TL; DW: House of Cards, Season 1

House of Cards (Photo: Netflix)
House of Cards (Photo: Netflix)

Let a former polysci major get you all caught up on Kevin Spacey’s Emmy miss.

The nutshell:

Passed over for a cabinet position a congressman coldly schemes and manipulates his way into the Vice Presidency and through various occasionally dark personal relationships.

The bag of nuts: 

Majority whip Frank Underwood (Spacey) expects the new Democratic administration to properly reward him for his skills and loyalty with the position of Secretary of State. When told he’s of greater value where he is, getting things done and keeping the party in line in the House, he smiles placidly and then fills the viewer in on his plans to take what he thinks he deserves, crushing anyone who gets in his way. A mild sociopath who knows most people are his inferiors, Underwood proves a master manipulator, using all the tools of power – politics, money, sex, psychology, and more – to at turns help and hinder the administration and get himself named as the next Vice President. Amongst his (variously) stepping stones and handholds are Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young reporter to whom he provides inside facts and well-engineered speculation before participating with her in a mutual seduction; his wife Claire (Robin Wright) head of the international humanitarian nonprofit the Clean Water Initiative and known participant in her own dalliances; and Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a Pennsylvania congressman Underwood props up solely for the purposes of destroying him professionally and then killing to clear his own path to the White House.

The nut tree plantation: 

Based on a BBC mini-series of the same name and similar themes1 House of Cards became the flagship for the ‘new’ way of making television. Thirteen episodes of (slightly) varied length, contracted ahead of time for the entire season, and released all at once on demand meant a degree of storytelling freedom that most viewers, and many creative types in Hollywood, didn’t fully realize they’d been missing. No forced act breaks, satisfying plot arcs fully thought out ahead of time, and no May Sweeps breathing down their necks left a very talented group of writers, directors, and actors with more than enough room to make, if not the best then certainly very, excellent television.

Borrowing character names and plot points galore from the original, House of Cards brilliantly transplanted these meditations on corruption, power, and the dark places people are willing to go for themselves and what they perceive as their ideals2 from London to Washington. This, though, is the Washington of  books and movies, a chess board of powerful individuals and Shakespearean revenge, with stand-ins for all the things fiction have trained us to know exist in the halls of power – corporations and weak-willed politicians, brilliant orators and schemey figures who can always be bought, NGOs that raise money to do good works and raise more money, crusading journalists and self-serving journalists and sometimes journalists who are one and the same, the well intentioned who discover they have to compromise their beliefs to achieve anything and the righteous who are shown to be just like everyone else, corrupt or weak or just full of nothing.3

What really made the first season of House of Cards the binge-watching version of appointment-television were the characters (and actors) filling-out all the stand-in roles in this version of Washington. While the occasional individual was underwritten (Sakina Jaffrey as the President’s Chief of Staff probably had the least to work with) and the occasional beat was not as strong  (Stoll’s breakdown at Underwood’s feet felt lacking, in contrast with the rest of his performance; Sandrine Holt’s idealist ground down under corporate humanitarianism seemed off in her closing challenge to Claire; Rachel Brosnahan’s hooker caught in machinations way above her head took a little bit to really get going) there were no false notes in the casting, no ridiculous requests of the characters.

Both Wright and Mara were so deft in navigating their characters through spaces both professional and personal where they knew they couldn’t see everything around them but had to push ahead regardless. What emerges are strong, driven, capable women in what are ultimately the realms of men – Congress, the media covering Congress, and Congressional bedrooms. Michael Kelly was subtly brilliant as Underwood’s always quiet but scarily unwaveringly dependable chief of staff Doug Stamper. Kristen Connolly made you hurt along with her as her Christina Gallagher got yanked to and fro by boss and sometimes lover Russo while also getting battered – though she doesn’t know it4 – by Underwood’s master plan. Sebastian Arcelus was the embodiment of reluctance without becoming whiny as Barnes’ coworker.

What could have been one note performances, like Constance Zimmer’s unseated harridan of a queen reporter, or Mahershala Ali radiating nothing but a serpent’s coldness and menace as a lawyer for one of Underwood’s biggest backers, become at the hands of the writers and performers wonderfully interlocking pieces of a clockwork beast, each humming and ticking along in the cooly-shot but rarely cold world of this D.C. Even single-shot performances like David Andrews as Underwood’s close friend and hinted-at lover from military school5 made you willingly lose track of the big picture machinations to sit for a moment with the people in the midst of it all.

Those machinations aren’t worth outlining at greater length here, not because they aren’t clever and brilliant and sometimes even fun, but because the specifics of Underwood’s power grab aren’t necessary knowledge to watch and appreciate the grab, the potential overreach, and the swirl of punches and counterpunches, sidesteps and steps behind that the characters use to push their agendas, or have agendas pushed upon them. Suffice to say, corporations buy influence, power brokers turn small secrets and favors into big opportunities, and there’s nothing so untrustworthy as a politician you think you should trust.

The other tl;dw for House of Cards: People inflict hurt and get hurt and it’s damn hard to look away while it happens.

Season 2 of House of Cards will be available on February 14, 2014 on Netflix.

  1. Available on Netflix streaming if you want to watch a 1990 BBC production and all that would entail.  
  2. Which, for many of the characters boil down to ‘power’, ‘winning’, and/or ‘themselves’.  
  3. One interesting note – there’s almost no reference to the armed forces in Season 1. Again, a fictional world and one where the meditations really are about people, sometimes just a person, and their path to winning.  
  4. Yet, probably. Gallagher gets inklings of what might have been going on late in season 1 and it seems pretty likely Barnes and she are on a bit of a collision course.  
  5. That episode – Chapter 8 – is the farthest from the main plot (on purpose; it provides a very necessary beat before the season’s surge towards conclusion) and one of the best collections of acting put on screen in recent years.  

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About Aaron Mucciolo 206 Articles
He does things. That's all we can say at this time. E-mail: mooch@whatelseison.tv