Turn off 40 percent of the lights in your apartment for that David Fincher effect, stick a flag pin in your lapel, and start talking directly to the camera: It’s time for House of Cards. Season two of the Netflix original series debuts on Friday — all episodes at once, just like the first time. Are you currently getting up to speed on season one and looking for someone to talk it out with? Well, all week, I’ll be recapping three episodes a day (four on Friday) for those of you who are new to HoC or just want to brush up before Valentine’s Day.
Quickly, a little about me. Currently, I recap Parks and Recreationand Pretty Little Liars for Vulture, and this week I’m taking a vacation from the fictional metropolises of Pawnee and Rosewood to write about a show that takes place where I really live — the District of Columbia. I have worked at the Washington Post (where I talked to HoC creator Beau Willimon about binge watching) but, other than age and height, I don’t have anything in common with Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes. For instance, there are chairs in my apartment. (A note: I will demarcate each episode’s write-up by noting it in bold, so only venture as far as you’ve watched.)
You can tell a lot about a character from his or her first three minutes onscreen. Don Draper starts Mad Men doing market research for Lucky Strike and swinging by his mistress’s apartment. In The Americans, Phillip and Elizabeth set a honey trap, chase down a target, and lose a comrade.
And in the opening scene of House of Cards, Francis Underwood murders a dog.
“There are two kinds of pain,” he tells us on his first break through the fourth wall. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”
This will not be a show where Mr. Chips turns into Scarface. Frank Underwood was never Mr. Chips. He was vicious from the get-go, manipulative from the start; he was dotting is and crossing ts when the rest of his classmates were still learning the alphabet. I’ll bet he had a doll with no head on it. Willimon’s political message is clear: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Frank’s appraisal of the scene at president-elect Garrett Walker’s election night bash is so high school: his tour of the room is, note-for-note, like the tour of the cafeteria Janis gives Cady in Mean Girls (and that Cher gives Tai in Clueless), and he tosses off that “Welcome to Washington” line like Luke’s “Welcome to the O.C., bitch.” Not that I would ever suggest our system of government in any way resembles the petty, juvenile, infight-laden land that is high school.
Beneath Frank’s tux is a shoulder with a mighty big chip on it. Frank says his time has come, but after 22 years in Congress it’s clear he feels his time is long overdue. So when POTUS-Elect screws over Frank, reneging on the promise to nominate him for secretary of State, Frank, the House Majority Whip, calls bullshit to Walker's chief of staff: “The nature of promises, Linda, is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.”
Though Frank has already demonstrated his capacity for evil (see: dog murdering), I find him sympathetic here. Who among us doesn’t understand the feeling of being slighted, whether professionally or otherwise? Of being delivered bad news, not by the person who cut you loose, but by some middle-manager-as-messenger? No wonder he wants revenge.
Frank is married to the Princess Bride and their relationship is absolutely fascinating. For two people who are all about wearing masks for the outside world, they seem utterly naked with one another. Claire’s assertion that “We do things together. When you don’t involve me, we’re in free fall,” is one of the boldest claims of husband-wife teamwork I can remember seeing on TV in ages. The plots of so many shows rely on wives being kept in the dark, left to rage against infidelity or dishonesty in secret while their men see all the action alone. But Claire and Frank have a different deal going, and the show is stronger for it; she simply does not accept being on the sidelines.
Enter Zoe Barnes, a young reporter for the fake Washington Post, known here as the Washington Herald. She’s begging for an opinionated blog that she can write in the first person. Crotchety Old Legacy Journalism won’t have it! They are going to let the brilliance of Zoe Barnes slip through their arthritic fingers.
Congressman Peter Russo and his assistant, Christina, have phone sex on the job and say they love each other. This love does not seem to stop Pete from driving drunk with prostitutes. Frank bails Peter out in exchange for his “absolute, unquestioning loyalty.” But why bother? Who is Russo to Frank?
Power is Frank’s obsession. Like many an antihero before him, he cannot abide being weaker that anyone else in the room. He likes to collect people, so long as they can be made to do his bidding. This, I think, explains his secondary obsession with loyalty: to be owed loyalty is a kind of power, the power to influence and control another person. Frank’s version of being “owed” is more like indentured servitude: will Peter ever be done paying Frank back? Peter has already proven himself to be weak-willed—he cannot even fend off demons within; how could be possibly be expected to hold his own in battles with other people?—and Frank has an eye for weakness as sharp as a dog’s nose for fear. And demonstrating the ability to help another person is a kind of power. Only a powerful person can shake a criminal record like an Etch-a-Sketch and make a DUI disappear.
Time for a tour of Zoe’s apartment! Tiny spoiler alert: A recurring theme in House of Cards is anything involving young people will be furniture-free. Zoe has no desk. Or chair. Her books are on the floor. As written, Zoe is one of the weaker characters in this early stretch of HoC. Even the heightened reality that allows Kevin Spacey to wink at us through the screen and not seem too ridiculous doesn’t make Zoe’s sleazy dialogue (“Time is precious; powerful people don’t have the luxury of foreplay”) sound even remotely plausible. As for the notion of Zoe the overlooked gumshoe reporter, this is her promise to Frank: “I protect your identity, I’ll print everything you tell me, and I’ll never ask any questions.” I’m 100 percent sure that if you want to be a reporter, publishing everything a source says and never asking any questions is literally the exact opposite of what you should be doing. Maybe the reason the Herald never hooked Zoe up with a blog of her very own is because Zoe is terrible at her job.
Frank slips Zoe a copy of Donald’s “very far left of center” draft of the education bill, which Zoe wants to put online. (Every time someone at the Herald says anything related to the internet, it sounds like they’re putting it in air-quotes.) Her story makes the front page, but below the fold. A-minus, Zoe. A Herald staffer, staring at a screen that looks like a crashing computer, informs Zoe’s editors that “this web traffic is absolutely crazy.”
Zoe thinks she’s climbing up the ranks, but does she have any real power, or just the illusion of power that access and one good story provides? She thinks she’s in control, but she’s awfully quick to do everything Frank tells her to do. And I don’t think either one of them quite grasps what the other is capable of.
Frank Jedi-mind-tricks Congressman Donald into taking the fall for the leaked education bill, and then he Jedi-mind-tricks Zoe into turning a non-story about would-be secretary of State Michael Kern into an A1 (or, in Zoe-speak, “homepage”) career-wrecker. Zoe doesn’t seem interested in Frank’s motives; does it really not occur to her that something nefarious is going on, or is she too high on that successful-scoop buzz to notice?
Frank sends Peter to talk to Crazy Roy, the man responsible for the wackadoo college-era op-ed Zoe leaked, and convince him to smear Kern’s good Boy Scout name. As your average public servant is wont to do, Peter brought some cocaine and booze along on his journey. Zoe gets to break the news that Cathy Durant will replace Kern, intel that Frank tells Zoe “will be true after you write it.”
On paper, almost everything about Frank reads as slimy and unlikable. But in Kevin Spacey’s hands, there’s this undeniable allure to him, that syrupy Southern accent softening the blow of even his most vicious lines. Spacey’s dialogue, as written by Willimon, wouldn’t be out of place onstage, but Spacey makes it feel right for the screen. (Mara seems to struggle with this — all her speeches sound rehearsed — but more on her later.) Frank’s self-assuredness, his way of always knowing the right thing to say, is appealing and almost comforting, even when he’s being wicked. You get that Olivia Pope “It’s handled” calm every time Frank shows up to start solving problems. I’m not sure that the straight-to-camera commentary would work with another actor, but here it feels right for Spacey, a theater guy at heart, to address us. It’s a way for Frank to acknowledge that he’s performing for an audience, and so much of politics is performance.
Doug, Frank’s creepy henchman, pays Peter’s Kristen Stewart doppelgänger call girl $10,000 for her “silence,” but then immediately asks her to open her mouth (gosh, those are confusing instructions) so he can pay her extra for some hookery. I know there’s a lot of competition for this position, but Doug is the worst. After having Evelyn fire 18 people from the Clear Water Initiative, Claire fires Evelyn. Doug is still the worst, though. For now.
Oh boy, it’s the Peachoid episode. Seventeen-year-old Jessica Masters was texting her boyfriend “Doesn’t the Peachoid look like a giant — ” and then she lost control of her car. RIP. Frank hightails it back to Gaffney, his home district, to do damage control. Frank pulls a classic move, the “No, I couldn’t possibly read this prepared speech. I must speak FROM THE HEART.” He gets all Juliette Barnes (from Nashville, y'all) and shakes his fist at God. But then he’s like, “Twist! I love God. In the spirit of Zoe Barnes (no relation to Juliette, probably), I will ask no questions of my Lord.” It’s a crowd-pleaser. Crisis averted.
Zoe blows Frank a kiss on CNN to get his attention. Zoe’s boss is, inexplicably, not happy about his star reporter becoming a brand unto herself and promoting the paper through the power of self-promotion. “No TV for a month,” he decrees. Now go to your room!
For all the problematic, unrealistic aspects of Zoe’s story line, I like watching this power play among Zoe, her editor, and the highest brass at the Herald. Zoe’s boss is old-school and probably thinks Zoe should “pay her dues” by working an unglamorous beat at a tiny paper out in flyover country. I bet he takes it as a personal affront that Zoe’s managed to get to the Herald so quickly, that he’s sure she hasn’t earned it. But the ladder he climbed to get where he is doesn’t exist anymore. Either Tom knows that and resents it or he’s even more out of touch than I thought. I think he underestimates Zoe, not just her abilities but her ambition, her hunger, her scrappiness. Seems to be a common theme among the men in this show: They forget that the young women in their lives are sharper than they look.
Claire courts human germ factory/nonprofit founder Gillian to work at CWI. I want to root for Gillian, but she’s one of those annoying people who thinks “medicine doesn’t do much.” Do we trust that Claire admires Gillian? I do think Claire appreciates talent and vision, but I also think she operates by a keep-your-enemies-closer mentality. I worry for you, Gillian. Maybe see a doctor?
Christina has a magical job offer at the Speaker’s office with no deadline by which she must accept or reject. Peter plays the role of “supportive boyfriend” for approximately three hours before caving to his man-need to have his phone sex sweetheart just an office away. I can see in Christina’s Bambi eyes that she will be HoC’sThe Girl Who Didn’t Go to Paris. Lean in, Christina!
Peter pours the last of his cocaine down the drain, thus ending his addiction woes forever and ever.
A few more things …
• I think Doug comes off as even scummier than Underwood. He’s a life ruiner with no discernible motive. Thoughts?
• Important celebrity sighting: Nate’s mom from Gossip Girl is Felicity Holburn! Good to see you again, Mrs. Archibald.
• If only we didn’t all rely on our cell phones to get us through awkward social situations, Francis Underwood may never have been photographed stealing a glimpse of Zoe Barnes’s G-string through her dress. IF ONLY. Maybe David Fincher’s secret message through cinema is that technology is the root of all evil.
• “She thinks I can be bought with a pair of tickets. What does she think I am, a whore in postwar Berlin?” For a show so heavy on the doom and gloom, House of Cards gets its laughs in.
• No idea what Claire’s graveyard deal is. Theories welcome.
• I worry that sometimes House of Cards has the Masters of Sex problem: an inability to let a theme speak for itself. That line by Zoe — “I’m better than what they have me doing” — would have been so much better if she hadn’t followed up with “You know what that feels like, don’t you? You would have made an excellent secretary of State.”
• Kevin Spacey is such a good dancer! So light on his feet.
• “Hey, Twitter-twat. WTF?” Why does Janine talk about Twitter like it’s a disease? She’s not that much older than Zoe.
• I wish Freddy’s BBQ Joint were real.
If you’ve binged ahead of the class, please keep those spoilers out of the comments. And when you're caught up on the next batch, move on to my recap of Chapters 4–6.
The first season of the American television drama series House of Cards premiered exclusively via Netflix's web streaming service on February 1, 2013. The season was produced by Media Rights Capital, and the executive producers are David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, Eric Roth, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs, John Melfi, and Beau Willimon.
House of Cards was created for television by Beau Willimon. It is an adaptation of a previous BBC miniseries of the same name by Andrew Davies, which was based on the novel by Michael Dobbs. Set in present-day Washington, D.C., House of Cards is the story of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a Democrat from South Carolina's 5th congressional district and the House Majority Whip, who, after getting passed over for appointment as Secretary of State, decides to exact his revenge on those who betrayed him. The series also stars Robin Wright, Kate Mara, and Corey Stoll in lead roles.
- Kevin Spacey as Francis J. Underwood, a U.S. Congressman from South Carolina and the House Majority Whip.
- Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, Frank Underwood's wife and the CEO of the Clean Water Initiative, a non-profit organization devoted to environmental awareness.
- Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes, an ambitious young journalist working for the Washington Herald and eventual lover of Frank Underwood.
- Corey Stoll as Peter Russo, a U.S. Congressman from Pennsylvania and eventual candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania.
- Michael Kelly as Douglas "Doug" Stamper, Frank Underwood's loyal Chief of Staff.
- Kristen Connolly as Christina Gallagher, Peter Russo's Chief of Staff and girlfriend.
- Sakina Jaffrey as Linda Vasquez, the White House Chief of Staff in the Walker Administration.
- Sandrine Holt as Gillian Cole, a respected charity worker and eventual employee of Claire Underwood at the CWI.
- Constance Zimmer as Janine Skorsky, a veteran political reporter at the Washington Herald and their White House correspondent.
- Michel Gill as Garrett Walker, the President of the United States and former governor from Colorado.
- Sebastian Arcelus as Lucas Goodwin, a senior political reporter at the Washington Herald.
- Mahershala Ali as Remy Danton, a lobbyist at law firm Glendon Hill who represents SanCorp, a powerful natural gas company.
- Ben Daniels as Adam Galloway, a world-renowned photographer and occasional lover of Claire Underwood.
- Boris McGiver as Tom Hammerschmidt, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Herald.
- Dan Ziskie as Jim Matthews, the Vice President of the United States and former Governor of Pennsylvania.
- Jayne Atkinson as Catherine Durant, the U.S. Secretary of State and former Senator from Missouri.
- Nathan Darrow as Edward Meechum, a member of the Capitol Police and former U.S. Marine who serves as the new bodyguard for Frank and Claire Underwood.
- Elizabeth Norment as Nancy Kaufberger, secretary for House Majority Whip Frank Underwood.
- Reg E. Cathey as Freddy Hayes, the owner of a BBQ restaurant that is frequented by Frank Underwood.
- Rachel Brosnahan as Rachel Posner, a prostitute desiring to escape her position in life.
- Larry Pine as Speaker of the House of Representatives Bob Birch.
- Tawny Cypress as Carly Heath, the editor-in-chief of news blog Slugline.
- Karl Kenzler as Charles Holburn, a U.S. senator, friend of the Underwoods and husband of Felicity Holburn.
- Francie Swift as Felicity Holburn, a friend of the Underwoods and wife of Charles Holburn.
- Chance Kelly as Steve, a bodyguard and driver for Frank Underwood.
- Al Sapienza as Marty Spinella, the Head Lobbyist for the associated teacher's unions.
- Kathleen Chalfant as Margaret Tilden, the owner of Washington Herald.
- Chuck Cooper as Barney Hull, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC).
- Wass Stevens as Paul Capra, a senior union official in South Philadelphia and a friend of Peter Russo's.
- Gerald McRaney as Raymond Tusk, a billionaire entrepreneur with holdings in the field of nuclear energy.
- Reed Birney as Donald Blythe, a respected and long-serving Representative who has many years experience on education.
- Kevin Kilner as Michael Kern, a Senator from Colorado and candidate for the post of Secretary of State.
- Maryann Plunkett as Evelyn Baxter, business associate of Claire Underwood and a former office manager at the Clean Water Initiative.
- Michael Siberry as David Rasmussen, the House Majority Leader.
- Kenneth Tigar as Walter Doyle, an associate of Frank Underwood's.
- David Andrews as Tim Corbett, a former friend of Frank Underwood who owns a rafting company.
- Phyllis Somerville as Mrs. Russo, Peter Russo's mother.
- Michael Warner as Oliver Spence, Claire Underwood's attorney.
See also: List of House of Cards episodes
The first season received positive reviews from critics. On Metacritic, the season received a weighted mean score of 76 out of 100 based on 25 reviews, which translates to "generally positive reception." On Rotten Tomatoes, the season received a score of 85% with an average rating of 8.2 out of 10 based on 39 reviews; the site's consensus reads, "Bolstered by strong performances — especially from Kevin Spacey — and surehanded direction, House of Cards is a slick, engrossing drama that may redefine how television is produced."USA Today critic Robert Bianco praised the series, particularly Spacey and Wright's lead performances, stating "If you think network executives are nervous, imagine the actors who have to go up against that pair in the Emmys." Tom Gilatto of People Weekly lauded the first two episodes, calling them "cinematically rich, full of sleek, oily pools of darkness." In her review for The Denver Post, Joanne Ostrow said the series is "Deeply cynical about human beings as well as politics and almost gleeful in its portrayal of limitless ambition." She added: "House of Cards is a wonderfully sour take on power and corruption."
On July 18, 2013, House of Cards became the first Primetime Emmy Award nominated series for original online only web television for the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards. Among those nine nominations were Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Kevin Spacey, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Robin Wright, and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for David Fincher. The first season was also nominated for Casting, Cinematography, Editing, Music, and Main Title Music at the 65th Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards. On September 15, the series became the first web television series and the first web televisionwebisode to be Primetime Emmy Awarded with two wins at the 65th Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards: Eigil Bryld for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series and Laray Mayfield and Julie Schubert for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series. On September 22, Netflix made history with a total three wins including Fincher's Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for directing the pilot episode "Chapter 1" in addition to the pair of Creative Arts Emmy Awards, making "Chapter 1" the first Primetime Emmy-awarded webisode. None of the Emmy awards were considered to be in major categories, however.
Spacey received best actor nominations at the 20th Screen Actors Guild Awards,71st Golden Globe Awards, and 18th Satellite Awards. Wright won best actress at both the 71st Golden Globe Awards and 18th Satellite Awards, while Stoll was nominated at both for supporting actor and the series was nominated at both for best drama. Wright's Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama for her portrayal of Claire Underwood made her the first actress to win a Golden Globe Award for an online-only web television series. The show won a 2013 Peabody Award for Area of Excellence.
At the 3rd Critics' Choice Television Awards, Kevin Spacey and Corey Stoll were nominated for Best Drama Actor and Best Drama Supporting Actor, respectively. The show has also been nominated at the 29th TCA Awards for the Outstanding New Program and the Program of the Year. The show was also nominated at the 40th People's Choice Awards for Favorite Streaming Series, at the Producers Guild of America Awards 2013 for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television, Drama, at the 66th Directors Guild of America Awards for Outstanding Directing – Drama Series, at the Writers Guild of America Awards 2013 for Television: Dramatic Series, Television: New Series and Television: Episodic Drama, winning new series.
In addition, the success of House of Cards and popularity of Breaking Bad, both of which are only available in the United Kingdom online has caused a rule change for the British Academy Television Awards and British Academy Television Craft Awards beginning with the ceremonies for the 2013 calendar year on May 18, 2014 and April 27, 2014, respectively. At the 2014 British Academy Television Awards the show was nominated for Best International Programme.
Home video release
The first season was released on DVD and Blu-ray in region 1 on June 11, 2013, in region 2 on June 10, 2013, and in region 4 on June 27, 2013.
Director's commentaries for all of the first-season episodes premiered on Netflix on January 3, 2014. They had not been included on the home video release.
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