House of Cards is now live and streaming. I’ve been looking forward to this for some time and I intend to watch it all, probably at least twice. This article comes after I finished the fourth episode. I’m going to my best to avoid spoilers and just talk about tone, performance, plot execution and all that good stuff. Look for a follow up next week for a more in depth (and probably spoilery) discussion.
Based on an incredibly well regarded British series of the same name, this remake casts Kevin Spacey in the role of Frank Underwood, the U.S. House Majority Whip, the man “whose job it is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving” in his own words.
At the series outset Frank has hitched his wagon to that of a newly elected president. Having done everything right it’s expected that he’ll be nominated for Secretary of State as a reward for his work.
But then that doesn’t happen. The president-elect nominates another man, younger and with little experience. Even more irksome to Frank, the president-elect himself didn’t break the news. He had his chief of staff do it for him, something Frank takes as a sign of great disrespect.
He spends the day alone thinking on what to do. He arrives home to his wife who chastises him for not calling. They do things together she points out, and they are most definitely better as a team even if their relationship seems to be based mostly on mutual advancement. Despite this, when Frank tells us that he loves Claire “more than sharks love blood” it’s easy to believe.
Frank spends the night thinking on what to do next and then he decides: he’s going to take the sons of bitches down. From here the manoeuvring starts. He starts working on playing people against one another, promising one thing while delivering another, and all the while playing the part of the loyal team member.
You know what? It’s all fucking brilliant. When Kevin Spacey is on his A Game there’s very few other actors I can say I find as thrilling to watch, and Kevin Spacey is on his A Game here. Robin Wright plays Franks wife Claire and she’s great too. They are the perfect couple in so many ways, equal partners in a relationship built on pursuing power.
Kate Mara plays one of the shows other central characters, the gutsy young reporter who forms a mutually beneficial relationship with Frank: he passes her information which either enhances his, or damages an enemy’s, reputation and with that information her career is greatly advanced. She’s good. I feel like lately people overlook Kate Mara in favour of her sister Rooney (admittedly, has had some amazing performances) but she’s more than capable. Her character has the least surprises to offer as it’s the most stereotyped in the show but she’s doing well with it.
But who am I kidding, this is the Kevin Spacey show. Everything about him is magic. Whether he’s dressing down a rival or buttering up someone he needs or explaining his motives to us by breaking the fourth wall –a technique that’s pretty hard to pull off this well– it’s just a pleasure to watch him talk and the dialogue he’s working with is witty and acerbic (and yes, he gets to use the now famous quote from the original plus a few new better ones). Spacey is able to shift gears between the cynical and self serving Frank and the charming, well meaning utterly sincere persona Frank puts on as a politician, often cutting away from the latter to deliver a short soliloquy to us as the former, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.
The story is compelling as well. I think that releasing the entire series at once was a smart move in the end as it makes the series feel more like a 13 hour movie than 13 one hour episodes. In the story we get to see first hand all the wheeling and dealing and back room shenanigans that make Washington, and let’s face it probably every other democratic government, tick. I don’t know what’s worse that it’s some of it’s so outlandish that it’s hard to believe or that none of it is so outlandish that I can’t believe it.
One other major concern I had was that David Fincher directed the first two episodes. Not that that’s a bad thing, but rather that following episodes might not be up to the same level of style and technique. I’m happy to report that’s not the case. Fincher’s two episodes certainly look and feel like David Fincher directed them, but the following two (directed by James Foley) keep the same tone and feel going if not that certain David Fincher look.
All in all the first third of this series is fucking great and, more than that, I feel like this might be the start of something. Netflix goal is “to become HBO faster than HBO can become Netflix“. That’s a pretty ambitious goal but if they’re able to keep this up then I don’t see it being a problem. If they keep investing in big chunks (House of Cards was given a 2 series, 13 episode per order) then more’s the better. Guaranteed runs are risky for the studio but they’re great for the creator and the viewer.
So what are you doing still reading this? Go keep watching. I have a few more to go and once I’m done the whole series I’ll post further and more detailed thoughts.