House of Cards has been a game changer for television.
Across its three (so far) seasons, House of Cards has drawn a healthy audience and lots of buzz for Netflix. It was the first show available via a streaming service to crack major awards nominations. And its success was a significant spur to other services developing original programming.
Actual success for House of Cards can be tough to measure. Netflix doesn’t release viewing numbers. But measured by its visibility within media circles and online buzz, the political drama has captured a lot of attention.
Warning, these reviews include some spoilers. Reviews of the later seasons also include spoilers for plot turns not explicitly called out in the reviews of the earlier seasons.
House of Cards: Season 1
When House of Cards opens, we meet Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The majority whip, Frank is feeling confident. He’s just been a key factor in the election of President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill), who’s promised to name Frank his nominee for Secretary of State. After more than two decades in the House, Frank (a South Carolina Democrat) is ready for a more prominent role.
When Walker doesn’t keep his promise, Frank is launched into a long-form and complex plan to get the power he wants another way. Frank’s elegant wife Claire (Robin Wright), who heads a non-profit called the Clean Water Initiative, is his closest ally. With loyal lieutenant Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) doing a lot of the dirty work, Frank goes about torpedoing the President’s new nominee for Secretary of State, replacing him with a candidate of his choice. Frank then co-opts Walker’s goal to quickly pass an education reform bill, maneuvering wary Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) in a complex web of political gamesmanship that has Frank taking on powerful teachers’ unions and fomenting a revolt within his own party en route to a victory that puts him in the spotlight.
Frank also co-opts young Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). Russo cares deeply about his home district, but his self-destructive impulses (drugs, booze, hookers) leave him susceptible to becoming Frank’s lackey and pawn. Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly) is Peter’s long-suffering staffer and girlfriend, who tries to keep him on an even keel, despite his frequent slips.
Frank’s schemes cohere by season’s end to land him close to real power: a shot at the Vice President’s office. To get there, he ruins a desperate Peter and rolls over whomever he can’t bribe.
Frank is abetted in his complex machinations by ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Languishing on a dead-end beat, patronized by her editor-in-chief and snubbed by more experienced rival Janine (Constance Zimmer), Zoe leverages an unlikely photo of Frank checking out her ass at a cultural event into a mutually beneficial association that eventually turns sexual. With Frank’s info, Zoe rapidly ascends to the top of the reporter food chain. She even turns an ugly confrontation with her editor and subsequent firing into a heralded move to an online news site. Janine eventually joins here there as an uneasy ally and her former copy editor Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) becomes her new lover/ally. By season’s end, with Frank seemingly on top, Zoe, Janine and Lucas are perilously close to unraveling his master plot.
Other prominent characters include Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), an influential lobbyist who once worked for Frank, now just as likely to be an adversary as an ally; Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow), a member of Frank’s security detail who comes under Frank and Claire’s sway; and Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan), the call girl involved in Peter’s downfall who comes under Frank’s control and forms an odd bond with Doug.
House of Cards is a very well-crafted series. Season 1 unfolds precisely, but never feels constrained. The larger story of Frank’s frustrated ambitions and the direction into which it propels him has a lot of moving parts, but the writers coordinate all the action expertly. There are plenty of twists and bursts of action to keep the proceedings lively and the 13 episodes have a real feeling of forward motion. House of Cards also declines to sentimentalize the tropes of partisan politics. The show operates in a world where the philosophical differences between the two major U.S. parties are more PR poses than actualities. It’s a grounded, realistic attitude that serves the material well.
House of Cards’ biggest asset is its stellar cast. Spacey does his best work in years as Frank. He’s smooth, charming and intelligent, but also a brawler who’s unafraid to get his hands dirty. Spacey does a nice job encapsulating Frank’s strategic gifts, but also, despite the confidence he imbues in the character, doesn’t make him infallible. Frank has his blind spots and by season’s end, acquires a foil in crafty billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), whom he can neither bully nor buy off. Moreover, Spacey handles the show’s liberal use of theatrical asides quite nicely. It’s a device that could be clunky in the wrong hands, but Spacey slips into that mode rather smoothly and they provide genuine insight into Frank’s thinking and character.
As good as Spacey is, Wright almost steals the show from him. She’s constructed Claire as one of the most fascinating women on television in recent memory. Intelligent, ambitious, classy and beautiful, Claire is no wilting flower. She and Frank are equal partners and House of Cards does a great job showing the ups and downs of that kind of union. Claire isn’t passive. She can be brutal when she needs to be, even rebelling against Frank when his goals don’t align with hers. She’s allowed moments of doubt, most viscerally dramatized in a brief fling with free spirited ex-lover Adam (Ben Daniels) that illuminates Claire’s choices and her acceptance of them. It’s an amazing showcase for Wright and she delivers over and over.
Mara is the crucial other component in Season 1 and she more than holds her own against veterans Spacey and Wright. She brings a real sense of modernity to the ambitious Zoe and makes her choices and maneuvers understandable. She has some great head-to-head scenes with Spacey and one especially memorable face-off with Wright that’s a highlight.
Stoll is fantastic as the ill-fated Peter. He holds audience sympathy, even as Peter makes one horrific choice after another. Connolly is rather good as the long-suffering Christina, showing some backbone, but also making viewers understand why a smart woman would put up with a trainwreck of a lover. Kelly, a character actor whose face will be more familiar to viewers than his name, provides some strong support to Spacey and brings depth and complexity to his “consigliore” role.
House of Cards gets so many things right in Season 1. It keeps its focus on its larger story, but provides room for some interesting character detours. It’s a strong narrative achievement that sets the series up for long-term success.
House of Cards: Season 2
As Season 2 begins, Frank is poised for a move to the White House inner circle. Zoe, Janine and Lucas work to uncover all of Frank’s machinations. To protect his victory, Frank bring Zoe’s story to a brutal end. That sends Janine running out of town and energizes Lucas to pick up the crusade against Frank.
Lucas’s single-minded focus on exposing Frank proves to be his own undoing. Doug recruits the FBI to trap Lucas in a plot involving ace hacker Gavin (Jimmi Simpson) that effectively silences him.
Free from that threat, Frank enters into a season-long contest of wills with Tusk for influence over President Walker. As the war between Frank and Tusk becomes increasingly brutal, blowing back on not only Claire, but even BBQ joint owner Freddy (Reg E. Cathey), Frank makes a desperate play. He unleashes a campaign finance scandal that could as easily be his own undoing as it is Tusk’s. But by season end, with Frank and the President at odds, the co-opted Remy is the key to a final stroke that brings Frank to his ultimate goal.
After leaving the CWI behind, Claire lands on the hot seat after an interviewer forces her to admit to a past abortion. To divert the heat, Claire reveals her experience as a college date rape victim, naming her attacker as a powerful general. Claire then takes up the fight of crafting a military sexual assault reform bill that puts her at odds with some powerful forces, even as it bonds her closely to Tricia Walker, the quietly unhappy First Lady (a first rate Joanna Going). Claire indulges in some of her most brutal tactics to save herself and Frank, including publicly sacrificing Adam. But by season’s end, the collateral damage of her actions begins to affect her.
House of Cards expands the cast in Season 2 with some excellent additions. The fantastic Molly Parker comes aboard as Jackie Sharp, a smart, tough Congresswoman whom Frank helps maneuver into his vacated whip post. But Jackie proves she was no pawn and mixes business and pleasure with Remy. Derek Cecil makes an impression as Seth Grayson, a wily political operator who pulls a bold stunt to land the job of Frank and Claire’s communications director. Terry Chen plays Xander Feng, a wealthy Chinese businessman wrapped up in the campaign finance scandal, while Mozhan Marnò holds her own as Ayla Sayyad, the tough reporter who breaks the story.
Spacey and Wright remain one of the best acting teams in current TV, doing excellent work separately and together. Spacey and McRaney are first rate in their Pyrrhic tug-of-war over the President’s favor. President Walker had been an almost ethereal presence in the first season, but given the opportunity to flesh him out, Gill does some very nice, subtle work, especially with Spacey and Going. As the writers peel back more layers of the complex Frank/Claire union, Spacey and Wright make it all add up. That includes a twist that sees the couple reward Meechum’s loyalty in a way that wouldn’t be condoned by your typical employee recognition program. Both do some excellent work with Parker, too, who gives each a strong opposing force to play against.
Really, House of Cards: Season 2 only drags when it turns to Rachel’s story. The ex-call girl suffocating in a dull life in exile isn’t exactly compelling television, nor does Doug’s fixation on her ever quite ring true. The writers probably intended Rachel’s left field romantic detour to be shocking, but it’s as predictable as it is uninteresting. The character becomes relevant near the end of Season 2, as part of Gavin’s play and with a plot turn that leaves Doug in jeopardy, but her story is mostly a frustrating momentum drag every time it pops up.
Otherwise, House of Cards packs Season 2 with a lot of intriguing turns and twisted character moments that keep the proceedings lively. The campaign finance story makes good use of the show’s setting and real world debates on the topic to generate genuine suspense and character stakes. And Frank’s risky gambit for the power he’s always wanted plays out in surprising and thrilling ways.
If you enjoyed Season 1 of House of Cards, there’s no reason not to keep going with Season 2.
House of Cards: Season 3
As Season 3 of House of Cards unfolds, Frank has assumed the Presidency, with Remy and Seth on his team and an amusing surprise in the VP role. Doug has been sidelined by his injuries and is desperate to get back into Frank’s inner circle. Facing lethally poor public approval ratings, Frank’s own party makes clear that they’re not going to support a re-election run. That blow comes as Frank struggles to get an ambitious jobs program enacted into law. Claire forces her way into a high profile role that creates more blowback for Frank.
Jackie is back onboard as an ally, at least early on, as Frank heads for a primary season showdown with Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), the solicitor general who was a key figure in Season 2’s campaign finance scandal. Frank is also dealing with complications from a Middle East peacekeeping mission and diplomatic wrangling with Russia.
New faces always pop up in House of Cards. Paul Sparks plays Tom Yates, an erratic novelist that Frank hires to write a book about him. Tom and Frank develop an odd bond, especially as Tom’s insights into Frank and Claire’s relationship unsettle the couple. Kim Dickens comes aboard as Kate Baldwin, a tough, respected senior correspondent who becomes Frank’s new press corps nemesis. Kate also strikes up a fling with Tom. Lars Mikkelson makes a strong impression as Viktor Petrov, the untrustworthy Russian president.
House of Cards runs into some rough waters early in Season 3. The pacing in the early episodes is off, badly at some points and episodes often suffer from a misplaced focus. The first episode is a particularly bad offender; more than half of it is devoted to Doug’s recovery from his injuries, while Frank’s story plays out in the background. The writers do a lot of telling instead of showing. Viewers never quite figure out how Frank got into such a hole with the public or his own party. The smooth political operator of the first two seasons is nowhere in sight. At times, the plots regarding a jobs program or diplomatic wrangling play out more like advocacy stories and not vehicles for the show’s conspiracy saga. It’s an approach ill-suited to House of Cards.
Removing Doug from Frank’s orbit for most of the season must have seemed like a good idea, but it doesn’t quite work, in spite of a nice late season twist. Doug is interesting mostly as a counterpoint to Frank and a deeper exploration of his personal life isn’t that compelling. Worse, House of Cards devotes far too much time to Doug’s inexplicable obsession with the missing Rachel, easily the show’s most unconvincing plot. Freakin’ Rachel. She doesn’t even appear in most of the season but her story still manages to drag down every episode it appears in. If you thought watching Rachel stumble through her pointless life was dull, watching other characters endlessly talk about her and try to find her is worse. Grafting hacker Gavin onto the story doesn’t help. Indeed, it leads to what is perhaps the show’s most offensive plot twist. Rachel is a plot point that should have been floating in the Potomac by the end of Season 1. Hopefully, the writers are done with that unnecessary distraction.
Happily, by midseason, when Frank & Claire take a memorable trip to Moscow, House of Cards starts to find its Season 3 footing. The plots start causing serious upheaval for Frank, Claire and their partnership, generating some first rate scenes for Spacey and Wright. Wright does some especially strong work as the writers delve more deeply into Claire’s troubled psyche. Those events create interesting ripples for the characters around Frank and Claire, especially Remy and Jackie. Promoting Marvel to a full-time cast member is a smart move. She’s dynamite as the hard-charging Dunbar and creates a credible opponent for Frank, looping in some realistic drama and tension for Doug and Jackie in the process. The writers even find a way to bring back Freddy to add a nice grace note to Frank’s story.
The season-ending showdown between Frank and Dunbar at the Iowa Caucus, complete with a full-out Claire meltdown, is House of Cards at its best. It’s packed with tension, drama and suspense. Even an unwelcome return from Rachel can’t mar the power of Frank and Claire’s climactic final scenes.
While House of Cards loses its way in the early going, Season 3 eventually develops the kind of dramatic pay-off the first two cycles provided. It just takes a lot more patience for fans to get to it.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on May 27, 2015.