Netflix’s House of Cards Plays a Mean Game of Political Chess

Ruby Saha, Columnist

Against my better judgment, I started watching House of Cards a few weeks ago. I can’t say I expected much, especially after my disappointment with Scandal: Kevin Spacey is not an actor I’ve ever been excited about, and the set-up seemed predictable and staid, mired in politics I didn’t care much about and political intrigue that hardly intrigued me. I had no idea what a House whip (or as Frank puts it, “hwhip”) was until I finally Googled it three episodes in. But dear God, I am hooked. I don’t know where this show has been my whole life. It’s the most magnetizing thing I’ve seen since the criminally underrated Orphan Black.

It’s definitely a show that takes itself a little too seriously. Frank’s internal monologues are pretentious and bombastic, demonstrating that they are hardly snatches of an unguarded mind but yet another side of his perpetual performance of a constructed, multifaceted persona.

Yet I’ve come to eagerly anticipate the moments where Frank breaks the fourth wall, always reminding us that we are accomplices to his schemes, that we root for him as he manipulates the people around him like chess pieces on his political board. I find myself expecting that moment at the end of a scene where Frank slowly lets his gaze slip directly into the camera, which often functions as his version of an eyeroll. (I think my favorite one so far is when Frank is forced to go bird watching with influential billionaire Raymond Tusk, glaring into the camera as he is handed a pair of binoculars.)

Because each season is released in its entirety on Netflix, House of Cards is a really interesting study in what it means to produce a show that is consumed season-by-season, as opposed to episode-by-episode, and it’s clear that the show runners have given it some thought. Most episodes end with the most outrageous cliffhangers that somehow don’t matter, because the only thing stopping you from finding out what comes next is your own self-discipline. The storyline is byzantine to an extreme, with characters playing bit parts in the first few episodes only to resurface as key components of the most elaborately planned political

revenge plot I’ve had the pleasure to watch play out on television.

There are so many things about this show that appeal to me. The characters are fantastically drawn, with such beautifully poetic dialogue that often says so little and reveals so much. It’s a master class in acting, with simple gestures and facial twitches that speak volumes; Robin Wright’s cheekbones alone give Kevin Spacey a run for his money. It’s also great to watch Corey Stoll, OC ’98, on screen as a hapless senator who is his own worst enemy and an unfortunate pawn in Frank’s political game of chess. It’s also gorgeously shot, with some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in a television show.

I like that there are things the characters do that don’t have an immediately obvious function or satisfying payoff, the way most shows do when characters or props are introduced. In a very unusual moment of kindness, Claire hands a homeless man $20 bill; later in the episode the man throws the same bill at her in the shape of an origami crane. She consequently becomes obsessed with the art of origami, folding swans, roses and frogs. Peter notices them in her bag, strikes up a conversation about his kids and she hands him a few. There’s a suggested frisson here that ultimately leads nowhere, and there’s no satisfying resolution to this particular thread; it ends up getting lost in the twisted political machinations of the later episodes.

When it comes to writing, I’m usually a strong proponent of the Vonnegut method: “Rule #4: Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” However, in a show where the characters can start to seem like a collection of manipulative, unfeeling automatons, every small, unexplained habit turns into strangely reassuring evidence of the characters’ humanity.

I’m not often a fan of U.S.-converts of British shows — good examples like Elementary and Shameless are almost always exceptions to the rule. But I have to applaud the way the American version of House of Cards successfully approaches the challenge of converting a show to a completely different set of political rules. As trite as it seems, it really does demonstrate how universally shitty politics can be, no matter which side of the pond you’re on. The saying is true: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.