Before I review the actual show, I have to make sure that you, the reader, understand something about me. People that know me know that I have an almost unhealthy love of film. I watch film way too much, I talk about film way too much, and I buy films way too much. However, I do not carry the same feelings for television. Sure, I like to watch certain shows, like Suburgatory or Person of Interest, but up until recently, I never knew how good it could truly be.
Then I joined Netflix.
I started watching shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The West Wing, and through these shows I learned how great the art of television could be. Was it as cinematic or fulfilling as film in my eyes? No, but it was quite a bit better than I previously thought it could be.
Then Netflix started original programming with last year’s Lilyhammer, and now House of Cards.
When I first heard the premise of House of Cards a few months ago, I was intrigued. I always love a good Sorkin-ian political thriller. When I heard that David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and writer Beau Willimom (The Ides of March) were involved, I knew this was something worth watching. What I had not yet known was how much I was going to obsess over it.
The concept is that Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is the Democratic House Majority Whip. He ensured that President Walker (Michael Gill) would be elected into the position, and he expected the position of Secretary of State in return. Alas, this was not the outcome; Walker became president, but Frank did not become Secretary. The show starts off with this, and through the next thirteen chapters, it chronicles his plan to gain a highly prestigious position in the executive branch.
Since this is not the most feasible of all tasks, he needs help. He does not tell anyone outright what his exact plan is, aside from Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) who is Underwood’s chief of staff. What he does is use them, from Representative Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), to Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, sister to the infamous dragon-tattooed girl), to his own wife, environmental activist Claire Underwood (Robin Wright).
Not wanting to give too much away from the plot, I will steer clear from it for now. Although it is a quite fantastic story (props to Willimom for adapting the ‘90s U.K. original series to fit contemporary American Congress), it is not the best part of the show. What is the best part of the show is the fantastic dialogue Willimom writes, and how incredibly well Spacey delivers it. The show is essentially a showcase for both of them, each at the top of their respective games.
I am absolutely sure that this will be called an “incredibly cinematic” show by critics everywhere. They are absolutely right. “What does it mean that it is incredibly cinematic?” Oh, thanks for asking! I was just about to answer this! By ‘incredibly cinematic,’ I mean it looks and feels just like a film. Part of this cinematic feeling undoubtedly comes from the glorious cinematography done by Tim Ives (Girls), the chilling atmosphere created by the directors of various episodes (James Foley, David Fincher, Carl Franklin, Charles McDougall, and Joel Schumacher), and the massive $100 million budget for the first two seasons, which is being used in the best possible way.
Willimom manages to do something very unique: he can write something incredibly moving, completely deconstruct it, and build something entirely new from it. A great example of this is in Chapter Three, during a eulogy Underwood performs at a funeral for a teenager. He is doing this because he is indirectly responsible for the child’s death and wants to be seen in a positive light by the parents of the teen. What he does is talk for a good five minutes, an incredibly moving speech about the teen, how much it hurts him, and eventually he digresses towards speaking about his dead father. Most of the speech is about his father, actually. The viewer becomes wrapped up in Spacey’s emotional moment, something that had not been seen from his character at that point in the story. Then, Spacey looks into the camera, breaking the fourth wall as he does often, and explains to the audience how he had not cared much at all about his father. Then he gets back into character, and finishes the eulogy.
To be able to pull something like that off is absolutely amazing. Breaking the fourth wall in general is difficult to pull off successfully; usually when it is used, it seems like the writers do not know how to make the character convey feeling (Example: Man gets slapped by girl in bar, turns towards camera, and says, “Well, that makes me sad and angry at the same time! How conflicting!”) It usually does not work, but Spacey delivers the dialogue with a controlling demeanor, showing the true power he possesses.
Underwood breaking the fourth wall happens less frequently as House of Cards progresses as he becomes more and more paranoid about his plan. He trusts fewer and fewer people, the audience is among them. This happens after someone close to him betrays him, resulting in the atmosphere around him to shift. This paranoia follows him the rest of the season (it starts around Chapter Nine) and I expect it to continue in the following seasons.
Near the end of the season, Chapter 12, Underwood addresses the audience differently. There is fear in his voice, allowing the audience to see him vulnerable, something so rarely seen from him in this show. He no longer is the one who holds the cards; he has no control. This frightens him, forcing him to show his hand to the audience. Then, in the finale, he is in a church, and when talking to the camera, he addresses the audience as a deity. This seems to contradict what Underwood had firmly stated several times along the way to this point, showing that he is indeed a god-fearing man, but one who tries to hide it, even from himself.
This depth in Underwood’s character is not unusual for this show. In fact, it would be unusual to find any character being anything less than three dimensional. They each have their own subplot, they all have sensitive sides, they all have dark sides, they are all human. That is probably the most spectacular thing about the show, how unbelievably believable they all are. It is actually kind of scary, imagining all of what happens in the show happening in the real world, because it seems like it could potentially happen.