There is a scene in the 13-episode series “House of Cards” where Francis (Frank) Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the United States congressman representing South Carolina, is attending the inauguration ceremony for the new president. He’s in the crowd, but when the scene moves into wide shot, you see that he’s only a few feet away. At this moment, he looks at the camera and gives a little wave of his hand.
Frank breaks the fourth wall to address the audience throughout “House of Cards.” When done well, this technique is a clever narrative device that builds intimacy and in this case, complicity, between the audience and a character. When done poorly, it feels like a gimmicky vehicle for exposition. Spacey masters it from the first moment we meet Frank. As his neighbor’s dog lies dying on the street from a hit and run driver, he kneels before the whimpering animal and tells us his thoughts on two kinds of pain. The dog’s pain is the useless kind so he quietly suffocates it.
The dog scene is an intense introduction to a character who is formidable but not without feeling, and it’s this balance that Spacey carefully maintains throughout this excellent, suspenseful series. Passed over for secretary of state by the president elect, Frank plots to ruin those who have sidelined his political ambitions. His calculations are not without their dark humor, and Spacey’s skill as an actor allows you to almost like and maybe even admire Frank’s political manipulations even as he ruthlessly dispatches his plan for revenge.
Supporting him is his equally formidable wife Claire, played by Robin Wright. When an expected donation contingent upon Frank’s appointment falls through, so do her plans to internationally expand the charitable organization she runs. Her response is to instruct her long serving office manager to fire 18 members of staff. She then unceremoniously fires the office manager. When she learns the news of Frank losing the secretary of state position, she allows the tiniest ripple of anger and just enough disappointment to move across the calm surface of her face before telling him: “My husband doesn’t apologize. Not even to me.” He turns to the camera and tells us that he loves Claire “even more than sharks love blood.”
With Claire firmly on his side, Frank weaves his schemes with the help of an ambitious reporter named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). He feeds her stories that make her career. But is she the player she thinks she is or merely a pawn in Frank’s game?
To find out, you’ll have to watch “House of Cards” on Netflix. In a bid to become a content producer in addition to a content provider, the video streaming service is betting that the series (which is an adaptation of a 1990 BBC mini-series), will convince you to become a subscriber. To entice you even further, all 13 episodes were released on February 1, so you don’t have to wait to see how Frank’s manipulations play out.
Page 2 of 2 - Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.