Swimming with the Big Shark in ‘House of Cards’

No one does cool contempt quite as well as Kevin Spacey, and the role of Frank Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards seems custom-built for him. Underwood is a long-time member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Democrat from South Carolina and the House Majority Whip, and he swims in the murky waters of Washington power-mongering as gracefully as if he had sprouted gills and a caudal fin. He often addresses the camera directly, as in a Shakespearean monologue, one of the many ways we know that it’s Frank’s world and everyone else just lives in it.

Frank has the ideal mate in Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), who runs a charity and almost matches him in cold-bloodness. Although their relationship seems at times more professional than personal, Frank assures us that he loves Claire “more than sharks loves blood.”

When we first meet Frank, he’s efficiently snapping a dog’s neck, and although it’s a mercy killing, it tells us to expect in him someone for whom tender sentiment is not a primary consideration. Claire is a bit more complex. Early in the show, we see her fire half her staff, reminding them that working for a charity (something about supplying clean water to the poor in the developing world) doesn’t mean that they are entitled to treatment from her that could in any way be considered charitable. On the other hand, Claire is not quite as hard-boiled as Frank: over the course of the 13 episodes, we see hints that she is able to consider decisions from a moral, rather than purely practical, point of view, and also that it is possible for her to be hurt. Frank, not so much.

Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) is newer to the game of hardball politics, but she’s determined to get to the top of her chosen game, and is not afraid to exploit men who think with their little head (and notes the advice of a somewhat older female journalist, who tells Zoe that if she’s going to sleep her way up the ladder, to be sure to aim for the top). The cast is filled out with an able crew of actors, including Michael Kelly as Frank’s cold-blooded assistant Doug Stamper, Corey Stoll as an ambitious but well-meaning Representative from Pennsylvania who doesn’t quite understand the game he is playing, and Sakina Jaffrey as Linda Vasquez, the White House Chief of Staff.

House of Cards is riveting. Any observer comfort you may feel flies out the window the first time Spacey directly looks you in the eye and lets you know what’s going on, just to give you a little background on the senator he’s about to skewer, and just in case you’re not keeping up with him. You’ll be on an intense ride with the complicated plot’s many twists and turns, and you’ll enjoy some fine cinematography by Eigil Bryd and Tim Ives, and the work of some excellent actors that may be unfamiliar to you. The script quality is not flawless: although the crew of writers (eight are credited on imdb.com) mostly did an excellent job of Americanizing the BBC miniseries (and novel by Michael Dobbs) on which House of Cards is based, there are the occasional clinkers (the Philadelphia Navy Yard closed in the early ’90s) and the dialogue is a mix of memorable lines and others that over-reach for memorability.

The biggest flaw with House of Cards is that we don’t learn much about any of the characters, but for Frank and Claire, who are purely ambitious animals and well matched in their desire to circle their prey quietly before they’re well-timed attack. They’re not likable, but they’re fascinating. Watching House of Cards is a bit like watching a sporting event when you don’t care at all which team wins, you’re just there for the sport.

Netflix introduced House of Cards with much ballyhoo, touting it as something new in the world of dramatic entertainment. In some ways it resembles a television series, with self-contained episodes, each a bit under an hour, but then it’s more like a very long movie, with the 13 episodes all parts of the same whole. More importantly, all 13 episodes of the first season were released at once, tempting those with a streaming Netflix subscription to binge-watch their way through a weekend. That’s the ideal way to watch House of Cards—it’s subtle at times (and not so subtle at others), and who’s doing what to whom and how their doing it requires close watching. It’s addictive enough that once you start watching, you won’t want to stop until you’ve reached the end.

There are absolutely no extras included with the DVD set of House of Cards, which seems like a real miscalculation in terms of sales—after all, you can watch it streaming for much less money than it costs to buy the DVDs. Maybe the DVDs are intended for the regions where streaming Netflix is not available—who knows? The visual and audio transfer are both fine, and I will give one shoutout to the DVD set for packaging; it comes in a nifty foldout case with black-and-white shots of the cast members in artful poses that are particularly resonant once you’ve seen the series.

RATING 8 / 10