Underwood's asides to the camera start to seem more like his attempts at asserting control over the narrative than just winks to the crowd as we come to understand him as someone for whom the game is everything. He has no children and few passions aside from a favorite rib place in a rougher part of town, and he seems to prefer to be the man behind the one in charge than to be on top. His strengths are in his remove, in the true feelings he keeps tamped down and that we, and the equally cool-tempered Claire, are the only ones priviledged to see. Spacey's stagy slipperiness works well in this regard -- Underwood may not be quite as in control as he'd like to believe, but he's terrific at manipulating people, even when he can barely conceal his contempt.

House of Cards 3

"House of Cards" starts off at a remove, but it really gets going when its story plunges into something like the real world, one in which Bill Maher and Dennis Miller comment on the proceding on TV and a gaff on CNN gets autotuned into a viral clip, where an education bill is broken down and haggled over in terms of details on charter schools and collective bargaining and the slower moving but responsible reporting of a newspaper is put up against a fast-paced website in which an editor tells a writer she can just post her stories herself as soon as she's done with them. Corey Stoll is thrown into the mix as a Philly rep named Peter Russo with a taste for the ladies, for drugs and for alcohol, Kristen Connolly plays his assistant/girlfriend, and later Sandrine Holt enters as the head of a grassroots organization who Claire wants to hire. The idealists tend to have a tough time of things on the show, as does anyone who shows any weakness -- calculation is key.

The series doesn't get too bogged down in policy or contemporary developments, but it plays against a backdrop of it in a way that makes its intelligence clear, particularly in the story of Zoe and her ethically questionable but undoubtedly successful path toward media stardom. The third episode (as is always the pattern with these things) is where the show seems to find its feet, as Underwood's called home to his district to head off a local but potentially serious problem while trying to manage the education bill he's supposed to be overseeing remotely by phone.

"I just hate this small ball crap," he hisses to the camera, but when we see him in action it's clear it's where he's best, as he deals with a man planning to run against him in the next election. "House of Cards" makes for an interesting counterpoint to "Lincoln" -- both written by playrights -- in that the latter presents the imperfect messiness of the give-and-take of the democratic process as something ultimately capable powering us toward the greater good, while the former suggests its a wild tangle of self interests that only incidentally may yield something worthwhile. Either way, it's Francis Underwood's world for the taking -- it's when you actually care that you get in trouble.