Season 1: It Was As Good As I Remembered It
Earlier this year I wrote an article announcing that I was planning on watching Netflix’s House of Cards again to see whether it was as good as I remembered it and more importantly, whether I could still watch and enjoy the series considering everything I know about Kevin Spacey. Yesterday, I finished Season 1. And at least as far as that particular season goes, the answer to both questions are: yes and yes.
Indeed, there’s a very strong argument to be made that the series wouldn’t have worked with anyone but Kevin Spacey in role of Frank Underwood. Because I have to make this point crystal clear: Spacey may be a horrible human being but he was an extraordinary actor. Those two qualities have never been mutually exclusive and they still aren’t; the main difference is now we know more about everybody’s private lives than we want too. But all through Season 1, I never once felt the disconnect that I have watching Woody Allen movies or some of D.W. Griffith’s early work. I found myself, just as before, under the grip of Spacey’s work as Underwood, always feeling connected when he broke the fourth wall and let us in. Hell, part of me still found myself liking Frank even as did the horrible things he did.
I saw the original British series with Ian Richardson and Francis Urquhart as he climbed up the ladder to 10 Downing Street and because I was such a huge fan of that series as Richardson, I didn’t believe the show had a chance when it Netflix made it for American TV back in 2013. A large part of was because the British political system is so radically different from ours. (This is the main reason the series ended up on Netflix in the first place by the way. HBO was offered the series before them, but Beau Willimon wanted a two season commitment because the writers knew they’d need that much time to show Underwood’s rise to power. Even with Spacey and Robin Wright’s involvement, HBO refused to take the risk and Netflix. HBO also had the first bid on Orange is the New Black and The Crown, by the way. So it could be argued that they are as instrumental in streaming becoming a dominant force as any original programming Netflix did).
But more to the point, I can’t think of any actor who could let us in the same way to Frank Underwood’s character, then or now, other than Spacey. The role requires someone who you know better than trust but who you are charmed despite, maybe even because of, his attitude. In other words, you would need Keyser Soze trying to convince the world he’s actually Verbal Kent. I still don’t know anyone who could have done the job Spacey did who was appropriate for the role. The closest equivalent might be Bob Odenkirk, but he was still on Breaking Bad, and even then, not even the most loyal Saul Goodman fan knew the depths he was capable of.
And make no mistake, certainly throughout Season 1, Frank Underwood convinces you of his humanity to levels that he certainly wouldn’t throughout the rest of the series. The clearest example of this comes when he returns to South Carolina and the military school he grew up. Frank puts up the front of a politician that he is…and then the Riflemen, his old running buddies show up. The mask that he puts up to the world, and even to the audience drops in a way it almost never does on the series. We see a man whose eyes are always looking towards the future looking at the road not taken…particularly when it comes to his sexuality.
I thought given what we now know about Spacey’s crimes these scenes would either ring false or seem offensive. They don’t because its one of the few times in the entire series that Frank Underwood is completely honest with himself. He doesn’t have to break the fourth wall to show his feelings; his heart is on his sleeve. And that feeling is clearly still with him when he gives his commemoration speech the next day. It’s never referred to for the rest of the series, but the moment is still powerful.
And for those of who see Frank as the all-powerful orchestrator of events, the fact is for much of Season 1 he knows that he has no control them. This becomes clear after Peter Russo turns on him near his run for governor, when Peter disappears in a drunken haze before he can control the narrative and particularly in the last two episodes when it appears that all his efforts will be reduced to nothing when the President seems about to tap Raymond Tusk for Vice President. For much of the penultimate episode, he is forced into a situation with a man he can not read clearly and who it turns is more than capable of reading the events that Frank has spent a season setting into motion. (Gerald McRaney is quite brilliant as Tusk, continuing a streak of brilliant Peak TV acting that began in the final season of Deadwood where he played the real-life billionaire George Hearst. Hearst grew up in Missouri; were the writers making a nod to this by having Frank fly to St. Louis to meet him?) Frank knows that while he can outmaneuver politicians and corporate lobbyists, he can’t ‘make 40 billion dollars disappear’ and indeed for almost the entire last episode, it looks like his effort has failed. When he finally gets the job he has been planning all season to get, we can’t read the expression face well enough to know whether he’s putting on an act or is surprised that he’s finally gotten what he tried so hard for.
As great an actor as Spacey is, House of Cards didn’t work only because of him. The two actors who lasted the length of the series were just as brilliant as him, and both cases put on a more consistent display of brilliance: Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, and Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper, his chief of staff and his greatest ally.
Wright’s work in the series was by far the biggest shock at the time. Wright had worked in Hollywood constantly for a quarter-century but had never quite lived up to her potential. Considering that Urquhart’s wife was basically window dressing in the British series, I honestly wondered if she’d been cast more for her name. It took very little time to see otherwise.
We don’t get a clear picture of what Claire’s long term plan is for much of the first two seasons, but what becomes crystal clear is that she is just as ruthless as her husband, if not more so. In the first two episodes, she has a loyal assistant fire most of the staff she wants to get rid off, and then has her be the last one out the door because she disagrees with her methods. She hires another woman who she thinks will be more at tune with her sensibilities but in the last two episodes when Gillian, who is more idealistic to her approaches than Claire is, also disagrees and Claire fires her. Gillian is prepared to go at her hard, claiming that Claire is firing her because of her pregnancy, which is a lie. When Claire confronts her at the end of the season, Gillian is fully prepared to do anything to destroy a woman that she now feels is a villain… a sensibility that you almost think Claire would sympathize with. Gillian doesn’t realize just how far Claire will go to destroy her enemies, a mistake that more than a few people will make over the course of the series.
Including Frank. The clearest betrayal of Frank comes halfway through the series, when after spending capital and effort to get a piece of legislation passed that will benefit Frank’s long terms plans, Claire uses her influence to kill it to advance an agenda of her own. Their marriage has a model of stability through the series so far, but when Frank learns the truth about it the Underwoods have their first real argument. Frank tells her that her needs matter less than his when it comes to the big picture, and when Claire strikes back just as harshly; he misjudges her and asks if this is because of the menopause she’s going through. Claire actually leaves D.C. after this for two whole episodes.
It is in those episodes we get a picture of what Claire’s life might have been without Frank. Throughout the season, she’s been engaged in a flirtation with a photographer named Adam (Ben Daniels), who it’s clear she’s had an on and off affair with over the years. (We already know the Underwoods have a very pragmatic relationship, which I’ll get to in a later article.) This seems to be the first time she really is considering her options in a way that truly unsettles Adam. We get a feeling there is affection and respect in a way there just isn’t with Frank, and given a chance to deal with it, neither can face the alternative. When a crisis comes, Claire runs back to Frank, and not just because of the potential realization of their long term goals.
Both Spacey and Wright are extraordinary, but the most fascinating character on the series (at least during the three whole seasons I watched it) was Doug. There’s no real equivalent to him in the original series so the writers would show their gifts in creating him. Doug is by far the most icily calm character in the series; he’s been a loyalist for so long, he clearly gets Frank’s moods. He knows what questions to ask and when to stay quiet. Halfway through the series, when a crisis is unfolding, Frank senses it and asks: “Do I want to know about it?” Doug says: “I don’t think you do.” There’s no one Frank trusts as deeply as that, at least in Season 1.
Doug is so calm and imposing with just a few words that would have been easy for him to appear inhuman at times. So the writer’s masterstroke was to make him a recovering alcoholic. It may have seemed like just something to do as a plot point (Peter Russo is going through recovery and the writers didn’t want to create a sponsor out of whole cloth). But both the writers and Kelly go out of their way to show it isn’t. Doug shares at a meeting about his job and the number that ‘scares the shit out of him’ because he knows just one drink could ‘get it down to zero.’ He is utterly pragmatic and honest at the same time in a way he almost never is the rest of the series. And he truly takes his sobriety seriously in the conversations he has with Peter.
And it is because he is such a great actor than in the most critical scene we have no capability of reading him. Doug has spent the episode setting up Peter to relapse and than self-destruct on national television. (We’ll actually get to that in the next article.) But in all his exchanges with Peter, from the call before the interview, his meeting with Peter and after the collapse, he genuinely sounds like he’s trying to talk Peter out of it. When he tells him ‘it’s my fault’ after everything goes to hell, he seems so sincere that we practically forget that he orchestrated it. He never talks about Peter’s fate the same way Frank and Claire doing going forward. Is it possible he feels regret? Is that why he feels such a necessity to handle Rachel?
If it were only for the extraordinary acting of the three leads, the first season of House of Cards would stand as one of the masterworks of Peak TV. But as those of us who watched the series know, several actors who would be vital to the world of television and film would shoot to superstardom in large part to their roles in this series. In the next article, I will deal with the four major talents who broke big here.