Recurring Cast: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Kristen Connolly, Sakina Jaffrey
A car screeches to a halt, a dog squeals. The street bursts into action, a focused Kevin Spacey jogs out onto the street, in his pyjamas, but looking no less imposing. A dog has been hit by a speeding car and is whimpering on the street. Kevin Spacey tells the crowd to go and get help and the moment he is alone, he looks into the camera, directly into the audience’s eyes, and talks us through how pain is either character-building or pointless, as he squeezes down on the dog’s windpipe and puts it out of its misery, with the calculating, heartless logic of a machine. And this is the quickest I have ever fallen in love with a TV show.
Frank Underwood is a power-hungry Congressman that has risen through the ranks of American politics, using his powerful persuasion skills and his ruthlessness to get his way. However, after making sure that Garrett Walker gets elected as the President, on the understanding he could get the job as Secretary of State, President Walker backtracks on his agreement, thinking Underwood not right for the position. In that one moment of betrayal, Underwood gets together with his wife, Claire, and resolves to slowly, but surely, destroy Garrett Walker from the inside. The best thing about House of Cards is the character of Frank Underwood. House of Cards is a slower beast to most TV shows, so we need a figure that we don’t mind spending the time with. Nasty politician, Underwood, is easily that man. Most shows focus on a good guy, triumphant against the villains of the world; it is almost the first rule of storytelling. However, with House of Cards, there is no denying that we are on the side of the villain this time around. Underwood has few redeemable qualities, will turn on your second favourite character in a heartbeat, and his sole intention throughout the entire series is professionally destroying those who have wronged him. Yet we are on his side all the way, having too much fun breaking these rules of television and supporting this guy, as he goes on a destructive warpath. It is fun watching his little schemes play out and his enemies foolishly try to cross him. Sure, we don’t quite have the stomach for mercilessness as Underwood, so when we do spend some time with a victim in the aftermath of his ruining, we do begin to question Underwood, yet his honest brutality is always appealing enough to make us get right back on his team again. He really is a persuasive politician.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the awe-inspiring Kevin Spacey. Never before has an actor attacked the screen with such fervour and passion, embodying this horrible yet sophisticated monster of a man with every part of his body. It is the mannerisms, the way his South Carolina accent wraps itself around a certain word. But above all else, it is the eyes, fixed and focused, never wavering, showing the dedication of a man who will not be swayed. He is the reason you are here, to see what the true fuss is about when it comes to this much whispered about Spacey performance, and you will not leave disappointed. The actor has had a tremendous career, but this is up there with the best of his portfolio. The downside to this is that the rest of the cast almost become pushed out, despite actually delivering a terrific ensemble performance. Robin Wright still catches some rays of applause from the critics, the relationship between Underwood and his wife being the most interesting dynamic between two characters in this genre for a long time. There is no insufferable Abbi Donovan at the side of this character; you will love the wife almost as much as you love the lead. I need to also give credit to Kate Mara (an actress I don’t usually rate), for a great turn as the reporter who uses Underwood for his access to information, but slowly they turn into enemies. She gets across the more subtle character traits well and her honesty and dedication is almost as appealing as Spacey’s. Corey Stoll is also great as the pathetic, yet oddly charming man running for the Governor Position. His character arc asks the character to continuously jump from winner to loser and the actor does an incredible job of pulling it off. Of course, everyone in this show works amazingly well, which is why the show works so well.
It is just fun watching politics at its most cut-throat. The battles are always slow and conniving, each move being carefully studied and constructed before a punch is even thrown. Maybe a battle of politics is the wrong metaphor to use in this circumstance. House of Cards depicts politics as more of a dance, each step of Underwood’s schemes, and everyone else’s to a certain extent, being choreographed to perfection, so it has been precisely honed to accomplish as much as possible. When Underwood does come up against someone who can actually stand a chance at bringing him down, it is fun watching the two of them spend a little longer going back and forth with their demands and attacks. Every now and again, Frank Underwood will pull a trick out of his sleeve so impressive and meticulous that we are dazzled at the intelligence of the man, even if we do feel a prang of guilt for the man who has just been utterly ruined in one callous sleight of hand. The writing is great here, always getting politics across as a savage ritual.
House of Cards does wander in places. Some episodes are clearly bloated on purpose to stretch the show out into a thirteen episode run. This happens a lot with most shows, but because House of Cards relishes this slow, thoughtful style of direction, we need every details and line to be worthwhile, otherwise it hits the brakes on everything a little too abruptly. Most of the time, this works out well, because little things in the first arc come back for the finale, when the reporters piece together what happened in the aftermath of Underwood’s political rampage. However, other moments come across as pointless, which is a shame, because House of Cards, for the most part, knocks the ball out of the park with every move it makes.
Final Verdict: Kevin Spacey is given the perfect character to work with and, in return, he delivers an incredible, Emmy-winning performance, the forefront of an exciting new series.