In hindsight, it now seems somewhat inevitable that the man who made Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would end up working on something dominated by cynical and cut-throat politics. All of Fincher’s famous characters, after all, are morally dubious at best and obviously evil at worst. And they are all dominated by an all-consuming obsession. In that respect, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood isn’t far from the John Doe he portrayed two decades ago. They may employ different means, but they share the ultimate aim of wreaking havoc for others. And whilst Doe’s deeds were done in the background, Underwood’s are out there in the open for us all to see plotted and executed. We’re even granted the benefit of first-hand narration.
And that connection – the frequent and casual dismantling of the fourth wall – is something Fincher has a lot of fun with. It’s not only added as a commentary in the middle of conversations. He even plays with it during the Presidential Inauguration. The device is key to making House of Cards, as Fincher put it, ‘delicious’.
That word is perfect. There’s an abundance of intrigue and attraction here. Spacey’s conniving style seduces us, but it’s awkward when we’re still unsure whether Underwood is little more than a bitter bastard. And through him, we get an insight into Washington’s Underworld. This may be high society, but there’s no doubt that dark forces are at work. If it wasn’t evident enough, we’re thrown a clue through music in the pilot episode when Shostakovich starts playing. Anyone who has seen Eyes Wide Shut will do the maths immediately.
Viewers of Dragon Tattoo will recognise the fittingly cold and crisp visuals here, too, along with the procedural footage of journalists flicking frantically through sites and papers. And fans of Fight Club will appreciate the digital quirks which grant us access to text messages by their flashing as speech bubbles on the screen.
The real intrigue, though, lies in what Underwood is up to. The series opens with a cat being hit by a car. Underwood tells us, as he strangles the animal to death off-screen, that he has no time for useless pain, and so he happily has the courage to step up and put the animal out of its misery. But by the end of the second episode, whether those balls are being put to benevolent use in Congress remains unclear. Yes, our protagonist is petty and spiteful and childish. But he’s also sharp and driven. What we don’t know is whether, behind the vengeance, he also desires to do good. But never mind. For now, we can bathe in the intrigue of observing him intellectually break people until they bend to his will, or his devouring a plate of ribs at seven thirty in the morning whilst offering a Machiavellian lecture. Yes, only Spacey could play this role.