Netflix’s new series House of Cards is a clear attempt to craft a show to rival broadcast favorites like AMC’s Mad Men or HBO’s Game of Thrones – or anything HBO has produced, for that matter. While many broadcast networks seek to produce reality television, talent contests, or chipper comedies, cable networks – most especially the aforementioned three-letter networks – have hollowed out a niche in high quality programming that focuses on character development and period set-design, achieving a result closer to film than traditional television. And in most ways, House of Cards is a fitting entrant to the ranks.
House of Cards centers around Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a representative from South Carolina and Democratic Majority Whip, who alternately charms and harms his way through Washington in a grand game of political chess. Underwood is a polite Southern gentlemen whose menace is veiled by a disarming drawl and whose intentions and allegiances remain murky to even the viewer.
Underwood is not only the admirable and unlikeable protagonist of the series; he is also the narrator, who periodically steps out of the action to address the camera on some Beltway secret or interpersonal truism. Spacey plays the role with understated aplomb, deftly shifting between backslapping and backstabbing. His motivations are often unclear, as he seems to seek power for its own sake. He is not driven by money, but he is not inspired by the people. His political gamesmanship and office-seeking seem efforts unto themselves, exercises in the thrill of power, and the exhilaration of control. Several reviews have compared Underwood to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a man high on the food chain, driven by grandeur and intoxicated by power. To this end, Underwood might also be Iago, in his “motiveless malignity,” to borrow Coleridge’s term, a man driven by control simply for its own sake, and a politician who “is not what he is.”
But perhaps more intimidating than Underwood himself is his wife, Claire, played with icy sexuality by Robin Wright. Again, as other reviewers have observed, Claire is the Lady Macbeth to Underwood’s Thane of Cawdor. She is Underwood’s partner in crime, his accessory in character assassination, and even the co-writer of his political agendas. Her use of the word “we” to describe their mutuality is consistently jarring – even down to her inquiry if the affair in which her husband engages is “good for us.” Claire is even more of an enigma than her husband; she runs a charity, a clean water initiative, but ruthlessly acquires other charities and lays off employees. Her design taste of the organization is sooner suited to a Chelsea art gallery than a bootstrap charity, and her solicitations of donations are, like her husband’s actions, exercises in political games and psychological manipulation. Wright’s performance is chillingly reserved; where Spacey delivers a disarming southern drawl, Wright frightens in her aloofness.
Somewhere in between – or more specifically, underneath – these two characters is reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who plays the requisite feisty, hoodie-wearing blogger who tweets and sleeps her way to the source. There is Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s aide and right-hand man carries out his boss’s dirty work. But, like most characters on the show, Stamper is multidimensional; he is not the unquestioning sidekick, but the philosophical and secretive assistant, whose complicity is, like his boss’s motivations, nebulous. Rounding out the cast is Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), an honest, but substance abusing Congressman and gubernatorial candidate whose ambitions are alternately assisted and undermined by Underwood.
A number of reviewers have pointed out that House of Cards almost calls out for Sorkin-esque writing. It’s true; there are no high-caliber, machine-gunned speeches on political doctrine or personal achievement. The takedowns are not quite as cutting as they could be. Even the profanity – and there is plenty – does not carry the same sort of incisive weight that, say, Glengarry Glen Ross does. Underwood’s occasional asides verge on unnecessary; his actions speak for themselves, and his soliloquies tend to detract from the subtle precision of his machinations.
House of Cards is unlikely to be Netflix’s Mad Men or The Sopranos. But it’s not far off. The series has a sharp edge, strong dialogue, and sufficiently compelling characters that Congressman Frank Underwood just might temporarily unseat Don Draper on my queue. Netflix has crafted a highly competitive, character-driven series that gives traditional cable a good run for its money. And perhaps a trip from Madison Avenue to the Beltway might just be a good move.