Just like a novel you can’t put down, a great TV show is truly satisfying. When all the stars align in terms of writing, acting, and direction, a strong series presents a wonderful opportunity to get lost in a world. Fiction tends to be most engaging when it reflects and rifts off reality. Perhaps that’s one reason why political dramas are so popular.
Netflix’s House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, provides the latest intimate fictional look at Washington. Netflix continues to live up to its reputation as a binge watcher’s paradise. All of Season 2 was released this past Friday. President Obama himself acknowledged the new 13 episodes with a tweet requesting, “No spoilers, please.” With all that content available immediately that’s a fair request. It also brings up an interesting question: how does one write about House of Cards without spoiling the story for folks who haven’t sampled the series yet? Or for fans who don’t have the time or inclination to consume all that material at once? What I’d like to do is stay away from specific plot discussions and, instead, talk more generally about aspects of the writing that set House of Cards apart and make it worth your time.
The people in this series are especially compelling. A friend of mine described House of Cards as “terrible, wonderful, satisfying, and disgusting.” It’s the characters, expertly crafted through writing and acting, that elicit this reaction. At the center of the show is Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. The ambitious and ruthless congressman is so vivid he seems to live and breathe. Part of Frank’s believability stems from his ability to come across as both sinister and sympathetic at any given moment. It’s this complexity that draws the viewer in. Frank is the only character with the power to break the 4th wall and speak directly to the audience. We are privy to his thoughts, ambitions, and point of view. That said, the viewer can access information Frank is unaware of and follow other people without him. Depending on how much power they have, other characters who glimpse what Frank is capable of either fear or respect him. Frank’s blatant cruelty is balanced by great kindness- when it suits his ambitions. Everything this character does is manipulative and strategic. Yet he’s likeable. Frank’s point of view is so well articulated it’s a challenge not to root for him. Watching, you catch yourself nodding along, “That’s right, Frank, crush that person before he causes you more trouble.” This is the power of strong writing.
While men populate most of House of Card’s Washington, there are a handful of tough, ambitious, and equally ruthless women that keep the show interesting. Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood, Frank’s wife, is a breath of fresh air. Clever and cunning, she’s written to be as complex and multilayered as her husband. Her calculated viciousness and focus on her aspirations is refreshing. Like Frank, Claire has the capacity to be charming, or savage, depending on how it furthers her personal interests. Although House of Cards is clearly Frank’s show, it’s enjoyable to see a smart, powerful, driven woman sharing the limelight. Claire isn’t an anomaly on the show. Several other strong female characters are worth noting. Season 1 introduced us to standouts like Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), the ambitious young journalist who aspires to climb the ladder on her own terms, and Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), the firm, direct White House Chief of Staff. Season 2 added to the mix the forceful and determined congresswoman, Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker).
In a ruthless Washington, you never know who’s going to survive to fight another day, or when a friend will become an enemy. As Frank says, “Kittens grow up to be cats.” House of Cards is typical in that its plotlines constantly twist and turn to reveal people. The writers do not hesitate to remove characters despite the viewer’s sympathy or attachment. Rarely do individuals have a chance to overstay their welcome. This regular transfusion of new blood keeps the series fresh and the world expanding.
Regardless of which characters shift, or whose story captures the focus of an episode, House of Cards is constantly exploring the idea of power. Part of what makes this series successful is the nod the content gives to real life issues. When the episodes touch on current subjects such as rape, sexual violence in the military, nuclear energy, whistleblowers, etc. it makes the fictional world more powerful and, most importantly, real. Seasons 1 and 2 explore the particularly disturbing story of a small group of journalists who discover government corruption and try to report on the situation. Watching their investigation unfold is chilling. It’s uneasy moments like these when the power our fiction has to hold up a mirror to society becomes apparent. There is an unrelenting tension in House of Cards as we ask ourselves, how much will Frank get away with? Exploring that question is the delight of Season 2.