Looking for certain story lines as you sit down to binge a dramatic series like “House of Cards” can make for a richer viewing experience.
As pleasurable as it can be to sit back and just let a series wash over you, a production with this kind of timeliness and cultural resonance demands a certain level of engagement on the viewer’s part.
I previewed the series last week after screening five episodes made available by Netflix. With the eight-part series premiering today, here are five story lines that are worth looking for and then paying close attention to as they start to develop. (I tried to avoid plot spoilers. But if you don’t want to have any spoilers, stop reading now.)
1. It’s a dance.
The richest source of dramatic tension is between the characters played by Robin Wright and Diane Lane, President Clair Underwood and Annette Shepherd, respectively. Lane’s character is one-half of a right-wing sibling team that is intended to remind viewers of the Koch Brothers. The other half, Bill Shepherd, is played by Greg Kinnear. Together they are trying to make Claire their presidential pawn.
Given the talent of Wright and Lane, it should come as no surprise that their scenes together are intense and engaging. But you realize there is even more at play after a while, as the two actors are performing with a lyricism and point-counterpoint that is best described as dance.
There’s one scene that actually involves a dance.
That said, at its best, there is nothing between the two that comes near the best scenes between Wright and Spacey in the first two seasons.
2. Journalism is down, but not out. Some old-school reporters are still on the case.
This is a series that was never very flattering to journalists. I loved the character of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), but she was hardly a journalistic role model.
But social reality has changed from that first season, as well as the showrunners, and the veteran journalists from the early years are treated a little better in Season 6. If nothing else, their doggedness seems more appreciated as they continue to try to expose the Underwoods’ crimes. Their search provides another source of dramatic tension.
Old-school journalists Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) get some love, while the digital and cable news journalists are not treated well at all.
3. Doug Stamper is in limbo.
Viewers meet Stamper (Michael Kelly) in Season 6 in a kind of limbo. (Like I said, I am trying to avoid spoilers.) And given Stamper’s dark proclivity for violence, this state of semi-rest seems all the more ominous.
Baltimore area viewers might recognize the place of Stamper’s residence as Goucher College, which has often been dressed up as something else and used as a setting for the series.
But, no, he has not joined the faculty as a lecturer in government. Nor has he decided to go back to school for a degree in psychology. And he definitely is not trying to bury any bodies in the woods — at least not in the first five episodes that I screened.
4. The ghosts will not rest.
The ghosts of Barnes, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) and Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) are regularly invoked — and they all seem to be hovering just beyond the camera.
Try to remember how each died, because there are lies intentionally told about some of the deaths in Season 6. Not as many lies as in a Sarah Sanders press conference at Donald Trump’s White House, but enough to confuse you if you aren’t dialed in.
5. Claire will have her revenge. Or, will she?
As president, she starts out talking about payback for the way Francis handed her over “like a shaker of salt” to the evil oligarchs, like Bill Shepherd.There is also a world of talk about the sins of patriarchy, and Claire clearly looks to be wanting to make some folks pay for that. Gender is the uber-theme of the Season 6.
But the dominant narrative also never lets us forget that Claire is as evil as Francis ever was, and she has her own enemies and ghosts coming after her.
The bottom line: Season 6 is topical as all get out. But I would be lying if I said it had one-half the power, excitement or transgressive energy of the early seasons. This is upper-middle-range TV entertainment. Seasons 1 and 2 contained moments of art.