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House of Cards Review: After Three Solid Hands, You'll Want To Keep Playing
"Give and take, welcome to Washington."
Over black, it started with a bang, followed by a whimper. An opening scene reminiscent of the one that set the stage for HBO's The Wire, shares an event inconsequential to the storytelling and yet essential to introduce House of Cards unorthodox and compelling delivery. The tone, the anti-hero and the setting all clearly defined in the cold cold-open's skillful execution. The series, not wasting any time, shows you its hand and asks if you want to keep playing. This is the game: harsh, almost blunt, storytelling, unlikable characters with jarring asides, old-school, almost noirish dialogue and acting all presented through David Fincher's precise but gorgeous visual aesthetic. House of Cards is a morality play on the world's biggest stage, are you in?
Based on a novel of the same name by Michael Dobbs - himself a former high level politico in the UK's Conservative party - House of Cards was already adapted into an award winning BBC miniseries by Andrew Davies and now Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Beau Willimon have set the wry, political drama in the highest echelon of American politics. Netflix revolutionary distribution model for their original series, dropping all 13 epodes of the first season on the same day, is already a hot topic of discussion and worthy of a post of its own but this particular review will try to focus on the quality of "Chapters 1-3" and how promising House of Cards future seems to be or not to be.
Yes, that phrasing was intentional because the Willimon scripted show about Representative Francis Underwood's perceived slight and quest for political revenge not only feels like the product of a playwright (which he is) but is also very Shakespearean in its themes and presentation. Spacey plays a shady congressman who, after a personal promise by the newly elected government is broken, starts planning the demise of everyone involved in the betrayal, starting with the man who is going to take 'his' job and ending with, well, who knows how much of the whale Underwood will be able to eat by the time the 13 are up. However, plot is also not as singular and serialized as "Chapters 1 and 2" would have you believe, with "Chapter 3" hinting at more episodic instalments also being sprinkled into the narrative to give the show more legs.
The always excellent, including here, Robyn Wright plays his wife, a woman busy pulling strings behind her powerful man and, to be the millionth person to make this comparison, House of Cards's own Lady Macbeth. Their mutual appreciation for status and power makes them a dangerous pair and Claire's charity storyline serves as a nice, again blunt, metaphor for America's dream of never being satisfied. Of course, nothing is as one note as that in the series and by the third episode, cracks start to show in even her steely facade. The supporting characters not only flush out the world and make the political puzzle more complex but are brought to life by a skillful ensemble, often out-shining Spacey's dodgy accent and familiar delivery.
Audience's have seen this Spacey before but Kate Mara surprises and shines as the all too eager and ambitious blogger suddenly reporting stories on the national stage. And again, her character emphasizes how the show trades in lies and the characters are almost always performing. It's like they are all writing their own script within the script, presenting themselves as who they want to be while the reality lies somewhere between the lines, coming to light in the smaller moments. Honesty is rare, certainly not spoken, even to the audience in an aside, especially if you want to get ahead in the public side of politics. Corey Stoll is great as a pawn in the larger game, another member of government constantly forced to play different roles depending on his audience and Michael Kelly steals scenes as Underwood's Michael Clayton-esque fixer.
Actually, the performances across the board are impressive, including the few characters who aren't shifting their portrayals based on public and private personas in the interest of crafting a personal legend. However, those characters who aren't aspiring for personal glory, who aren't writing their own narratives, aren't exactly coming out on top are they? Nope, Kristen Connoly's vulnerability or Constance Zimmer's integrity don't seem to be paying off in the early stages but how far will the masks, facades and self-aggrandizing take the power players? It will be interesting to watch as Spacey's defences are tested and whether he 'breaks' from the character he's created for himself.
Underwood's asides may turn some people off, or be accused of being too heavy handed in delivering the message, but I find them especially fascinating because they seem like bullshit to me. A man breaking the fourth-wall in order to reassure himself that it's true not to mention, to use the show's term, a cheap ploy to attach us to the lead character who is not remotely likeable. It's actually very noirish conceit but instead of voice-over, Willimon being a playwright opted for direct address and having Spacey break the fourth wall. However, like many anti-heroes of the aforementioned genre, we shouldn't take his words at face value as narrators a prone to be misleading, or at least self-deceiving.
House of Cards is obviously indebted to the all eras of the genre, with the blunt delivery of today's dramas about Americana (Killing Them Softly) as well as a throwback to not just the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s (All The President's Men) but the original films noir of the 1940s and 50s. Some people might find what seems like artificiality jarring, or the message being laid too bare, but I think making the honest character moments rare not only offers an accurate portrait of this superficial Washington world but also makes it more raw and emotionally engaging when plans don't go as planned.
And that's not to say it isn't tremendously enjoyable to watch the devious plans unfold as intended and the characters play up their different personas depending on the situation. I watched most of the first three episodes with a wry smile on my face, enjoying the backstabbing chess match of the densely woven plot brought to life by the fantastic ensemble, excellent direction (a beautiful and sharp template laid by Fincher and continued James Foley) and one of the best scores on television thanks to Jeff Beal. From the banter to the dark aesthetic, House of Cards is not just a call back to styles of old but highlighting how everything in this world is a performance (in this case, one to relish), a facade carefully constructed but capable of collapse at any moment. Just like, uh, damn. I feel like there's an expression for that.
"That's how you devour a whale, one bite at a time."
The entire first season of House of Cards is now available on Netflix. Based on a novel by Michael Dobbs and developed by David Fincher, Beau Willimon and Kevin Spacey, the series stars Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll and Michael Kelly as well as Mahershala Ali, Sandrine Holt, Sebastian Arcelus, Constance Zimmer, Sakina Jaffrey, Jayne Atkinson and Kristen Connolly.
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