House of Cards, Season 1 | Hubris & Corruption in the Nation’s Capital

Michael Kelly, Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards (photo: Patrick Harbron, Netflix)

Except for his lame southern accent, Kevin Spacey is the master of “ruthless” as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood in House of Cards. Underwood welcomes us into his world with the Shakespearean technique that he calls upon often in this series, by addressing the camera to confide in the audience. This draws us closer to our Machiavellian protagonist, which makes us want to take a shower. But Underwood is persuasive and we’re hooked. As the series opens, he’s walking at night and hears the cry of an injured dog that we never see, that’s been hit by a car. Underwood tells us there are two kinds of pain: the pain that makes you strong and the useless pain that just makes you suffer. “I have no patience for useless things,” he says, as he silences the dog and puts it out of its misery.

Based on the British novel by Michael Dobbs, House of Cards was crafted into a 12-episode BBC series in the 1990s, starring Ian Richardson. This tale of hubris and corruption in the House of Parliament has now been re-imagined stateside in our own nation’s capital, directed by David Fincher and scripted by former political aide Beau Willimon. This American version, offered exclusively by Netflix in February 2013, carries even more tension than its British predecessor about the Washington politicians we love to hate. The cast is superb, the script is electric, and we care deeply about each of the many memorable characters, including the lead villain, Frank Underwood.

As the series opens, Underwood is passed over for Secretary of State by the new President, after he worked hard to help him win the White House. But screwing with Underwood is a bad idea. House of Cards is the story of revenge of a powerful Congressman who thinks like a five-star general without a soul. The cunning Underwood poses as the heroic problem-solver while manipulating and undermining his cohorts, tossing anonymous grenades into the new administration to punish his betrayers and to strengthen his own position for the future.

Underwood doesn’t operate alone. Robin Wright plays Claire, his loyal wife and confidante with a heart of steel. They are a tight, conspiring team that share a single, intimate cigarette every evening. Then there’s Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s loyal assistant, who executes every instruction without question. And Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), the ambitious cub reporter for The Washington Herald, who strikes a devil’s bargain: she prints whatever Underwood tells her without revealing him as the source.

House of Cards is an imaginative story teeming with details that bring the many characters to life and make each scenario a vital part of a gripping story. This is theater at its finest about the dark, familiar culture of Washington. Be prepared: watching one episode per night is never enough.   A