House of Cards’ Most Fiendish Plot of All
Binge-viewing’s cool...until somebody gets hurt

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards


Betsy Woodruff

The dark forces behind House of Cards hate us. They are contemptuous, vengeful, and premeditating. They view us with scorn. They want us to suffer.

But the evil doesn’t come in the form of political scandal or backstabbing. Instead it’s something commentators think is revolutionary and fans find fascinating — the show’s all-at-once, binge-viewing release schedule.

“Human beings like control,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told The New Republic in a December article about the company’s on-demand series release pattern, in which the entire season is put out at once, for viewers to watch on their own schedules. “To make all of America do the same thing at the same time is enormously inefficient, ridiculously expensive, and most of the time, not a very satisfying experience.”

But strangely enough, House of Cards has succeeded spectacularly in getting all of America (or at least the percentage of Americans who are hooked on House of Cards) to do one thing at the same time: binge-watch House of Cards as soon as it’s released, then litter the world with spoilers, giveaways, live-tweeted reactions and reviews that can’t help but influence your enjoyment of the show.

It seems like a mathematical impossibility, but if you haven’t watched the whole season of House of Cards ten minutes after it comes out, you’re screwed.

Everyone seems to agree that House of Cards is an amazing show. Some people hate it because it makes female journalists look slutty (fair criticism), because it’s an unrealistic portrayal of the evil of American politicians (eh, fair criticism), or because it’s an unrealistic portrayal of the intelligence and effectiveness of American politicians (an accurate, valid, indisputably correct criticism). I imagine lots of other people hate it for lots of other reasons.

That doesn’t change that it’s an amazing show. Even if you bristle at the suggestion that all successful female Washington journalists must be sleeping with Kevin McCarthy, House of Cards grabs you by the eyeballs. If you gaze too long into House of Cards, House of Cards gazes also into you.

But when a new season drops, thousands (at least thousands!) of Americans turn into pinwheel-eyed, drooling goons who have no choice but to quarantine themselves — squinting into their greasy, fingerprint-smudged laptop screens, probably ignoring the biological imperatives to eat meals and take bathroom breaks and respond to urgent phone calls from their mothers — so they can watch twelve hours (plus or minus) of instantly streaming television.

House of Cards
The second season of Netflix’s political thriller House of Cards debuted on February 14, a welcome valentine for fans. Here’s a look at the show and the new season.
As with the first season, Netflix is making all 13 episodes available immediately. But be warned: there is a major plot development in the very first episode, so if you won’t be starting your binge-watching on Friday, you might want to watch out for spoilers online and on social media.
The show has many fans in Washington circles. President Obama even weighed in on the new season premiere on Thursday, tweeting: “Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please.”
As winter weather battered the East Coast this week, including Washington, D.C. — where the show is set — some anxious homebound fans took to social media to try and persuade Netflix to release the new season a day early, but the streaming service stuck to its schedule.
House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, the scheming House majority whip who at the end of the first season maneuvered himself into a nomination as vice president to the chief executive he helped get elected — and who reneged on a deal to make Underwood secretary of state. The entire first season followed Underwood taking his revenge.
Underwood’s wife Claire (played by Robin Wright), is an equally ambitious Washington player.
The Underwoods are the ultimate Washington power couple, ruthless and utterly devoted to each other.
Underwood found a kindred spirit in Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a hotshot rising reporter who worked closely, and intimately, with Underwood to garner valuable scoops. In season two, Barnes is beginning to unravel the extent of Underwood’s ambitions.
Underwood’s lieutenant Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) helps work the halls of Congress as well as taking care of situations that require a deft touch outside the law.
House of Cards is adapted from a 1990 BBC series set in the halls of power in England, following manipulative conservative MP Francis Urquhart (played by Ian Richardson) as he tries to engineer his own rise to power.
The first season of House of Cards was well received by audiences and critics and earned the first-ever Primetime Emmy nomination for a digital-only series. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright were also nominated for their work.
Underwood’s occasional narration directly to the audience — filled with cold and calculating observations about Washington’s power politics — is a hallmark of the show. The character’s Twitter profile @RepUnderwoodSC quips: “After 22 years in Congress, I can smell which way the wind is blowing.”
CRITICAL JUDGMENT: Early reviews of season two have been short on details due to some major early developments, but have generally praised the return of the show’s dark tone, its cynical view of American politics, and Spacey’s commanding presence as Frank Underwood. Here's a sample.
“Frank remains a man of unquenchable ambition, and he doesn’t have to state his intentions for us to understand where he wants to go: the presidency. ‘Democracy is so overrated,’ Frank says, and proves it again and again.” — Willa Paskin, Slate
“The characters are all steel and glass surfaces, having joyless sex and telling laughless jokes. The exception, of course, is Underwood, who may not be lovable but at least is the only one having fun here.” — James Poniewozik, Time
“Those gaga about Spacey’s Francis Underwood – the congressman who has wheedled his way to within a heartbeat of the presidency – will have every reason to feel that way again.” — Brian Lowry, Variety
“By positing a Johnsonesque power broker and master schemer who wields cabalistic influence behind the scenes, House of Cards assigns order and purpose to what, in real life, is too often just an endless, baffling tick-tack-toe stalemate. Or maybe it’s just a cleverly made Washington thriller.” — Alessandra Stanley, New York Times
“The lengths to which Francis, Claire and, increasingly, Underwood's inscrutable lieutenant Doug (Michael Kelly) are prepared to go to serve their own ends occasionally seem unrealistically heinous, even for a politician – more befitting monsters than men.” — Benjamin Secher, The Telegraph
“It's entertaining and cruises along with a strong pulse. There's a core mystery and American politics is mocked, appropriately, for being a two-party hustle of recrimination and separatism. Dramatically, there's much to be pulled from that divide.” — Tim Goodman, The Hollywood Reporter
“By being so cruel, so grueling, House of Cards is the perfect show to dump on viewers all at once: It’s a test to see how much hurt we can take.” — Hank Stuever, Washington Post
Updated: Feb. 14, 2014