House of Cards is a very peculiar thing. It follows congressman Frank Underwood, a spot on performance by the great Kevin Spacey, who after being denied the position of secretary of state following a successful presidential campaign, starts scheming his way up the political ladder on Capitol Hill. Similar to Breaking Bad, maybe the greatest piece of television ever created, there is a lot of ambivalence here concerning the moral standing of our main character. Is he the protagonist of this story? If not, who is?
I finished season 2 of this wonderful series a few days ago. It is such a curious thing, constantly catching you off-guard. I'm not going into spoiler territory just now, but it is clear from the beginning that Underwood is ruthless. In his struggle for power, he has no regard for others. Now it is always fun to watch manipulative characters on-screen, the elegance of it makes us sympathize with the obvious smartest person in the room. You can't help but marvel at the foresight and minute planning that takes place here. Yet, House of Cards provides you with constant reality-checks, showing you some of the people who get left behind in Underwoods wake.
In that regard, Underwood may be the best politician ever put to screen. He constantly directs our attention. We are constantly aware of his ulterior motives, it's all about the power for him. Regardless, as he rises through the ranks, especially in the first season, we root for him. We feel his defeats and are impressed by his victories. Why? Do we want our politicians to be that way? If his opponents are so easily manipulated, do they deserve what's coming to them?
Spoilers from here on... you've been warned.
In the second season, things become much clearer. Now, Underwood has bloodied his hands. The fate of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes has shown us his true colours. No amount of smoke screening he can do will make us root for him again, right? And yet, watching it, I never seriously entertained the possibility of his defeat. There are those who know stuff about him, people that become dangerous. This should be the main conflict, following the heroic attempt to blow the whistle on a man that couldn't be any more corrupt and dangerous. But Underwood isn't even playing that game anymore. He has become untouchable, delegating this whole aspect of the story to Stamper. He has bigger fish to fry. In a normal Hollywood film this hubris would lead to his downfall, and it might still, but not in House of Cards.
Through his conflict with Tusk, he even finds a way to get us back on his side. Tusk is just as bad as he is... but he isn't talking to the camera, and that's what counts here. At this point, we all know that Francis Underwood is a villain, maybe one of the best, but he doesn't fight good guys, and that makes all the difference. Of course decent people cross his path, but none of them ever seriously challenge him. Most of them don't know how bad, and those who do are effectively silenced. Apart from brief opposition by the president, there is no hero in this story.
And in that, House of Cards is completely unique in my opinion. No other show or movie manages to resist the hero character. Of course, there are anti-heroes, and they are fine and good, but someone always opposes the villain. Even Breaking Bad had Hank Schrader, obsessively searching for Heisenberg.
If you know another example of this, please tell me, because it is such an amazing thing to watch. Anyway, those are my thoughts on House of Cards, definitely one of my favourite shows.