Tuned In

Review: House of Cards Sinks Its Sharp Teeth into Washington

In Netflix's new drama, Kevin Spacey guides a gleeful tour through a Washington D.C. where you are either eating flesh or you're on the menu.

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Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix

House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), D-S.C., likes him some meat. One fine morning, with the newspaper reporting a rival’s misfortune (in which Underwood had an invisible hand), he has a Washington BBQ joint open early to serve him a celebratory rack of ribs, because “I’m feelin’ hungry today!”

But meat is not merely Underwood’s preferred breakfast. It is his chosen metaphor. He describes the White House Chief of Staff with grudging admiration: “She’s as tough as a two-dollar steak.” He plans to destroy an enemy the way “you devour a whale. One bite at a time.” And he endures a tedious weekly meeting with House leaders, he tells us, by “[imagining] their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet.” All this he declares with Southern-fried gustatory satisfaction. You have to wonder if his name, Underwood, is not itself a metaphor: he is a delightfully deviled ham.

This is the political worldview of Underwood and, by extension, Netflix’s brassy, confident new drama series House of Cards: In DC, you are either eating flesh, or you are on the menu. It is an ambitious series, a series about ambition and a series of ambitious purpose: to make Netflix (which is streaming the whole first season Feb. 1) a pop-culture destination the way The Sopranos did HBO and Mad Men did AMC. House of Cards, directed by David Fincher, is not as out-of the-box astonishing as those two, but it does arrive confident and polished (and showing every dime of its reported $100 million budget on the screen). It’s good reason at least to use your Netflix subscription, if not to rush out and get one.

In House of Cards’ Washington, it is 2013, and a new President is being sworn in from Underwood’s own party. But the only Hope and Change in the air is Underwood’s Hope to Change his status for the better. He backed President-Elect Garrett Walker in the primary—”Do I like him? No. Do I believe in him? That’s beside the point”—and now he wants, as promised, the Secretary of State job. He cannot have it. Circumstances have changed, and with that change goes Underwood’s hope.

This is where things get fun. Underwood is asked to support the President’s new nominee, and there’s a delightful moment in which you can see Spacey’s eyes flicker as he microcalculates the wisest response. “Well,” he says. “That is an excellent choice.” (Translation: F— you.) Upon which he agrees to shepherd the President-elect’s education bill through Congress–and begins plotting the undoing of his usurper, one leak at a time.

We are privy to Underwood’s thoughts because he reveals them in monologue. The fourth-wall-breaking takes a little getting used to, and even then it often calls attention to itself. But when you hear Spacey declaim Underwood’s lines–“What a martyr crave more than anything is a blade to fall on”–you can see why the writers can’t resist. The device doesn’t just reveal his thoughts to us, it allows us to feel the experience of being worked by him–the drollery, the charisma, the dry but courtly menace. He makes you feel–as Underwood must everyone he wheedles and lobbies–like the only person in the room not beneath his contempt. And Spacey gives Underwood a silky Southern accent you could pour over crushed ice and sip with a sprig of mint on Derby Day.

There are a lot of parallels to other political series here. House of Cards, based on a 1990 British miniseries, feels like a better, less-self-serious version of Starz’s Boss–another outing by a high-profile director (Gus Van Sant) about political scheming. Here too, the protagonist has an icy, ambitious wife, Claire (Robin Wright), whose nonprofit work is allied to his political fortunes. As in last summer’s Political Animals, Underwood strikes an alliances with a hungry Washington blogger-turned-print-reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), whom he feeds scoops and becomes a kind of wicked mentor to. There’s even a bit of The Thick of It / Veep in it, in that it’s less about the center of power than about the struggle to get near it.

Meanwhile, House of Cards’ cynical, transactional view of politics is familiar from pretty much every recent political drama not written by Aaron Sorkin. House of Cards isn’t wholly original. But it is supremely confident. It’s not afraid to make its politics specific; Underwood is a Democrat, charged with getting Democratic legislation through Congress. It has a subtle sense for the role of the media in political scandals, which involve not just explosive scoops but trumped-up nontroversies over ancient quotes that snowball and derail careers. And though Claire is a bit much of a Lady Macbeth, the Underwoods’ symbiotic relationship is believable and in its own way loving: “my husband doesn’t apologize,” she tells him after a setback. “Even to me.”

Though it does not exactly ennoble politics, it’s easy to see House of Cards as a kind of fantasy–albeit in the opposite way that The West Wing was. Sorkin’s earnest drama began, in the post-impeachment Clinton era, as a fantasy of principled executive leadership, then became, in the Bush days, an alternative universe of full-throated liberalism. Come the Obama era, Frank Underwood is no idealistic Jeb Bartlet, no inspirational figure preaching a New Politics. He is a man who knows how to get goddamn things done, like LBJ working Congress. At a time of Congressional gridlock, House of Cards is a no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy fantasy of power, of grabbing the levers of power and wrenching them until they cry mercy.

A warning: I’m basing all this on two episodes, which is all Netflix made available to critics, though it will make the entire 13-episode season available at once Feb. 1. So if you’re considering signing up for Netflix solely on the basis of this series and its reviews, caveat subscriber. If you already have Netflix, then you very soon could have a better idea than I do at this writing whether it was worth it. (If so, you’re in luck, as Netflix has already OKed a second season.)

But after two hours, I was as ravenous for more scheming and cynical philosophy as Underwood tucking into a second helping of barbecue. Spacey (whose last regular TV gig was 25 years ago in Wiseguy) may well make him into the kind of classic antihero who is as fascinating in failure as in success, as we see when the White House patronizingly offers him Inauguration tickets as a consolation prize for losing the State post. “What am I?” he asks us derisively. “A whore in postwar Berlin, salivating over free stockings and chocolate?”

If you know Frank Underwood–and minutes into House of Cards you will feel that you do–you know that you do not buy his heart with sweets. The man is a carnivore.