My first real TV binge watch was the second season of The West Wing. Preachy and saccharine but endearingly optimistic, it left the viewer encouraged by what politics could be. My, how far we’ve come.
Sharpened by the learnings from analysis of Netflix’s astonishing user data, House of Cards was engineered from the outset for binge viewing.
Of the 40 million Netflix subscribers across the planet, only one user went the full 13 hours from the moment it went live but by the end of the weekend, hundreds of thousands of viewers had caught up.
It’s certainly not a relaxing way to spend your days off. Taken all at once it’s intense, exhausting and thrilling. The only potential emotional respite for viewers comes in the form of validation of the lazy assumption that all politicians are terrible.
Unburdened by the traditional needs of a TV show to build towards a finale, the heart-stopping moments are not saved for the second last episode, Game of Thrones style, they’re sprinkled throughout the season, from the first through to the last instalment.
House of Cards was never just the story of Congressional Whip Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) quest for power, but this season does more justice to Robin Wright’s Emmy-winning performance as Claire Underwood, giving her much more of her own (dark and horrific, naturally) story to tell. She also has the absolute best/worst brutal riposte in a 13 episode season not lacking such lines.
If it’s possible, Spacey’s breaches of the fourth wall are even more delicious this time around, veering beyond camp and ever so close to utterly absurd without quite getting there. You, the viewer, are an accomplice to his atrocities throughout. You monster.
Some of the less convenient story arcs from the first season are a little too neatly wrapped up, particularly the one where Claire deploys the line referenced above. Others – yes, like that one three quarters of the way into episode one – provide the catalyst for key moments in the early part of the new season. Many reviews I’ve read recommend watching the first series again before starting this one, but I’m not so sure. Do it because you want to, not because it’s an absolute necessity.
Reprising his role from the first season — and at times uncannily similar to his George Hearst in Deadwood — Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk is the closest thing to a nemesis Frank has, but not once did I find myself wanting Hurst to prevail. We’re not ready for that yet. Underwood’s protégé turned would-be saboteur Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) is never entirely convincing, but he is great to look at, with or without his perfectly cut suits.
Emerging through the ever growing pile of collateral damage is Congresswoman Jacqueline Sharp (Molly Parker), a war veteran undaunted by the death she’s delivered and accustomed to forging her way forward through patriarchal morass. Frank’s anointed one this time is stronger, more capable and more captivating than season one’s tragic Congressmen Peter Russo. Her emergence from Frank’s long shadow makes the otherwise slower middle episodes (Claire’s relationship with the tedious photographer Adam Galloway – yawn) good viewing, but the pace picks up again nicely in the final episodes.
There hasn’t yet been a realistic politics show on television, but there are disarming snippets of realism in House of Cards. The sets are superbly immersive. The horse-trading for power and influence, particularly amongst the supporting characters, rarely feels forced. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity play themselves and are no less obnoxious than they are in the real world. Perhaps these moments are what can make some of the evil excesses seem jarring. You’ve momentarily forgotten that the show is delightfully and deliberately over the top. But then you see the ridiculous character of Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson looking like he’s having a great time), a hacker that ticks every box on the cliché list except the cat he strokes is a guinea pig named Cashew.
Fans of the original BBC trilogy will not find the episode one incident shocking for more than a moment, similarly the outcome of the story this season never felt in any doubt. It doesn’t make the viewing of this iteration any less enjoyable though. If the Netflix show continues to broadly follow that same path, the fall is coming soon. And it will be enthralling.
The magnificent closing shot of the final episode will leave you craving more.