Who was it that said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog”? Many attribute the quip to Harry Truman; others contend it was Olivia Pope. The maxim came to mind while watching the addictive Netflix original series House of Cards, 13 episodes of which will be available for bingeing on Friday. The show is dryly witty in its depiction of constancy and fidelity on the Potomac. And in the first scene, the protagonist, played by Kevin Spacey, kills a dog in cold blood.
To be clear, it’s a mercy killing: On the last day of 2012, while slithering into his tuxedo and preparing to take his wife (Robin Wright) out to ring in another year of elbow-rubbing, back-scratching, and palm-greasing, Congressman Frank Underwood hears an automotive commotion and a plaintive canine wail. A hit-and-run driver has left a neighbor’s dog whimpering in the street. Breaking the fourth wall to deliver a monologue about his philosophy of pain, Underwood puts the dog out of its misery with his bare hands. The scene (directed by David Fincher, who helmed this and several later episodes) constitutes a great bit of characterization: Spacey’s avid eyes imply that Underwood relishes doing unpleasant things. His relaxed movements suggest that he’s killed dogs before, at least metaphorically. His subsequent half-smirk seems to acknowledge a silver lining: That was unpleasant, but at least he got in some practice killing with his bare hands.
At the New Year’s Eve party, Underwood explains—directly to the camera again, in a terrifically effective device that lets him serve sometimes as his own Greek chorus, sometimes as a color commentator on blood sport—that he is the majority whip: “My job is to clean the pipes and keep the sludge moving, but I won’t have to be a plumber much longer.” The president-elect had promised to nominate him for secretary of state, but Underwood very soon learns he’s been passed over, and hell hath no fury like a power-player passed over for a top-level Cabinet position. “They’ve done us a great favor,” he tells a staff member, referring to his betrayers. “We are no longer bound by allegiances.” Underwood’s interest in foreign affairs may be keen, but his passion for vengeance is total. His motto seems to be: When life gives you lemons, spike them with arsenic and put into effect an intricate plan to get the kids who live across the street from your worst enemy to build a lemonade stand. The top items on Underwood’s agenda are derailing the career of the usurping State Department nominee and messing with an education bill that’s supposed to be a centerpiece of the president-elect’s first 100 days.
The series is much more a Sun Tzu procedural and Machiavellian soap opera than a Washington satire or political thriller. (Underwood’s party exists in opposition to Republicans, but I do not believe that the two episodes previewed for critics call him a Democrat. He might be a “Whig” or something, this being the kind of show where the big D.C. paper is the Washington Herald.) Its views are post-idealistic, profitably so. We’re all familiar with shows and movies where enterprising young journalists file pointless string while pining to write five-part New Yorker stories about wheat. House of Cards, not unrefreshingly, instead gives us an apple-cheeked newspaper reporter (Kate Mara) who would kill for the chance to write sensationalistic blog posts. High-level sources on the congressman’s staff say that she and Underwood hit it off great.
Many fine throwaway lines presume our fluency in doublespeak. When he still thinks he has a shot at the State job, Underwood says, “I’d like to coin the phrase ‘trickle-down diplomacy.’ ” Soon after, we see his wife correcting a misimpression about how she plans to spin a new initiative: “No, no, I’m gonna say that we’re ‘expanding our mission.’ ” Wright’s character runs an outfit called the Clean Water Initiative, which will be falling on hard times now that Frank is no longer a highly desirable person up to whom to suck. Considering the nature of the series, I was surprised to learn that the Clean Water Initiative is actually a pollution-fighting nonprofit and not a lobbying organization representing the interests of Giardia cells.
Too jaded to lament the backroom maneuvering of politicians, the creators of House of Cards instead take that state of affairs as a given, tart it up, and fashion a wry piece of escapism—a backstabbing procedural delivered in a sophisticated style. And who are the creators of House of Cards? Well, the credits say that Beau Willimon adapted the show from a British series inspired by a British novel, but the substance of the show indicates that it is based on an original screenplay by Cesare Borgia, with an uncredited Dick Cheney contributing a punch-up. And maybe they brought in Joe Eszterhas to work on the part about Underwood blackmailing a coke-addled, whoremongering, drinking-and-driving colleague into doing his dirty work.
This is a very fine part for Spacey, with the dialogue playing simultaneously to his greatest strengths and his most intriguing weaknesses. Underwood hails from South Carolina, and though Spacey’s accent is inexact, the tangy fact of its existence leads to some memorable line readings. Channeling his occasional tendency toward orotund excess into stretching vowels and barbecuing syllables, he builds seductive rhythms and gets us rooting for an amoral hero. My favorite of his speeches comes early in the second episode and defines the character almost as nicely as it defines a crucial difference: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone house that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.”
Spacey’s glazed-ham delivery of the line is so chewy that I began to imagine cults of young Capitol Hill wannabes adopting Underwood as a philosophical idol. It’s well within the realm of possibility. Think about the all money-hungry kids who worship Gordon Gekko, the man who advised Bud Fox that it’s trench warfare out there on Wall Street: “You win a few, you lose a few, but you keep on fighting. And if you need a friend, get a dog.”