House of Cards: Chapter One

“Welcome to Washington.”

It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose:

Francis (Frank) Underwood is a winner. For twenty-two years, he has been the Representative from the Fifth District of South Carolina. He has helped the President-Elect become the President-Elect; he got the Chief of Staff her job; he is happily married to a beautiful woman who is as adept as politics as he. As a result of all this success, Francis has been tapped to be the next Secretary of State.

Until, that is, Walker (the President-Elect) and Vasquez (the Chief of Staff) pull the rug out from under Frank and tell him that he will not get the nomination because they need him to stay in Congress to push through their legislative agenda. Something tells me that these two are going to rue the day they made this decision. Frank is now out to bring down everyone whom he believes thwarted his ambition. The biggest hint we have how vicious Frank will turn out to be is a quick look at his initials.

Claire Underwood is Frank’s wife and runs the Clean Water Initiative, a non-profit. The ultimate Washington power couple, these two are a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Claire is as calculating as Frank and as determined. We learn everything we need to know about her as we watch her anger at Frank for not telling her that he lost the nomination. She is not upset that he didn’t get the job; she is not upset that her organization will not get a huge sum of money it’s been promised; she is upset that she has been left out of the loop. Frank understands this and apologizes, which upsets her even more. “My husband doesn’t apologize, even to me.” Furious that she can’t see his anger, Frank throws over a table shattering everything on it as she leaves the room. Her smile as this happens is chilling. Lady Macbeth has nothing on this one.

Frank needs a member of the press to help him achieve his goals and he finds what he’s looking for in Zoe Barnes, the very young, very ambitious reporter who is desperate to stop writing puff pieces. Their relationship, right from the start, is layered and fascinating. She tries to use her sexuality; he couldn’t care less. She wants the story handed to her; he mentors her to get to the answers. Of course, he literally hands her the biggest story of her career to date, but he does so leaving her with no allusions. She is on her own; if she tips the boat, he will only save himself.

More importantly, perhaps, than either his wife or his press connection, Frank needs his buffer or errand boy. He needs that person who will do what he wants when he wants it done, no questions asked. Someone he “controls completely.” He finds that person in Peter Russo, another member of the House and a man who is his own worst enemy. Sleeping with every young woman in town and with a police record that includes almost every minor offense available to him, Peter has been rescued from a DUI by Frank and Doug, only to fall into their trap. Not only is he now working for them, Christina, his secretary with benefits, is already suspicious of her boss. Peter has few, if any, allies.

As set up in this pilot, the story is taking place over three arenas. The first and most obvious is the political arena, filled with Frank’s colleagues. It is truly gladiatorial and I am looking forward to more of the machinations as these people begin to play off each other. The second is Claire’s business, closely tied to her husband’s success and obviously filled with people who work at a non-profit because they believe in clean water, not necessarily what Claire believes in. Finally, we have the Washington Herald, the newspaper where Zoe works. It, too, is filled with people who are angling for position and for a byline above the fold. None of the three is a very happy place.

What sets this series apart from other political dramas is the character of Frank, played to perfection by Kevin Spacey. He is calm; he is measured, he is menacing; but, most of all, he is brilliant and he knows how to play the game. Through a series of soliloquies, we as the audience are invited to be an intimate part of this game. By breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the camera, we become conspirators in Frank’s game. Frank confides in us; he gives us information that makes us better informed than those around him, but not better than he is; he establishes trust with us, much in the way he does with Zoe. We, as the audience, are on his side because we are part of his inner circle without being used by him.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that Frank is not a reliable narrator. He only tells us what he wants us to know and what he does tell us is tainted by his arrogance and his thirst for revenge. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the inauguration. Frank is talking to us about how when history looks back, his face will be at the edge of the frame. In fact, he is out of frame. The camera needs to pan so that he can smugly wave to us.

A fantastic pilot. I instantly clicked on the second episode. Three and half out of four shattered glass vases.

It’s How You Play The Game:

Netflix is trying to change the game. Instead of creating a series and then issuing one chapter or episode a week, they released all thirteen episodes of House of Cards in one go. As a result, there was a great deal of talk in the media about whether this was the new way to view television. Would people marathon (some are calling it binge view) all thirteen episodes, or would they watch one or maybe two at a time.

Finally, does it really matter? When one buys or downloads a book, everyone who does so reads the book differently. Some read it through in one sitting; some read it over the course of a few days; some over the course of a few months. The challenge for those of us who write for a television site is how to review a show like this.

We could review it like a book, reviewing the entire story in one go. We could review it the same way it was released; review all thirteen episodes and release all the reviews at once. We could review each episode separately, releasing them as they are written.

You will find all three options online, but I have chosen the third. For me, the first option does not allow for enough detail and the second is too cumbersome. To be completely transparent, I will review the show as I watch it. Although I have seen the second episode, that is as far as I went before I made the decision to review it. I have chosen to do this so that I do not inadvertently foreshadow or spoil upcoming events.

This choice also puts a bit of an onus on you as the reader. While I assume that at least some of you have seen the entire series, please be aware of the breaks in the action and try not to foreshadow or spoil, either. As much for other readers as for me. I thank you in advance.

Trump Cards:

-- Francis is the House Majority Whip. This means that his party has the majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Third in rank only to the Majority Leader and the Speaker, the Whip is a highly powerful position. As Francis says, “[he keeps] things moving in a Congress chocked by pettiness and lassitude.”

-- Although it is never stated, we learn from Frank’s webpage that he is a Democrat.

-- The opening credits are superb. Not only is the music haunting, we get both beauty shots of Washington as well as sights that are much less beautiful. An effective way of signaling the two sides of this city.

-- The priest at the Cathedral preaching on humility was a great touch. One does not become a priest at the Washington Cathedral without playing a game or two of one’s own.

-- The details in the show are extremely well done and thought out. When Zoe walks past Frank at the Kennedy Center, flashbulbs go off. Easy to miss the significance the first time through the episode. At the tail end of the episode, we see that Steve’s people have caught the driver of the blue Camry, the car responsible for hitting the dog at the opening. I had forgotten about the dog until that moment.

Speaking Frankly:

Frank: “I have no patience for useless things.”

Frank: “For some, it’s simply the size of the chair.”

Frank: “The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”

Frank: “They have done us a great favor, Doug. We are no longer bound by allegiances. We serve no one. We live by one rule and one rule only -- never again will we allow ourselves to be put in such a position.”

Frank: “When I carve him up and toss him to the dogs, only then will he confront that brutal, inescapable truth: ‘My God, all I ever amounted to was chitlins.’”

Christina: “You’re not going to just toss me aside for some slut straight out of Vassar.”
Oh sweetheart, of course he is. He already has.

Zoe: “Oh, Ryan, you’re so sweet. Really. But, if I was gonna fuck you, you’d know.”

Claire: “We are a charity, but not for our employees.”

Frank: “I never make such big decisions so long after sunset and so far from dawn.”

Christina: “You cannot keep doing this, Peter. It’s going to catch up with you.”
Peter: “I know.”

Claire: “I like irons, but I love fire.”

Frank: “Honestly, Peter. Do you really think these things just take care of themselves?”
Peter: “You! It was just this one time, Frank. I swear to God.”
Frank: “Then you must hold God in very low esteem, because we both know that’s a lie.”

Frank: “Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a great review, ChrisB.

I did not watch the episodes in one session but I was so hooked that I watched the season in only a week or so. I love to read your reviews and maybe I watch it again as you go along.

It`s a great series and very well acted, I think. I was suprised that I liked it so much although the characters aren`t really likeable. I love that Frank is talking to us.

Mark Greig said...

If you enjoyed this then you should definitely watch the original series with Ian Richardson. Mesmerising television.

Anonymous said...

Loved the uk series as well..This one is also quality stuff. Spacey is really amazing and the rest of the cast are great. Need to give the uk series a rewatch. Great review.
Anna

sunbunny said...

I'm not sure. I'm just not sure. To me, the pilot moved slow as molasses and the political intrigue just didn't seem that intriguey. I'll keep watching, but I was definitely not crazy about this pilot.

I don't think they explain things very well, either. I follow politics closely, so not only did I know exactly what a Minority Whip was, I was able to figure out Underwood was a Dem just from context. Yay me! Anyway, I'm not sure someone who wasn't so steeped in MSNBC would be able to make heads or tails of this. Or maybe I'm just underestimating the intelligence of my fellow American citizens.

Oh and I find push up bra plus v-neck shirt to be incredibly effective, for the record. ;)

sunbunny said...

So I went to watch Episode 2 but I'd forgotten too much so I had to rewatch this one first. I liked it much better this time. I think the opener with the dog really turned me off last time, but this time I was better prepared. I especially enjoyed the shot of Frank in front of the hand sanitizer. That was clever.

Josie Kafka said...

This seems good.

ChrisB said...

UPDATE: I am watching the directors's commentaries in advance of reviewing the second season that kicks off today.

This one was great. It discussed the casting decisions, why the various locations were chosen, and other various tidbits of trivia that make these commentaries so much fun.

The director could have cleaned up his language a bit, but that's a personal issue. I recommend this commentary if you enjoy them.

Billie Doux said...

I'm coming late to the game because I just didn't think this series was for me. It still may not be for me, but this first episode was certainly intriguing. (Although I almost turned it off during the opening scene where Frank killed the injured dog. At least they didn't show the dog.)

Frank's marriage is fascinating. So is Frank. The way he keeps breaking the fourth wall and confiding in the audience helps keep him from seeming too monstrous. Even though he is.