A weird thing started to happen during this 2nd episode block. In the first couple of episodes, I was getting my bearings, seeing how the characters inhabit their world, and feeling intrigued by the psychological insights and manipulations, but it was still a fairly detached viewing experience. I found the characters interesting, but I wasn’t pulling one way or another for events to turn out in their favor or against them; I was content to just see what happens.
That kinda changed in these episodes. Not totally — I still don’t know who I want to win in the end — but often on a scene-by-scene basis, I found myself rooting for an outcome, or against an outcome, and feeling on the edge of my seat not knowing. And what’s more, I wasn’t even rooting for the same characters all the time. In some scenes, I wanted Frank to win, to get away with his blatant and shameless lying in front of a church full of devout Christians mourning the loss of a young girl, and in others I wanted him to lose, like when he makes Peter Russo sell out the interests of his district to serve Frank’s political ambitions. And even though I think Frank is a terrible person, when I thought his wife was about to cheat on him, I starting shouting at the screen for her to stop it stop it STOP IT!
It comes down to good writing, plain and simple. The writers are slowly chipping away at each character’s armor, showing us their weak points, and also their good points, even while leaving their dark sides fully visible, and in that way, they earn our sympathy.
For example, Peter Russo, the congressman with every vice imaginable, is given a moment alone in his bathroom where he pulls out a small bag of cocaine, holds it for a few moments of agonized internal debate, and then dumps it down the sink. And suddenly I’m on his side and I want him to change and I want to believe he can change. And then when Frank bullies him and he folds under the weight of the blackmail, and then he folds again under the weight of his guilt and resorts to alcohol and/or drugs, you really get it this time. So it’s actually pretty devastating to see his girlfriend leave him after that relapse, because for once he had a reason. Two episodes ago, I would not have cared, but within just a few hours, my mind was changed. Other reviewers have commented that Russo slowly becomes a tragic figure, and that the binge-viewing model that Netflix has set up for this show (which may or may not be good for business) is ideal for watching the progression of character development.
The other thing that holds the show together for me is Kevin Spacey’s acting. Now I really want to see more of his work. He entirely inhabits the character of Frank Underwood. He makes no apologies, no attempts to justify himself or make you like him; he just steamrolls right along. The show also uses an unusual technique of having Frank occasionally turn to the camera and say his thoughts straight to the viewer, baldly and without frills. It pulls you in; we are this man’s confidant, we know exactly why he’s saying X in this scene, we know his plans, we know how deep the lies go. We know that this ostensibly mild-mannered middle-aged man with the folksy southern accent is a twisted, power-mad, pathological liar, but we’re the only ones who know, and so we get a gleeful thrill out of seeing how badly he can fool everyone around him. Or at least, I do. Others have disagreed or been less enthusiastic.
You’ll have to decide for yourself.