The first episode of House of Cards opens with car hitting a dog. Frank Underwood strides out and assesses the damage – the dog isn’t going to make it. He sends the guard to inform the owners while Frank addresses the audience directly. There are two kinds of pain, he says, the ‘good’ kind that makes you strong and ‘useless’ kind that only makes you suffer. He has no patience for useless things and kills the suffering dog and consoles the family for their loss.
“I have no patience for useless things” – Frank Underwood
As far as opening scenes go, that was one of the strongest opening scene’s I’ve seen in a long, long while. It doesn’t tell you anything about the character from a factual standpoint, meaning that we don’t really know who he is or what he does or anything of that nature. What we do see, and this is more important than all those aforementioned details put together, is that he is a man of ruthless pragmatism, of cold practicality. I mean, they’ve literally offed an innocent animal in the first minute of the show; if that doesn’t set the tone, I don’t know what will. Beyond just the characterization though, I really felt the impact of the way it was executed (heh). When Spacey talks about the nature of pain, it seems like an odd thing to be saying to the dog at first then a second later you realize that it’s being said for the audience’s benefit. When he looks up and stares directly into the camera, there’s this moment of surprise and, I’ll say it, fear that you’ve been caught seeing something you shouldn’t be. I don’t know if this is going to be a frequent feature but I absolutely love it.
It’s a big night for Frank Underwood. It’s New Year’s Eve and President-Elect Garett Walker (Michel Gill) is celebrating. Frank tells us of his respect for this would-be President and how he ‘made himself vital’ from Walkers’ early days. We are also introduced to Jim Matthews (Dan Ziskie), the Vice-President and Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey), the Chief of Staff who Frank helped into her current position. Frank introduces himself last – he is the House Majority Whip and he keeps things ‘moving in a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude’ but he has his sights set on something higher.
Essentially, get our introduction to what I suspect will be the main characters of this story – the President, the Vice-President and the Chief of Staff. We don’t meet any of them but Underwood’s impressions of them tell a much more interesting story. His respect for Walker seems almost grudging but he seems happy to have hitched his wagon to a winning horse, so to speak. His disdain for Matthews is fairly amusing and seems to be based on the fact that the office of the Vice-President holds neither power nor respect. I think it’s more telling that that disdain is based on the fact that Underwood looks down on nominal power and seems more interested in ‘real’ power – and hence his comment on the importance of both ‘holding the keys’ and ‘knowing the gate-keeper’. Lastly, we have Frank himself. He has played the political game well, made the right friends and now is expecting his rewards. Of course, something tells me everything isn’t going to go according to plan…
Frank rides home with his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), and they are optimistic about their future based on an announcement that Frank is expecting. We change scene to the offices of the Washington Herald where Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) eavesdrops on a conversation between Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), a senior reporter and chief editor Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver). She has ideas on how to ‘lift the veil’ on Washington and wants to do it through a blog but Lucas isn’t buying it. Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is in an uncomfortable meeting with a disgruntled citizen but is saved by his secretary Christina (Kristen Connolly) who proceeds to have phone sex with him.
So, we get more introductions and they range from the ‘meh’ (Zoey, Claire) to the ‘goddammit’ (Peter, Christina). We haven’t seen enough of Claire to get a good read on Wright’s character though she’s already giving me the impression that she’s a bit of an ice queen. It’s odd to see Underwood being the more affectionate partner; it somehow feels out of sync with his character. Then again, it’s been less than 15 minutes, what do I know? Meanwhile, Zoe Barnes tries to single-handedly fix print journalism because she’s young and knows what all the cool kids are into. Clearly, everyone at the Herald has never even heard of a blog so obviously they need the junior reporter to inform them on the concept. As you can probably tell, I don’t like Barnes very much – she has a little too much of the ‘rebel-without-a-cause’ attitude around her and more than that I can sense that she’s trouble. Mara’s performance seems appropriately intense for a character that takes herself so seriously. Last, but not least, we have Peter fucking Russo. He is what I imagine most politicians are like – they wriggle and squirm their way out of difficult conversations by getting their secretaries to have dirty conversations with them. If there was ever a disaster in the making, it’s Russo.
Frank goes to his big appointment with Linda, all smiles. Frank launches right into his ideas for his lofty new position as Secretary of State. Linda rains all over his parade though; he is not being nominated for the position and he takes the news exactly as well as one might expect. He is furious that they all knew but let him continue believing that he would become Secretary of State. He swallows his pride though and commits to helping the President and the new administration. Before he leaves, he asks who is to replace him – it will be Michael Kern and if I were him, I’d be sweating my balls off knowing that Underwood was coming for me.
So, this was fairly predictable but it’s also the premise of the show; how screwing over someone you thought was a push-over can (presumably) backfire terribly. I mean, I really doubt the show is about how Underwood gets backstabbed and how he calmly takes it in his stride and moves on, forever forsaking his political ambitions. Still, this President is kind of a bitch – he could have delivered the news to Underwood directly or at least met with him thereafter. The whole thing is reeks of cowardice and low cunning but that’s exactly why I can already feel myself root for Frank. These people need to be taught a lesson. I really liked the way Spacey visibly swallowed his emotions – the red hot rage on his face changed tangibly into this cold fury as he walked out of the room and if I were Michael Kern, I’d watch my back.
Claire makes arrangements for how to spend the money that she would get from the announcement (via a company called Sandcorp) but she is worried that she hasn’t heard from Frank yet (that promises to be a fun conversation). At the Herald, Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) brusquely dismisses Zoe offer for ‘help’. Zoe wanted to go to the inauguration so she could get the latest scoop on Washington’s insider information. Meanwhile, Frank is depressed – he is ignoring his calls and texts but he gets home to a furious Claire. He says he doesn’t have a solution yet while Claire tears into him asking how he could let this happen and questions why he isn’t angry. He apologizes but she refuses to accept it. There is a crash later as we see just how angry Frank (or Francis, as Claire calls him) really is. Frank gets to planning.
Ok, so I’m definitely feeling a real ice queen, Lady Macbeth vibe from Robin Wright’s performance as Claire Underwood. It’s really quite electrifying watching her be that angry and calm at the same time. For all the snide remarks and threatening aura that Frank puts out, Claire cuts him down to size with almost absurd ease – ‘how could you let this happen?’, ‘you don’t normally underestimate people’ and so on. For the first time since we’ve seen him (which hasn’t been long, true) Frank looks lost and defeated. Still, the anger in him is far from extinguished as the poor glassware finds out. What I really like about their dynamic is that they are less like a couple – there is little affection between them, even the kiss they share seems perfunctory – but they are like a super team. Claire seems able to tell Frank exactly what he needs to hear. With a few sharp sentences, she has set the fire in him blazing again and now, it seems like Frank has a plan.
Frank’s chief of staff, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is watching the new Secretary of State speak, with Frank’s secretary. Frank walks in and cancels all his appointments – it’s time to get serious. Frank tells Doug that all bets are off. There is no loyalty and no alliances – anything and everything is fair game. Frank is aiming at the bigger picture and Stamper says they will go for Kern first. Frank mentions that they will need an errand boy, someone they control totally. Frank makes all the right noises when he and Claire are in public, praising Walker’s decision and toeing the party line.
When I see Stamper, I see a man who can get shit done. The fact that Underwood seems to rely on him so heavily is a good recommendation of the man’s competence. I wonder just how big Frank’s ‘big picture’ really is – at this point, revenge on Kern (the poor, unsuspecting victim in all this) seems par for the course but it’s clear that Underwood wants revenge on those pulling the strings which makes me think that Walker probably won’t be up for re-election come season 3 (or 4, depending on how much time each season covers). Frank says that there are to be no alliances and no loyalty yet it is implicit in that statement that he relies on Stamper and that Stamper has some loyalty to Underwood as well. Is that loyalty absolute? We will see. First, they need their patsy, someone who can speak with their voice but isn’t linked to them.
Frank attends an opera where he is snapped checking out Zoe, who is out on a date that ends pretty disappointingly for the dude. She returns home to find that a colleague has sent her a picture of Underwood checking her out.
Hmm, I wonder if this is what connect Frank to Zoe? An affair of some sort? I can’t really see Frank cheating on Claire and Zoe is just so ugh. I mean Kate Mara’s attractive and all, but Zoe is just so annoying. I don’t see Frank risking turning Claire against him by wasting his time on Zoe – after all, we’ve seen how brutal Claire can be in her criticism. I wouldn’t want to see her when she really gets serious. Then again, Frank did want a patsy…
Linda visits Frank, allegedly out of respect but probably out of desperation. She has a difficult proposition that she needs Frank to push through. She wants Donald Blythe to be in charge of education which, from Frank’s reaction, is a big ask since the man is apparently very liberal and it’s made worse by the fact that Walker wants it done in 100 days.
I don’t really understand where Walker gets off on making any demands of Frank at this point. I mean, he’d be lucky if Frank agreed and it would be downright amazing if Frank didn’t try to fuck it up intentionally at some point. I guess Frank acting like he was totally on the President’s team earlier has given everyone the impression that he’s moved on and let bygones be bygones. More than anything, I’m really, really digging those small snippets of commentary that Frank delivers to the camera. They’re rarely obtrusive and often give the scene a great deal of flavour and spice. I’m also really liking the way that Frank is able to pick apart motives from the simplest of things – while the tickets were an obvious attempt at bribery (and a somewhat baffling one – I mean, surely you can do a little bit better just as an apology for fucking man over? Two tickets for an apology and a new favour just makes you look cheap and entitled) but I wouldn’t have guessed that Linda coming to Frank was a sign of desperation though to be fair, I don’t really know the system well at all.
Stamper and Underwood run through possible Kern replacements, settling on Kathy Durrant. Claire has to deliver some bad news to her staff – since the money from Sandcorp didn’t come through, she will have to fire half her staff. Zoe visits Frank and she gets Frank to let her in by showing him the picture. She wants access to the secret dealings within the party but Frank isn’t biting. She guesses education will be the first target but Frank says (and I love this phrase): “You might very well think that, I can’t possibly comment”.
It’s beginning to come together now, slowly but surely. Zoe’s appearance at Frank’s front door reeks of desperation – she’s not getting the kind of assignments she wants from the Herald and no one seems willing to lend her a hand or hear her out so it seems like she’s decided to take matters into her own hands. Her ploy here is brave even if it is extremely simple – it’s indirect bribery but it’s clear from Mara’s presentation of the character that Zoe is not an expert at extortion. She seems a little out of sorts trying to seduce Underwood and when Underwood asks her what she wants, which is a simple and pretty commonplace question, she seems uncertain on how to pitch her idea to him. The whole thing seems like she just decided to jump first and act questions later but she might realize that she will not be able to extract herself from Underwood’s schemes as easily as she thought.
I will say this about Underwood, or maybe about Underwood as Spacey plays him: there is a darkness around the man that worries me. There were hints of it when he euthanizes the dog in the episode’s opening scene but his flashes of anger and the cold iron in his voice make it very, very clear that he is not a ‘good’ guy. At best, he is an anti-hero, bringing some sort of karmic justice to a political system full of pettiness and personal grudges but since I haven’t really seen the evidence of the either yet, I think it’s more likely that Underwood is a more Machiavellian character, seizing his opportunities to rise where and when they present themselves though vengeance is certainly a major motivating factor as well. He takes Barnes’ attempt at extortion well in stride and one can’t help shake the feeling that Zoe has stepped into the dragon’s den.
Peter Russo is arrested for drunk driving (he hands over a Starbucks card instead of his driver’s license) with a woman that is definitely not Christina. The police commissioner is a friend of Frank’s and informs of this development. Stamper meets him and arranges for Russo to be released. Christina picks Russo up from jail and asks if he was alone the previous night – Russo lies because he’s definitely a scumbag. Frank tells Claire that things are moving along nicely.
“I like iron but I love fire” – Claire Underwood
We begin to get an idea of how politics work in this version of Washington. Hell, I’m willing to assume that it’s not too far from how politics work in the real Washington either. The police commissioner is promised support in his run for Mayor and in return Frank gets his second puppet. He was looking for someone who would ‘belong’ to him, mind, body and soul and given that he just saved Russo major embarrassment, I’m sure he’ll find Russo very grateful though I don’t know if there’s enough gratitude in Russo to make him commit to Frank in the way Stamper seems to have. That’s the thing about Russo though – he is in no way a strong character. He seems like the sort that would fold to the first sign of temptation and then try to figure out his way out of the situation later. I really feel for Christina who really seems to want to believe the best of Russo but she’s only going to get her heart broken and it’s going to suck. Somehow in all of this, I suspect Russo is going to come out just fine because this seems like the kind of show where douche-bags win in the long run. Speaking of douches though, I am absolutely loving Corey Stoll is playing Peter Russo. On one hand, I want to punch that smug face every time I see him but despite that I can actually see him as a charming man that people would vote for. He’s good-looking (I guess?), seems pretty smooth and is quite easy-going and laidback too (perhaps too much so).
Frank meets with Donald Blythe from the Education Reform Committee and tells him his ideas are shit. They are too extreme and even the mighty Frank Underwood can’t pass what is essentially socialist policies through Congress. He gets Blythe to rewrite it but admits to the audience that Blythe and his policies are irrelevant – Frank will need to rewrite it himself. Frank then meets with Kathy Durrant who hints at her interest in Michael Kern’s job.
“Leave ideology to the armchair generals; it does me no good” – Frank Underwood
I wonder if it’s just me or if this first episode is moving incredibly quickly. I’m not saying it’s rushed or anything but there’s just so much happening in this first episode. It’s great pacing though – things are always happening but there is a very concrete sense of the various characters coming together. I really, really feel bad for Donald Blythe though. He seems like one of the few people that is genuinely interested in making a difference and while Frank’s spiel on making reforms that can get passed isn’t wrong, I think it’s a case of Frank doing the right thing for the wrong reasons and I’m not sure how I feel about that. We see more of the pitiless pragmatism that forms the cornerstone of the Underwood philosophy. Kathy Durrant (Jayne Atkinson) seems genuine too – she is very aware that is being used in a bigger game but she doesn’t hide her interest in the job. Somehow, she seems like a more open person than Frank though that’s not saying much.
Stamper goes to the garbage to collect the shredded copy of Blythe’s ideas. Zoe meets Frank in a museum where he leaks the details of Blythe’s bill. Zoe reconstructs the bill from the scraps while Linda is panicking that Frank won’t have the bill ready in the hundred days.
“We’re in the same boat now, Zoe. Take care not to tip it over, I can only save one of us from drowning” – Frank Underwood
I just love these Underwood quotes. They’re so deliciously dramatically worded and the way Spacey delivers the hard-hitting lines is something special all by itself. This entire episode’s story is a tour de force by Frank Underwood – it’s all coming together in my head now. First, he tell Blythe that the bill is rubbish and needs work but chances are that Blythe, who’s been working on this for 25 years, is not going to totally start over from scratch and will most likely come up with something similar. Then, he leaks the draft which will make people wonder if there is a mole within the party or something. Moreover, given how liberal the draft was, it’ll force Blythe to make bigger changes that will make it easier to pass the bill in Congress. At least, that’s what I think. Meanwhile, Linda continues to be useless – at this point, I think that her basic purpose is to act as Walker’s errand girl and do all the nagging and bad news delivering that the would-be President is too much of a bitch to do himself. It’s an unenviable job, especially trying to move Frank when he doesn’t want to be moved, but apparently, someone’s got to do it. Or at least, try.
Russo meets with Frank. Frank offers him a drink and Russo doesn’t even try to refuse, despite it being fairly early in the day – it’s whiskey, neat and Russo is smiling like a little boy being told the family is getting ice-cream for breakfast. Frank broaches the subject of Peter’s misdemeanours and Russo realizes that Frank doesn’t have a drink (“It’s a little early in the day for me”). Frank lets Russo know that he was the one that rescued Russo. Russo tries to claim it was a onetime thing but Frank knows otherwise and Russo slick charm evaporates. Frank demands Peter’s “absolute, undying loyalty”.
So, Russo is in trouble and he knows it. He was trapped between a rock and a hard place and he knew it. In all fairness to Russo, the second that he got busted, his fate was entirely out of his hands. There’s a sense in both this scene and in the scene with Zoe earlier that both these characters are making deals with the devil – the way Frank demands loyalty from Russo and slowly tempts Zoe into a morally ‘grey’ (I’m fairly sure it’s a very black shade of grey) both had hints of this dark, evil pact being formed. By the by, the reason I went into such detail with this scene was because I just loved the way that Frank played Peter with the whiskey. I just don’t like Russo very much, I guess though he is definitely a great character.
Zoe hands an article on the leaked bill to Lucas who runs it by Tom who wants a legal opinion before running it. Walker is inaugurated as President and in his speech announces a comprehensive education reform bill, effectively committing to it. Frank meets with Durrant and Blythe briefly at the subsequent dinner. The next morning he stops by Freddy’s, a ribs place, and tells us of his early days in poverty in South Carolina – he’s come a long, long way. The news hits as Frank finishes his plate of ribs and a wave of nausea is felt all around Washington as their cornerstone bill is slammed in the Herald. “I’m feeling hungry today”, Frank says devilishly as he orders a second plate.
Well, that ended both predictably and awesomely. I think what sold the scene to me was the ending quote from above just after a short montage of the various shocked reactions from the various characters. Some quick post-episode thoughts:
This was clearly an amazing first episode. It set up Frank’s motivation for revenge and we got plenty of characterization of Frank and some of the others. Currently, there is no ‘antagonist’ in a traditional sense but I suspect that there will be one sooner or later. For now, it’s just the Underwood show as Frank lands his first sucker punch to the party that shafted him. Of course, if it continues being so hopelessly one-sided then well, it might get old at some point but for now, that was mouth-wateringly delicious. I should note though, that the show will need to be careful in how they dramatize certain events – the scene where Russo swears himself to Frank felt authentic on Stoll’s part but perhaps a bit overdone on Spacey’s (though the script was partially to blame too). It’s a very, very minor complaint in the bigger scheme of things; more of something to keep in mind for future episodes, really.