The arena of American politics has made for some world-class television in the past and present—The West Wing and Veep, to start—but no show on Washington power has been quite like House of Cards. Netflix’s hit show pins superstar Kevin Spacey as the United States Representative from South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, Frank Underwood. He’s a ruthlessly pragmatic and disarmingly charming schemer and sinner who plots his way into greater and greater power by taking down anyone above him and all who oppose him.
House of Cards season 1 swings open with an illustration of that very trait as Congressman Underwood puts down an ailing puppy with his bare hands in the first scene of the series. He breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience (as he does frequently throughout the series) with a phrase that captures his essence: the responsibility “to do the unpleasant thing yet the necessary thing.” Watch House of Cards online and you’ll find that that single quote turns out to be the thread that ties the entire show together.
The plot begins as Underwood celebrates the election of President Walker who promised Underwood, as a key ally during the campaign, that he would be tapped for Secretary of State in the President’s administration. The promise is broken and Frank, rocked by the administration’s insincerity, begins a plot to grab power—all of it—for himself. He begins the elaborate web along with his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, who uses her non-profit organization to help sink President Walker’s Secretary of State pick, Michael Kern.
The web grows with a carefully selected pawn, a green political reporter played by Kate Mara named Zoe Barnes, with whom Frank begins a mutually beneficial affair—both sexual and professional—giving Zoe the juiciest gossip on Frank’s political rivals that helps destroy their reputations while gaining Zoe fast fame. After leaking a story that greatly harms Michael Kern, he steps down as Secretary of State and an ally of Frank Underwood is put in his place.
Another pawn, Peter Russo, a Pennsylvania Representative in the House played by Corey Stoll, is used by Frank in an intricate plan for Russo to run for Governor of Pennsylvania—the home state of the Vice President—and combust during the campaign due to a relapse into alcoholism, forcing the Vice President to step down and run in Russo’s place. The spot is then open for Frank to step into and begin his next move to topple the President of the United States. And it is at this point where it’s definitely a good idea to catch up on the series and watch the show online as Frank Underwood’s next machinations need to be seen to be believed.
House of Cards Season 2
The inside job of ousting the President is made acutely difficult by intimidating billionaire businessman, Raymond Tusk, played by the brilliant Gerald McRaney of Simon & Simon and Deadwood fame. Raymond Tusk happens to be the President’s strongest ally and closest confidante. It is further revealed that it was Tusk who pushed the President to pass on Frank as Secretary of State and it is Tusk’s blessing that is vital for Frank to be tapped as Vice President of the United States. The two, then, begin an uneasy alliance—an alliance Frank means to break.
Frank attempts to undermine the influence Tusk wields over the President and hit Tusk’s pocketbook using China-US diplomatic negotiations to begin a trade war that Tusk will be blamed for igniting. When the President takes Frank’s advice to stand strong against China in opposition to Tusk’s preference to end the stalemate and continue the Sino-US relations that make him millions of dollars, Tusk severs his alliance with Frank and the President both. The second layer of Frank’s master plan unveils, again, with the aid of Claire Underwood who befriends the First Lady and gets her to reveal her souring marriage with President Walker.
Claire suggests a private marriage counselor to the First Lady, which she forces upon her husband. This predictably leaks into the press, which raises questions to an ornery Congress that hires a special prosecutor to investigate, an investigation that would roll on to reveal illicit campaign donations and backroom dealings between the White House and Raymond Tusk. As this trail is clear as day, President Walker turns against Frank, finally realizing that Frank has been plotting to bring him down. As Tusk is compelled to testify before Congress, President Walker offers him a Presidential pardon in order to implicate Frank Underwood as the chief conspirator. Frank offers Tusk the same deal, to implicate President Walker, as Frank would then replace the impeached Chief of State and be able to offer the billionaire a Presidential pardon.
Tusk, appropriately, sides with President Walker and Frank is forced to try a Hail Mary play: regaining the President’s trust and friendship. The President reneges on Tusk’s deal right before his testimony and Tusk repays the favor by incriminating the President. Facing impeachment, President Walker is forced to resign and Frank Underwood walks the halls of the White House sworn in as President of the United States of America and the most powerful man on Earth. He’s done many unpleasant things because they were necessary—at least, necessary to grab and maintain power in the tragic game that is American politics.