Maybe fans of the original British series, which I am led to understand contained a similar death, expected the murder of Zoe Barnes more than the rest of us, but it was nevertheless a ballsy, surprising move on the part of House of Cards boss Beau Willimon. He took out one of the show’s lead characters — and a big draw to the show if these GQ photos are any indication — in the opening episode, and he did so without offering even the briefest of hints that it was coming (except, perhaps, Zoe’s now ironic statement to the effect that “I can take care of Underwood.”)
Not only was it cold, but there was an excellent bit of misdirection on the part of the marketing folks behind House of Cards, who heavily featured Kate Mara’s Zoe character in the trailers and sent her out to do publicity, only to quickly rip her away from us in ruthless, cold-blooded fashion when Kevin Spacey’s Vice President Frank Underwood threw her under the subway. Literally. I don’t know how anyone could’ve seen that coming.
It was also a smart move narratively, hitting us with one of the most gasp-worthy moment of the series in the premiere, distracting us from the less thrilling act of table setting the rest of the seasons’ plotlines. Again, Frank Underwood is battling on two fronts: A political one, where he’s trying to Cheney himself into a position as de facto President, and a personal one, where he’s battling the journalists attempting to uncover the conspiracy behind Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes’ deaths and take down the Vice President. Now, however, he has the blood of two innocent people on his hands, and yet, it is still Frank Underwood for whom most of us finding ourselves rooting.
That has almost everything to do with Kevin Spacey’s deliciously hammy performance. Spacey is gifted enough to make us room for more than just an anti-hero, but the series’ actual villain. Besides his repugnance with the South for fighting to maintain slavery, has Frank Underwood displayed any humanity whatsoever? His agenda — which has nothing to do with the issues, and everything to do with taking power at the expense of others — is purely self serving, and his actions are purely designed to hurt others, even if it often comes at his own expense.
It doesn’t hurt his case of course that Barnes’ old boss, Lucas Goodwin — who has taken up the Underwood witch hunt — is so bland and tiresome, and the people charged with removing his threat — namely, the VP’s Chief of Staff, Doug Stamper — are so much more interesting. In the world of politics, it’s clearly not about who is good and who is bad, it’s all about who is the more compelling character. In that regard, House of Cards couldn’t have chosen a better President than the wooden, charisma-repellent Garrett Walker, who no one would be sad to see take a fall, except his poor, boring wife.
I’m halfway through the season, and while I won’t spoil anything, I must say that Molly Parker as the new Majority Whip has been the highlight for me so far. She’s been so impressively confident, controlling, and sexy that it honestly took me an episode or two to remember her from Deadwood. If House of Cards were to ever continue without Spacey, I wouldn’t to upset to see Parker take the lead.
Robin Wright, likewise, has been marvelously cold, and has managed to survive the Skyler White curse by being as ruthless and Machiavellian as her husband, and doing so without betraying any sleaziness whatsoever. It’s a very Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal kind of performance: She will swallow your soul and destroy your life with class, dignity, and total detachment.
There have been a few dead spots, as there were last season, but I expect that even those will be smoothed out as House of Cards heads toward its final, riveting episodes. The biggest question at play, so far, is what’s Frank Underwood’s endgame. Noting that he’s only “a heartbeat away from the Presidency” in the premiere episode certainly suggests that he’s not above putting a stop to the heart that separates him from the most powerful position in the free world. But then again, why bother? The President may have the title, but it’s Underwood that wields all the power.