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Kevin Spacey's Leading-Man Problem

The star of the 13-hour "House of Cards" is as impenetrable as ever


In the very first scene of Netflix’s new political thriller “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey kills a dog. It has been hit by a car and lies whimpering; Spacey kneels at its side. “There are two kinds of pain,” he tells us, “The sort of pain that makes you strong—or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” As he strangles the animal, the camera lingers on his placid face, the blank eyes fixed in their sockets, the corner of his mouth upturned in amusement. It is consummate Spacey: deliberate, contained, with the quiet menace of a man whose psyche we can never fully enter.   

“House of Cards,” Netflix’s 100-million-dollar bet on the future of television consumption, is a sleek, bewitching production. The company paid big money to steal the show away from more experienced distributors like Showtime and HBO, and promised 26 episodes to the show’s creators off the bat. David Fincher, who made The Social Network and The Fight Club, directed. When the first thirteen episodes were posted at midnight on Friday, Netflix launched an active marketing campaign to encourage binge-watching, tweeting: “How far into House of Cards are you? Don't forget to shower, eat something, stretch! #watchresponsibly.” 

Spacey plays majority whip Frank Underwood, who—after failing to be tapped for secretary of state, a position he’d been sure he was in line for—launches a diabolical crusade to climb the political ranks. In early episodes, Underwood escorts us through the Washington corridors of power, offering a blunt taxonomy of its major players. “She’s a woman, check, and a Latina, check, but more important than that she’s tougher than a two-dollar steak,” he explains, introducing the White House chief of staff. Of the DNC chair, he says: “A rare example of someone whose head is in the game instead of up their backside.”

But as the series progresses, the depth of Underwood's viciousness is slowly revealed. One character after another gets manipulated into compliance with his dark will. “What’s better than a blank slate in the right hands?” he asks. He develops a toxic relationship with a ruthless young journalist named Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a rising star at The Washington Herald and then at the Politico stand-in Slugline. A young congressman, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), gets arrested while driving drunk, a prostitute in tow; Underwood covers Russo’s tracks in order to blackmail him into doing his political bidding. When Russo shows up at Underwood’s home, desperate and sobbing, Underwood orders him to strip, runs a bath for him, then leaves a razor blade sitting on the lip of the tub. “If you do decide to take the coward’s way out, cut along the tracks, not across them—that’s a rookie mistake,” he says. In the privacy of his luxe, marbled townhouse, he plays first-person shooter games alone on the couch.

Watching thirteen episodes of “House of Cards” over the course of two days, the dense, languid scenes begin to blend together. The episodes don’t so much recall or allude to each other as occur in one long uninterrupted moment, linked by an eerie sense of intelligent design. There are no commercials or ads to force cliffhangers, no flashbacks or other narrative tricks to remind you what has happened in previous episodes, just the relentless forward churn of plot. The political details—the hashing out of congressional bills, the currying of votes among Senate representatives—begin to feel plodding and logistical.

But what benefits most from this intensive, unrushed format—with its luxury to play the narrative long-game rather than chopping up the story into suspensful bits—is character development. Coke-snorting congressman Russo, who seems in the first two episodes like a sleazy political cliché, has developed into a wrenchingly tragic figure by halfway through the season. Frank’s wife, played with chilly poise by Robin Wright, is a lobbyist for an environmental group and Underwood’s partner in crime; her affair with an artist is the only escape from her crisp and calculated life. There is just one character who doesn’t deepen and complicate over the course of the series: Frank Underwood. And the main reason is Spacey himself. There are few actors more convincing in the role of the shadowy villain or the dead-eyed psychopath, a malevolent force at the margins. But as a protagonist, he ultimately leaves “House of Cards” curiously cold. 

Before filming “House of Cards,” Spacey spent ten months playing the similarly Machiavellian title character in an international production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, who addresses the audience with narrative asides. “House of Cards” has similar moments, where Underwood looks directly at the camera and comments on the action. But here his asides seem unnatural—over-explanatory, redundant, and sometimes just plain hokey and dull. The dry pronouncement “If I water down the bill, the president will still see me as a failure, and I cannot abide falling back to square one” reveals exactly nothing about the mind behind it.

The broken fourth wall feels like a particularly strange trick in Spacey’s hands. After all, he has built a career on playing characters whose motives are impossible to crack. The fourth wall has never been more opaque than in films like Se7en and The Usual Suspects, where the psychic gulf between the audience and Spacey’s cool madmen is crucial to the suspense. Inscrutability is Spacey’s best dramatic mode. He piques; he flashes; but he never quite reveals the contents of his brain. His villains have a flatness of affect, a nihilistic boredom burning behind the eyes. American Beauty’s Lester Burnham seethes with private desire, his fantasy sequences our only glimpse into his inner life. Even Spacey himself has cultivated an air of mystery. A 1997 Esquire article by Tom Junod, titled “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” famously insinuated that the actor was gay, despite no clear evidence either in support of the claim or to the contrary. Spacey fought back, claiming that the piece was “dishonest and malicious,” and he became even more remote, granting fewer and fewer interviews to the media.

“House of Cards” is full of dense and fascinating characters. There is Claire, who begins as a coolly regal doyenne but has softened in our eyes by the end of the season. There is Peter Russo, whose tortured, drug-addled downfall propels the emotional narrative. But “House of Cards,” of course, is less a story about the pathos of human frailty than about the savage thrill of exploiting it. So the show needs Underwood at its center. But in Spacey’s hands—however dazzlingly proficient his performance—it ultimately feels empty at the core, as slick and artful as an ice sculpture, but with no beating heart underneath. 

The British “House of Cards,” which aired on the BBC in 1990 and inspired this new version, had a different protagonist in Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart. When Urquhart addressed the audience, it was partly in the spirit of conspiratorial fun. His asides sparked with wit. He wasn’t just ruthlessly striving, he was amusing himself, mocking the ridiculousness of his milieu. There is no impishness about Spacey’s Frank Underwood, just numb, machine-like ambition. 

About halfway through the series, Underwood, debating an education bill on CNN with the chief strategist of a teachers’ union, falls apart on live television. A thin film of sweat springs up on his forehead; he begins to ramble; he loses control. In that moment he seems like just another political talking head, one more cog in the whole clanking, empty spectacle of Washington rather than a crafty mastermind perched above it and pulling the strings. Underwood has no ironic distance when it comes to the absurdity of his world. He is in too deep, and cares too much. 

If this is the golden age of antiheroes—Tony Soprano, Dexter, Walter White—Frank Underwood is another species altogether. With Tony and Dexter and Walt, we understand the complexity of their moral universe; we perversely cheer them on. But there is perhaps no recent TV antihero whose motives are as fully sell-serving as Frank Underwood’s—no one quite as hollow and scorched on the inside, as absent of self-doubt. And thirteen episodes later, he is still as chillingly unsympathetic as he was at the start. Netflix has delivered a longform character study that avoids unpacking the mind at its center. Ambition, cruel and untempered, is Frank Underwood’s single driving force.

The overall effect of “House of Cards” is spellbinding, and it is hard to summon a more persuasively sinister portrayal of Washington, with its combination of tedium and nasty power dynamics and tangling egos. But instead of capitalizing on the thirteen-episode arc to contribute a complicated new figure to our canon of antiheros, “House of Cards” is content to let Frank Underwood be the unknowable black hole at the center of its twisted morality tale. There is an opaqueness to Spacey’s performance, and to the show overall: a coiled tension, a tightly managed hostility, that never quite explodes. Underwood gets exactly what he wants, as expected. The season finale is just as slow and still as every other episode, with the same atmosphere of danger and dread. It doesn’t feel like a culmination so much as a continuation, one more day in the life of a relentlessly loathsome person.

In one episode—perhaps the series’ best—Underwood returns to his alma mater in South Carolina for a library dedication in his name, and reunites with a close friend from his college years. The two men spend an evening together, drinking bourbon and reminiscing. They fall asleep in a campus building, heads touching. They might have loved each other, once, it seems; in their rapport we see a glimpse of the freer, gentler man Frank Underwood used to be. But then the morning sun filters in through the stained-glass windows and the congressman hoists himself to his feet and sets off expressionlessly for home: back to his wife, back to Washington, back to work.