House of Cards Re-Watch Season 1
Part 1B: How Four of Film and TV’s Biggest Stars Broke Big Here
There were countless great performances throughout the run of House of Cards, many of them from veteran actors who got one of their major roles here. Michel Gill, who played President Walker, was superb in the small excerpts we saw of him, Constance Zimmer, would have one of her finest roles as Janine Skorsky, before she burst into the stratosphere on UnReal in 2015, and Nathan Darrow delivered several subtle moments as Edward Meechum, the capital policeman who wins the Underwoods trust — and at one point, so much more. But some of the greatest performances would come from actors who broke on to the scene in this series and whose star has yet to dim.
Corey Stoll had been acting for awhile before his being cast as Peter Russo, the deeply flawed Congressman who is used most harshly in the early stages. But it was in his role he demonstrated the range he was truly capable of. Unlike almost every character on this series, he is both human and broken in a way that no one else is. The fundamental flaw in his character is exposed in the Pilot, and he becomes a tool of Underwood and Stamper for the first half of the season, perhaps most cruelly when he must not defend a shipyard that is vital to his district in a manipulation that he never truly understands. He is wholly beaten by this, and when he confronts Frank in an alcoholic rage, we honestly don’t know if he’s going to kill himself when Frank hands him the razor blade and puts him in the tub.
Underwood and Stamper clearly underestimate Peter as they build him up. In an episode with him on the campaign trail, he shows a command of himself that we have never seen in public or private, particularly when he finally confronts the Vice President on his behavior on the road. It clearly impresses him, and it does build him to the level that when Frank tries to push against him, Peter has built up enough confidence that he’s genuinely unafraid of him. It makes his fall all the more tragic, especially because unlike almost everyone else on the series, Peter openly cares for other people, particularly his chief aide/lover Christina and his children. Frank’s decision to arrange things so Peter dies is one of the most powerful moments in the series, because it is an action that clearly shakes Frank — and Claire — to their core. Frank is disturbed by his actions in a way he rarely demonstrates for the remainder of the show. Stoll’s humanity and toughness clearly showed a brilliant actor and he was talked of for a Supporting Actor Emmy nomination. (The fact that he was passed over in favor of Bobby Cannavale, the eventual winner for Boardwalk Empire, is a travesty I’m still not over.)
One of the other vital characters in Season 1 is Zoe Barnes. Like her older sister Rooney, Kate Mara had been acting from a young age and wasn’t an unknown either: in 2011 she had starred in the first season of American Horror Story. But this was clearly the role she broke big and its very easy to see why watching her work. She has a subtle sexual quality that so many actresses don’t and she demonstrates repeatedly her ability to share the stage with some great actors on a level playing field. Every time she’s in a scene with Spacey, you get the feeling that he thinks he has all the power in this relationship and she thinks just the same. He’s clearly shocked near the back of the season when she starts to demonstrate a will of her own and it clearly floors him when he dares to walk into the Underwood residence, goes to their bedroom and put on Claire’s clothes. Frank is still reeling from Claire’s departure, and Zoe from Claire’s confrontation of her in her apartment, but in this scene it’s clear Zoe has the advantage.
There are quite a few people who then, and now, were somewhat disgusted by the sexual relationship that Zoe and Frank engaged in. What they may not be aware of is the fact that this is canon. In the original series, Urquhart used a reporter named Mattie for his political gain and as a sexual object. I should also mention that in the British series, it’s actually creepier than the Netflix version, partly because Richardson appeared to be much older than Mattie and also because Mattie seemed to have a father fixation on Urquhart to the point she called him ‘Daddy’ sometimes even during intercourse. The sexual relationship is a little creepy here, but you do get the idea that Zoe goes into with her eyes wide open. (And for those who think the subsequent murder of Zoe is where the series started going downhill, I should tell you that is canon as well. If anything, it’s creepier there because unlike with Underwood’s actions, it seems pre-planned.)
More to the point, Zoe realize the errors of her ways far earlier than Mattie does, and I have to say he has a greater self-awareness than a lot of other characters. Zoe’s apartment, charitably, is a slum and she knows it. You really wonder why a reporter like her would tolerate living in such a place, but she doesn’t seem to mind…until a vital scene in the series. Claire confronts Zoe after she reveals to Frank about the betrayal I mentioned in the previous article. Zoe is somewhat shocked to know that Frank told Claire about the affair, and she clearly unnerved, but she never backs down. To a degree, it actually impresses Claire a little. Zoe is shaken more by Claire’s arrival than anything, and after she leaves, she does something we never seen her do: look at the squalor in which she lives. Clearly she sees it as a mirror for what she’s become and she doesn’t like it. Not only does she start trying to rectify her mistakes, she starts revealing an honesty to her colleagues (one of which is her lover Lucas) and to herself. It’s a revealing moment.
Perhaps the character that seems the most likely to be a throwaway was the prostitute who gets caught with Peter when his car is pulled over. Doug pays her off quietly and we think we won’t be dealing with her. Honestly, we don’t even look at her that much. Then about halfway through the series, she reaches out to Doug again, and she looks like she’s been beaten to a pulp. She’s trying to appear tough but now we see how fragile she is.
This is the first real look that the world would get at Rachel Brosnahan. And for those of us who know her as the ballsy-take no prisoners Midge on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it’s kind of startling. Rachel is essentially fragile throughout the entire season, which makes a lot of sense when we begin to learn about her character. She is an escort, she has walked the streets, and as we will learn in the Season 1 finale, she was abused by her father and never told anyone. Rachel basically seems like someone who will always need someone’s support, which may be why she is drawn to Doug for help.
But in arguably the most important scene in Season 1 that didn’t involve the Underwoods, Rachel has been called on to seduce and destroy Peter Russo. Throughout the scenes she goes about her mission as if it is a job like any other. But near the end of it, she almost casually asks Peter if she looks familiar. And the drunken and utterly wasted Peter can’t remember the woman who was his ruination. There’s a moment — blink and you’ll miss it — when you tell just how hurt by this Rachel is. A minute later, she opens the windows to reveal daylight, sending Peter on what neither of them yet know will be his death-march. When Peter turns up dead a few days later, she is broken in a way she will spend months recovering from, and it is one of those moments that made you realize what a star Brosnahan would become. Not long after this she would be cast as the wife of a physicist in WGN’s Manhattan (the series filming would still allow to appear on House of Cards) and she would start demonstrating to the world her depths, though it took her another three years for her career to reach maximum velocity.
Mahershala Ali has been such a great actor in so many roles the past decade you might well assume he’d only gotten started in House of Cards. In actuality he’d been around in a lot of television before that in semi-regular roles as diverse as Crossing Jordan, 4400 (the USA version) and Treme. But the reason Ali clearly finally managed to break out of the character actor notch was his work as lobbyist Remy Danton. Remy was one of Frank’s aide before he left for the private sector. Frank spends the entire first season utterly dismissing him because he chose money over power. This is one of Frank’s biggest blunders, because throughout the first season Remy is by far is most successful adversary. Remy has enough knowledge of the Underwood inner circle to try and woo Claire privately. He tolerates one dismissal of help, but when Claire comes to him, he knows that he has enough leverage to get her to act against her husband. Frank keeps trying to manipulate him –especially to bring down Russo — but by the end of the season, he is in a position that even he admits he needs him to the audience. And its worth noting that even though Frank gets what he needs from Tusk, Remy has gotten far more — and in the process, managed to play Frank.
Ali is a big imposing figure, but throughout the entire season he never loses his cool, even in the face of Frank’s hostility. In one of the best scenes in the series, certainly for him, he walks into Frank’s living room at a vital moment and is utterly calm and triumphant in Frank’s dismissal of him. “Eight years I worked for you, you never invited me for a cup of coffee,” he says matter-of-factly. “Now I’m standing in your living room.” Clearly this makes an impression on Frank, which may lead to the real reason he comes back into the fold — for awhile –in Season 3.
It is rare for any series to have a level of actors break into the mainstream because of one season, which is just another reason House of Cards first season was a masterpiece. It would have problems going forward, of course, but they will be addressed the further along in the rewatch I get.