Warning: this review contains spoilers for this season.
During the last week I've immersed myself in the newest political pot-boiler and re-make of 1990 British original House of Cards. I complied with Netflix and David Fincher's marketing ploy (on a PlayStation 3 which they peddle in the series, no less), and consumed the entire first season in the weekend of its release. By Monday morning I was re-watching star episodes including "Chapter 3" (Oh, how the English major nerd in me delights in the naming of these episodes as "chapters"). As is evident from my Top 10 Films of 2012, I usually love to peek in on low-lives, losers, and winos in my fiction; but with House of Cards I get my sleaze fix at fund-raising booze-fueled dinners with rhetoricians in designer suits speaking with a subtle Southern drawls.
The concept of the media manipulating public policy and pundit positions (and vice versa) is far from new when you consider political intrigue classics such as Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog or the writings of cultural critics the likes of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Jean Baudrillard, but I'd be hard pressed to identify a drama with more intriguing villains whom viewers will delight in despising; and may ultimately end up recognizing in their own local and national personal political players. I've reviewed the entire first season here as Netflix chose to release House of Cards in one go, and I can assume if you're reading this you watched it all in less than a week.
Frank Underwood (Keven Spacey) addresses the camera with audience-pleasing intensity.
Francis (Frank) Underwood is a man who surrounds himself with the strongest, even if they can be the strangest, personalities. With the ability to play all of these personality types with and against each other, he benefits despite the deep defining air of cynicism surrounding his assessments and necessary intuitive snap judgements. But even Underwood fails due to over-confidence from time to time. Watch for the scene where character Marty Spinella schools Underwood for manipulating his own wife (surrounded by CNN green screen, only further conveying the idea of politics as stage play). Other Underwood verbal gems include quotes such as, "I'm a white-trash cracker from a white-trash town that no one would even bother to piss on." Or, "I've got a dead, underprivileged kid in my pocket. What do you have?" Let's not forget his ability to sing a convincing version of "Dixie" as part of a quartet.
Much like her husband, and further proof that women can be just as powerful and manipulative as men in the politics and business game, audiences can focus on Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) as a ruthless non-profit organizer. Her firing of half her staff and closest advisor in the second chapter is the stuff of astounding drama. She embodies confidence and asserts to Underwood, "I don't like it when we leave things to fate." Underwood's marriage proposal went something akin to, "If all you want is happiness, say no. I'm not going to give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you'll never be bored." Further insights into their relationship abound when she explains this proposal to a former body guard: "He was the only one who understood me. He didn't put me on some pedestal." The two of them act as a formidable power couple. Only one character, Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) threatens any power Claire has, and it's from a legal standpoint.
Frank Underwood has other women in his life (and Claire Underwood other men), and the most prominent of these women is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). She may not have the experience and connections Underwood holds, but she's an integral and component to political covereages Underwood controls. Barnes' character evolves within the first season alone, and she could very well be the key to Underwood's undoing in the next season.
Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) proves the professional politics and journalism game is all about who you know and who you blow.
Other key players in the drama include Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) as Underwood's evil henchmen who doesn't believe in karma, but he wields the information he does have to lengths at which Underwood can not go due to his political persona. Stamper further proves Underwood's constant comments that power is much more important to money as Stamper sticks by Underwood's side without a doubt, and we as an audience don't know just why as of yet.
While a majority of the characters take turns manipulating each other, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) suffers on screen with his capacity to wield power alongside a powerful desire to abuse drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes. An especially telling scene in Chapter 7 has Underwood's cronies constructing a false personality for Russo so he can compete in his home state's gubernatorial campaign. Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly) plays his willing but weary girlfriend who refreshingly leaves the tortured affair when he chooses drugs over his children of a previous marriage, only to return to him once he attempts to clean up his act with a 12-step program. Russo is without a doubt the most tragic character of the series thus far. His downfall is painful to watch, and one almost feels relief at being let out of Underwood's uncaring grasp.
Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) plays a small but satisfying role as the White House Chief of Staff and one of the few people who has real sway over Underwood not only politically, but in terms of his personal emotions. As Underwood fights for the top of the power structure characters like Vasquez garner a lot of attention as we can only speculate what will happen to them once Underwood achieves the top seat.
Doug Stamper (Michael Kerry) remains loyal for as of yet unkown reasons.
Although this is a heavily character-driven program, I can't emphasize the amount of delightfully evil language this show provides. Underwood is harshly critical of everything, describing the community which lifted him to political fame, "I grew up here in the upcountry: Bibles, BBQs, and broken backs. Everything gets a little bit thicker this far south: the air, the blood, even me. I try to make it down here once a month. Every trip is a reminder of how far I've come. I hated Gaffney as a kid when I had nothin', but now I've come to appreciate it."
Some of the edgiest writing in the show appears in our current most prevalent form of communication: the ever intrusive text message. I use the third chapter as an example here again when Barnes and Underwood exchange text flirts in the midst of Underwood multi-tasking his home-town debacle, education policy, and spouse. Not only does Underwood discover his wife can garden (just when you thought he knew everything about everyone), but they speak dirty to each other in French. Barnes interrupts these married life revelations with obsessive texts to Underwood as to what their next media move will be, and she hints heavily that he fantasizes about her in sexual manner. Communication of this sort makes a rich, engrossing narrative in which viewers constantly question what will happen next, and some of the most important decisions are made with text interchanges.
Just as this scene closes and we're still absorbing the implications of each of the several exchanges we get the real treat of Underwood addressing his local church on the death of Jessica Masters, in the middle of which, after describing his father, he breaks in to let us know that it was perhaps best his father died at a young age as he was "just taking up space." The third chapter alone is just one example of great rhetoric in the show, but really, the entire series is a word-nerds dream come true due to the subtle, layered iterations.
Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) proves that politics is not the game for weak-willed idealists.
Other favorite soundbites and constructed rhetoric from the show I enjoy include the youth-friendly online magazine entitled "Slugline," Frank and Claire constructing the term "disorganized labor," and my all time favorite line from the show which describes Underwood's debate gaffe, "That was as clumsy as the Lee Harvey Oswald prison transfer."
While there's no way to catch them all in just one viewing, the show borrows heavily from real-life events to great effect. The character Jessica Masters who ends her life by crashing into the giant "peach" in Underwood's South Carolina home is a direct link to the YOLO debacle. The show even features real-life pundits such as CNN and other network talking heads. Look for the especially funny Glenn Beck look and act-alike in "Chapter 9."
Netflix challenges the definition of television viewing here as critics currently buzz about the quality acting, but the true test resides in the company's ability to follow-up with an equally nail-biting season two of power-scheming sex appeal. So far, with Spacey's face and finances in tow, I have no reason to believe they can fail.