The similar structure of their titles isn’t the only thing Game of Thrones and the new Netflix series House of Cards have in common. The first is set in a brutal Medieval-style fantasy world, and the second is set in present-day Washington, DC, but the scheming and lustful grabs at power are pulsing wildly at the heart of each.
Of course they have their differences as well. Since Cards focuses on House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), it’s maybe more exact to call it a version of Game of Thrones told almost explicitly through Tywin Lannister’s point of view. The congressman is aggressive and shrewd in his search to become President, but as the complete 13-episode season of the show (or 13-hour movie-you-have-to-keep-pressing-play-to-see) proves, there are other combatants willing to protect their interests just as fiercely and just as intelligently.
We’re introduced to Underwood just after President Walker (Michael Gill) starts his first term in office by breaking his promise to make our anti-hero Secretary of State. Livid, Underwood commits to a new path to power that will bulldoze his former allies, creating a pact with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who runs an environmental non-profit, to seek revenge. Almost on cue, an ambitious reporter named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) forces her way into their lives, and Underwood believes he has found a powerful new press-credentialed weapon in his arsenal.
Though there are a lot of pieces on the board, the show lags a bit in its first three episodes — choosing to display Underwood’s prowess as a man who thinks 10 steps ahead and smoothly gets whatever he wants. As a result, the friction is almost non-existent, making Underwood (played beautifully here by Spacey using only 1/10th of his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil accent) a kind of magician. The character is a Tai Chi master of tactics, using opponents’ strengths against them, happily pretending he agrees with a position in order to gain the trust to defy it and playing one side against another so that neither wins.
But he makes it look too easy, which is great to establish the character, but terrible for creating any real drama. It also shows a genuine lack of the kind of writing complexity needed to prove Underwood is human (and to give him a genuine challenge). Showing how cool he is might be admirable, but since we’re not in on his plans, everything falls into place without hands (especially the writers’) getting dirty.
None of that is helped by a comically terrible break in the fourth wall that the show utilizes repeatedly to let us in on Underwood’s witticisms and the surface level of his thinking. It’s a cheap trick when used for sly humor and condescending when used to explain why he’d be doing whatever he’s doing as if we couldn’t pick up on it.
Still, the first three episodes (two of which directed by David Fincher) shine with strong acting performances and a sauve nature that should urge a few to forge ahead to the promised land of the meat of the series. Those who do will find a tighter, angrier show with much higher stakes and the introduction of players who prove themselves worthy adversaries. Underwood is never better than when he’s going up against people throwing elbows in the same league.
The most compelling elbow-thrower is Zoe, who becomes a rising national star thanks to tips Underwood is feeding her. Mara is magnetic here, exuding jagged confidence even when it proves to be naiveté. Even as other actors tower over her, she fills a room and delivers lines like right hooks all while maintaing a veneer that forces people to underestimate her. Zoe evolves probably more than any other figure, but she also makes a perfect icon for the modern age encroaching on an old one. Mirroring what Netflix itself is attempting with the show, Zoe is a new brand of reporter that has old school instincts paired with 4G speed. It’s not surprising when she leaves the print establishment Washington Herald to join an upstart website that focuses on the sexiest of in-depth stories or when she pushes her relationship with Underwood in some tangled directions.
Almost just as compelling is Corey Stoll as Representative Russo — a member of congress with severe substance abuse issues and a healthy appetite for the kind of fornication you pay for. Stoll plays the desperation and triumphant moments perfectly by always holding back just slightly on the intensity. He’s the kind of wreck that you slow the car down for, and as he becomes another tool in Underwood’s scheme, he and his girlfriend/office manager Christina (Kristen Connolly) build an interwoven side-story that’s just as tragically interesting as Underwood’s power grab.
On the other side of that coin is Claire — Underwood’s wife who is part Lady MacBeth, part Martha Stewart– whose subplot is a diversion that’s given too much attention. Wright is a powerful actress, and she’s as steely here as she’s ever been, but her watchability is the only thing truly anchoring the tale of her water-focused non-profit to the rest of what’s going on. It plays a role in Underwood’s plans, and it comes into conflict with them as well, but while Underwood is ruining the reputation of a career politician or trying to pass revolutionary education reform, it seems slightly frivolous to worry about the hotel canceling on Claire’s fundraising event last-minute (even if Underwood’s actions are indirectly to blame). The way her work is built into the bigger picture is questionable, but then again, kings and queens proving to be pawns (and vice versa) is a major theme running throughout the season.
Plus, Claire and Underwood’s marriage may be the most fascinating pairing in the entire show. It’s an impossible mix of sweetness and mutually-accepted opportunism. It’s them passing a cigarette back and forth after a long day, but it’s also blithely turning a blind eye to each others’ sexual indiscretions. They lash out at each other in passive ways that they both seem to accept tacitly — a cut-throat partnership that’s sincerely caring. They’re terrible people, but they accept one another unquestioningly.
Like all television programs, there are some episodes that don’t carry the same weight as others, but even the lesser chapters provide a lot to chew on and place us deeper into the well of Underwood’s descent to the top. In particular, one episode near the climax of the series threatens to be yawningly broody and contemplative only to play out one of the show’s most emotionally impacting plot turns. If House of Cards had stayed the course of its first three episodes, it would be a decently playful thriller, but just about every episode beyond whatever starting gun the production team heard lining up for episode four adds to the bloodied pile of intrigue hidden behind tailored suits and cocktail dresses.
As far as production is concerned, every element is first-rate. There’s not weak link to be found in the ensemble, the cinematography is clean and never stale, and the scoring is impeccable. The ear worm of an opening theme from Jeff Beal seems to float further than the credit sequence to somehow impossibly capture the exact tempo of the show itself. Plus, it’s a rare case where DC is shown in its different forms — from the fanciest parties to Zoe’s spider-trap apartment above a mini-mart.
There’s probably neat way to line up Game of Thrones characters with those found on House of Cards (dragons are politicians, obviously), and there’s certainly a comparison to be made in terms of HBO-style cinematic quality here, but the kinship both share blossoms out from the serpentine need for control. Like Thrones, everyone in House of Cards is angling for a higher position. Underwood pines for the Presidency, Claire for legitimacy (and possibly parenthood), Zoe for the national spotlight that comes with journalistic fame, Russo for more second chances, and other characters for variations of sex, money or power.
Everyone wants something, and that’s what make’s Underwood able to do what he does best. Hopefully he’ll be doing more of it in a second season.