When South Carolina Congressman and Majority House Whip Frank Underwood is slighted out of a position he feels is owed to him, he embarks on a long, meticulous and tedious journey of revenge and power chasing with his wife, Claire. Through six seasons, we follow the two and their equally shrewd social circle through a whole lot of sexual circumstances, bloodlust and brutality as they take on the ups and down of America’s political landmines in pursuit of power and legend status on Capitol Hill and beyond.
Don’t get mad, get even. That’s Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) life motto when his hard work and ambitions to be Secretary of State are thwarted by the soon to be President of the United States. He hatches a conniving, long term plan to get to the top on his own terms. But he’s not alone. His wife, Claire (Robin Wright), has some lofty goals of her own, and it’s this duo that takes us along their plot to dominate Washington D.C. Their less than enviable marriage is sprinkled with sexual dalliances that serve their growing goals and there’s some late-night bloodshed to round things out.
This American version of the 1990’s British show and novel of the same name replaces prime ministers with presidents and members of parliament with congressmen, but the tone is carried over and sophisticated.
As the seasons and the Underwoods progress, key players such as Doug Stamper (Micheal Kelly), and Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) are like moths drawn to the flame and allure of power. Each 13-episode volume carries the same cut-throat themes with new characters to add to the ensemble. Though season six takes an abrupt and highly questionable turn with focus shifting from Frank, due to Spacey’s real life issues, the tower of power and prestige flows into the final season with just as much force and even more conspiracy than before.
When it comes to a screenwriter who knows his content, Beau Willimon is pretty high on the list. He adapted the original British novel and series to suit a more global audience using the knowledge gained while serving as an aide to Chuck Schumer, Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton. This brought on some serious realism and tone. There’s’ a lot of uncomfortable language in the scripts, but it only serves to further paint the reality of the setting. His satirical, brutal dialogue and curt characters elevated the show’s themes, despite his departure as writer in season four.
Fellow writers Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson carried the torch well, having written on the show from season three. They perpetuated the dark and dreary comedic style of writing well into the final season. The stellar monologuing from Frank and sometimes his wife, brings the audience into their world. It almost feels like an exclusive invite. The screenplay has won a series of awards for Netflix, being the first fully streamed show of its kind commissioned by the platform.
Characters and acting
Unlike other shows, there’s not a lot of main characters to look up to here. Damning allegations aside, Kevin Spacey is unmatched as Frank Underwood, the quick witted, sharp taking slimy Congressman with a power trip the size of the Northern hemisphere. He’s perfected the “dry guy” role and his abilities can’t be argued here. Spacey, who is known for iconic film roles in classics like “Seven” and “The Usual Suspects” took television head on and nailed it.
His onscreen wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, sometimes steals the spotlight as the seemingly caring but secretly sadistic co-conspirator. Claire’s character arc is entertainingly fleshed out, albeit sloppily ,in season six. Then there’s the highly acclaimed Mickeal Kelly who plays Frank’s loyal to a fault Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper. Doug’s a pretty frustrating character in that he could do so much better but he constantly chooses otherwise.
Music and cinematography
The opening title sequence really captures the world you’re entering when watching House Of Cards. Fast paced, visually clean with a swell of ominous, sharp instruments from composer Jeff Beal and the National Symphony Orchestra. Music might not be a strong focus, but meticulous detail by the composers and scoring team went into conveying the right toe for each scene. Slow piano tunes and classical music with rich violin peppers the series.
The series had various directors but the muted, grey and neutral tones that mirror the dreary Washington skies were keen throughout. Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld was one of many who captured the cold starkness of Washington D.C.’s political atmosphere, despite the show being shot primarily in Maryland.
Putting aside Kevin Spacey’s serious misconduct allegations is too tall of an order for some. For those who are able, House of Cards might be the dose of political drama you’re looking for that is, shockingly, more nuanced than the current realities we’re facing. Though it suffers some lags in the final season, the show still holds up for any political science enthusiast.