Thursday, March 7, 2013

Characters, Dialogue and a House of Cards

Today we're going to talk about a new show on Netflix called House of Cards. The political drama starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara was originally a book and then a British miniseries. Now its America's turn, and if you haven't already watched it, do so. But don't worry, this won't contain any spoilers (I haven't finished the show myself) Instead I wanted to break the show down and look at what makes it so good in the first place.

For those not in the know I'll quickly sum up the show by saying it's a political drama about a man who gets betrayed and decides to get his revenge. I resonantly described it a friend as Game of Thrones without the fantasy if Lex Luthor was the main character. That doesn't quite do it justice, but it conveys the notion that this is a show about bad people, clawing and biting at each other to get ahead. One of the things I love most about the show is that they''re all so damn good at it.

The show's writing is outstanding, the directing and cinematography superb and the acting top notch throughout. But the thing that really ties this show together isn't the wonderful performances or the whip smart dialogue, with every line polished to near perfection, it's the characters. Every character in House of Cards is a multifaceted bag of strengths and weaknesses constantly churning against each other, struggling within each of the characters for dominance. This not only adds tension in their own lives but serves as constant reminder of how fragile their high stakes game truly is.

Take the main character for instance, Francis Underwood. Francis helped the President get elected on a promise that he would be the next Secretary of State, and as the show demonstrates again and again, promises in the world of Washington politics is everything. People are only as good as their word. How else could you sort through all the flattery and lies? However when the day comes, the White House goes with someone else, completely breaking its promise. To further tear open the wound they even steal Underwood's chosen slogan without giving him an ounce of credit.

In hindsight, not a very smart thing to do to a man like Francis Underwood. A man who seems to live only for power and the games that bring it. Francis spends his time building connections, forging tools and setting up favors to be called upon in an hour of need. His whole life is geared toward achieving ever more power for no reason other than he likes it, even going so far as to use his wife as simply another extension of himself, another tool to be used.

This is Francis' greatest strength and in many ways, his most crippling weakness. Though he's accustomed to pulling off miracles, all his mistakes can be attributed in one way or another to his own hubris. Over extending, pushing allies to far until they inevitably become enemies. Even his beloved wife, so accustomed to the game, chafes under his constant needs and the blow back from his adversaries.

Speaking of his wife, what a fascinating character she is. Claire Underwood, played by the stunning Robin Wright is a mess of tangled contradictions. She runs a growing charity to help people, yet has no problem with discarding her workers, crushing their lives when they serve no more use to her. In the early episodes she takes a trusted friend, one she's worked with for years and makes her fire half the staff. After a day of dealing with crying, angry and betrayed people, what is this loyal worker's reward? She too is fired. Claire, like her husband constantly manipulates those around her to get more, seeming to consider them only as resources to be mined until the vein is tapped. However, unlike Francis, who seems to come more alive with every battle, who thrives on the smell of blood in the air, Claire seems to be slowly dragged down by it, to question the choices she's made.

The relationship between her and her husband is also far from simple. They genuinely seem to love and care for each other. What at first appears to be a marriage of mutual benefit, a cold calculation of strengths gained gives way to show a marriage of two people who not only care for one another, but know every facet of the other person. They understand one another's strengths and weaknesses completely, a total knowing of the other person that serves to only cement their bond. Early in the show one gets the impression that either maybe cheating on the other, and this turns out to be true. But instead of exposing a twisted web of lies and deceit, we see that this too is known. After spending the night with another woman, Francis returns home and tells his wife exactly who it was with. Claire's only concern is how much they, as a couple, gain from the arrangement. Just another tool, another connection in a web of lies and intrigue.

The list goes on. Kate Mara's character, Zoe Barns, fights to be a prominent, respected journalist but gets her big scoops by her affair with Francis. But like so many other things in this show, it goes beyond that. Francis and Zoe seem to love their cat and mouse game more than the work benefits they gain from one another, and Zoe herself is less the naive younger woman being taken advantage of, and more a serious player in her own right. One that could pose a serious threat to Francis.

There's Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly. He acts as Francis' right hand man setting up meetings and taking care of the dirty jobs that Francis can't be tied to. In the beginning I got the impression that he was there for many of the same reasons as Francis, for his own success. But later on we see several other sides to him, sides that show this is not a cartoon henchmen blindly serving the interest of his master, but someone with his own twisted world view of right and wrong.

Peter Russo, played by Corey Stoll. A weak man plagued by self doubt, weakness and addiction. A fly that the gets caught up in Francis' wicked web. First smacked around, used and discarded, then forced to break a promise to his home town. The promise not only crushes his supporters back home, it destroys Peter himself. Then when it seems Peter will spiral out of control, Francis swoops back in to build him up. Not because he cares, but because Peter could prove useful down the road.

House of Cards is delicious mix of evil, competence, and boardroom drama that tickles all the right parts of the brain. The characters, so well built and fleshed out serve to remind us that life is more than simple good and evil, and that one's hands are never clean. All this work into the characters is constantly reinforced by the brilliant lines of dialogue and beautiful directing, many parts of a complicated whole that brings the entire enterprise to live.

Much like the characters themselves.

You can watch House of Cards on Netflix.

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