Initially, I thought I’d be able to write about this show without containing spoilers. It turns out that I was wrong. So, I’ll try to do this by writing a brief spoiler-free section and then continuing on into heavy, heavy spoilers.
House of Cards is billed as being a show about Francis “Frank” Underwood and how he gets revenge on those who cross him. However, it’s really about his all consuming mission to attain power, within the world of politics, at almost any cost. When the series begins, Francis is serving as Whip in congress and has just been overlooked to take the position of Secretary of State. Rather than letting that stop his upward movement, he takes straight to trying to destroy the man tapped to be the new speaker. He begins a process of planting ideas, manipulating people, and the media so that he can take the job that he was promised or maybe something more. Alongside him is his wife, Claire, a woman who’s every bit as scheming and manipulative as he is. However, these two are a tandem to be reckoned with as they work to move themselves up the ladder of power.
So often I hear people rave about a show and watch it only to be disappointed when the show inevitably can’t live up to the hype. This was not one of those situations for me. It was actually the opposite. I found myself thinking, “why haven’t I heard more people talking about this show?” The Underwoods have established themselves as one of my favorite fictional couples in any medium. I can’t imagine two people who can simultaneously be so terrible for everyone else while being so great for each other. The best part is that they’re both, for all intents and purposes, terrible people who are completely okay with how terrible each other are (and actually encourage it). I have no idea how they became so marvelously twisted but they’re great characters who are played excellently by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. There are some other really good performances as well. My favorites being: Kate Mara (Zoe), Michael Kelly (Doug), Michael Gill (President Walker) and Corey Stoll (Peter Russo).
I feel like this show has some of the most consistent and deliberate story telling I’ve experienced in any series. Each episode is labeled as a chapter, which is appropriate because the story has a very book-like feel to it. Even though, it’s well woven together into one larger tapestry, each 2 to 3 episodes of the show is it’s own miniature story arc, almost like the series was written as a series of 2 1/2 hour long movies. The distinctive nature of each set of episodes makes things really easy to follow even though some of the story elements are complex. This is a show that’s had a really strong first two seasons that are well deserving for the numerous nominations and awards it has received. With the 3rd season currently being filmed, there’s no time like the present to get caught up on this great show.
Now that I’m in the “spoilers” section, I wanted to talk about a few specific things that have happened in the show that have really caught my attention. One thing that I really appreciate about the show is that the characters really are true to what they are, even when it flies in the face of what I’d expect from a television show. The most common examples of this are the moments when Francis kills those who threaten him when you’d expect him to be held back by some sentimentality or emotions or general compassion. However, the first moment that surprised me was the moment when Frank cheats on his wife or, rather, when I saw her reaction to him cheating.
Even though Frank and Claire both came off as cold and calculating (or borderline sociopaths) I was expecting them to drop the facade when one of them was actually betrayed by the other. I expected Claire to throw a stereotypical TV-wife temper tantrum and for Frank to have to spend his time mending his marriage. Of course, that’s not at all what happened. Not only did Claire already know about the potential for an affair with Zoe, she spoke of it plainly as a tactic for Frank to use the girl to his advantage. That was the moment I realized it: these two are in it together and are truly down to do absolutely anything. In the same way that people say that sharks are a perfectly evolved killing machine, these two are the epitome of a modern political couple. Everything around them is a disposable resource and they have an almost single minded focus on success.
Still, I thought that there were lines that they weren’t willing to cross or people that they valued. I still might be right about that but I’m not good at figuring out who they value. Even though I knew that Frank was using Zoe and Peter but he offered them so much direction that I thought he would at least view them with enough compassion to value their lives. Still, it wasn’t terribly surprising that Frank offed Peter because of the corner he had painted him into. In some ways, killing him may have actually been the most merciful thing he could’ve done (although maybe not the safest thing, long term). The real shocker was when he suddenly and violently disposed of Zoe. Claire makes a similar gesture when dealing with her former lover, Adam. Claire has also has a moment of shocking ruthlessness when she threatened a pregnant woman saying, “I will let your baby rot inside you”. Both of them show that they won’t hesitate to bury another human being (literally or figuratively) if either of them feel threatened. Even more chilling than Frank killing Zoe was his monologue to the audience after he does it. That was the point in the show when I realized that there may not be a line he wasn’t willing to cross even if it cost someone else their life.
To be fair, the Underwoods have shown that they at least have the capacity for loyalty, if not compassion. So far Doug, Freddy and Meechum have all found themselves receiving aid or trust from Frank which, I would say, makes them a part of his inner circle. The Underwoods helped Meechum after using him as a scapegoat for their own plans. Even so, you’d have to say that they like him seeing as how they invited him in to that weirdly foreshadowed three-way. Freddy was another interesting case. Frank ended up cutting ties with Freddy even though he tried to help him. The nature of that relationship was a bit murky, in the way that male relationships can be. The one thing that I did notice is that Frank referred to Freddy as “one of our own”. So, whether he did truly view him as a friend or as just a servant that made up his empire, he did value him enough to try to aid him. In the upcoming season, I suspect that Doug could find himself in a situation where Frank could have the ability to cut him loose. You could argue that the inquiry that led up to Frank becoming President might’ve been that time, but Frank was never pushed into a corner where he would need to give up Doug. Trying to find the instances that show that either of the Underwoods could care about another person has become an interest of mine while watching the show. Mostly because I feel like their lack of broad compassion is part of what makes them so unique, and so dangerous.
Through all of this, I can’t help but be impressed with their ability to plan and seize the moment. Franks’ managed to become the President of the United States without ever having a single vote cast for him for the office. Claire kept her rape a secret for years only to use it as a shield when she was trapped into talking about her own abortion(s). These two are masters of socio-political warfare and may have one of the most mutually beneficial relationships I have ever seen. They have redefined the way that I think of a perfect couple in TV and movies and have made for a great show to watch.