Revisit House of Cards Season 1 With This Spoiler-Filled Conversation

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 13 2014 9:07 AM

Spoiler Special: House of Cards

houseofcards3
Kate Mara andKevin Spacey and in House of Cards

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon – © Melinda Sue Gordon / Knight Takes King Prod.

A year ago, June Thomas and David Haglund binge-watched the first season of House of Cards and discussed the whole thing in spoiler-filled detail. With Season 2 set to arrive on Netflix tomorrow, we decided to share their discussion again. You can listen to the audio or read an edited and abridged transcript. Feel free, of course, to spoil further in the comments.

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June Thomas: This is an American version of a brilliant BBC show from 1990, House of Cards, a title that makes a little more sense in reference to the House of Commons. But I was impressed by how much Beau Willimon, the writer made it a believably American show. It tells the story of Frank Underwood, the Majority Whip.

David Haglund: A Democrat who represents a district in South Carolina.

Thomas: He’s the great manipulator in Congress, and he’s been in Congress for many terms. He’s a powerful man with a beautiful and rather cold wife played really very well by Robin Wright. I was surprised by how good she was.

Haglund: She’s terrific. We don’t see her enough.

Thomas: I know! And now I want to have her on screen every week. And she, like Frank, is a bit of a D.C. macher. She runs a nonprofit, and together they have kind of a Macbeth/Lady Macbeth relationship. At the beginning, he’s a bit disappointed, to say the least, because he had been promised the Secretary of State job, but the new president, whom he helped to elect, passes him over—reneges, because he needs him in Congress.

Haglund: That’s most of what people could grab from the trailer. But one of the interesting things about watching this show so quickly is how fast the other characters come to the fore. If you’ve only seen the trailer, you might suspect it’s all about Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara, who plays this reporter for the Washington Herald, which I gather we’re supposed to think of as the Washington Post. She’s a young metro reporter who’s a real go-getter, and manages to get offered the job of White House correspondent after she’s fed a bunch of stories by Underwood—which he gives her on the condition that she does exactly what he wants, no questions asked. She agrees, because she, like him, is completely Machiavellian. She just wants to get ahead.

But within a few episodes, Corey Stoll, as a Pennsylvania Congressman, comes to the fore. I think he’s the best thing about the series.

Thomas: I agree. I loved him! He’s very likeable, and his struggle was real. His character, Peter Russo, is a puppet that Frank Underwood is manipulating, but he still becomes a likeable and vulnerable character, who I was rooting for and was interested in. Nothing in the show is particularly realistic, so I don’t even want to start those conversations—it’s really about falling for the characters, or learning to hate some of them. And some are really reprehensible, but I didn’t hate anyone really.

Haglund: There are odd moments when the show goes out of its way to humanize even Underwood. We get a whole episode where he goes back to what they call the Sentinel, which I assume is the Citadel. It’s a military school back in South Carolina, and they’re naming the library after him, so he’s there for the ceremony, and he’s invited three buddies with whom he used to sing a capella, and with one of whom he had some kind of gay affair, a romance when they were high school kids.

Thomas: Right, it seems to be a very positive relationship—and they give the sense that he’s kind of pausing for a moment, like, “Should I rekindle this?” Even though they both now are married, and the other guy has kids. The other guy says, “I was glad I was just able to please you,” which sounds weird, but feels convincing. I don’t know why that’s necessary for Frank’s character, but I bought it.

Haglund: I did, too. He’s presented as a heterosexual man who had this fling with another man when he was young—he’s not closeted. This isn’t some key to his psychology.

Thomas: I agree. Frank and Claire, his wife, are a unit. They share everything—including cigarettes, which is a bit of a motif that runs through the show. You feel like probably all of their relationships are mercenary and transactional. You don’t know that they have feelings even for each other.

Haglund: One of the things that grabbed me right away—and which disappointed me later—was that relationship. It’s so open. You learn early on that he knows she’s had an affair, and he doesn’t seem concerned about whether she starts it again, just so long as he knows about it. And when his relationship with Zoe Barnes, the sexy blogger played by Kate Mara, becomes carnal, he tells her that, too, and she’s completely fine with it as long as she’s someone he believes he can control. That hints at this incredibly sinister relationship that the two have, which is all about ambition, and has nothing to do with love. I expected that to go a little bit farther than it did.

Thomas: That was my biggest frustration with the whole show. They wasted endless opportunities. It was 13 hours of material! And that’s enough time to flesh out a lot of things, whether they’re plots and machinations or characters. But they just kind of… petered out.

Haglund: They did. Late in the season, Claire stabs Frank in the back. There’s a bill called the Watershed Bill that Frank really wants to get passed. But Claire, for slightly complicated reasons having to do with a non-profit that she runs, decides not to persuade these two on-the-fence Congressmen to vote for it, and the bill fails.

Thomas: I never really understood her motivations regarding her non-profit. At the beginning, she fires half the people on the staff. So it establishes she’s kind of a bitch and she’s uncaring, but you never really know why. She wants to make it an international organization—maybe because she still thinks Frank’s going to be Secretary of State? It’s not clear.

Haglund: It’s not very well explained, and her ambitions for it are never as well spelled out as they should be. But this brings up a larger issue with the show—and it’s funny how much criticism that we’re lobbing at it given that I think we both really enjoyed it—which is that there’s really not a trace of idealism in the show. And I think that’s fine—the show still works, but I think that would have gone a long way toward making it more interesting. It’s no coincidence that we both liked the Peter Russo character so much—who, even though he’s not idealistic, at least is likeable. As horrible as he is, you do root for him.

Thomas: Because although he has no ideology, he still cares about something. He cares about the people in his district. As a TV critic in Philadelphia pointed out, we also live in a universe where the Philadelphia Navy Yard is still open, which it hasn’t been for many years. And Russo knows that the people who elected him are going to be mad he couldn’t keep it open—but he also genuinely doesn’t want them to lose their jobs. He’s not just concerned about his own job. And you see that he’s had a horrible time, his mother’s a bitch—and he cares about people. He seems to be the only person with genuine emotions on this show.

Haglund: He’s given a recognizable political backstory as well: He’s the kid up from the streets. That’s his whole persona. Early on we meet a friend of his who is still involved with the shipyard, who comes to see him—and who’s presented in this very stereotypical way: the working class guy who doesn’t shave that regularly for some reason. But you’re given a sense of how Russo has presented himself to his constituency. Weirdly, Frank Underwood doesn’t really have that. He’s a white male Southern Democrat, and so a little bit of an anomaly these days. He also has a big painting of Teddy Roosevelt in his office, and even though Teddy Roosevelt is sort of a bipartisan hero now, he was a Republican, at least before he founded his own party. It’s not clear who Frank’s political heroes would be. He’s all about power.

Thomas: In one episode, he goes back to his own district, for this weird and hard-to-explain-and-not-really-worth-explaining issue that just might cause him to have trouble getting reelected, and you think, really? The House Majority Whip would have a problem with that?

Haglund: That’s another distraction, really, from the main plot. After Frank is refused the Secretary of State position, he has a few moments plotting out his great plan, and then he puts it into practice. And as the episodes go on, you’re made to believe—and we can discuss whether this is persuasive or not—that all the things he’s done from that moment until the end of the season were a way of setting himself up for the Vice Presidency. He persuades Peter Russo to run for governor of Pennsylvania, a position that’s open because the current Vice President, who’s just been elected, held it. So, there’s going to be a special election. Frank pushes Russo to run, knowing that he can crush him when the moment comes.

Thomas: And Frank has an aide who is a recovering alcoholic, and he gets Russo into a recovery program and then completely sabotages him.

Haglund: In some ways that character, Doug Stamper, is the most sinister character on the show, even more than Underwood and his wife. He doesn’t have the obvious public power that those two have. He just works for Frank, and he does so ruthlessly. The way that the whole Russo plot starts is that Russo is arrested for solicitation and drunk driving, and Frank and Doug manage to clear that arrest by calling in a favor with the police commissioner, who’s about to run for mayor, I think. He clears the arrest, and then Doug and Frank let Russo know they’re the ones that did that and now he owes them big-time.

Thomas: I think the idea is that they’re doing this for every member of the House: They need to be holding something over every single congressman.

Haglund: One of things I was confused about at the end is precisely when Frank decides that he has seen his path to power—because in theory, that should only happen after he has busted Russo, since Russo’s connection to Pennsylvania is crucial. But in my memory, I think he decides before that, “Oh, I’ve got it. I’ve figured it out.”

Thomas: Right, he has to get the Vice President to both be so disenchanted with the position that he’s currently in—so mad at the President, feeling so useless—and then he also needs to create a situation where, with only weeks or even days before the gubernatorial election, the Vice President can step down and slide into that position.

Haglund: There are a bunch of machinations early on the relevance of which later seems unclear. The first thing Frank does is sabotage the nominee for Secretary of State, who has essentially taken his place, this guy Michael Kearn.

Thomas: Who is a douche of the first order.

Haglund: Well, who’s not on this show? Frank sabotages Kearn with this complicated plot that involves digging up an old editorial that ran in a student newspaper.

Thomas: Williams College, your student newspaper has never caused so much trouble.

Haglund: I really enjoyed all of that. You get to see Kearn going on the news shows and botching the interviews, and the clips of news shows we see are better done here than they are usually in TV and movies. Anyway, this all sets up the nomination of this woman Kathleen Durant. Why? I don’t know. How does that help him get to the Vice Presidency? It wasn’t clear.

Thomas: It never made sense. And you have this feeling that Frank is a guy who just gets stuff over people, and so now she owes him—but then when he came to ask for something for Claire’s non-profit, she wasn’t able to come through, and there didn’t seem to be anything that they could do to her. You think the whole point is to gain evidence against people and to be cruel and to mete out justice, and in this case he was dissed.

Haglund: Part of the reason this show is so addictive and yet, in hindsight, a bit underwhelming, is that all these plot points grab you as they’re happening, but don’t really add up to a great deal. Right? I mean, it’s interesting to see them unravel that guy’s nomination. And then there’s the education bill—

Thomas: That’s just awful.

Haglund: Awful in the sense that you weren’t persuaded by it, or you just thought it was ridiculous?

Thomas: All of that.

Haglund: It’s very far-fetched, because the entire nation of teachers, I guess, goes on strike? So no kids are in school? And then a kid is shot in a drive-by. He would have been in school, so this becomes this key political weapon for Frank. But I really liked the scene between Frank and the union boss. In a private meeting, Frank goads the union boss into punching him in the face. And because part of the national debate up to this point has been about the supposedly violent tactics of the union—which, of course, were all engineered by Frank—this is devastating for the union boss. It would not only ruin his position in this debate, but it would probably ruin his career. So, Frank says, “I’m not going to press charges. This is over. I won.”

Thomas: I agree with what you just said about the way the plot works: It’s good enough and then you kind of forget about it. I felt that the last couple of hours were the weakest bit; it just really didn’t come together.

Haglund: I think that’s fair. I mean, I’m totally game for Season 2—I would have started it already, if it were available. And I do think the show does a good job of setting up the next season, while also providing something like closure for the first season. Because when it’s over, you know he’s going to be the nominee for Vice President, but you don’t know if he is going to succeed in getting that position. And there are some things hanging over his head. His relationship with Zoe Barnes, the reporter, has frayed.

Thomas: And she has a conflicted relationship with a senior woman reporter—as the show progresses, her allegiance to Frank fades and her relationship with the other woman blossoms. And the other reporter gets her into the real chase—being a reporter, not just being fed lines by a highly placed source. And it’s all very unrealistic, but I enjoyed that shift from her being a manipulator to actually doing her job—and, gosh, she really could be good at it.

Haglund: Especially assuming that we have no more conversations about how the news media is doomed by the Internet, because those fell with such a thud.

Thomas: Although I was on Twitter as I was watching, and there were people saying, “Can you believe that Zoe turns down the chance of becoming the Washington Herald’s White House reporter?” To me, that does seem like a good career move—she essentially goes to Politico. (Although, they have the sense to say, “You remember what Politico was like two years ago? Well, Slugline is that now.”) And you think, “Why would she want to be a White House correspondent and just sit in briefings.”

Haglund: Right, and be fed talking points. I’m with you. And it also makes sense when this older female reporter then also leaves the Herald and joins her. When Season 1 closes, they’re on the trail of Frank. They have basically figured it out—or they’re at least very close to figuring out what he’s done to put himself in his position, and it’s hinted that maybe in Season 2 their chase will be part of the story.

The other big thing that happens near the end—and this makes me less hopeful about Season 2—is that Peter Russo dies in what is easily the gravest of Frank’s many sins. After Russo has his meltdown, he’s set up by Doug with a prostitute who he had already slept with once before. She gets him drinking again, and has sex with him, and then he has radio interview the very next morning that is crucial—and he’s drunk, and he handles it horribly, he swears on the air, and it’s the end of his career. Then Frank manages to lock him into the garage under his apartment and leave the car running, to make it look like a suicide.

Thomas: In the British version, that’s kind start of a next level of escalation for Francis Urquhart. He becomes—not a homicidal maniac, exactly, but once he pops his cherry…

Haglund: He gets worse and worse?

Thomas: He kills again!

Haglund: I hope this show doesn’t go down that road, because while Frank is terrible—and while various aspects of the show, as we’ve already discussed, are not particularly plausible—he’s not killing people left and right. He’s not even responsible for other people killing people, which is one of the things that Hollywood thrillers do all the time. So, for instance, in a movie that I thought was a bit overpraised, Michael Clayton, there’s all this killing going on. It’s actually not that easy to kill high-profile people and not attract any attention.

Thomas: And what Frank does is really just make sure that somebody who wants to kill himself succeeds. Alyssa Rosenberg tweeted that one of the things that she liked least about this show was that Frank was, essentially, the only smart person in D.C. He and Doug, who is just working in his service, are the only people who know how to work the system—everyone else is just a bunch of dupes.

Haglund: I think he needs a nemesis of some kind. Linda Vasquez, the president’s chief of staff—you think at first that maybe she’s on to Frank, but she’s a dupe as well. The president is amusingly presented as pretty dopey; it’s not a caricature, but he just does not seem clued-in. And you’re right—the only person who even comes to mind is Remy Danton, the lobbyist who used to be Frank’s press secretary. And it makes sense that someone who had worked for Frank would become an operator, too.

Thomas: That was why I had hopes for Linda Vasquez, because she also had worked for Frank.

Haglund: And those two end up working hand-in-hand, even though she doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on. I would like to see them turn her character into some kind of antagonist in Season 2. And they need to replace the Peter Russo character somehow. And they should not do so with Claire Underwood’s paramour, a New York artist who is just so uninteresting. That was one of the big disappointments of Season 1. They spend a lot of time with Claire and this guy, and those scenes are dull, dull, dull.

Thomas: I loved Robin Wright, and I kind of loved her character, but in the end all they did was kind of sketch in a few things. Oh, she’s going through changes. Maybe she’s questioning some of her allegiances, some of the choices that she’s made. And she rekindles an old affair. But it goes nowhere—and one of the very worst scenes in the whole season was the most clichéd artist party, with some skinny chick who, of course, asks Claire to dance.

Haglund: Apparently they traveled to Greenwich Village—in the 1960s. It’s totally implausible—and, worse, it makes her character more conventional, strangely. Because the relationship she has with Frank is so weird, and compellingly so, and she has her own ambitions… but then she starts to think, “Maybe I wish I had a baby. Maybe I really should have gone for true love with this artist…”

Thomas: And really all she needs to do is focus on her origami. Let’s also talk about Frank’s connection with Freddy, the barbecue man. I don’t even know what to call that particular relationship, because… is it meant to humanize Frank? It doesn’t for me. It is so creepy and condescending and tin-eared.

Haglund: I wish the show had shown some distance from that condescension, by giving Freddy some distance from Frank—who’s played by Reg E. Cathey, whom I love and who people might recognize from The Wire. He’s fantastic, but he’s never given a moment on his own. He’s just Frank’s lackey. Frank clearly pays him well—he shows up and has a half-rack of ribs and then gives him 100 bucks, so we can see why he would do it. But he’s never shown being repelled at all, or even having his own separate life.

Thomas: I want to see him give Frank the finger, just when Frank’s back is turned.

Haglund: We should also talk a bit about how we experienced the show, and what we think of this whole Netflix format. Both of us burned right through it. I think I prefer watching shows this way. I don’t have cable, and I find it frustrating watching a show on a Sunday and then waiting a week to see the next one.

Thomas: I generally watch TV in the classic way, because I like to watch shows when they’re new. But to me this is the easiest kind of show to get people to watch. Drop it on a Friday when you know there’s nothing on, in winter, so there’s less motivation than ever to go out. There aren’t many new movies opening. I often spend a whole weekend sitting in front of the television, watching different shows, but this was not how I had planned to spend the weekend. So clearly it was good enough to keep me hitting “next.” But to me it’s much, much harder for someone to buy into a conventional show and watch every episode. I don’t know if this show should get that much praise for keeping people hitting “next.”

Haglund: You’re right: That in itself is not a testament to the show’s greatness. It’s maybe a testament to the show’s quality—you do want to watch more. But actually planning your schedule around the next one and waiting a week is harder.

I’m also curious whether you feel as though you sacrificed anything when it comes to social media—being on Twitter, reading recaps, all that stuff. I didn’t miss it.

Thomas: I didn’t either—and I can read it now. It’s all still fresh. I had some fatigue in the end about all of the stories about Netflix’s business model, because there were a lot of them, but I think the business story is more interesting than the series. Even though, again, the show was fine. I enjoyed it with some significant reservations. There were some very good performances, but—

Haglund: It didn’t change the way I think about Washington.

Thomas: No!

Haglund: Whereas it may have changed the way I think about TV. The real test of this model is going to be Arrested Development in May, though, because there’s so much built-up interest in that.

Thomas: And that will be more unconventional, too. This is a series. You didn’t have to watch it all in one sitting. Arrested Development is going to be more choose-your-own-adventure.

Haglund: That’ll be interesting. Beau Willimon in interviews has implied that this show fiddled with the format, too—that it’s a 13-hour movie and so on. But it’s really 13 distinct episodes. They vary widely in length, but you feel the beginning and the end—there are even breaks within where you could imagine a commercial going. It’s more conventional than it needed to be. I’m convinced that the reason Netflix put it all out at once is because they wanted people to accept the fact that this is now how TV is going to work. They want people to get used to the idea that you don’t have to plan your schedule around it. It’s not on cable. It’s not on a certain day. They’re really investing in that shift in people’s habits and ways of thinking about television.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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