending the protracted teacher’s strike).
Spacey is never able to sell the affair between Frank and his journalist minion/concubine Zoe (Kate Mara). Why? Maybe because he and Mara have no sexual chemistry (neither actor radiates that kind of energy anyway), and maybe because the sexual affair (which was not in Michael Dobbs’s source novel) seems like just another contrived May-September power relationship of a sort that you’ve seen a zillion times. Whatever the explanation for the Frank-Zoe affair’s lameness, I rolled my eyes whenever the series felt obliged to check in on it — though I did laugh out loud when Frank bails on a date with Zoe. (“Running about 30 mins late,” she texts him. “I don’t do waiting,” he texts back.)
I like the show’s un-shocked attitude toward skullduggery — it’s a cliché, yes, but preferable to having to suffer through scenes of a straw man character being appalled to learn that politics is a cruel business. Like The Good Wife and Game of Thrones — and Deadwood and The Sopranos before it — House of Cards has a great eye and ear for the protocol of power. In scene after scene, we watch one person decide another’s fate without even thinking of asking permission. Because This Is the Business They Have Chosen, the screwed one has to smile and nod and say something like, “I understand — thank you for your time.” Godfather-lite aphorisms abound, some banal, others sharp enough to stick in the mind. My favorite is Spacey’s admonition to Zoe, “Generosity is its own form of power.” Remember that the next time someone does you a favor.
Is House of Cards a realistic portrayal of the political process? It’s no more realistic than, say, The West Wing or The American President, but I don’t think it’s terribly concerned with documentary realism — any more so than the BBC series, which had Frank’s English counterpart Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) gleefully blackmailing, intimidating, and double-crossing everyone at the top layers of government, and climaxed with a major character being spectacularly, publicly murdered. Both versions of House of Cards are melodramas offering two main attractions: Byzantine plots that express humanity’s unquenchable hunger for more power, and domestic stories that show the impact of those plots on marriage and family.
So much of the show’s morality and emotion are situational, and I like that House of Cards doesn’t portray any relationship as either/or. These are complicated people, and you can’t really appreciate them unless you can hold contradictory thoughts in your head as you watch. The tactical and emotional tug of war between Frank and Claire, for instance, seems at once completely mercenary and oddly, sincerely affectionate: Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth smoking cigarettes in a window. The eleventh-hour relationship between Zoe and the young reporter that she friend-zoned in the pilot is notable, too. It wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been used and abused by Frank. The sight of Zoe in a (seemingly) healthy relationship doesn’t erase the memory of her coldly ambitious behavior early in the series, but it does complicate our feelings toward her, because it seems like an instance of hard experience forcing a person to mature. Who can’t relate to that?
Russo’s story is the one that’ll linger with me. It’s almost unbearably sad. The young congressman was a modestly successful screw-up who might have muddled on indefinitely in the same job if Frank hadn’t appealed to his fantasies of redemption, and roped him into a mythic quest that Frank knew he didn’t have the mettle to finish. “They say dad’s gonna die like Amy Winehouse,” one of his kids casually tells Claire. The scene of a hung-over Russo screwing up an important CNN interview was so agonizing that I couldn’t watch most of it; I just stared at my notes and pretended House of Cards was a radio play.
The implication that Frank sought Russo out because he knew he’d self-destruct and ultimately set Frank on the path toward the vice-presidency is truly chilling. But then, the most powerful people are often supreme narcissists, adept at mind-effing even smart men and women. Frank relearns this lesson while dealing with president’s supposed VP pick, billionaire Raymond Tusk (the great Gerald McRaney, channeling his George Heast from Deadwood). Tusk treats him like an errand boy, then comes on like an arrogant usurper, then reveals that he and the prez schooled him as thoroughly as Frank schools everybody else, and that they’re about to hand Frank the prize he fought so hard for, as if it were a Christmas present. Generosity is its own form of power.