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Netflix House of Cards

Isolated Power

Did Netflix's big House of Cards gamble pay off?

House of Cards, Netflix’s expensive expansion into original programming, debuted one month ago this week. I finished watching the 13th and final episode of the first season on Sunday night and I have no idea if that makes me ahead of the curve or hopelessly behind. I imagine, to many of you, writing about the show in early March already seems pathetically out of date, like wearing white shoes after Labor Day or secretly finding “Harlem Shake” videos still amusing. There are probably also at least a few patient holdouts moments away from closing this tab to avoid spoilers.1 And I don’t blame you, you tough-minded few too disciplined or busy to binge — rather, I admire you! Stanford has commissioned gooey experiments about you; YouTube is littered with videos celebrating and mocking your willpower. You are the hardy souls who disprove the Pringles Theorem: Once you pop, you are totally able to stop. Perhaps you’ll return to this page at some point in the future and read my spoilery reflections — they’ll be a welcome respite from hoverboard practice or a way to while away the hours volunteering on Jaden Smith’s presidential campaign. Who knows? By the time some of you finish the first season of House of Cards, “Harlem Shake” videos might actually be funny again.

To put it more plainly: I’m a little unmoored! One of the perks of writing about television for a living is that I’m naturally tied to a cultural cycle, a twisty sine wave of pre-hype and hype-hype, of reviews and recaps, of shared investment, pleasure, and, occasionally, regret. I get to see something first, I write about it, and then we discuss. Rinse, rewind, repeat. Simple! And it’s not just critics who set the tone of the debate. Once the great Spoiler Wars of the last decade were amicably settled,2 a zippy barrage of tweets and comments not only replaced the mythical watercooler, they actually improved on it.3 This constant conversation filled the gaps between weekly episodes, stretching and elevating the experience of watching a prestige show in the process. The television season is now like football season: a string of dramatic Sundays kept afloat for months on end by the theories, overreactions, slideshows, and general hot air of a highly vocal, totally democratized class of gasbags.

But Netflix’s strategy of uploading an entire season onto its servers in a single day has disrupted all of that. Suddenly, it was every man for himself; the Internet’s bubbling watercooler had been replaced by the loneliness of the half-filled Brita. After taking a few weeks to watch the first six episodes of House of Cards, I tore through the final seven hours over two nights. By the end, my eyes were swimming and my clothes reeked of the Underwoods’ shared nocturnal cigarettes, the smoke from Freddy’s BBQ, and the off-brand spider repellent that hangs like a sticky cloud over Zoe Barnes’s spartan flophouse.4 It was a lurid, claustrophobic experience, one well suited to such a lurid, claustrophobic show.

I have to admit, the isolation at times made me a little loopy. I appreciated Beau Willimon and David Fincher’s generosity with their art — two perfectionists surprisingly willing to grant me the power to experience the show in whatever manner I saw fit. But after a few hours of uninterrupted Washington grime, I began to wonder who was really in control.5 Deprived of outside sounding boards or internal breaks, watching House of Cards began to feel like riding a horse to the glue factory: The scenery changed but never the grim outcome. Would things get bad or worse? Would Frank be heart-stoppingly evil or merely treacherous? When I finally faced the finale at 11:55 p.m. on Sunday night, I felt no suspense. It was like ordering takeout from the Thai place near the Slugline office with Janine Skorsky: Would you like the green curry or the green curry? To paraphrase Caddyshack, another gripping story about the dark underbelly of an elite institution: You’ll feel nothing and like it.

I hope you’ll forgive me that I’m so far unable to separate House of Cards from its delivery system, the message from the streaming messenger. The truth is, I think I enjoyed the show a whole lot more than I did my experience watching it. Even though the guarantee of two seasons allowed Beau Willimon to eschew traditional cliffhangers and other similarly sharp, grabby tricks designed to keep people watching, his scripts were nevertheless murderously entertaining; each episode poured all too easily into the next, like minibar vodka into a hotel water glass.6 In many ways, House of Cards was the ideal project for Netflix to embrace as its first fully funded original series.7 Not only was it engagingly amoral — precisely the sort of thing best indulged in privacy, in the dark — the show itself was primarily about delivery systems, not content. Frank Underwood is both a cartographer and a bold explorer of the pathways to power. He appears completely devoid of core principles or beliefs; there’s no platform he won’t trample in his relentless gambit of hubris and revenge. There was plenty of talk of natural-gas drilling and good-paying jobs, but those were cudgels, not causes. Like when Netflix snatched the proposed series from the waiting, establishment arms of HBO, House of Cards is primarily a business story, not a political one. The Underwoods are out to enrich themselves at the expense of the people, not for their benefit.

This clinical cynicism is David Fincher’s stock in trade, and it was a relief to see that his chilly fingerprints remained on the series long after he finished directing the second episode.8 It’s also far preferable to the suffocating optimism of The Newsroom, the HBO series from Fincher’s occasional collaborator Aaron Sorkin that serves as a sort of smug Abel to House of Cards‘s slyly sinful Cain. Thanks in large part to a ravenous performance by Kevin Spacey,9 Frank Underwood was the most charismatic monster we’ve seen on the small screen in quite some time, able to purr and snarl with equal ferocity. But outside of a few compelling quirks — barbecue for breakfast, a loathing of children but a childlike delight for their violent video games — Frank Underwood struck me as House of Cards‘s engine, not its anchor. I found any number of supporting characters far more interesting — and, as an added bonus, they refrained from breaking the fourth wall to spell out their every intention with all the subtlety of an actual sledgehammer through an actual wall. Partly this has to do with how Frank introduced himself to us: If you’ll strangle a dog, what won’t you do? His shift from killing bills and careers to actually killing people was meant to be an escalation, but it struck me as business as usual. Frank had already drilled deep into the core of Peter Russo and fracked the living daylights out of him. Stopping his heart when he did was just an act of compassionate cloture.

Still, I’m not entirely certain Frank was so one-note by design. “Chapter 8,” the episode in which the dishonorable congressman returns to his military alma mater, was by far the most interesting and, in many ways, traditional hour of the season. Most contemporary cable shows, from Girls to Mad Men, have featured episodes that transported characters back to their roots in order to switch up perspective and, through curated reveals, move the overall story both backward and forward at once. Other than his stubbornly opaque relationship with his wife,10 this provided the lone opportunity to see Frank as something other than the backroom Machiavelli he’d willed himself to become. The tender admission of a boyhood affair with a fellow cadet was fascinating; it suggested that a man who uses emotions solely as weapons was once surprisingly defenseless in the face of unexpected love. It also forced Spacey to play a version of the same coy game he’s been playing with the media for years in terms of his own sexuality and identity; it felt genuinely risky. But in this case, again, I think the Netflix model hurt the show rather than helped it. Had the episode been allowed to stand on its own, it would have stood out; a week to consider this softer vision of Francis Underwood would have allowed viewers to fill in some of the emotional blanks in House of Cards‘ unceasing scheming. Instead, sandwiched as it was in the middle of my personal binge, the episode and its revelations seemed ephemeral and weightless. Hitting “next” on my remote allowed me to swallow without chewing, to move on without digesting.

Because of the compressed way I watched, most of my takeaways from House of Cards, good and bad, are similarly jammed up. There were plenty of diverting pleasures to be found in the reptilian stillness of Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper, Underwood’s loyal aide-de-camp, and the arrogant cool of Mahershala Ali as lobbyist Remy Danton. Kate Mara gave a career-making performance as Zoe Barnes, deadening her soft eyes into dark stones of ambition and zeal. Yet the show’s callous treatment of female journalists — that all of them, even the wearily tenacious Skorsky, must at some point “fuck and suck” their way to a scoop — was a major bummer, as was the surprise casting of a deciduous oak tree in the key role of the president of the United States. And the less said about the Putumayo lifestyle of “free-spirited” photographer Adam Galloway — the Ansel Adams of the Acela — the better.

In the end, it was just Peter Russo, the lone hot-blooded character, who stood out on such a crowded, icy stage. In contrast to the vacant-eyed climbing of the other elected officials, only Russo — whoring, snorting, self-pitying Russo — conveyed the desire that his was an emptiness desperate to be filled. I loved the unsentimental gloss the scripts gave to Russo’s forced attempt at rehab. Sobriety only stuck with him because it was temporarily replaced with a riskier, sweeter high: the mainline hit of ego and validation that comes from campaigning and seeing yourself reflected in the lofty imaginings of those cheering your name. Corey Stoll — until now best known for his smirking Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, from now on worth knowing in anything at all11 — was magnificent in the part, fearless in the highs and the lows, and he was matched, shot for shot, by Kristen Connolly as his devoted chief of staff, Christina. Their doomed pas de deux of hope and hopelessness said more about contemporary American politics than a hundred scenes of backroom horse-trading or irresponsible blogging ever could.

When Russo’s heart stopped beating, in “Chapter 11,” House of Cards‘ pulse flatlined right along with it. In art and life, the victims of power tend to be more sympathetic and interesting than those who wield it — the faceless, teeming “they” that Claire asked Frank about in the finale, when she woke from a nightmare wondering just “who” it was all for. With Russo off the board, a pawn from the start, all that was left was Frank’s smothering chess match, and the remaining pieces — a Chinese-spouting Major Dad, a shady global energy concern — were obstacles, not characters. Thanks to Netflix’s largesse, Beau Willimon didn’t have to make his Season 1 finale the slightest bit noisy or even memorable.

This is more an indictment of my own rhythms and expectations than of his: It seems to me that he and Spacey have always considered this a two-season movie, not a traditional TV series. And so he was able to maintain his slow and gradual build for next year, when Frank Underwood will continue his vicious, upward slog, free from the restraints of ethics or scruples, and Willimon himself will continue telling his story in full, without network interference, online backlash, or even the threat of an intemperate tweet. There’s always a need for fresh meat for the grinder, original content for the servers.

In the final moments of Episode 13, as the journalistic cabal was closing in, the Underwoods remained oblivious. They went for a jog and their faces reminded me of predators after a feed: sated, regal, and utterly alone. I could relate to that last bit. More than Russo, what I missed the most as the season wound down was the cacophonous scrum of online conversation, the community of fans that help make sense of art in the moment, which, in turn, can help kick a show from good to great, at least in our estimation. In the long term, this absence might be a good thing, or at least a fine thing — we survived the shift from TV to HBO; we can survive this paradigm change as well. New media is turning us all into New Critics. But I guess I’m still an old one. Without the larger cultural context in which to frame it, House of Cards seems diminished the further I get from my binge. Its Shakespearean pomp seemed essential when I was trapped inside the Beltway, superfluous now that it’s slowly receding in my rearview mirror.

Filed Under: House of Cards, Internet, Movies, Netflix, Ted, TV

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald