Power corrupts, goes the old adage. And the more power you want, the more corrupt you have to be to get it.
Francis Underwood has a weakness for power. He breathes it, sweats it. For more than 20 years, he has walked the very halls of power in Congress, rising through the ranks to become majority whip. But it's not enough for him and throughout the three seasons (so far) of Netflix's House of Cards, we see the lies he'll tell, the schemes he'll hatch and the laws he'll break to get the power he believes he deserves.
"That's how you devour a whale," he says. "One bite at a time."
He's eaten that whale now. He's president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world. Now the question is, can he keep all that blubber down?
As always, there are loose ends dangling. People to eliminate. Politicians to be groomed and/or derailed. Reporters to squelch. Clearly, Underwood isn't done yet, not by a longshot. There's too much work to be done, too much dirt to dig into, too many secrets—and potentially bodies—to bury. And we wonder if the effort might become too much ... even for his cold, dark heart.
House of Cards is a reimagining of a 1990 BBC miniseries (which was based on a novel by Michael Dobbs). But little of that British beginning remains here. Delving deeply into the imagined muck of the Beltway, following Underwood's Machiavellian moves with a sort of detached relish, this series feels inherently American. Not in a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington way, but rather in a democratic-underbelly-we-hope-isn't-real-but-fear-might-be way.
Fronted and launched (but not consistently directed) by David Fincher (the Oscar-nominated director of Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), this political drama has an A-list cast and a glamorous sheen of prestige. "I felt for the past 10 years that the best writing that was happening for actors was happening in television," Fincher told hitfix.com. "And so I had been looking to do something that was longer form." Netflix outbid cable channels like HBO and AMC to land the program, believing it was the perfect beginning in its effort to build its own brand of Emmy-worthy "television."
Indeed, with all episodes of each successive season getting unveiled to website subscribers at once, House of Cards has become the poster child for binge-watching, and few binge more than the District of Columbia's own politicians. President Barack Obama even tweeted before Netflix unveiled the second season: "Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please."
But while the writing is sharp and the acting keen, the series falls far short of must-see TV. Indeed, the MA-rated show makes for some seriously uncomfortable viewing.
The political positioning is clearly underhanded and often illegal, sometimes even murderous—a problematic, if expected, aspect of the series. Sex is both pastime and weapon for these gladiator politicians as they work hard to keep their sordid interludes away from the eyes of the press ... and in full view of online viewers. Indeed, sex scenes can be very graphic—occasionally as explicit and skin-centric as anything one might see on HBO's Game of Thrones. F- and s-words make regular appearances. As do hard-core drugs. The spiritual vibe can be offensive. And violence is merely another "tool."
If House of Cards was a feature film, not a TV series, it'd fit comfortably and undeniably under a scarlet R rating. So for all its buzz, the chilling House of Cards hits well below the Beltway.
Frank is beginning to show the strains of the office. He attends the funeral of three young soldiers killed in action. He's scolded by a civilian who was severely injured in a military drone attack. "There's a fine line between duty and murder," the man says. Shaken, Frank goes to a cathedral and asks the bishop to talk to him about justice, admitting that while he understands the Old Testament God, Jesus is a mystery to him.
"It's not your place to determine what version of God you like best," the bishop tells him. "It's not your duty to serve your country alone, and it better not be your goal to simply serve yourself. You serve the Lord. And through Him you serve others." But when the bishop leaves, Frank turns to a carving of Jesus on a crucifix and says, "Love? That's what you're saying? Well, I don't buy it." And then he spits on the cross. When he moves to wipe away the spittle, the statue falls and shatters on the floor. Frank picks up a piece and walks out, saying, "Well, I've got God's ear now." Frank also learns a line or two from the Quran. We hear a priest recount the story of Abraham and Isaac, and a woman mention how important faith is to her.
An FBI agent lies to get close to a source, who apparently recently split with a lesbian lover. Russians arrest a homosexual activist to pressure the U.S., and there's talk about the intersection of free speech and gay rights. We hear references to infidelity and homophobia. A number of people make underhanded political moves. The f-word is flung around four times, "d--n" twice and "h---" once.
As he prepares to move into the VP chair, Underwood begins plotting his next set of Machiavellian moves—one of which is murder. (He pushes a woman in front of a subway train, whereupon we see the fall and hear the impact.) Loyal bodyguard Stamper ushers a potentially incriminating prostitute out of D.C. Claire gets a pregnant woman's insurance cancelled so that she'll start playing the game. "I'm willing to let that child wither and die inside you, if that's what's required," Claire tells her. We hear other threats and discussions of another murder, as well as how pigs are butchered. A woman tries to stab someone.
Zoe and editor/lover Lucas have sex. We see movement and hear explicit conversation. She walks to the shower, naked (fully visible from the rear, as well as much of the side). A friend receives obscene pictures of her, including one with her breasts exposed.
We hear the f-word a dozen times, the s-word once. (Cufflinks bear the letters "F" and "U.") Other swears include "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Jesus' name is abused once. Characters drink.
In this series opener, Underwood, with help from wife Claire, begins to pull together his scheme to undermine the executive branch of government, pulling in the pawns they'll need. One is troubled pol Peter Russo, who has sex with a staffer (we see movements, his bare backside and her bare breasts) and then, later, gets busted for DUI. Another is the sexuality-flaunting reporter Zoe Barnes. Underwood ogles her first, then decides to work with her, giving her someone's proposals to publish. "We're in a very gray area, ethically, legally," Zoe says. "Which I'm OK with."
Russo has an illicit conversation with his staffer on the phone. He also makes a graphic suggestion after the two have sex. We hear a reference to a politician being secretly gay. We see people drink wine and whiskey. Underwood smokes cigarettes. We hear the sounds of him putting down a dog that's been hit by a car. People act in a duplicitous manner.
When Russo swears to God that his DUI arrest was a lone misstep, Underwood says, "Then you must hold God in very low esteem, because we both know that's a lie." We see Washington's elite at a church service, where the priest exhorts them to be humble, quoting Matthew 23:12.
Characters say the f-word four times, the s-word twice, "pr‑‑k" and "a‑‑" once each. They also abuse Jesus' name twice and God's name four or five times.