House of Cards:…an expression which dates back to 1645 meaning; a structure or argument built on a shaky foundation or one that will collapse if a necessary (but possibly overlooked or unappreciated) element is removed.
Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) isn’t a man you cross. Betray him and make no mistake, you’re going to hear about it one way or the other. Betray him enough, and he’ll take everyone around you down as well. President-Elect Garrett Walker is going to learn this lesson the hard way, as he’s just reneged on his promise to make Frank his Secretary of State. With the help of eager young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), and various politcal hostages and underlings, he’ll put a plan into motion that will make those he holds responsible pay for what they’ve done. It will be long, and it will take a lot of work, but to him it’s worth it.
Chapter 1, the first episode in Netflix’s latest original series, takes us behind the curtain of the Washington D.C. power structure. It isn’t perfect, but rarely any first episode is for a show like this. With as many characters and plots/subplots as they set up, there’s always the “expository” episode that kicks series and seasons off, and that is exactly what this is. To understand this universe, we need to (naturally) put Francis at the center of it. His plot, so far, involves his chief of staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Ms. Barnes’s helpful assistance over at the Washington Herald, and fellow representative (now blackmailed accomplice, after Underwood’s involvement in certain “legal matters”) Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). His main objectives: undermine President Walker’s Education agenda for his first 100 days, while bringing the President’s choice for Secretary of State and replacing him with the more adversarial Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson).
We see the first steps towards these objectives with Underwood’s consultation of Ms. Durant, a political opponent of the President; and his meeting/alignment with Ms. Barnes after an eventful night at the Symphony. (Someone saw him checking her out, she used it as an inside track to make Underwood her source of political gossip.) Through Ms. Barnes, he leaks the Secretary of Education’s legislation (which he was supposed to help draft) to the public, and by the end of the episode we see Francis enjoying a plate of ribs, as his opponents feel the shockwaves of his opening volley. As everyone’s faces are racked with shock and awe, his is enjoying barbeque sauce. As the old saying goes, “It’s Frank’s world…we’re just living in it.”
On the Subplot side of things, we see Peter Russo embroiled in his own political (a matter involving property and zoning laws) and personal (a secret relationship with his secretary) affairs, culminating with his arrest for a DUI…an arrest which Underwood bails him out of, in exchange for his unflinching loyalty as an ally. Also at work is Ms. Barnes’ ladder climbing crusade at the Washington Herald, as she squares off against fellow reporter Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer). As lead Political Correspondent, she’s Zoe’s most direct opponent for success, and we see them paired up by their editor when Zoe lands the Education policy scoop fed to her by Frank himself. Finally, we see Claire at work with her Clean Water Initiative, a charity which is going through an economic shake up, thanks in no small part to her husband’s recent passing over leaving them one crucial donation short.
If you enjoyed Beau Willimon’s The Ides Of March (or the play that it was adapted from, Farrigut North), then you’ll absolutely revel in this series’ premise. David Fincher’s direction only lends more credence to the artistic merit of this show, and it sets a good tone for the series – both visually and thematically. If the show follows through on the promise of this first episode, it should definitely have no problem rivaling quality fare that you see on Cable TV. Spacey’s performance as Underwood seals the deal, as his occasional moments of breaking the fourth wall really sell Willimon’s milleu of American politics by way of William Shakespeare. Indeed, Francis would be at home right next to Iago and Hamlet themselves, as his scheming and level of dedication are comparable to their own. The cast that surrounds him is as intriguing and believable, as these characters and the world they live in are only slightly removed from ours. The players are different, but the game still runs the same and the consequences are even more severe.
The final point I’d like to make is that of Netflix’s decision to make the complete season available simultaneously. Now this has been a rather contentious matter with media geeks and TV fans alike. I remember back to the days of watching 24 and Alias on live TV, as it was airing, and while I also love the weekly rush of seeing a new episode, being able to discuss it freshly after watching it, and then moving on to the next installment in a timely order; I quite enjoy having everything in front of me for my immediate enjoyment. Nevertheless, I’ll be covering these episodes on a weekly basis, so that way those of you who do enjoy the “water cooler” experience won’t be left in the dark. (This also makes it easier for me to talk about each episode in a more in-depth manner.) Long story short, you owe it to yourself to watch House of Cards, simply because the horrors that are about to follow promise to be interesting enough to sign up for a NetFlix Instant account.
House of Cards is available now on NetFlix Instant. Feel free to chime in with your favorite moments, your favorite quotes, or betting odds as to who will fall/die at Underwood’s hand in the Comments section below. And please, no spoilers for episodes beyond Chapter 1.
This article was first posted on March 3, 2013