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“House of Cards, Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Chapter One'” Review

Reposted from the Washington Square News.

I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself

And falls on the other.

-“Macbeth”, Act 1, Scene 7

The first scene of David Fincher’s House of Cards centers on Kevin Spacey suffocating an injured dog on a lamp-lit street, occasionally glancing at the camera with an unflinching, weary, bored expression. “I have no patience for useless things,” he tells us. The dog is dead just before its owners arrive to say goodbye.

Rarely do we see an opening shot that sets a tone so jarringly. Throughout the first episode of “House of Cards,” the combination of Spacey and David Fincher feels like a one-two punch to the gut, and yet, paradoxically, an attack that is so quietly, manically unsettling that it’s almost more like a slow, steady hand compressing your windpipe. From “Breaking Bad” to “Mad Men” to “The Wire,” quality television of the 21st century is chock full of immorality, cynicism, and antiheroes. Yet in “House of Cards,” Fincher deals from a deck that is so unabashedly nihilistic, with such a smugly negative view of human nature, it seems as if he and Spacey are mocking any desire we have to find goodness, sympathy, or honor in its characters or the political games they play. Spacey’s Francis Underwood seems like the Machiavellian lovechild of “The Wire’s” Stringer Bell and the taunting murderer of Fincher’s “Se7en.”

“Forward! That is the battle cry,” says Underwood in one of his many southern-drawl-smothered monologues. “Leave ideology to the armchair generals. It does me no good.” Fincher shares Underwood’s disinterest in lofty ideology. His Darwinian monsters don’t have time for ethics or moral principles.

The plot is all vaulting ambition, desire, backstabbing, manipulation, and revenge. Underwood is the ruthless Majority Whip congressman who helped Garrett Walker secure his upcoming presidency. He was promised a Secretary of State appointment in return for his labor, a promise that the President Elect decided to forego. Unfortunately for the president’s poor staffers, they have no conception of the hell they have unleashed upon themselves. I mean, Underwood suffocates injured dogs on the street — Garrett doesn’t have a chance. With a false pledge of continued loyalty to the administration, the help of a spry muckraking journalist (Kate Mara), and prodding of his icy Lady Macbeth, Claire (Robin Wright), Underwood spends most of the episode preparing to enact his vengeance.

“Macbeth” is an appropriate comparison for this show, as Shakespearean style is continually invoked by writer Beau Willimon. He features monologues more jarring and indulgently wordy than anything seen on modern television. Robin Wright, while delivering an understated performance, invokes Lady Macbeth to such an archetypical degree that I could never respond to Claire as anything beyond a literary pastiche. Invoking The Bard (not only in plot, like “Ten Things I Hate About You” or “She’s The Man,” but in style) is an incredibly risky move. In plays like “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare took the narrative structure of a political thriller and used his linguistic ability to deliver satisfying platters of philosophical conundrums, ethical questions, and profound characterizations. He turned the seedy genres into lyrical poems. “House of Cards” aims for similar lyrical profundity, but Willimon’s writing is often more cringe-worthy and self-congratulatory than truly enlightened. While Spacey — an actor well acquainted with The Bard –– can occasionally make Willimon’s lines pop with brilliance, asides like, “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood,” fall flat. Underwood’s conspiratorial initiation with his wife, “We’ll have a lot of nights like this, making plans, very little sleep,” is almost laughably forthright. Other lines work to greater degrees, but the result is decidedly mixed.

Therefore, beyond Spacey, the unsung hero of the “House of Cards” pilot, the force that keeps it from falling into melodramatic disrepair, is David Fincher. Perhaps the most talented auteur to delve into nihilism and the anxieties of the information age, Fincher’s tight direction is at the top of its form. The warm oranges of D.C. streetlamps and the smooth of crispness of his digital filmmaking masks and mocks “House’s” internally decrepit characters. His pacing is as involving and meticulous as “The Social Network.” In many ways “House of Cards” feels like a philosophical companion piece to that film, albeit without the strength of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.

And as we know from “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s view of government is far too idealistic for this show. Political dramas make interesting television (and film, as Tony Kushner demonstrated so brilliantly with “Lincoln”) because, whereas most televisual art trades in id-driven bloodbaths, the political realm is a fascinating sight of convergence for principle and ambition, idealism and opportunism, altruism and ruthless strategy. “The West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation” are two of my favorite television shows for this very reason.

Without the brutal strength of Spacey and Fincher––who both have the uncanny ability to make narcissistic cruelty vehement and sexy––the “House of Cards” pilot may have been a disappointingly one-dimensional, plainly written portrait of government corruption. Therefore, as the series progresses and Fincher relinquishes his directorial reins, it will be interesting to see whether “House of Cards” will truly build into something nuanced and fascinating (it certainly has potential), or whether the whole deck will crumble before our eyes.