When it comes to television I tend to gravitate toward the schemers. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey: all characters building their very own houses of cards. Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the star of Netflix’s new series House of Cards is perhaps the grandest schemer of them all; no different from the defining characteristics of many of TV’s greatest antiheroes, though playing on a much larger scale. The people that comprise Underwood’s relationships, conscious or unconscious, all work to serve one major goal: the advancement of Francis Underwood.
I’ve blown through the first season more times than I care to admit. As I write this piece, House of Cards is playing in the background. The ringtone on my iPhone is now Blackberry’s “Spirit” tone, for no other reason that I like the feeling that there’s schemin’ afoot when I get a text. It’s such a deliciously watchable and rewatchable show. Not nearly as rich with subtext as a Sopranos, Cards’ backstabbing, murder and sleeping around is more than enough to hold my attention – feeding into the shifting and contorting sort of serialized TV I crave. That it’s not TV, but instead delivered in an entirely new format, makes the series all the more remarkable. So yeah, I dig the show, and I’m excited to talk about it with other likeminded folk.
This will be the spoiler-heavy analysis I promised a while back, detailing both my observations from Season 1 as well as my predictions for the future. For my spoiler-free review of the first season, click here. Otherwise, here we go:
A little obvious, right? Let this be a final warning for people who wish not to be spoiled on House of Cards. Get out of here, you. Go watch the show.
I’ll cop to finding the season finale anti-climatic. The season ends on no bigger a cliffhanger than most other episodes. It’s still a satisfying conclusion, one that finds Francis victorious in his pursuit of the vice-presidency.
But it’s clearly baby-making time for Claire (Robin Wright), or at least she’s considering it. You’ll remember she visits that doctor regarding whether or not she can still conceive. Interestingly, the whole season finds everyone assuming she’s menopausal – including her own husband.
And then there’s that graveyard, a site Claire’s been drawn to all season, going so far as to jog through and spy on two young lovers. Claire’s late-night jog request to her husband is implicitly sexual, they’re most certainly going out with the intention of getting down, and where better than that macabre graveyard setting?
That doesn’t mean a baby won’t come out of that late-night tryst, just that by the time we catch up with the Underwood pair they might already have a baby in their midst – so a modest jump in time is likely for the show. I don’t think the show would go through the trouble of Claire considering having a baby, implying graveyard sex, and then not pull the trigger. But a pregnant Claire hampers the show and sidelines an integral character, she needs to be on the move and I think there’s more extramarital shenanigans in her immediate future. Speaking of which…
The mysterious San Corp, always in the background somewhere, will come to the forefront in Season 2. We found out that current natural gas lobbyist and Underwood’s former press secretary Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) has a knack for coming between the Underwoods. Claire may have rebuffed Remy’s advances when he invited her to his hotel room for champagne (and likely sex) in Episode 8, but it didn’t stop her from torpedoing Frank and Peter Russo’s (Corey Stoll) jobs bill at the company’s request.
Underwood’s already confided in his audience that he plans on destroying Remy, but I suspect Remy will become an even bigger problem before he’s ultimately dealt with. I see a burgeoning affair with Claire as part of that. Even if Frank and Claire supposedly tell each other everything, that theory was mightily tested this season. Remy’s one of the few people Claire could hook up with that she’d have to keep secret from Frank. Hopefully this also means we’ve seen the last of Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels), an integral S1 character but all-around drag on the show. Adam was death by boredom this season.
Zoe’s (Kate Mara) tumultuous rise through Washington’s press elite was one of the more entertaining aspects of the season. The finale finds her on a warpath, conspiring with boyfriend Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) and former-Herald correspondent Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) to unravel and expose Underwood’s manipulative drive to the Vice Presidency.
Following through on bringing down her former flame would be a real drag. What she wants, or will at least realize soon enough, is leverage over Underwood is far more beneficial than annihilating him wholesale.
Their rocky relationship was the backbone in Season 1, that’s going to ultimately continue. Don’t forget about those extremely degrading pictures Zoe all but begged Francis to take of her to gain his trust. These two characters have the power to ruin eachother, which makes a growing alliance all the more dangerous. Consider the terrible position this is going to put Lucas and Janine in moving forward. Those two may want to avoid traveling together once Frank gets wind of their plans. Which brings me to another point…
Pennsylvania’s democratic gubernatorial candidate was destined to be the sacrificial lamb, wasn’t he? Frank looked pretty casual as he murdered poor Peter Russo. Handing over the bottle that’d knock him out, comforting him as he knew Peter was about to die, rubbing his prints off the car before shutting the garage and sealing his former protégé’s fate.
And yet Peter dying wasn’t always in Frank’s gameplan. After he served his purpose, Frank instructed chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) to get him back on his feet. It wasn’t until Peter went even further off reservation, attempting to come clean to authorities and perhaps even take his story to the press, that his demise became imminent.
But I keep coming back to how comfortable Frank looked as he took Peter’s life. It stands to reason that Pete’s breakdown wasn’t the first major threat to Frank’s political machinations. Not only has Frank killed before; he’s probably done it on more than two occasions.
Doug Stamper is all-too-willing to go to hell and back for his boss. Interestingly, his unquestionable devotion is never validated in Season 1. Where does Stamper’s blind faith in the congressman come from? And where will it ultimately lead? One assumes there’s an endgame Stamper’s working towards as well.
That said I see Stamper’s hands getting even bloodier come next season. Francis needs to delegate now that he’s in the national spotlight. Stamper and newly appointed Secret Serviceman Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) will be a large part of that.
This may have been the biggest knock against Season 1, though Frank vs. Everybody was engaging all its own. Still, the success of next season rides on Frank having a big bad to undermine. And I think we may have already met him…
As Frank went about vetting Tusk (Gerald McRaney) for the vice-presidency, Tusk came off as a slightly aloof, albeit highly successful, parrot-toting business mogul. But once the tables turned and we learned it was indeed Tusk vetting Underwood, we met the real Raymond: a conniving puppetmaster with fate of the free world resting solely in his hands.
Make no mistake; President Walker (Michael Gill) belongs to Tusk. It’s why so much trouble was put into making sure Underwood would be a team player. By the end of the season Tusk owns both the United States President and the controlling interest of San Corp. But he only thinks he owns Underwood. Knowing what we now know about Frank, will Raymond Tusk be as powerful at the end of Season 2 as he was at the end of Season 1?
Episode 8, the one that finds the Underwoods returning to Frank’s alma mater, threw us for quite the loop, eh? Finding out that Frank had relations with a man in and of itself wasn’t surprising (I’ll get to that in a moment), but discovering just how strong and deep those feelings went certainly left viewers with a lot to chew on. The entire episode works to almost subvert everything we thought we knew about the congressman – revealing a tender, carefree, singing and perhaps more feminine side that suggested Frank wasn’t always the wheeling, dealing, murdering sonofabitch he became.
It’s never stated outright, but Frank still seems quite taken by his old friend Phil, even lingering on that final handshake at episode’s end. Though never attributed to the man in question, Frank does use the term “love of his life” in his speech at The Sentinel – rather telling if you ask me. Though they may no longer be together, and even if the equally married and burly Phil attempts to compartmentalize (“I liked making you feel good, saw no harm in it.”), the relationship reads like an important part of Frank’s DNA. Oh, by the way…
Eventually. This secret man-on-man transgression has the potential to bury Frank like no other. If Phil ever talked, or if anyone were to learn the Vice President once engaged in a secret gay relationship, Underwood’s entire tapestry would unravel. Phil seemed really adamant that Francis and he go rafting at some point – I could easily see that happening in Season 2 – though it’s likely spell doom for Phil.
Sorry, Phil. You seem nice, but you’re keeping a secret that Francis Underwood might not be able to afford much longer.
This is a fun one to debate as you can certainly make an argument for Frank’s bisexuality. But Season 1 went a long way in proving its power, not gender, that gets Frank off. His advice “Everything is about sex except sex,” comes to mind. Having sex with Zoe became another way he held power over her. When Zoe realized this she became disgusted with her sexually surrogate father figure. Certainly his marriage, though both claim it predicated on love, is more of a deeply-rooted business relationship where sex is occasionally traded. Point being: sex is just another of Frank’s means to service his preoccupation with holding power.
You can argue that, out of all of House of Cards’ complicit characters, Christina (Kristen Connolly) is perhaps the closest to an innocent. That’s likely to change in Season 2 as both Stamper and Underwood draw Russo’s former flame further into their corrupt web. Christina’s a loose end the two must watch closely. Whether it ends up being Stamper or Underwood, I sense some extreme Christina-coziness coming in Season 2. Regardless, a slot in the Underwood Administration is all but guaranteed.
Spacey’s been quick to tout that two-season guarantee Netflix gave the show – going so far as to say there’s a definitive endpoint they’re working towards. Thing is, if this initial run proves successful (and conventional wisdom suggests it has), I’d advise against pinning Underwood to that role too quickly. That Francis waltzes into the Oval Office, likely without ever having been elected, seems to be a certainty. But there are other dynamics to explore before getting there and a Vice-President Underwood holds enough mileage to make for some engaging storytelling in the meantime.
It shouldn’t be as easy for Frank to earn the commander-in-chief role as it was his vice slot. Take your time, Netflix. Keep building and take us there only when the story demands it.
That should wraps things for now. Feel free to continue the conversation both in the comments below and on the message board. This is a show that demands discussion. For now at least, Frank Underwood has my vote.