Television serial storytelling seems like it would be the perfect fit to tell the tale of a drama focusing on the slinkiness of politics in Washington, D.C. However, it’s a bit of a catch-22: While a series allows such a story the proper room to breathe and be fleshed out with realism, the longer it rambles on from episode to episode, the more chances for the tale to become staid and boring. NBC’s The West Wing was able to avoid some of those pitfalls, though even some of its most ardent fans might concede to a drop-off in quality in the show’s later seasons. Netflix’s solution? Examine American politics in serial form using a morally-flexible (at best) protagonist and actually make us root for the bastard. Enter House of Cards.
Based on a BBC miniseries, House of Cards follows the political maneuvering and machinations of Majority Whip Frank Underwood (played to perfection by Kevin Spacey), who begins a labyrinthine quest for power after being passed over for the spot of Secretary of State under a new presidential administration. Aided by his wife Claire (an equally phenomenal Robin Wright), Frank bends and massages and breaks what rules, morals, and laws in his efforts to fight his way to grasping more power, while both he and his wife try to keep some of their baser appetites in check. Along the way, Frank begins an affair with a young reporter named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, who’ll appear in this summer’s Fantastic Four reboot), who both use the relationship to advance their mutual ambitions. Frank’s decision to engage in this tryst leads to potential hiccups in his ultimate goals down the road and could signal chaos for them both.
Much has been made of House of Cards’ examination of morality and rightly so. Frank manipulates the President, his Washington colleagues, the media, Zoe, and his staff in a pragmatic pursuit of his ends. The only person he doesn’t seem to overtly manipulate is Claire, as the two, weirdly, seem to have one of the most loving relationships I’ve seen in a series. They truly seem to know one another better than anyone else in the world and, while both can be secretive in their interactions with one another, they are probably most truthful with the other than they are with anyone. They’re like the Macbeths, but likeable.
Beyond the questions of plot, narrative arcs, character study, and morality, however, one of the most satisfying elements of House of Cards is marveling at someone who is genuinely skilled at his job. For good or ill, Frank knows what it takes to execute a long con, knowing that adaptability, nimbleness, and, above all, patience are key to achieve his goals. He’s a bastard, but he is more-than-competent bastard and his methods get results. While he might falter in carrying through with his goals along the way, both by outside forces and his own appetites, he pushes forward, without any handwringing and ethical mewling in the process. His evil deeds aside, you can’t help but admire the sonuvabitch and his force-of-nature ethos.
A word about breaking the 4th wall: Frank tends to talk to the audience to keep us up to speed. I’ve heard and read some viewers say they find Frank talking directly to the audience is distracting and unnecessary, pulling them out of the story. What those naysayers fail to take into account is that by having Frank speak to us while he commits his deeds, the producers of House of Cards make us sympathize with a protagonist that we would otherwise boo and jeer in any other story. Audiences need someone to back, and in a series with as many morally compromised characters as are present in House of Cards, if you’re going to root for anyone, as Frank might very well say, you might as well root for the guy who gets shit done.
Thanks for reading this first entry of Rewind Review! You can catch the first season of House of Cards on Netflix.