From its very beginning, House of Cards was assured of our attention. It was a remake of a fondly remembered parent show, boasted a brace of A-list Hollywood talent and was the first major release in Netflix’s multimillion dollar bid to be taken seriously as a producer of content. It succeeded on each of those terms. The story translated brilliantly to Washington, Kevin Spacey’s reimagining of the central character was superbly realised and the producers picked up a raft of well-deserved awards. Such success means a couple of things. Firstly, that Netflix now has to be treated just the same as any of its production rivals and secondly, that House of Cards must succeed in its own right.
This new series proves that it can and does. Heralded, in-universe, as a ‘new chapter’ by Frank Underwood, the second set of thirteen episodes offers a widening of the original story and an escalation of the hostile machinations that Underwood conducts like a master. He is now firmly installed as Vice President, ‘a heartbeat away’ from his stated goal of Commander-in-Chief, and confident in his own nefarious abilities. The show has a notably darker tone, largely borne of the increased power that Underwood has at his disposal. He brings his trusted circle with him, wife Claire, Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (played with sinister suppression by Michael Kelly), security man Ed Meechum and rib cook par excellence Freddy, but soon finds that the office of Vice President gives him yet more heft over his numerous enemies. He is, you’ll be pleased to know, unafraid to use it.
Such an advance means that more powerful adversaries are required. This gives an expanded role for Gerald McRaney’s billionaire Raymond Tusk, a man with whom Frank must compete for President Garrett Walker’s (Michel Gill) attention. Walker is to all appearances the weakest politician on screen (at times it’s a real mystery how he ever managed to enter the White House on anything other than a guided tour), so Underwood’s remaining challenges must come from elsewhere, notably a diplomatically muscular China and journalistic investigations into his political hinterland.
The show, rather smartly, addresses the fallout, both overt and covert, from Underwood’s rapid ascent. McRaney’s Deadwood colleague Molly Parker joins the cast as Congresswoman Jackie Sharp, who attempts to navigate the space left by Underwood’s sudden elevation. There’s a bigger role too for reporter Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcellus) who works with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) to investigate and expose the real Frank Underwood no matter what dark places such enquiries take them.
Those places, among them Super PACs, an increasingly confident China, the PRISM program and the question of state surveillance of its citizens and the related issue of cyberterrorism, provide a dramatic backdrop that is so up-to-the-minute that it positively squeaks with shop-fresh shine. Indeed, the entire production is so modish that it almost resembles science fiction. Every character of consequence is hooked onto smartphones (usually those designed in Cupertino), tablets and laptops. Text messages appear on screen in subtitle blips, conversations are handsfree, there’s blanket wifi coverage. Everyone and everything is hyper-connected (so much so that an episode that requires characters to be cut off goes through a messy contrivance to achieve it). The point is that Underwood’s real enemy is no single individual, or even a single office, but the huge, nebulous and ubiquitous machinery of state, economy and business. He’s no more the master of this environment than anyone else, he’s just a stronger swimmer.
Spacey continues to delight in a role that will come to rank among the best of even his rich career, his fourth wall-breaking glances and asides are a continued source of joy (and necessary exposition), while he makes great play of presenting the contrast between his public persona and the clandestine reality beneath the facade. As his wife (and, to be fair, co-lead) Robin Wright excels and proves herself so much more than the ‘Lady MacBeth of the Beltway’ that she could have been. Frank’s rising profile lifts them both into the spotlight and Claire finds herself contending with a public profile and the scrutiny of the press, politicians and other darker forces. If anything, she is the more ruthless of the two, denying and exploiting every natural feminine instinct in the pursuit of power by proxy. Their marriage, custom-built for power, remains at the heart of the show and the origins of their union are explored in a way that reflects their changed situation. The show revels in showing us how the Underwoods succeed but doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of their singular drives.
For all these wider concerns, House of Cards remains a straightforward political thriller that makes great capital of the US political system, an arena that is simultaneously ‘politics as bloodsport’ and arcane mystery. It shares with its predecessor The West Wing, a problem in that Washington politics are often so convoluted, bureaucratic and bizarre that it’s startling that any meaningful drama can be wrung from them, much less the compulsive and addictive fiction that we have here. The realities of day-to-day governance and legislation are necessarily heightened for dramatic purposes and there are times when it pays not to think too much about the plotting but the overriding result is thrilling, entertaining and fun, the sort of thing that rewards a weekend’s binge viewing, which is pretty much the point. House of Cards emerged as the herald of a new type of TV experience and is perfectly adapted for this duty; shocking smart and fun, demanding the viewer’s attention and rewarding a ‘just one more episode’ attitude. First-rate all round, House of Cards remains one of the best shows of the current roster, in whatever form you watch it.
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