There’s a scene near the end of one of the first episodes of the new season of “House of Cards” that features Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood late at night sharing a smoke at an open window of their Washington townhouse.
The setting has become a favorite site for writer and showrunner Beau Willimon to explore the particular brand of intimacy enjoyed by these two attractive and complex political predators trying to impose their will on Washington: he as a South Carolina congressman who has risen to majority whip, and she as the politically ambitious head of a nonprofit dealing with the environment.
“Sing me something,” Claire says to her husband.
“What do you want to hear?” he replies.
“Anything,” she says, languidly staring up at the night sky.
After leaning back and pondering the matter for a moment, he starts in slow and low with the lyrics to “Pretty Polly,” an old English ballad.
“Polly, pretty Polly, would you take me unkind?” he begins.
And before the singing ends, a kind of timelessness and artistic transcendence that one only sees in the living theater is achieved on screen.
This is not the scene most viewers of the second season of “House of Cards” will be talking about after the 13-episode online drop by Netflix on Feb. 14
Something happens in the first hour that is going to knock some fans out of their seats, and I am not going near it for fear of spoiling the dramatic power of the moment. It is part of a larger movement at the start of Season 2 of Underwood trying to eliminate anything that could link him to the death of Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), which took place near the end of Season 1.
But this special little scenario with Frank softly singing “Pretty Polly” encapsulates some of the cultural and artistic currents that make “House of Cards” the greatest TV drama not on television. Willimon, author of the play “Farragut North,” and Spacey, the Tony Award-winning artistic director of the Old Vic in London, have managed to bring the power of live theater to this drama with a consistency and seamlessness never before achieved in television.
And I say that having seen most of the surviving copies of the great dramas of the first golden age of television in the 1950s, when stage plays were essentially remounted in front of TV cameras, as well as virtually all the TV dramas of the second golden age. The latter era, which started in 1981 with Steven Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues,” featured playwrights turned showrunners like Tom Fontana bringing their stagecraft to prime-time television with series like the Baltimore-made “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
When Fontana had the character of Detective Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) go into “The Box” with a suspect and “break” him or her, that was great theater. But it was one element of what was otherwise in the main a TV drama.
Watching the first four episodes of Season 2 of “House of Cards” last week, I understood how the entire production, particularly Spacey’s performance, is utterly steeped in theater. And I was shocked to realize that Willimon and Spacey created this hybrid with such skill that I watched 13 episodes last year without realizing the magic of their work.
I went back and rewatched Season 1, and saw it in episode after episode. Remember when Frank lures the union leader into his conference room and then taunts him until the man punches Frank in the face — an act that will cost the leader’s union members their strike? Pure theater: two men in a room clawing at each other’s psyche. And such scenes played out again and again.
I respect this series so much that I will say nothing about story lines or narratives for Season 2 that isn’t in the trailers.
But as anyone who has been following the online teasers from Netflix knows, Underwood is moving up from majority whip to vice president, where he can create a lot more trouble for the president who initially passed him over for a promised post as secretary of state. And Molly Parker (“Deadwood”) is joining the cast as a rising congressional leader.
The first hour of Season 2 is better than anything in Season 1, and I was crazy about those first 13 episodes, especially the opening two, which were directed by David Fincher.
So, enjoy the big dramatic moment everyone is going to be talking about after they see the first episode of Season 2. But savor the real drama of theater that drives this series from the backrooms of Washington to the front room of the Underwood home late at night, with Frank singing “Pretty Polly” in the quiet moonlight.