House of Cards, the Show That Changed Television Forever, Was Deeply Effed Up

10 years ago, Netflix changed the game with the David Fincher-produced series. But its legacy is a complicated one.

House of Cards Kevin Spacey
House of Cards (Netflix), illustration by Steven Fiche

    Something that’s easy to forget, looking back on the 10 years since House of Cards first debuted on Netflix, is how ugly and strange a show it was.

    Not aesthetically — director/executive producer David Fincher established, with the first two episodes he directed, an austere yet elegant look and feel that persisted over the course of its six-season run. But on a narrative level, showrunner Beau Willimon packed all of the worst vices of humanity into the political drama, which launched on a huge level thanks to having huge names like Fincher and stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright on screen, and immediately became an awards player, racking up 56 nominations and seven wins at the Emmys.

    Those Emmys went to a show where the opening scene literally features Spacey, as the nefarious Frank Underwood, killing a dog (it’d been hit by a car, Frank says directly to the audience, and “I have no patience for useless things”). The dog wouldn’t be the only other living thing murdered by Frank over the course of the show’s six-season run, as the prestige drama always battled with the temptation to tip over into camp, a temptation it often couldn’t escape.


    Don’t believe me? Here is an incomplete list of things that happen in House of Cards Season 1:

    • The dog murder, to start with.
    • Frank Underwood plays video games obsessively (in Season 1, he’s seen with Killzone 3).
    • A teenage girl in Frank’s congressional district dies in a car accident… after getting distracted by the local peach-shaped water tank.
    • Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) quits working for a legacy print newspaper (after her boss calls her the C-word) and starts to work for an online publication start-up. The start-up’s offices are just as nice as the newspaper’s, except the start-up has more bean bag chairs.
    • Also? The start-up is named Slugline.
    • Of course Frank and Zoe start an affair, as he uses her to feed stories to the public that enable his scheming.
    • In consoling poor drunk Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), crashing at his house, Frank simultaneously says he wants Peter to run for governor of Pennsylvania and also leaves him a razor blade along with some suicide advice.
    • After his divorce, Peter did the very normal and usual thing of going to Thailand for two weeks to do all the drugs and sleep with “10-15 women” who were implied to be sex workers. But it’s cool, because they didn’t speak English!
    • Claire (Wright) drops by the hospital room of her former bodyguard to give him a handjob.
    • Frank’s aide Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) develops an obsession with poor Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan) the sex worker (which in later seasons leads to him stalking Rachel across the country and eventually killing her in the desert).
    • Constance Zimmer’s character, an old-school political journalist, says the line “Hey Twitter twat, WTF?”
    • Frank goes to visit some old school chums, at which point the show just goes ahead and establishes that the character is canonically bisexual.
    • Invited over to Frank’s house while Claire’s off hooking up with her photographer ex, Zoe does the very normal and usual thing of immediately going up to Claire’s closet to borrow one of Claire’s dresses (as revenge after Claire’s previous visit to Zoe’s apartment).
    • Frank just full-on murders an intoxicated Peter, staging it to look like a suicide.
    • Frank also murders a kitchen faucet with a hammer…
    • Gets appointed Vice-President after a season’s worth of scheming…
    • And eats so many racks of ribs.

    House of Cards Kate Mara Kevin Spacey

    House of Cards (Netflix)