|'Beau Willimon's series is compelling at least partially because he presents both the private manipulations, threats, backstabbings, squabbles, fraud and conspiracy and then shows us the view we the public are presented with.'|
I started watching Season One of Netflix's House Of Cards at pretty much exactly the same time the UK Prime Minister was reorganising his cabinet. With that in the background, it is very easy to involve yourself in House Of Cards' reality. The politics behind the movement by David Cameron of Michael Gove out of the cabinet to Chief Whip, for example, as reflections on events that happen within House Of Cards, is fascinating to consider.
The perception in the UK is that this was Cameron's play at winning the election with a popular cabinet in 2015. The reality House Of Cards presents is that someone who is the power behind the throne might have informed Cameron of a past Gove transgression, or potential power play and the sacking followed from there. Beau Willimon's series is compelling at least partially because he presents both the private manipulations, threats, backstabbings, squabbles, fraud and conspiracy and then shows us the view we the public are presented with. When you consider that this is a remake of a British series focused on the Conservative's chief whip, the parallels between the politics we know and the politics we watch grow even larger. Michael Gove: The Series anyone?
Thankfully we are not reliant on Gove to lead us through Willimon's tangled web, House Of Cards instead benefiting hugely from the presence of Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood. When we first meet him, Underwood has just been passed over for a prominent position in the new presidential administration, instead settling for whip (starting to sound familiar?) because of his relationships within Congress. From here, Underwood starts to build a campaign to grab power from those now above him, bringing in wife Claire (Robin Wright), chief aide Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), manipulated journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and candidate Peter Russo (Corey Stoll).
At its best, House Of Cards shows why you don't need cliffhangers to tell a compelling story within the medium of TV, calling to mind the recent Fargo adaptation with its mastery of unfolding scenarios and situations at just the right rate to keep you hooked. Rarely does the story conveniently finish an episode leaving you clawing on to whether someone survived or not (this isn't that sort of series) but always it leaves you with just the right amount of questions; what is Frank's plan next? How will Zoe play her hand? Does Claire actually have the beating of her husband up her sleeve? The political games mix with the personal and Willimon's narrative is expert at keeping both at appropriate levels.
When finally the show jumps to out and out conspiracy in the final episodes, the showrunner again takes pains to ensure the Drama doesn't outshine the plot. There may be some pretty serious events perpetrated by Frank's hand but ultimately the public know nothing of them and care only about one thing: a new key appointment to the administration. Willimon again expertly balances what we know in the real world, to what House Of Cards is able to show us of the private back channels: not that anyone in the cabinet - probably - is capable of the level of criminality Underwood finally reveals. The finale of Episode 11 is a brilliant depiction of this: Frank's words to the public are so meaningless that he doesn't even get to deliver them to Willimon's camera, the screen instead cutting to the credits as Underwood speaks. A few moments prior to this, the contrast between Zoe (public) and Frank's (political) existence has been laid bare with a comparison between their two houses.
There are still problems, mainly of a technical nature and largely forgiveable given how closely Willimon manages his story. Two stylistic ticks - Underwood frequently breaking the fourth wall to speak to us and the on-screen display of mobile phone messages - will divide people. The fourth wall breaking is managed well if you like that sort of thing, and it forces us to connect with Underwood, who in any other narrative would be the villain. The phone messages feel more out of place but you can see why Willimon goes for it given the public/private focus of the series: they are another way for us to gain a glimpse of lives and activities we do not see. The score, particularly the title music, by Jeff Beal is catchy but horrendously over-used. Zoe is meant to be a savvy blogger but too often feels far too naive to be so, a problem equally in Mara and the writers' courts.
The minor technical gripes though pale when you consider the achievements elsewhere. Spacey was born for this sort of thing and he's ably supported by Wright and Kelly, the former perfectly representing the simultaneous divide and meeting between public and private, the latter producing an incredibly strong character performance. I've seen elsewhere claims that this series is about power. At several points Frank does talk about power as his motivation and the way two supporting characters handle power and potential power - Russo and Remy (Mahershala Ali) - is revealing of the series' interests. Actually though, Willimon seems much more interested in the way this power manifests itself: the way those in power hold those of us they represent far on the outside, concocting private narratives that we are never privy to and public ones we are forced to swallow... except in Willimon's series, which might have a flair for conspiracy, but joins the two together perfectly and is rarely less than believable.
House Of Cards: Season One is available on Netflix now.