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[approaching an injured dog] There are two kinds of pain. 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. [Kills the dog]
House of Cards is the U.S. remake of the critically acclaimed UK series House of Cards. It marks the first step in Netflix's next stage of original programming; its pilot was directed by David Fincher.After a successful election campaign, the Democratic Party is swept back into The White House, with significant help from chief whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). However, though the president-elect had promised to appoint Underwood as Secretary of State during the campaign, he reneges with the explanation that Underwood is more important continuing to serve as the party whip in the House of Representatives. Insulted at the duplicity, and upset that he failed to even see the betrayal coming, Underwood privately forswears any loyalty to the president or the party. Aided by his loyal wife, Claire; his chief aide, Doug Stamper; young Intrepid Reporter, Zoe Barnes; and a host of unwitting pawns, Underwood begins a chess game of immense political importance. Taking revenge on those who wronged him, Underwood also positions himself to grab more power than he had ever previously planned.
House of Cards provides examples of the following tropes:
Accidental Misnaming: Everyone except Raymund Tusk, who speaks Chinese and has done business in China for years, pronounces Xander Feng's name as "Fang" instead of the proper "Fung", as in feng Shui.
Adaptation Expansion: The British original takes four hours to bring Urquhart from Chief Whip to ruler of his country. The American remake takes thirteen 50-minute episodes just to get Frank from majority whip to being tapped as the new Vice President, and another thirteen to take him to the Presidency.
Adaptation Name Change: While some roles from the British original are altered or merged, others are lifted more or less directly, although their names are different in any case.
Francis and Elizabeth Urquhart becomes Francis "Frank" and Claire Underwood. This rather fits them being Southerners (any Southern man named Francis would insist on being called "Frank," while a British aristocrat would faint at the idea; while Elizabeth is a perfectly acceptable name for a Southern Belle, Claire is even better.)
Tim Stamper becomes Doug Stamper.
Mattie Storin becomes Zoe Barnes.
John Krajewski becomes Lucas Goodwin.
Roger O'Neill becomes Peter Russo.
In the case of the black Penny Guy, it is combined with a Race Lift, as she becomes the white Christina Gallagher.
It is implied that a Republican won the presidential election in 2008 before losing to Walker in 2012. The details are kind of shaky, as no Real Life American President after Bill Clinton is ever mentioned by name. In the first episode, the screens in the background clearly refer to celebrating Walker's inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, indicating that at that point there had been three presidents since January 20, 2001, rather than two.
One of the major parts of Peter Russo's arc is the closure of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. In reality, the Navy Yard was closed in 1995 and transferred in 2000 to the City of Philadelphia, which has redeveloped it into a mixed-use development with an industrial park and private commercial shipyard. By actual 2013, the only news involving the Navy Yard was that Jefferson University Hospital was expanding its operations at its branch there, and SEPTA was kinda-sorta still considering extending the Broad Street Line there.
When the multibillionaire Feng tries to browbeat Frank Underwood with his wealth, Underwood notes that Feng's net worth equals the GDP of Slovakia, while Underwood has the world's biggest superpower under his command.
Lucas and Gavin have an exchange of boasts
Lucas: You think you're a badass because you're on some vigilante anarchist kick? At least I have the balls to put my name on the work I do.
Gavin: You've never faced 100 years in prison, you self-righteous prick! Most of my friends are in prison, rotting away, because they poked the bear one too many times. Why? Because they wanted to expose government surveillance, the prison program, embezzlement, abuse, fucking torture, lies! You're a journalist? Who gives a shit? We're fucking soldiers. It's personal for me now. I don't have a choice, but you still do.
Batman Gambit: Most of Frank's schemes involve manipulating people and trusting that they will behave as he expects them to.
Bi the Way: Frank. Chapter 8 has a meaningful (if completely plastered) conversation with a man he had a romantic relationship with when they were college kids, and it is taken a step beyond Experimented in College with Meechum.
Feng as well, possibly. The first time we see him he's engaged in a very kinky sex act with a male and female prostitute.
Steve for Claire Underwood; when she finds out on his deathbed about his crush on her and his jealousy-fueled hatred of Frank, she attempts to give him a pity deathbed handjob (which he refuses) and tells him point blank that he could have had her at any time, as far as revealing that she and Frank had an open relationship.
Meechum for the Underwoods. That's right - both of them.
Breather Episode: Chapter 8, Frank cavorting with his old friends from the military academy.
Call Back: In a Season 2 episode, Frank facetiously says that someone might soon start accusing him of strangling dogs. He did in fact kill a dog in the show's very first scene.
The Cameo: Rachael Price appears playing herself to sing the national anthem when Frank is booked to throw the first pitch at an Orioles game.
The Cast Showoff: Kevin Spacey gets to show of his singing abilities in Chapter 8.
Catchphrase: Frank knocking twice on a hard surface is a nonverbal catchphrase.
The Chains of Commanding: Frank makes sure the chains of Walker are as heavy as possible. Eventually, the President begins to crumble under the weight.
The Chess Master: Frank is a master schemer who combines this and Manipulative Bastard on a daily basis. He also plays or discuss actual chess often and at one point offers to teach the game to his number two.
Cigarette of Anxiety: The two Underwoods frequently share a cigarette at their wind as they mull over their decisions and machinations. They acknowledge the trope, pointing out that there will be plenty of these moments as their plans progress, but the issue is less "anxiety" and more "anticipation".
Cold Open: Zig-zagged. Some episodes (including the first one) start like this, but not all.
Consummate Liar: Frank Underwood is so good at lying that in the season 2 finale, he manages to convince President Walker that all his actions came from a sincere desire to protect Walker despite the President finally seeing through his schemes in the previous episode. It works so well that Walker hands Underwood the keys to the kingdom by the episode's end.
Country Matters: Using this word in reference to Zoe gets Hammerschmidt fired.
Demoted to Extra: Christina has a fairly prominent role as Russo's girlfriend/assistant in the first season. In the second season, she's kept around by becoming the Chief of Staff's assistant, but with no real arc besides Claire briefly using her to manipulate the First Lady. After the Chief of Staff resigns, Christina never shows up again.
Double Entendre: When Zoe wants to break off her sexual relationship with Frank—then sends him a text-message asking to see him (on the eve of an important House vote)—Frank has this exchange with his wife:
Claire: Going somewhere? Frank: Just for an hour or two. I've got one last holdout to whip.
Dramatic Irony: Hammerschmidt, on behalf of Lucas, asks Frank if he had a hand in the deaths of Russo and Zoe. Frank waves away the accusations by asking if Hammerschmidt is going to accuse him of strangling dogs. This is callback to the very first scene of the show, where Frank does in fact kill a dog.
Frank is introduced while euthanizing a mortally wounded dog, saying that its suffering is pointless. This establishes him as someone who is not completely without pity, but who approaches morality in a ruthlessly practical way.
When Frank apologizes to Claire for losing the Secretary of State nomination, she responds, "My husband doesn't apologize. Even to me." Paging Lady Macbeth!
Everybody Smokes: Not quite "everybody," but at least half the main cast has been seen lighting up.
"A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power."
Genre Savvy: Donald "you can teach an old liberal new tricks" Blythe gets better at the game after being played for a chump. Eventually, several characters learn from past mistakes and experiences and wise up about how to deal with Frank. Too bad Frank can also read into other's readings.
Gory Discretion Shot: Zoe Barnes' death scene. Well, at least, the act itself. The CCTV footage afterwards, despite being in black and white? Not so much...
Grey and Gray Morality: The show has the tagline Bad, For a Greater Good, which sums up the moral ambiguity of the series nicely. It seems to be slipping into something darker for some people, though.
Heel Face Door Slam: Russo really wants to take responsibility for his actions and what he has gotten away with. Unfortunately for him, Underwood realizes this could be very bad for his cause, so he murders Russo instead.
Hidden Depths: Even the major Villain Protagonists have more going in inside them than simple lust for power.
Frank came from a broken home, and his desire for power seems to stem from his drunken father.
Claire was raped and has a genuine interest in helping to stop rape from occurring to others. She's also deeply distraught by failing to do right by a rape survivor who reached out to her.
Doug Stamper is a recovering alcoholic who has channeled all of his energies into his job after making a mess of his personal life. He has an infatuation with Rachel that is part paternal, part sexual, and part abusive.
Acting on Frank's orders, Rachel sets one for Russo. It works all too well.
Lucas pulls an odd inversion when trying to locate Rachel, posing as an undercover cop conducting a prostitution sting in order to blackmail one of her co-workers into offering information about her whereabouts.
How's Your British Accent?: A kind of inversion here: although Claire, like her actress Robin Wright, was born in Texas, Wright was raised in Southern California and so does not have a Texas accent. In contrast, Claire is intentionally suppressing her Texas drawl. Thus arguably Claire's accent for pretty much the whole series is this trope, with the exception being her earlier recordings (in which Wright probably drew on her parents' accents, but that's another issue).
Informed Judaism: Tusk notes that Ayla Sayyad is Jewish, though this never influences her actions in the plot.
Zoe, zig-zagged and then inverted before finally being played straight. Up until that point, all of the stories we see her write are either suburban minutiae or leaks fed to her by Underwood to serve his purposes.
Her colleagues Janine and Lucas.
Ayla Sayyad in season 2. She abandons the Underwoods' sex scandal, saying that it's tabloid nonsense, and pursues the harder news story of political corruption. Underwood manages to use this to his advantage.
Kick the Dog: Raymond Tusk kills a pet bird with his bare hand to establish that he is, in fact, as horrible as he seems.
Zoe's boss at The Washington Herald gives an impassioned speech about the nature and importance of print journalism. Then he goes for a drink with the woman who just sacked him.
Upon Zoe's death, Janine knows not to fuck around with Underwood anymore despite protests from Lucas. She is determined to get the hell out of Dodge, knowing that she and Lucas have no hard evidence and that they are dealing with forces who will kill to shut people up.
Jerkass Has a Point: Frank Underwood is an evil, conniving politician, but he makes a very legitimate point about how repeating allegations makes people believe them.
Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In a scene where Frank is taking pictures of Zoe as she strips for him, he asks her to pose, telling her to use "use your imagination." He says it just as Zoe moves out of the frame, making the comment apply to the viewer as well.
Let Me Tell You a Story: To sway the bereaving parents at the memorial service to their dead daughter, Underwood recalls his own experience of losing and regaining faith in God after the death of his father, who suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 43. But subverted in an aside glance when he reveals that his father was an unremarkable man and that his death meant little to Underwood. He even comments that maybe it was actually for the best he died so relatively young.
Lighter and Softer: The US series compared to the UK series. Underwood, although just as dirty and corrupt as Urquhart, is portrayed in a more sympathetic light; Zoe, while just as emotionally scarred as Mattie, is actually a strong person who tries to stand on her own.
Lonely at the Top: Jacqueline Sharp sacrifices one of her only friendships to become Majority Whip. The job also kills a budding romance. Remy notes that the job has made her colder. She essentially has sacrificed everything in her life for her powerful job.
Long Game: It takes Frank Underwood 26 episodes and two years of in-universe time to go from being merely the Democrats' chief whip to the POTUS.
Lost in Character: At a Civil War reenactment, the man playing Underwood's great-great grandfather is way too into his character, describing in first person, almost rapturously, how Underwood's ancestor died in the battle.
Money Is Not Power: A repeated theme in the series is that people in public office are more interested in power than anything else, including money.
Newscaster Cameo: Many real-life anchors and commentators report on the events in the series, including Soledad O'Brien, John King, Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and even Dennis Miller with his trademark obscure references.
Frank is friendly to everyone as part of his political persona. He's particularly friendly to Freddy, who serves his favorite ribs. In the end, however, they're not close enough friends for Frank to go to bat for him.
Raymond Tusk is polite to service personnel as part of his common-man persona.
Catherine Durant, the Democratic Senator who "campaigned hard against [the president] in the primaries" and who gets nominated for Secretary of State to show that the administration is above party politics, sounds a lot like Hilary Clinton during the first term of Obama's administration.
In episode 9, a television pundit that criticizes Russo and his campaign can only be a stand-in for Glenn Beck with his use of visual aids and polemics.
The Republican leadership in the Senate are a young Latino moderate and a Tea Party conservative, much like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, respectively.
No Sense of Personal Space: Like LBJ, Frank violates the personal space of people on purpose to make them uncomfortable. Claire also uses the technique in episode 10 to mess with Zoe in her apartment, both by leaning into her and going through her clothes and notes. She tries to pay Claire back in episode 11.
Not Distracted by the Sexy: In the first episode, Zoe tries to soften up Francis by wearing a push-up bra with a low-cut top. He immediately figures out what she's doing and calls her out on it.
Oblivious Guilt Slinging: First Lady Patricia Walker does this to Claire in the second season finale. As they talk on the phone, Patricia says how Claire is a good person and a good friend, unaware how Claire and Frank worked to undermine Walker's presidency. After they hang-up, Claire bursts into tears, but only for a minute.
Old Media Are Evil: Deconstructed. Zoe has contempt for her job at a newspaper standing-in for The Washington Post. She eventually leaves the dull newsroom for a Politico-like website. The trope is ultimately played without irony: The newspaper's old-fashioned managing editor gets fired, and Zoe's website gets all the important political stories from then on.
Old Media Playing Catch-Up: Averted. The Washington Herald's editor makes a passionate but irrelevant defense of why newspapers still matter, while modern Intrepid Reporter Zoe doesn't fit in at the stuffy newspaper at all.
Ominous Latin Chanting: Some amusing ominous chanting as Frank walks into the Oval Office at the end of Season 2.
Pac Man Fever: Averted; Frank Underwood plays modern videogames realistically. He's as stiff and focused as any Killzone player.
Many of Frank's schemes involve him playing both sides of a dispute, pretending to be everyone's ally.
Remy and Connor attempt to do so with Raymond Tusk and Frank Underwood.
Pop-Up Texting: In the pilot episode Frank's wife's texts to him hang in the air while he sits silently reflecting, leading to an argument when he gets home over him not answering. Use continues throughout the series, usually so that Frank can be in a meeting and talk to someone else at the same time.
Francis Urquhart was NOT a nice guy even with his leather pants. Quite a few of his machinations weren't just purely about business and furthering his own ambitions, but also partly for his own amusement, and more often than not he would do some reprehensible things simply because he knew he could get away with it. This worked in the British version because it was so short; the viewers only had to put up with him for less than four hours each series. Each season of the American version is about 13 hours (longer than the whole British version put together)—people probably wouldn't be able to handle so much pure sociopathy, especially given that it's Netflix and they probably watch several episodes on end. So it's understandable that the producers decided to make Francis Underwood be less of a bastard and more likeable and pragmatic with his actions.
Same with Zoe; Mattie's Elektra Complex was completely dropped from the Zoe character and she has more of a spine when it comes to dealing with Underwood than Mattie did with Urquhart.
While the original BBC series used British Brevity to get Urquhart to the top position quickly, the American version benefited from its increased length considering that American politicians tend to rise more slowly (in Britain, a leadership election can shift things in a fortnight; in America, there are no leadership elections, and Barack Obama's rise from State Senator to President in four years was positively meteoric).
Sony game consoles. Frank plays a Playstation to cool off and namechecks a Sony device in dialogue at one point. In fairness on the Playstation point, it seems that Kevin Spacey really is a fan.
Also Apple products. The government and media appear to run exclusively on iPhones, iPads, and Macintoshes, with Frank's Blackberry being the only notable exception. (In reality, the government is very heavily reliant on Windows, usually two or three versions out-of-date—many agencies are only just phasing out XP.)
Honey Bunch cereal in episode 9. Made especially conspicuous by the fact that the box is in the center of all the shots in a 5 minute sequence.
There was a very long and unnecessary shot of Russo picking up his rental car from Hertz.
The first few episodes of season two serve to dismantle the lingering threads of Zoe's press investigation into Frank's murder of Peter Russo. This mainly comes about because they are a trio of reporters with few to no resources going up against the newly installed Vice President of the United States with all the power and authority of the government and law enforcement behind him.
After Zoe's murder, Lucas tries to complete their investigation by going online to find a hacker to break into Frank's phone records to prove that he had been in contact with Zoe, connecting him to the meeting where she was killed. This fails because being heroic isn't enough in a world where your adversary sees your gambit coming a mile away and counters before you finish step one.
Pennsylvania's importance to the Democratic Party.
The frequent references to natural gas and nuclear energy.
Underwood's "selection campaign" to find a replacement for the Vice President slot, with him rejecting all possible picks so he can be picked, mirrors the way Dick Cheney ran George W Bush's Vice President search committee, in order to get himself picked for the job
The teachers' strike bears resemblance to the 2011 strikes in Wisconsin when the state public workers' collective bargaining rights were threatened.
Gavin saying he wants Barrett Brown released was probably the first time most viewers had heard of the man.
Frank tends to use LBJ's tactic of invading personal space when he's verbally strong-arming someone. There's even a shot that lingers on a photo in his office of LBJ delivering "the Johnson Treatment."◊
Some characters are knock-offs of contemporary politicians going through similar circumstances, including Catherine Durant for Hillary Clinton.
Claire's involvement in the issue of rape in the military is similar to the ongoing debates about the problem of military rape.
Senseless Sacrifice: Frank call this his "martyr rule" persuading people to remove themselves by suggesting their position is untenable and they would be better off using this as an opportunity to draw attention to issues close to them.
"You might think that. I couldn't possibly comment". In the British original, Urquhart used this phrase routinely to imply statements without explicitly confirming them. In the American version, Underwood only says it a couple of times — just enough to tip his hat to his British predecessor. An even subtler homage is the habit of interspersing the action with shots of people dealing with Washington's garbage, homeless, and general wretchedness—just as the original series included ominous shots of the rats of London.
When Underwood compares power to real estate, he uses a phrase from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross: "It's all about location, location, location". Incidentally, Spacey was in the film adaptation, but the line wasn't included.
Shown Their Work: A lot of effort was taken to accurately portray the geography of Washington D.C. At an Orioles game that Underwood goes to, the crowd shouts "OH!" in the middle of the national anthem. This is a tradition for all Maryland and DC area sports.
Strawman Political: Averted. Policy and ideology seems of little concern to Underwood, and when a strongly liberal House colleague and the Republican leadership are introduced, they are portrayed rather sympathetically.
Those Two Guys: In order to pass a piece of legislation key to his plans, Underwood tries to strong-arm two congressmen whose only defining features are that they are extremely liberal and that there are two of them.
Throw the Dog a Bone: In Episode 13, Meechum is told by Francis that he has played an valuable and useful role and he will arrange Meechum a transfer from Capitol Police to the Secret Service.
Frank: What exactly happened? Doug: A 17-year-old girl ran off the road texting her boyfriend, and I quote: "Doesn't the Peachoid look like a giant..." And then she lost control of the car.
Unholy Matrimony: The Underwoods form a perfect and nefarious political marriage but they also have affection for each other.
Vice President Who: Vice President Jim Matthews is easily manipulated by protagonist Francis Underwood. He is ultimately convinced to resign so that he can return to his old post as governor of Pennsylvania.
Episode 11. Underwood crosses a new line. He murders Russo and makes it look like suicide.
Episode 1 of Season 2. Underwood kills Zoe Barnes by pushing her in front of a subway train. The security camera footage makes it look like Zoe tripped or jumped because Frank is hidden behind some construction barriers on the subway platform.
Episode 13 of Season 2. Frank successfully orchestrates Walker's resignation and ascends to the presidency, while Rachel kills Doug and goes on the run.
Frank quickly recognizes that Raymond Tusk will prove to be this, upon meeting him for the first time; as Frank explains to the audience, Tusk understands "the difference between money and power." Sure enough, Tusk comes dangerously close to defeating Underwood—more than once.
For his part, Tusk is always respectful of Frank—and as such, is always sure not to underestimate him. This is why he's able to be such a challenge.
Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Frank ends the teachers' strike by provoking the lobbyist who's the public face of the union to punch him, which he does by literally backing him into a wall and taunting him about having staged the brick attack.
Xanatos Gambit: Frank openly admits to favoring these, or as he puts it, "I make a habit of considering all trajectories in any given situation."
Frank shows himself capable of speed chess in the chapter when teacher's union lobbyist Spinella comes close to upsetting his plans.
His efforts to undermine Tusk through his nuclear power interests backfires spectacularly leaving him with no leverage whatsoever against the powerful businessman who will only support him as vice president if he can have Underwood under his thumb. In a spectacular turnaround, Underwood (through sheer balls) tells Tusk he will be his ally, but not his indentured servant and Tusk can take it or leave it. It works.
Frankly, the closing arcs for both Seasons 1 and 2 involve Frank having to engage in some massive speed-chess, in an all-or-nothing gambit.
Your Cheating Heart: Subverted. Similar to the UK original, Claire knows Francis is sleeping with Zoe and doesn't raise any objections.