Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead!
David Fincher’s House of Cards is the anti-West Wing, dripping with cynicism and absent hope. All is irredeemable and bankrupt. No heroes, no plucky underdogs.
If Frank Capra saw House of Cards he would slit his wrist along the track of the vein. If Aaron Sorkin saw the show, he would think it lacked soaring platitudes, Gilbert and Sullivan, and a message about the collective good that people strive for when they are blessed with the opportunity to govern.
You live in the real world, which show sounds closer to reality — The West Wing or House of Cards?
*Buzzer sound* you’re wrong no matter which horse you backed, because as adorably pollyannaish as Sorkin’s sepia toned D.C. was, it can’t be possible that the capital city resembles House of Cards and exclusively hosts whores, liars, crooks, flunkies, bag men, and societal rapists. It can’t be, right? Why do I feel like I’m being pollyannaish now…
Regardless of it’s roots in the truth, though, the fact remains that this show is deliciously craven in the way that it portrays politics and it’s practitioners, acolytes, and sucker fish. And I write that as someone who got inspired and then glamored by The West Wing until I got a closer look at how the sausage is made and discovered that it was all just Aaron Sorkin’s slickly written masturbatory fantasy.
Maybe that’s why I was so infatuated with House of Cards, a show I binge watched for the entirety of my waking Saturday to the dismay of needy house pets and other less adorable obligations.
Maybe I’m broken and scarred by my youthful dalliance with Josh Lyman and the oratorical stylings of Josiah Bartlett. Maybe the West Wing was my starter-husband that failed to do more than bloviate and look at the stars. Maybe now I just need a soulful fucking from an experienced, dream-less drama.
Yes, that’s it, but also, Kevin Spacey finds oneness with his inner-thespo rockstar in this piece that inexplicably airs on Netflix — home of Lillyhammer and all seven seasons of Family Ties.
This is, in fact, The Kevin Spacey show, a circus that revolves around him as he gives a very Kevin Spacey-esque performance in, for the first time in a long time, something that aches for that to make it whole.
Spacey is at his best when the rules don’t apply and he can be him, or that version of him that floats above a scene and unleashes his bravado, his confidence, and his charm all over the place.
Other actors fall into their roles, they Day-Lewis the hell out of a character and disappear into a haze of something drawn by another, something that becomes their new skin. It’s a supernatural possession that Kevin Spacey no longer needs to get down with because he’s Kevin Spacey and fuck you. It’s the same style that Pacino, DeNiro, and many others subscribe too, and every once in awhile it isn’t sad and you don’t feel extorted out of time, dollars, and expectations.
As Representative Francis (Frank) Underwood, Spacey doesn’t disappear. He’s disarming, surprising, enjoyable, fuckable, and detestable in the role — the opposite of subtle, a punch to the throat is his spirit animal.
The House Majority Whip, Underwood is the one who scouts the odds for prospective legislation. Basically, he’s a card counter who doesn’t urge his party to bet unless victory is assured. It’s a nice gig, one that inspires envy, but Underwood has ambitions and the means to bring them to within an inch of his fingers — no matter the cost to those around him.
Underwood is a user. His wife Claire (Robin Wright) is more like a business partner and his adviser, Doug Stamper (the tremendous Michael Kelly), is little more than a henchman whose morals occasionally bleed out before his loyalty to Underwood throws kitty litter on the spills. They don’t get the worst of it from Underwood though.
The worst of it is reserved for cub reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, the bestest of the Mara sisters) and junior Congressman Pete Russo (Corey Stoll, who is incredible in this) — a man broken by his own vices who stands out as an easy mark.
Through these two young pawns Underwood sets in motion a titanic-sized whammy that exacts revenge on the President of the United States (who is guilty of backing out of a deal to make Underwood the Secretary of State). Following that though, Underwood sets his sights higher and as the metaphorical body count grows, so too do Barnes and Russo’s own ambitions.
Suddenly, she’s a force to be reckoned with at the Washington Herald and then for a Politico-esque site, and he’s trying to sort his life out and run for Governor — alterations that Frank orchestrates.
It’s Underwood’s relationships with Barnes and Russo that monopolize most of the story and they’re also the ones that test Underwood the most as they start to bite the hand that “feeds”, though his wife casts off the bounds of dutiful enslavement, rubs some dirt on her face, and gets into the game in the later half of the series.
One of the sadder characters, Claire — who runs a clean water charity — proves to be both an asset and an annoyance to her husband, and a pretty deplorable person in her own right, though she’s much softer about it than Frank is.
As I indicated, their marriage is corporate, but when Claire runs off, it is what Frank can do for her ambitions and the duties of their partnership that bring her back, allowing her to toss away a freer, more classic love.
As for the stories: the show moves along in a deliberate way, slowly peeling the onion as it ramps up the drama and the consequences before throwing in a few shocking moments and twists.
Ideally, the last four episodes would have been more like the first four, and revelations about Underwood’s slightly implausible machinations and wizardry wouldn’t have come so easily.
This is a tense drama that loses some tension when it becomes evident that they’re sprinting for the finish line. It almost feels like the writers thought they had more time to tell their story and then realized after Chapter 8 — which is a fantastic change-of-pace offering that takes Pete and Frank back to their respective roots — that they had to start tying up loose ends.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore House of Cards and I love watching Spacey break the fourth wall (it feels like we’re watching Ferris Bueller’s darkest timeline, doesn’t it?), the dance he does with Mara’s character, the way he treats Rep. Russo like a yo-yo till the string snaps, and more.
The kingmaker, the kingslayer, the ultimate D.C. power player who believes that he is an unstoppable messiah, and all the crumpled people that want to prove him wrong — there is a timeless feel to this material that has me hoping that there will be a second season (because there are so many, many unanswered questions) and more of Kevin Spacey being his outright Kevin Spaceyest.
House of Cards is sitting there on Netflix Instant, waiting for you to surrender your day too it.