With Season 6 having been released just a few days ago and midterm election ballots being cast, it seems like an appropriate time to review the entire series of “House of Cards.” Season six feels very different in tone and style from seasons one through five, and I will discuss why later on.
“House of Cards” helped launch a new era of television watching. Two seasons of the show were immediately ordered by Netflix as the platform was looking to create original content. Production began with the network not even having viewed a pilot episode. This new model was risky but cost effective. It allowed the writers to develop a more coherent story, have varying runtimes of episodes based on storyline, and gave time for the show to find an audience. All 13 episodes in its first season were released at once back in 2013. Viewers could tune in at their own pace, eliminating the need for weekly recaps or cliffhangers, and all episodes were commercial free. This new age of streaming was inevitable, and “House of Cards” kicked it off in fine fashion. The show was immediately successful, earning multiple Emmy nominations for its first season. Throughout its run, “House of Cards” garnered multiple awards (unheard of at the time for a web-only series) and proved that storytelling benefitted from such a transition in medium.
Appealing to the cynics in all of us, “House of Cards” displays American politics at its worst. The show follows Congressman Frank Underwood and his wife Claire as they carry out elaborate plans to propel themselves to the most powerful positions in Washington D.C. Assisting Frank in his ruthless and sometimes malicious efforts is his right-hand man Doug Stamper. This trio of characters commits to insidiously snaky tactics to build a devious and shadowy administration that proves to be incredibly difficult to hold together – a house of cards, if you will. Other characters come and go on the show, but they all have one thing in common: they all get embroiled at some point in the schemes of the Underwoods, and they all are manipulated or blackmailed into doing things that even the most smarmy, corrupt politicians would consider morally questionable.
The show has an outlandish edge that can easily drive some people away from it. To believe that the intricate plots that go on in “House of Cards” are a direct reflection of what actually goes on in Washington is absurd. There are some parallels, and the show does its best to find loopholes in the American system that would allow for such outrageous corruption to exist, but these characters are meant to be caricatures of real-life politicians. Rooted in the fabric of government, the show examines relevant themes like ruthless pragmatism, betrayal, manipulation, and depravity. The techniques and themes used in the show are similar to those found in the plays of Shakespeare. Comparisons can easily be made with “Macbeth” and “Richard III,” a part Kevin Spacey had previously played. “House of Cards” is a tragedy (or a collection of tragedies) in the more traditional sense of the word. What makes “House of Cards” especially unique is its surface cinematic quality but deeper homage to theatrical plays. Spacey’s Frank Underwood routinely breaks the fourth wall in moments of contemplation or sneering.
What scares me the most when watching “House of Cards” isn’t the actions taken by the characters, but how much I empathize with the Underwoods and want them to succeed. Despite his scandalous nature and feelings of privilege, Frank Underwood is an incredibly complex character. We grow to know more about him than his own wife does over the course of the show. His schemes are so fascinatingly premeditated and intelligent that we can’t help but listen and be curious in seeing them played out. Claire is similarly ambitious but has different ways in going about things. She conveys transparency and fakes incompetence in her quest for public trust and political power. Existing more in the background in seasons one through four, she comes to the forefront in season five, creating an interesting conflict between herself and her husband. Unfortunately, we never get to see that conflict play out.
Seasons one through five of “House of Cards” were brilliant. They were intelligently written, beautifully shot, incredibly well acted, and even though many of the plots were far from realistic, its tone (in large part to Frank) felt grounded. Season six has a very different tone and not enough episodes to wrap up all of its intricately webbed plotlines. It is composed of lazy cheats, choppy editing, personalities that feel out-of-character, and no resolutions. The whole thing feels like it was compiled the night before it was released. It also relies heavily on antics used in previous seasons, and much of the dialogue loses its wit and elegance. Some of the actions taken by Claire feel straight-up ludicrous in a show with an already outlandish edge. The addition of the Shepherds, the show’s version of the Koch brothers, provides an interesting conflict along with the already existing one between Claire and Doug, but I wish they had given the family some more time to be fleshed out, along with Annette’s relationship with Claire. They’re just rushed out of nowhere.
Despite its incompetent final season, “House of Cards” stands strong as an intelligent and creative show filled with political intrigue. Its main theme is one of the best in all of television. I have to say, in all six seasons, I never once skipped the intro. When I was visiting D.C. a couple of years ago, I hummed the theme while walking the streets. Interestingly, there are subtle changes to it in each season.