If anyone told me they understood exactly what was happening in Netflix’s House of Cards, I wouldn’t believe them. Anyone without a PhD in political science and the attention span of a chess grandmaster has no hope of unraveling the complexity of this labyrinthine drama series. That being said, this is one of the most compelling TV shows I’ve ever seen.
What makes the show so accessible is the intent, more than the content. Kevin Spacey plays US congressman Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood, a man with such a psychopathic focus on power it makes you want to curl up and hide in a cupboard. The first episode sees him get passed up for promotion to Secretary of State, a position that seemed to be in the bag after many years of reliable service. He appears to take it on the chin, but inside he is furious – his sole purpose now: revenge at any cost. Nothing will stop him attaining the power of which he dreams.
Now, this might make Frank Underwood sound like an unsympathetic character. Why would anyone who is not also a psychopath want him to succeed? The answer is devilishly simple. As in the original 1990 BBC series, the protagonist regularly breaks the fourth wall; Spacey often turns to the camera to explain exactly how his Machiavellian scheme is unfolding, and what he plans to do next. He takes us along for the ride. He charms and seduces us into conspiratorial submission. We are powerless to resist.
The most important element in House of Cards is, unarguably, Spacey himself. With his hangdog good looks, southern drawl and silky smooth delivery, he makes Underwood seem every inch an upstanding member of society, albeit a politician. But as the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman, and in this case it is the Princess Bride herself, Robyn Wright, playing Underwood’s wife, Claire. Rarely has there been such a convincing Lady Macbeth. The couple is so hell-bent on success that they will use shocking means to achieve it. The average marriage could not survive this way.
A big part of House of Cards’ appeal is the almost soap opera level of character interplay. There is scandal, backstabbing and ferocity, not to mention Underwood’s ruthless manipulations that drive the story. Folded into the mix are intrepid journalists, wretched scapegoats, and myriad other three-dimensional characters. Francis J. Underwood conducts them like an orchestra and season one ended at the height of a blistering crescendo. Season two is nearly upon us and if anyone tells me they don’t care what happens next, I won’t believe them.
House of Cards season 2 is on Netflix in the UK from 14 February