Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. That’s made clear in the opening moments of “House of Cards,” when he mercy kills a neighbor’s dog that was hit by a car. The Majority Whip of the House of Representatives makes it clear what kind of person he is in his first monologue to the audience — a plot device used frequently by Spacey in echo of the show’s progenitor, the 1990 UK TV series also titled “House of Cards.”
“There are two kinds of pain,” Frank explains. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain, the kind that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”
After he washes his hands of the dog, Frank and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) head to a party held by President Elect Walker (Michael Gill), a man who Frank backed and who has promised to make him Secretary of State. But Frank finds out to his dismay that Walker has turned on him and has opted to make a senator named Kern Secretary instead.
The fact that “House of Cards” is based partly on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Richard III” should become clear pretty early on. Frank and Claire quickly decide they want to get revenge on those who betrayed and deceived him. His first move in Episode 1? To use the education bill that Walker’s team wants Frank to get passed in the first 100 days of the president’s term against their enemies.
That’s where Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) comes into play. She’s an ambitious Washington Herald reporter desperately trying to find her way into the White House beat. She finds her in after Frank is photographed ogling her backside at an opera, and she uses the photo to get his attention and convince him to be her source on the inside. They manage to get into a mutually beneficial agreement: Frank gives her information — like the extremist first draft of the education bill he received to edit — and she publishes what he gives her and makes a name for herself in the process.
In the first two episodes of “House of Cards,” this works out pretty well. Corey Stoll plays a Congressman named Peter Russo who, after being arrested for drunk driving, becomes Frank’s errand boy for his wrongdoings. One of those errands involves having a radical former colleague of Kern at their college paper claim that Kern had penned an angry anti-Israel article. Kern makes a fool of himself on live television trying to defend his name, and he is removed as the planned Secretary of State. Instead of taking Kern’s place himself like the audience might have expected — not that he would have been able to anyways — Frank uses Zoe’s power at the Herald to get a woman he chose (and who is anti-Warren) into the spot instead.
For her part, Claire is embroiled in her own professional politics, but it’s not yet clear where that plot line is headed.
It remains to be seen how long Frank is going to be able to keep this house of cards standing. Hopefully it will be for the majority of the 13 episodes in Season 1, since Netflix has a second season on the way already. Spacey clearly loves portraying the wonderfully manipulative Frank Underwood, while Wright does a very convincing take on Lady Macbeth. But Frank’s involvement with Zoe can only end badly. It’s only a matter of time before the they make at least one misstep and others start catching on to their game — and it’s hard to decide so early on whether it is a game we should be cheering for them to win.
“House of Cards'” 13-episode first season debuts on Netflix Friday (Feb. 1).