House of Cards: Season One Detestability Rankings

By: Daniel Reynolds

If you’re like me, you probably caught wind of the new series House of Cards and thought, sight unseen, ‘what a great idea’[1]. Rather than go the now traditional route of corralling some powerful producers, casting high profile names and airing weekly episodes in a prestigious Sunday night time slot (I see you Boardwalk Empire), House of Cards shot for only two of the three. The result? The entire first season of the show, all 13 episodes, can be watched all in a row, at once, for the price of a Netflix subscription.

It’s a pretty sweet deal. At a philosophical level, this new stab into immediate digital distribution puts another nail into the archaic notion of forced weekly viewing schedules and the tyranny of the Nielson ratings, much to the chagrin of the networks and advertisers I’m sure. And, at an aesthetic level, House of Cards is a deliciously well-made political thriller (seriously, David Fincher, James Foley and, um, Joel Schumacher direct episodes) that stars Kevin Spacey, at his dead-eyed finest, playing Machiavellian Congressman and House Majority Whip Frank Underwood; a man for which there is no angle, favour, or political game that he can’t or won’t exploit.

Now, in the spirit of new and bold TV presentations, a simple episode by episode recap column for House of Cards is not entirely possible. I mean, theoretically, people were done watching the show 13 hours after it was released on Netflix[2]. So, rather than try to summarize the entire 13 run in a critical essay, we’re going to embrace the spirit of both this new TV experiment and of Congressman Underwood and tackle this discussion a bit differently. I present the inaugural House of Cards Detestability Rankings!

The flag is upside down. We call that symbolism.

The flag is upside down. We call that symbolism.

Here’s how it works: Since the world of politics presented on House of Cards is so otherworldly odious, we’re going to rifle through the characters that have us grimacing the most, counting down to #1. You may find yourself asking if every world of politics is like this. Is every successful politician or modest public figure some tremendous mix of charisma, shrewdness and moral flexibility? Or does the American political system, like the pro leagues in sport, just happen to draw the best? And remember, we detest because we love.

The House of Cards Detestability Rankings:

10) Tom Hammerschmidt – Pity poor Tom ‘The Hammer’ Hammerschmidt. He doesn’t know his time as a newspaperman is coming to an end. His place on this list is secure after calling Twitter a fad and referring to young Zoe Barnes (who may or may not make an appearance on this list later) as a, well, a blunt ‘C’ word. I’ll let you use your imagination[3].

9) Peter Russo – Look, we all want to like Peter Russo. Yes, he’s kind of a cad, and an alcoholic, and a bit of a drug addict. And yes, after his divorce he went to Thailand and, well, had some experiences there. Um, where was I? Oh yeah, he also wants to do the right thing! You have to believe him! He’s also got some kids he sort of likes but I’m pretty sure everyone saw the “tragic downfall” sign blinking over his shiny head right from the start.

8) Adam Galloway – V-neck. Scarf. That damn pretentious accent. He’s a photographer. Seriously, where is this guy from and who is he when he’s at home?

7) President Walker and Vice President Matthews – Just like their 2012 ticket, these two political leaders get on the list together. Matthews is clearly modeled somewhat (I said somewhat) on the Biden model of Vice Presidency: be old, be a character, and try not to put your foot in your mouth. For most of the series, he only manages the first two. As for President Walker, let’s be honest, would it distress anyone else if their actual president was this clueless?

6) Marty Spinella – Our first, but not last, lobbyist on the list. Spinella represents labour unions and leads the teachers in the biggest fictional strike in U.S. history. But, like everyone else on the show who’s name ends in a vowel, has an explosive temper (see also: Russo, Peter; Capra, Paul; etc). While you have to feel for Marty as he’s getting worked over by Underwood, he just screams too much, you know?

5) Doug Stamper – Just a straight-up creepy dude. We know that every political show/film/book has to have that shadowy right hand man who, for reasons never explained, is willing to do anything for his boss. For House of Cards that character is Stamper. Even when he’s allegedly helping out a poor girl in trouble it feels creepy. Hands up if when Stamper asks Rachel (the aforementioned poor girl) to open her mouth, your soul cringed.

4) Claire Underwood – The hardest to place on the list. On the one hand, Claire is easily one of the most compelling female characters on TV. She is elegant, extremely competent, and in control. She loves her husband but doesn’t fawn over him. Her life is motivated and full of considerations that go beyond what to have for dinner. But damn, she can be pretty cold-blooded at times, with a little too much of the ol’Lady Macbeth flair showing through at times. She does keep stringing Galloway along though, so add that to the plus column (because, screw that guy).

3) Remy Danton – Lobbyist! God, Remy is just unnervingly smooth isn’t he? He has an appearance that can best be described as ‘money’. Oh yeah, and he represents the interests of scary huge oil and natural gas company Sancorp. Remember when he met striving pregnant environmentalist Gillian Cole? Am I the only one that yelled out “No, keep him away! He’ll poison the baby!” Just me? Let’s move on.

2) Zoe Barnes – As with Claire, let’s give some credit where credit is due. Zoe is unlike a vast majority of female characters on TV. She’s got, as would have been said in the media days of old, moxie. But, am I crazy or is she also kind of a brat? And how angry did you get as you watched Frank string her along down a rabbit hole of her own deluded self-importance. Obviously, she’s positioned as the eventual do-gooder of the series, but watching her fumble around in her derelict apartment while the political machine gets away from her is pretty gross.

1) Frank Underwood – The bottom of the barrel. It is fascinating to consider that unlike, say, Walter White, Frank openly admits what he is and what he wants to do – talking directly to the camera with dripping contempt – yet we are drawn to him anyway. We watch for 13 episodes as he turns the wheels of power to suit his needs, by any means necessary. It is ultimately why we come to like him; we enjoy watching him make others look foolish while they squirm to do his bidding, drawn to his southern charm. However, this is not the entire fascinating part. No, that part is watching how Frank and House of Cards ultimately manipulates us along those familiar anti-hero angles, presenting us with a likable, if conniving, politician, the kind of politician we all believe must exist. We fall for him, and the show, even as we drive gleefully deeper into that heart of darkness.

No, no, cheers to you Frank.

No, no, cheers to you Frank.

Time will tell if Frank can maintain his stranglehold on the top spot. My hunch? Well, you’ll have to check back after Season Two for the next House of Cards Detestability Rankings.

[1] Or, alternatively, you may have thought: another show on TV right now that isn’t Mad Men or Breaking Bad. Get it together, TV.

[2] I say theoretically just to be kind. There are definitely some people out there who watched it all in a 13 hour “I hate myself” marathon.

[3] Totally unrelated, but I also had to put him on the list here because I still can’t forgive him for what he did to the Major Crimes unit in Season 5 of The Wire. Damn you, Marimow!

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