Film & Television

Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’: Kevin Spacey, Fascinating Villain

house-of-cardsConstance Zimmer, Kate Mara, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly.

Step aside, Tony Soprano. Move along, Don Draper. There’s a new antihero in town.

You’ll find him in House of Cards.

Congressman Francis Underwood has got to be the most deliciously despicable character we’ve seen in a long time. He’s more ruthless than Soprano, more self-absorbed than Draper. In fact, you’d have to go back to Shakespeare’s Richard III to find such a vengeful villain.

House of Cards, the 13-hour series produced by and available only through Netflix, is pushing a contemporary trend—serious adult drama with an emphasis on powerful performances, historical accuracy, and unflinching inclusion of sex and violence. That violence is pushed to new heights—or should I say depths?

When we first meet Francis, a slick Kevin Spacey, he’s responding to a “hit and run” outside his elegant townhouse. The victim, a neighbor’s dog, lies injured, and Francis sends his bodyguard in to call the police.  Alone with the wounded animal, he explains (to us? to the dog?) that there are two kinds of pain: that which serves a purpose and that which does not. “I have no patience for useless things,” he concludes in his smooth South Carolina drawl. And with that, he efficiently puts the animal out of its misery with his bare hands.

Toto, we’re not in The West Wing anymore.

Based on an acclaimed BBC series that aired 25 years ago, House of Cards takes us deep into the machinations of the federal government: dirty deals, called-in favors, and brutal backstabbings. Underwood is a power player, capable of putting candidates in the White House and passing impossible bipartisan bills. And when he’s crossed? Well, suffice it to say, you don’t want to be on his bad side.

That’s exactly where the administration finds itself. Shortly after euthanizing the canine, Francis learns that he will not be nominated for secretary of state, as promised. “Circumstances have changed,” explains the chief of staff. Thus the rest of the series is set in motion: It’s revenge fantasy masterminded by a gentleman psychopath.

In Spacey’s beyond-capable hands, Francis Underwood (his initials are no accident) is a calculating charmer, rivaled only by his beautiful if sub-zero wife, Claire (a riveting Robin Wright). At first I was tempted to think of her as Lady Macbeth, the mastermind behind his villainy, but the Underwoods are equals in ambition and heartlessness. They consistently speak in first-person-plural as they recount triumphs and defeats.

Claire, dressed perpetually in slim gray, black, or white sheaths, runs a not-for-profit organization hopelessly knotted up in her husband’s political connections. Although spared the decision to end the dog’s life, she is perfectly willing to play God with others’ livelihoods: firing half her staff when a donation doesn’t come through without so much as a tear or a second thought.

Other than Claire, however, the women in House of Cards are a little disappointing. Politics is still a man’s world. While this may be an accurate picture of Washington, it would have been nice to see a more aspirational one (as we did in the final seasons of 24, with Cherry Jones in the Oval Office). 

Sex is very much a weapon, whether it’s wielded by Claire to woo a world-famous photographer whose work she needs to auction or in the hapless hands (and sundry other parts) of cub reporter Zoey Barnes.  Zoey (the compelling Kate Mara) is soulless in her own less experienced way, eagerly offering to sleep with someone for a major scoop. Her story picks up toward the end of the series as she’s forced to see that she was not exactly in control of her source. I hope we’ll see her evolve into a more layered character in Season 2 (which is already in the works).

House of Cards does offer us a woman chief of staff, played with gravitas by Sakina Jaffrey, although she comes across as a humorless executive secretary and is eventually undermined by her own motherhood. Underwood maneuvers another woman into the secretary of state position, but there’s not much “there” there. (Jayne Atkinson is wasted in the role.) There’s the ubiquitous hooker, who may or may not have a heart of gold; an idealistic congressman’s assistant, sleeping with her boss; and a beautiful activist, willing to lie in court to get back at Claire.

In House of Cards, it’s tough to find anyone to root for. Truly, when the most sympathetic character is a coke-addled alcoholic whoremonger, you know this nation’s in trouble.

House’s Washington is unnaturally shadowy and gray. Even the interiors feel gritty—from Zoey’s bug-infested walk-up to the Underwoods’ subdued yet “tasteful” manse. The show is by no means lacking in suspense or artistic vision. The first two hours were directed by Oscar-nominee David Fincher (The Social Network); additional directors include Allen Coulter and Joel Schumacher. If at times the show’s a little heavy-handed (Spacey turns directly to the camera with a wry observation at least a few times every episode), it’s also extremely addictive. I would know.

My name is Alex and I just came off a two-day, 13-episode bender.

Surprisingly, I didn’t even like the first episode: It was too bleak, too nasty. Had House of Cards been broadcast in the traditional way, I probably wouldn’t have gone back for a second helping. But, lo and behold, with Netflix streaming the series, the first episode was followed immediately by an option to watch the second . . . and the third . . . and then the fourth . . . Creatively, the episodes rolled right into each other, without the forced wrap-up or cliffhanger we expect from a television series. And soon it felt easier to say “yes” than “no.” (Add to this the fact that I was watching the series on my iPad, in quiet corners of the house while my husband and daughter went about life as usual, and the portrait of an addict is complete.)

The series grew on me to the point that I’m going through some withdrawal pangs today. If you already stream Netflix, I invite you to get hooked too. And if you aren’t a subscriber, House of Cards might be a very good reason to become one.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • patricia yarberry allen March 29, 2013 at 11:22 am

    My name is Pat and I too was addicted to my two days of House of Cards on Netflix. The Husband enjoyed the series as well but took command of the remote on Saturday morning at 3 am and said, “This is insane. You need some sleep.” Perhaps it was too much to watch all 13 episodes essentially straight through. I felt like I needed a spiritual bath after the last episode.

    At least I was really glad to be me and not any of these characters.
    Thanks for a wonderful review, Alex.