Thus "Chapter 1" has an incredible burden in its first scene: sell the whole damn thing. Sell the idea of the Netflix Original Production, sell the concept of the series, and indeed sell the sale (it's not being made on charity, of course). Some series spend too long in a pilot episode to set up the world before setting up the idea--not with House of Cards. The neighbors' dog, a victim of a nameless, faceless (and arguably mostly insignificant) hit and run lies dying--and is wisely unseen. Spacey's Frank Underwood is commanding and concerned... and then addresses the camera. I know it's a dramatic conceit lifted from the BBC miniseries but it works, and wonderfully so. Our being drawn into the show by his acknowledgment of his audience, in Iagoian style, is done while he kills the dog. Or is he euthanizing the dog? Is he hurting an animal (the universal dramatic symbol for "this is a bad guy") or is he helping it? Do the ends justify the means?
The scene is the tension of the series in a nutshell--and, I suspect, the central question for the series. On first viewing, the dog's death was harsh, forcing us to watch the villainous lead who will take us through the scum-filled town. On my second viewing, the "cruelty to animals" was less shocking, and the notion of making hard, dirty choices for the (possible?) greater good was more evident. It's a fun dichotomy with which the show can play: asking if we are seeing how the sausage gets made, or seeing the brutality of the slaughterhouse.
From there, the show moves breezily through the necessary pilot episode exposition: the New Years Eve party, coupled with Underwood's direct narration, introduces the President-elect, Chief-of-Staff Linda Vasquez, and the seemingly-insignificant Vice President who, we are told, is happy to merely have the bigger chair (i.e. of that office). Similarly, the show is expeditious with its introduction of "Zoe--Zoe Barns!" who must introduce herself accordingly to her editor as she is that low on the totem pole.
The show quickly moves to fill out the cast, again deftly using exposition that matters. For example, Congressman Peter Russo is sold on face value in one second: he's late for work. He's clearly a bullshitter's bullshitter--and his attempt to wow the rube from back home with a call from the President-elect doubles as in introduction for his relationship with his secretary Christina. Corey Stoll walks the line wonderfully, perfectly, between Russo's grown-up frat boy mentality and someone competent enough to be a congressman. (The reader may determine the baseline for congressional competence on his or her own.) As the puppet that Underwood needs, Russo will bear watching--can he operate seriously without the strings?
But beyond the opening strides of the show is its early dedication to certain themes. Sure, the ideas of power and corruption, goals and the road to get them, morals and ethics: it's all there, and the show wears them on its sleeve. What caught my eye, however, was the episode's treatment of women.
Someone who isn't "our girl" is that pesky secretary Christina, though her worries of being used as a pretty... face, and being at risk of being passed up for a prettier face one day, does give her a wonderful depth. And speaking of depth, the creators are to be commended for their use of her nudity. It was, I think, a message that Netflix isn't opposed to such things in an original production, so long as they make sense. Actress Constance Zimmer's (splendid name!) nude scene is not the stuff of the afore-mentioned Maxim, but I appreciate the show all the better for it. House of Cards is grounded in a very, very real reality, and Christina need not be post-plastic surgery to be an attractive, if not confident, woman.
Last, but certainly not least among the women, is Robin Wright's Claire Underwood. Others have noted her Lady Macbeth quality, particularly when Frank comes home, dejected at having lost a cabinet position; Claire revs her dejected husband up, reminding him essentially to be himself. The line that he apologizes to no one, not even his wife, is equal parts masochistic and sexist and equal. She knows him--is she the power behind the throne? Claire is a curious character--another shade of gray who moves beyond the Lady Macbeth trope. Being the head of her charity, she both wants to help the world further, and is willing to cut jobs to do it. It's a sign that she is a strong woman in her own right... though after this episode, I'm left wanting to know more about the line between her operating in and out of her husband's world.
All told, "Chapter 1" is an engaging start to the series, and one that tells the viewer that this is no show to listen to while doing the dishes. It's communicated in the final scene, in which the hit-and-run driver (guilty of a saddening but ultimately small fry crime, given his age), is visually boxed in by the police. For all the (dog) blood on Frank's hands, justice was served in this episode.
Will we continue to think that?
Chapter 2 awaits.