'House of Cards' Triumphs With a Royal Flush

Ruthless and seductive, Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of a political villain enthralls anew in the second season of the Netflix thriller.

As of last Friday, the cat is out of the bag. Not just the head, auguring the gradual exposure of a feline in weekly installments, but all of it, from its whiskers to the tip of its tail. The cat in this case stands for the 13 chapters of the second season of “House of Cards,” about which more later. The bag is owned by Netflix, the website that may yet be the end of the TV world as we know it, streaming content directly to our PCs and laptops, so we can program our viewing at the time and place of our choosing. No longer will we be at the mercy of cable or broadcast channels that traditionally have had us glued to a stationary TV screen at a particular time of day.

Netflix released all of season 2 of “House of Cards” in one slab on Friday, to be downloaded and/or watched at the viewers’ will and timetable, just as it did it with season 1 a year ago. The first season was an astounding success, becoming the first series produced by a content provider on the Internet (not a TV studio, cable channel or network) to be nominated for Emmy and Golden Globe awards, and winning some. So expectations for season 2 soared high. As the series made its reputation, among other things, on the twists and turns of its plot, even President Obama let it be known that he would find time for it in his schedule on Valentines’ Day. He even tweeted “no spoilers, please.” Unlike some Israeli politicians I’m not going to incur his wrath by disobeying him, so you may go on reading safely.

For the uninitiated, “House of Cards” tells the story of Frank Underwood, an American politician on the rise, who starts the series as majority whip in the House of Representatives and manipulates his way up. At the start of season 2 he is already vice president. Many films and series about politics have tried to portray the powers that be (or rather the people who wield those powers) as 
humans who try to make the world a better place. Some of these characters are flawed, some are unlucky, some are undone by adversaries.

“House of Cards” has a hero who is a pure, unadulterated villain, for whom adultery (to mention one of his many sins) is a way of life, with his spouse’s tacit approval, provided it is for the good of their joint cause.

But it is not just the plot and the machinations of a conniving politician who will stop at nothing (and I mean nothing), it is also the fact that he is played by Kevin Spacey. An American actor with two Oscars to his credit, who has been managing a theater (the Old Vic) in London for the last 10 years, Spacey has built a distinguished film and theater career on both sides of the Atlantic. And it’s not only his screen persona (sleek, ruthless, restrained, frightening and seductive, like a lethal snake), it is also the fact that his character addresses the viewers every so often, confiding in them, announcing what he is going to do, and elucidating what he just did, and to what effect. He will go on the offensive, retreat, sidestep and change sides without pausing for breath. He is bad, mean and proud of it.

Here one has to give credit where credit is due. The American “House of Cards” series, developed and produced by Beau Willimon, is actually a remake of a BBC series with the same title from the 1990s, based on a novel by Michael Dobbs, which told the story of MP and Chief Whip of the Conservative Party Francis Urquhart (portrayed by Ian Richardson), who in time becomes a PM and dares to oppose the ruling monarch. Richardson-Urquhart had the same thirst for power, and the same pleasure in exacting revenge as Spacey-Underwood. Please note that both share the same initials, FU, which may stand also as an abbreviation of “a statement or expression of hostility, confrontation, or rejection” in “coarse slang, chiefly American” (OED).

Like Underwood, Urquhart had an ally in his wife, Elisabeth. In the American series, her name is Claire, and she is played by Robin Wright, who maintains her inscrutable expression as she seconds him ably in everything, bad and worse, taking good care of her own side of every deal. And like Urquhart, Underwood uses a young, female, aspiring and ambitious journalist, trading text (bits of news that allow her to scoop the competition, and him to outwit the opposition) for sex. In the American series, the journalist Zoe Barnes is played by Kate Mara, and viewers who saw the BBC series were probably not surprised with what happens to her in Chapter 14, the first of the second season.

As I promised not to spoil your future viewing pleasure (even if you decide to start watching the first season only now, just as I did, binge-watching 10 chapters of it on HOT VOD), I won’t mention another character or incident from the series. I’ll just say – giving credit where it’s really due – that the makers of both series, and especially both actors – Richardson and Spacey – took a leaf from Laurence Olivier’s book, or rather film. In his version for the big screen of “Richard III,” Olivier made an unusual decision, to deliver his soliloquies by directly addressing the audience while being filmed in extreme close-up, just as Richardson did in the BBC series and as Spacey does in the American version.

Nothing disarms cynical and jaded viewers like a villain who shares his vile thoughts with them. “Richard would be flirting with the camera – sometimes only inches from his eyes – and would lay his head on the camera’s bosom if he could,” wrote Olivier, who took the inspiration for this confidence trick from the asides Shakespeare penned for his Richard III, and it is supremely effective in “House of Cards.”

If there is a lesson to be learned about politics from the series, it is that beneath the veneer of “the country’s (or nation’s) greater good,” it’s all about naked power, an extremely ugly and captivating sight. It seems that on Valentine’s Day about 15 percent of Netflix’s 40 million subscribers watched some or all of “House of Cards.” It looks like the second season is deemed as good – or even better – than season 1.

One cannot access the Netflix site legally from Israel (as yet; there are rumors about it in the near future), although there are apparently ways and means. But from this coming Sunday, HOT will run the second series on consecutive days of the week on HOT 3 (at 23.30, for adult viewing apparently) and on HOT VOD. It will also be screened on Yes Oh, Sunday through Thursday at 23.45. You will be able to take it in one gulp, or space it at your leisure, and then the wait will begin for season 3, already commissioned, not yet filmed. And in the future, when we have the series streamed directly to our laptops, we will be able to stream it back to our TV screens, and complete the circle. It’s in the cards.

Patrick Harbron/Sony Pictures