“House of Cards” is Netflix’s bold experiment into professionally produced Internet television. The show is a dark political drama that explores the corruption and cutthroat politics of Washington, D.C. Netflix also made the decision to release all 13 episodes of the first season at the same time, prompting many to binge on the show over the release weekend.
The show starts on the eve of President-elect Garrett Walker’s inauguration. Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), House Majority Whip, has campaigned heavily for Walker. In exchange, Underwood has been promised the Secretary of State position in Walker’s cabinet. However, Underwood’s limitless ambition and goal of escaping the House of Representatives is thwarted by President Walker’s appointment of a dark horse candidate instead of Underwood.
Humiliated and angered, Underwood vows revenge and begins a protracted political war against Walker. Underwood does not outwardly oppose President Walker; Underwood is ruthless, but cunning. He eloquently covers his tracks while systematically dismantling Walker’s administration.
This is where the show’s writing really shines. The energy of each episode builds up as Underwood lays the groundwork for a grand plan, but leaves the audience in the dark. Over the course of several episodes, Underwood allows a reporter from a major D.C. paper to blackmail him. She wants information on the administration and he feigns the need to withhold his secrets. He uses the agreement to expose the secrets of politicians and control the flow of media in his favor, while staying out of the spotlight.
Congressman Underwood does not want money; he only wants power. He expands and maintains his power through the manipulation of other characters. He is not afraid to throw people who get in his way under the bus. Underwood is analogous to Benjamin Linus from ABC’s “Lost”.
Underwood’s strategy can be confusing, so he helps the audience from the start by carefully explaining his actions to the camera. In modern television, breaking the fourth wall is rare and usually reserved for comedic purposes. However, breaking the fourth wall is the signature trope of “House of Cards”.
Underwood is not just explaining his actions to the audience or thinking out loud; Underwood is clarifying his actions to us. What makes “House of Cards” unique is the audience’s role as a character in the show. Underwood is our mentor. He guides the audience through the shadowy world of political corruption and subtle manipulation.
Underwood gives his first lesson to the audience barely two minutes into the first episode. A dog has been hit by a car and is clearly not going to survive his injuries. Underwood sends his bodyguard to inform the dog’s owners of the accident. Then he tells us, “Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing.” He unsympathetically asphyxiates the dog with his hands.
The relationship between the audience and Underwood develops continually over the season. His sultry southern accent is intoxicating as he treats the audience as his confidant. He gives us the grand tour of D.C. and introduces us to all the major players of Walker’s administration.
“House of Cards” deserves high placement on the ladder of TV right next to “Sherlock”, “Breaking Bad” and “Arrested Development”. In fact, it is already the 16th highest-rated show on IMDb.