At this moment, as I sit down to begin the review for House of Cards, there are two things that are killing me—boredom and the fact that I am trying to avoid dropping any spoilers of the show in the course of this review. You see, and the people who have felt the sweet pain of watching a show simultaneously with me and had it ruined for them would know this, I am a person who enjoys (read: relishes) spoiling TV shows/movies/books for people. Some of my victims will no doubt be pissed that I’m trying to stop spoiling these things after I’ve victimised them, but after a lot of reflection (of which most CAS coordinators would be proud), I think everyone deserves to marvel unreservedly at the way Kevin Spacey plans and plots his way into the White House (oh no, have I said too much? Sorry, I guess old habits do die hard…..).
“A heartbeat away from the Presidency, and not a vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”
Among the sea of TV shows that assault us through virtual screens, there are but a few serious ones where the acting, direction and plot, all work in perfect tandem to create a show that we can take to our hearts. Of those, House of Cards stands out. Not only because it has Kevin Spacey but also due, in part, to the brilliant performances of the other actors—Robin Wright is marvellous in her role, complicit as she is in Kevin Spacey’s dealings, when she is not blocking those efforts with misdemeanours of her own, Michael Kelly is perhaps the most indomitable (and scary!) right-hand-man/mad-dog/sullen-ex-alcoholic with a weird fetish to listen to people reading Great Expectations, that Frank Underwood has at hand, Gerald McRaney is brilliant as the enterprising, occasionally raging-bull-in-a-China-shop kinda businessman who tries, too hard at times, to shoot down Underwood, and (my favourite character, besides Spacey himself) President Viktor Petrov of Russia, played by Lars Mikkelsen (same who guy played Charles Augustus Magnussen in that rather strange episode of Sherlock, by the way) who is as titular, eccentric and over-bearingly arrogant as you would expect a certain Russian president to be.
And then, of course, there is the pièce de résistance, the reason most tune in to watch the show, the one person who ties it all together and “keeps the sludge moving” with his perfect delivery, a brilliant ability to equivocate (perfectly embodying Lady Macbeth’s “Look like a flower but be the serpent under’t” battle-cry), terrifyingly hair-raising threats (watch out for when he tells Dunbar in season 3—“I will put you in your fucking grave”, like only Kevin Spacey can) and the most remarkable, yet not stereotypical, southern accent. Kevin Spacey, alias Francis Joseph “Frank” Underwood, is the crowning glory of the show. Now, the world is no stranger to Spacey’s talents, what with a fantastic showing in The Usual Suspects, a brilliant portrayal of Lex Luthor in Superman Returns and his awe-inducing role in American Beauty, but he takes his acting to a whole new level in House of Cards. When he talks to a Congressman/Congresswoman, a peer, as the Whip of the House, you can sense his tone—superfluously respectful but with the most threatening of subtexts which keep whispering to the Congressman/Congresswoman— “screw me over and I will dedicate the next five minutes of my life to crushing your political career and your image and stuffing it somewhere you wouldn’t find very pleasant. And I will spend only five minutes because that is all it will take to crush your insignificant little career and to stamp you into the dust of nothingness.”
“I almost pity him. He didn’t choose to be put on my platter. When I carve him up and toss him to the dogs, only then will he confront that brutal, inescapable truth.”
Indomitable and imposing, determined and deadly, Frank and Claire Underwood form a formidable partnership that, in more ways than one, bring some of the most powerful people in the world to their knees. Husband and wife though they may be, they seem to have one of those we’re-not-exclusive-yet-so-you-can-sleep-with-anyone-as-long-as-it-helps-our-cause pacts. They use every trick in every book (murder, manipulation and adultery), and those of their own concoction, to get where they want to be. Sacrifices are loathingly, though understandably, made for each other (until, of course, that pool of willingness and collaboration dries up). Vindictive to the end, them, Doug Stamper and, later, Seth Grayson set out to gain as much power as they can and once they do, to retain it, come what may.
“You see, Freddy believes that if a fridge falls off a minivan, you better swerve out of its way. I believe it’s the fridge’s job to swerve out of mine.”
It is by now, I predict, that your eyes are growing tired reading this review and most of you familiar with the show will be wondering why I have not yet talked of Kevin Spacey’s soliloquies which are, unarguably, the most chilling part of the show. Because it’s all too easy to watch other politicians/businesspeople/fools who stood in Frank’s way squirm when he threatens them, but God, when he speaks to you, breaking that fourth wall that has forever kept the terrifyingly worst and entrancingly best of our imagination in another world, you feel like he knows you are there. Like he’s always aware that you are watching, which means he’s watching you too. And he knows you can’t do anything but turn off your screen, but you have absolutely no idea what he is going to do, what new conspiracy Frank Underwood is about to concoct. And that is where the greatest appeal of the show lies—you watch it to see what the Underwoods are about to pull over whom, you tune in to marvel at their demeanour, the graceful indifference with which they dispatch their enemies, the ease with which they toy with others, reserving the ability to beat them or coax them into submission with almost no effort at all.
“Conscience has an unmistakable stink to it, sort of like raw onions and morning breath. But a lie stinks even more when it’s coming from someone who isn’t used to lying. It’s more like rotten eggs and horse shit.”
You’re welcome, by the way, for not spoiling much of the show for you, if you haven’t watched it, that is. If you haven’t, give it a watch as soon as possible because there is a very, very low probability of you not liking it and a rather stratospheric possibility of you going “HOLY SHIT! DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!” every time the dynamic duo do something special (psst, that happens pretty often). At the risk of letting my English HL experience shine through, I have to talk about the significance of the title to the series. It’s called House of Cards, and that is the clearest way to convey to anyone the delicate nature of the issues the characters deal with—whatever they say, due to their position, is broadcast across the world, the smallest scandals carry the potential to bury their career (yet they survive murder allegations and nudies plastered across the newspapers) and as everyone knows, in politics, the truth holds less value than public opinion. House of Cards is not about friendship, love, happiness or sadness and neither does it allow the viewer to reflect on anything (unless of course, you happen to be the Whip, Vice-President or the President of a country). No, such trivial pursuits are not worth the time it takes to list them, to the couple. For Frank and Claire, the journey is about unbridled ambition, vengeance, power and a desire to conquer and rule everything and everyone. For us viewers, mere mortals that we are, we are only meant to watch in awe and be mind-blown at every instant of unbelievable awesomeness and clever, cunning conspiracy. And oh my, what brilliant, breathtaking instants they are. So sit back, relax, and watch the contemporary reincarnations of Gentleman and Lady Macbeth, as they plot to jettison themselves all the way to the top of the American establishment.
“That’s right. We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.”