All thirteen episodes of House of Cards – the first original series commissioned by Netflix – were released on February 1st, giving viewers the opportunity to watch the show at their own rate, without having to wait for a new installment each week. The story revolves around Congressman Francis Underwood – played by Kevin Spacey – the House Majority Whip for the Democrats, who helped win the election of Garrett Walker as President, but the new administration fails to keep their promise to make him the Secretary of State. This slight sets Underwood’s Machiavellian brain in motion to formulate a plan that will enable him to right this perceived wrong and – supported by his wife, Claire (Robin Wright) – Francis begins to manipulate all those around him: colleagues in Congress; the White House; and Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young journalist at the Washington Herald. Below I discuss events right up until the end of the season – if you have not watched the show do not read on, it is definitely worth sticking with through the first three of four episodes, as it took that long for my wife and I to get hooked – we then watched the rest of the season within a week.
Underwood’s plan is as brilliant as it is devious, starting by appearing to play the good soldier despite not being made Secretary of State, agreeing to support the new President’s agenda in the legislative branch. However, behind the scenes he works on getting the man chosen instead of him for Secretary of State, Michael Kern, discredited and getting an ally, Catherine Durant, nominated to the post. At the same time, Underwood makes himself indispensable to the Walker administration by ensuring that their Education Act not only passes, but does so with him as author and chief proponent, gaining Francis both the trust of the President and a position at front and center at the signing of the bill. In order to further his cause, Underwood ensures that both Congressman Peter Russo and Edward Meechum, an officer of the Capitol Police, are both indebted to him and give him their loyalty, the former by providing a literal get out of jail free card when he is arrested for drunk driving and solicitation; the latter by securing his job when he had left his post at the behest of Claire. It is Russo who becomes the most important pawn in Francis’ game of chess – initially by forcing him to act against the interests of his own constituency and allow the closing of a shipyard – a favour that Underwood uses to gain the support Terry Womack, the leader of the Black Caucus, who then backs a play against the Speaker which forces him to bring the Education Bill to a floor vote and results in Womack becoming the new House Majority Leader. Francis then convinces Russo to run for the Governorship of Pennsylvania – a crucial battleground the Democrats cannot afford to lose for fear of redistricting in advance of the midterm elections – not because Underwood believes that Peter would be a strong leader for the state, rather so that he can enable a relapse that forces him out of the race, to be replaced at a late stage by the former Governor and current Vice President, who misses the influence that the governor role had offered him compared to his mascot-like position in the executive branch. Despite a near derailment of his plan on a trip to St. Louis, (where he has been asked to convince billionaire Raymond Tusk to take the VP role Underwood himself desires, but in fact he is the one who is being vetted) Francis is able to successfully maneuver into a position where President Walker selects him as his new Vice President, making him a strong contender for the White House in 2020 and a mere heartbeat away from being the Leader of the Free World.
To say that Spacey’s performance is the highlight of the show is an understatement – he represents the anti-hero that has been the calling card of most of the great shows in the last decade – despite the their faults, we fear for the downfall of Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper and now, Francis Underwood. The way these characters are written and acted makes it impossible not to find yourself rooting for their survival and continued domination of their own realm. What makes House of Cards unique is that Underwood will often address the audience directly. Although that is something that other shows have done – notably in the similarly named, but completely different, House of Lies – having an accomplished stage actor doing it provides the show with a Shakespearean feel and allows the plot to develop in a different manner, as Francis makes us privy to our plans, as and when he deems it necessary for us to know.
The analogy to the works of Shakespeare is perhaps an obvious one given that Kevin Spacey has spent the last decade as the Artistic Director at the Old Vic theatre in London and the most recent role I saw him in was as Richard III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but it is more than his portrayal of Underwood that makes the show feel like a modern interpretation of the bard’s work. Parallels with Macbeth are clear, from the plan to take power by any means possible – though we discover that the goal for Francis, at least in season 1, reaches only to the Vice Presidency, not King Duncan’s crown; in Claire, Underwood has his very own Lady Macbeth (who he tells us that he “loves more than sharks love blood”); and the finale suggests they both suffer troubling thoughts over the death of Peter Russo, though the expired Congressman is yet to have the same effect that Banquo had in the Scottish Play.
As the title suggests, Underwood’s whole plan has the stability of a house of cards and, should any piece be moved, the whole thing could come tumbling down upon him. The most obvious threat to the Congressman is Zoe Barnes, with whom he had an illicit relationship – something that would be unlikely to do Francis too much damage, since Claire was aware of the affair and accepted it as part of his strategic plan. However, over time Zoe has come to understand the way Francis thinks leading her to more success in her investigative report into the demise of Russo. By the end season 1 – which I did not want to describe as thus in the title of this post, since it might be a spoiler to those who are yet to watch all thirteen episodes that the story has been set up for more – Barnes, along with former Herald and now Slugline colleague, Janine Skorsky, have worked out most of Underwood’s plan and motivation and represent the most obvious path to his downfall. Zoe has shown her willingness to overlook a potential story (that Claire was the person who ensured the Watershed Act would not pass, against the wishes of her husband), should she be provided with a better one (in that instance, the drinking relapse of Russo) and this may be the path that Underwood has to take to prevent Barnes from publishing something that would do him damage.
Another looming problem for the Underwoods comes from Gillian Cole, whose grass-roots organisation that provides clean water for people in the developing world, was acquired by Clarie’s own program, C.W.I (Clean Water Initiative). Like the relationship between Francis and Zoe, Claire and Gillian have moved from being allies who can assist each other, to people at odds and both Cole and Barnes know too much about this powerful couple for them to be able to simply dismiss them as a threat. Even though Gillian’s route to gaining a platform may have been false – Claire did not make the statements she is accused of in the pending court case – her unwillingness to compromise her beliefs and passion for the cause means she may be even harder to contend with than Zoe Barnes.
Any continuing success that Francis will have should he ascend to the Vice Presidency will come from the enduring support of Doug Stamper, his Chief of Staff and the only person who remained loyal throughout the season – doing the dirty work that was required for the plan to be successful, even if he appeared to have reservations over the repeated use of Rachel, whom he had helped get out of prostitution, or the demise of Russo. It is crucial that Underwood keeps Doug on his side, as he already knows the problems he faces from an opponent who has previously been a friend and ally, since Remy Danton – his former Press Secretary and now a lobbyist for the energy industry – has proven to be a formidable foe for the Congressman.
Overall, the show is written very well and the plot development was both well paced and revealed at a good rate – Underwood’s plan was not made known to us from the beginning, but as he moved all the pieces into place, he also told the audience the importance of each step and the consequences that would arise should his manipulation of a person prove unsuccessful. Production of the second season is underway and the show from the beginning has been intended to be at least that long, since Netflix ordered 26 episodes from the outset and thus there should be a good deal of continuity in the narrative. Having said that, I would watch all of next year’s episodes if they just involved Francis eating ribs at Freddy’s (played by Reg E. Cathey, who portrayed Normal Wilson – Carcetti’s right hand man – in The Wire) BBQ joint.