If we learned anything on House of Cards so far, it’s that Frank Underwood operates with brutal and precise intent. Every action he takes—whether it’s half-shredding a bill draft or having his right hand man hover over the police scanner late night—is made with an end game in mind. And thus far, Underwood understands his world enough (or the people and structures within it are so predictable) that he always succeeds. We may never know precisely how Underwood influenced Garret Walker’s path to the White House, but we’ll see every calculated decision he makes to repay his political ally for removing that Secretary of State nomination. It’s inevitable, right?
If we take Beau Willimon and the creative team at their word, the same level of precision planning and performance should apply to this series as a whole. Netflix gifted them 26 episodes up front and did not micromanage the creative process at all. Knowing there were many hours of narrative ahead, Willimon and company should not (and so far seemingly didn’t) feel pressure to give us episode-by-episode cliffhangers, pad an episode with time-filling, uninterested B-stories or make any variation of Chekov’s gun go off too soon. They have an end game in mind and they’ll reach it—hopefully with the devilish efficiency of their main character.
So with all that said, what plans have been laid thus far? Starting with Underwood, we’re clearly watching someone operate who is ruthlessly capable. He takes a Secretary of State nominee to his knees with a 30-year old college paper editorial, appoints another candidate through media manipulation. With Underwood’s every move succeeding, we’re faced with a delightfully classic villain: superior intelligence combined with limitless ability and ambition. He appears unstoppable, as even the unpredictable crumbles beneath him. Take episode three: incidents beyond his control initially threaten the Underwood throne. But the situation isn’t simply resolved, Underwood turns it in his favor as soon as he’s struck with a plan (as he gains an unwilling future ally in Oren and positive press for his graceful handling of the Masters at home).
The only other unexpected scenario for Underwood so far may prove more complicated than Peachoid-related death. His serendipitous glance at reporter Zoe Barnes has, for now, set up an unplanned alliance. For a man more comfortable mapping out his every move, improvising a bit with a new media mouthpiece certainly has the potential to get dicey. But in this relationship’s early goings, Underwood remains in total control. Barnes’ sexual advances were dismissed as childish. And, professionally, she depends on his tips so much she can’t afford to question Underwood’s motivations or accuracy. Plus, Underwood recognizes genuine ability in Barnes and sees a kindred spirit willing to do whatever it takes to move up. So even if he could theoretically break the arrangement after Blythe’s education draft leaks, he willingly goes back for more. And with every successful use of Barnes, Underwood is likely gaining more and more confidence with his newest tool. So even if her help was unexpected in episode one, Zoe Barnes becomes a purposeful mechanism in the Underwood arsenal by the second hour.
Again, with the usual TV restrictions vanished, we can expect that any time spent away from Frank in these early goings will be vital to where season one takes us. Peter Russo is a young Congressman seemingly as out-of-control as Underwood is in it. His most recent slip-up is what lands him the role of lap dog, but clearly he’s prone to them (he does after all, give into some recreational drug use whether or not it’s part of his anti-Kern mission). When Underwood is away, he coincidentally seems to have his most put together moments—being honest about his romantic and professional feelings for Christina.
Underwood’s wife Claire demonstrates her own ability to go Machiavelli on us. She guts a plateauing office and recruits the up-and-coming non-profit whiz to lead CWI into international affairs. Claire and Frank are clearly cut from the same cloth, and their late night conversations over a cigarette suggest they’ve worked in tandem before. It’s not clear how CWI and Congress will intersect just yet, but how high is the evil ceiling when these two powers combine? Though, maybe all these karmic interventions—the cemetery run-in, the elderly woman who can’t run a cash register—are meant to soften Claire’s steely resolve. Here’s hoping we’re not being set up for a tired, stereotype-riddled arc: woman gets soft and bails from an otherwise cold and calculated villainous plan.
It’s too early for us to see the House of Cards end game, but the pieces initially in play have all been enjoyable. These four leads—Spacey, Kate Mara, Robin Wright, Corey Stoll—have hit their marks perfectly. While some may complain about moments of over-the-top or too expository dialogue, in the hands of these actors it’s not an issue, merely critical nitpicking. And if you focus on the macro, the early chapters are interesting. A powerful politician is spurred, quietly vows revenge and methodically moves from mission-to-mission towards some unforeseen goal. This unknown will keep plenty of folks watching and guessing to see what comes next. And if Willimon knows as well as Underwood does, it’s going to be sinisterly riveting to follow.