“For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted. Welcome back.” This is the end of the first soliloquy of the second season. You have to wait for it until the very end of the first episode, so long that you actually forgot it was a part of what had mesmerized you about the show to begin with. When Francis finally does look at the camera, through the bathroom mirror right into your living room, it is a terrifying moment. You remember that you are, in fact, part of this.
If you’re not acquainted with the near-billion dollar Netflix sensation, House of Cards, it’s time you got started. The Underwoods—Francis and Claire—are a Washington couple climbing the ranks of political prestige together, rung by ivory rung. House of Cards is their story—much like Hamlet or Macbeth—and every other character surrounding them angles a mirror at their pursuit of power. That is to say, House of Cards is different from the other anti-hero sensations; Don Draper may be the lead, and so may Walter White, but concurrent plots always counterbalance the central plots in those shows. In House of Cards, the focus is univocal: any character, no matter their stated importance, is a chess piece in the drama of their own vaulting ambition.
This focus on the elusive grandeur of the power figure is totally Shakespearean: think Caesar, Macbeth, Richard III. And so are the soliloquies. The only “player” to speak to the camera is Francis and, doing so, it is implied that we are his confidants. In all the backroom maneuvering, in all the private vetting and vote hunting, we are given the man behind the curtain. We are on mission with him, seeking big-picture power with him—we want what he wants and he knows it, and he wants to show us how it’s done. And we are also his chess pieces. He wants to persuade his captive audience that his ends are justified. And that you are complicit in his pursuit.
It’s odd to think that a show can be so one-dimensional, so traditional in its thematic coverage, and still be binge-watched like it has. I mean, the Greeks told the same stories; so did Dante, so does Disney; there’s no reason it ought to have the compelling novelty it has. But, like Breaking Bad, the show is tapping into one of the deepest veins of human desire and pulling from it an sex appeal we understand well.
We all know the plays-within-a-play of our own lives. Like Hamlet’s Play of Gonzago, like Frank and Claire and the senate bills and the non-profit funds, we enact our little subplots to maneuver our greater goals. We tell half-truths to stir the pot or maintain stability, we neglect to pass on information that could mean our disadvantage. Each moment of each day, like them, a narrative of our own self-promotion. Who in their own lives doesn’t feel the same? That all the characters in a life—friends and family, passersby, God—are supporting actors fueling (or complicating) your narrative arc?
So, it makes sense that we find here an age-old story, given a new setting (and some remarkable acting), becoming a streaming sensation. And what will it bring? There’s no telling after the first few episodes of season two, but “house of cards” is not an optimistic turn of phrase. And, as we’ve seen with a few characters thus far, there is the ever-brooding sense that, like the Macbeth quote above, power has the potential to subvert itself.
For those have begun—or, Lord have mercy, have finished—season two, here are some quick-and-dirty observations from the first few episodes. Note that, right here, I’m alerting you of spoilers, for the first season, as well as the opening of the second. Spoiler alert, people!
The Literal House of Cards… is now a secured house with reinforced bulletproofing and an on-demand security detail in the basement. The irony is beautiful here, how they show the swearing-in from the perspective of a beautiful brownstone, in reality tarped and hammered and shelled in “security.”
The New Peter Russo? I have to say that I don’t know what to think of Jackie Sharp (Deadwood’s Molly Parker), the new replacement as Majority Whip for Francis. She’s certainly got some moral fiber left in her, even if she went below the belt to get her position. But is that ambition (ever) honorable? I’m wondering if she might be the the newest regret in Francis’ cabinet of connections. She’s either a great accomplice or a great menace.
Lucas Goodwin I will only say…Zoe Barnes? Can you believe it?! Lucas reminds me of a Pinkman character—in way over his head, with a heart in the right place. This is a power tragedy, though, and I don’t think Lucas is cut out for the fight. If there is any place for mercy in the show’s structure, he’ll pave the way for some truth, but I don’t think the show’s premise is built to provide much room for the Lucas Goodwins of the world. Especially with the “deep webs”…
Doug Stamper is easily the vilest. A scary good picture of the grotesque nature of making things go away/disappear/happen costlessly. Which leads me to…
Rachel Posner I was right about Rachel! As for the power-subverts-itself bit above, she is proof in the pudding. Stamper’s creepy threats, the silent life she is now demanded to keep, is only going to make her rebel. And Luke is on the trail. Posner is the “least of these” that will hopefully find some heroic favor by the end of season two.