Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 1, 2014)
Netflix started in the 1990s as a basic DVD rental service. In an attempt to change with the times, the company has branched into the creation of their own content, and 2013’s House of Cards marks their first foray into original programming.
All 13 episodes of the series’ first season appear on this four-disc Blu-ray set. I’ll look at them in story order. The synopses come from IMDB.
Chapter One: “Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has been declined the chair for Secretary of State. He's now gathering his own team to plot his revenge. Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a reporter for the Washington Herald, will do anything to get her big break.”
First episodes of series need to do the heavy lifting in terms of exposition, and “C1” does fairly well in that regard. I’m not sure how I feel about how much Frank breaks the fourth wall and narrates to the camera; that could be a good technique or an annoying contrivance.
Time will tell. Otherwise, “C1” delivers a reasonably intriguing start to the series. It may try a little too hard to be “dog eat dog”, so don’t expect a whole lot of humanity here, but it creates a beginning that gets us interested.
Chapter Two: “Francis and Doug (Michael Kelly) plan to frame Secretary of State nominee, Michael Kern (Kevin Kilner). Meanwhile, Zoe's popularity at the Washington Herald continues to grow.”
After two episodes, I can’t help but wonder if Cards will lighten up at some point. Sure, it throws in dark humor, but it tends to be awfully sinister much of the time. That said, it entertains via its intricacies and political shenanigans; it might get old before the end of the year, but so far it remains interesting.
Chapter Three: “Francis heads for his hometown to deal with a crisis. Zoe negotiates the politics of being a journalist on the rise. Claire (Robin Wright) finds herself a new business partner.”
“C3” packs some of the usual cloak and dagger material, but it branches out as it sends Frank home to his constituency. That change of pace and scenery opens up matters in a satisfying manner, as it becomes fun to watch Frank deal with relatively small potatoes. The various components combine to make this a solid episode.
Chapter Four: “Francis shakes down the Congressional leadership. Zoe is offered the promotion of White House Correspondent and doesn't know if she should take it or not.”
I figured it was inevitable that an extramarital affair would intrude upon the Frank/Claire relationship, but I hoped I’d be wrong. I felt the series would be less predictable and more interesting if it avoided that cliché – which it did for three whole shows. “C4” breaks that streak, and this side of the episode flops.
The rest of “C4” seems okay. Although a few important plot points materialize, it feels somewhat like a placeholder program, without a lot of real meat. It moves things along in a moderate manner but doesn’t stand out as one of the year’s better episodes.
Chapter Five: “A feud starts between Francis and Marty Spinella (Al Sapienza). Russo (Corey Stoll) goes into depression about the job losses at the shipyards.”
With “C5”, the series threatens to veer more into soap opera than politics. We still get plenty of political machinations, but the personal affairs – literal and figurative – dominate more than in the past. I’m not wild about this shift and hope it doesn’t continue to be a big factor in the future.
Chapter Six: “The fight between Frank and Marty starts to get out of hand. Russo decides to run for Governor of Pennsylvania.”
The thread followed in this episode stretches credulity, as I just can’t buy a nationwide teacher strike. It’s tough enough to get local unions to execute a work stoppage – we’re supposed to buy one that cripples schools across the US for weeks? I don’t, and that potential lack of believability becomes an issue for me. Cards probably should’ve chosen truck drivers or some other group that might actually bring off a strike of this magnitude.
That issue aside, “C6” works fairly well, especially when we get a rare glimpse of Frank on the losing end. This doesn’t last long, of course, but it’s fun to see the usually implacable Congressman blow it for once. Other elements advance matters well and make this a positive program.
Chapter Seven: “Frank helps Peter get ready for his governor race, but Peter is starting to have second thoughts. Doug tries to help a young hooker in trouble.”
It’s nice to see Doug – a fairly uninvolved character so far – get something more substantial to do, and the thread with the prostitute promises intrigue. Other elements develop well, with Russo’s advances becoming the primary component with potential. “C7” adds up to a solid show.
Chapter Eight: “Frank has a library named after him at his old military school. Peter tries to win back the support of his hometown.”
Although I liked an earlier show in which Frank revisited his roots, “C8” does less for me. The episode focuses too much on saccharine character elements and lacks much punch, especially when it goes down a dopey angle related to Frank’s classmate. Perhaps some of these components will pay off down the road, but right now, “C8” feels like a bit of a dud.
Chapter Nine: “Frank tries to do whatever it takes to get the new bill passed congress. Russo goes on a bus campaign with the Vice President, but the VP is not making it an easy trip for him. Zoe's relationship with Frank gets a little bumpy.”
Season One gets back on track with the meatier events of “C9”. It focuses heavily on the political side of things, but when it deals with personal areas, it feels more substantial and less soap opera than “C8”. The plot points develop in a strong way to make this one of the better episodes so far.
Chapter Ten: “Told that Claire was behind the watershed bill's failure, Francis works to contain the damage and maintain control over Peter Russo. Zoe and Claire each seek relief from their respective relationships with Francis.”
“C10” focuses more on the personal lives of the characters than usual. That advances some relevant areas – and many of them connect to the political domains as well – but the absence of more formal scheming makes the show a bit sluggish. Maybe I just can’t stand the return of Claire’s smarmy photographer lover and that’s the problem.
Chapter Eleven: “Following the collapse of Russo's campaign, Francis launches a risky ploy to join the Walker administration.”
The plot points in the synopsis play a role, but once again, personal elements come to the fore, and these make the episode more sluggish than I’d like. Add to that a level of darkness that seems heavy-handed even for Frank and I’m not wild about the episode.
Chapter Twelve: “The President sends Frank to St. Louis to persuade Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) into becoming the new Vice President. Zoe and Janine investigate Peter Russo's death.”
Given Frank’s actions, “C11” threatened to jump the proverbial shark, in my opinion, so “C12” becomes important to determine if the series will get back on track. “C12” does do a fair amount to wash away the bad taste left by the prior episode, as it intensifies various matters. The introduction of the Tusk character adds spark to this fairly solid show.
Chapter Thirteen: “Frank scrambles to keep his plan on track. Gillian is planning to sue Claire. Zoe, Janine (Constance Zimmer), and Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus) investigate Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) and her relationship with Peter Russo.”
Season One concludes in a reasonably satisfying manner, though “concludes” probably isn’t the appropriate term to describe the finale, as it leaves a lot of threads dangling. “Cliffhanger” may not be the right term for “C13”, but it certainly doesn’t wrap up events. It does create interesting plot points and leaves me curious to see where matters will go in Season Two.