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 irony of House of Cards’ presentation — which, actually, I believe is a conspiracy, not an irony — is this: The show is a really bleak, ugly depiction of human nature as fundamentally base, corruptible, and malignant. You don’t write the character of Claire Underwood if you don’t think people are basically either weak or evil.

So let’s extrapolate a little and assume that the House of Cards’ writers feel the same way about their viewers as they do about their characters (not a huge logical leap). That would mean that the necromancers behind this show have a pretty lousy view of those of us who started refreshing the Netflix homepage at 2:58 a.m. on February 14. They know we are weak. They know we are frail. They know we are hungry for the show.

Now consider this: If you were the person in charge of making, marketing, and then releasing House of Cards, and you believed that the art you made was at least somewhat true, and you believed that the future consumers of your art were normal humans with normal human failings and normal human weaknesses, then how would you distribute it?

This, I submit, is the answer: You would distribute it in one of two ways, depending on whether you were a benevolent person or a vindictive monster. If you were benevolent, you would release House of Cards at the normal pace that all sensible television shows have followed since the time of Shakespeare. You would set up your Netflix doohickey so we could get our House of Cards fix once a week for thirteen weeks, and had something to lend our lives hope and joy and glee. You would recognize that there is nothing better than wanting something really badly and then getting it, and you would kindly decide to let people with House of Cards problems experience that delight in thirteen small, emotionally manageable doses.

HOWEVER: The people who make House of Cards are not nice people. They are vindictive monsters. We know they are vindictive monsters because they take this really good, really gripping, really intense show and release twelve-odd hours of it all at once, destroying weekends, ruining social lives, wrecking all our circadian rhythms and work/life balance and good time-management habits. Fans are reduced to twitching, fidgeting weirdos who can’t contribute anything to normal conversations except “Have You Watched House of Cards Yet” or “Wasn’t The First Episode CRAZY” or “No I Can’t Hang Out With You, I’m Really Really Busy Tonight I Promise.”

It’s not nice. Frank Underwood laughs at us, and the House of Cards creators laugh at us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Please, Netflix, please: Show some grace. Save us from ourselves. Release Season 3 at a merciful pace.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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



Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review