What House of Cards Means For Us

L. R. Laverde-Hansen By L. R. Laverde-Hansen, 22nd Jan 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Film & TV>Drama

This February, the Netflix series, House of Cards, returns for a third (and possibly final) season. Here is an evaluation of its impact.

What if...

The American version of House of Cards is based on a very simple premise: what if an ambitious political couple were completely ruthless and completely unencumbered by traditional norms and scruples? How far could they possibly go? Thus we have a Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth for the Georgetown (elite Washington D. C.) set.

This is one of the differences from the original British series of the same name, which first aired on the BBC in 1990. In that series, the antihero protagonist, Francis Urquhart, a Scottish-born aristocrat, has a wife who supports his schemes, but is not an absolute partner. In the American version, Frank Underwood, a man of humble origins, not only wills his way to high elected power (the series begins with him serving as the House Majority Whip), but is aided to the fullest by his wife, Claire, who has schemes of her own.

The Main Plot (So far)

The series begins with Underwood, like Shakespeare’s Iago, being passed over for a promotion. He wanted—and expected to be—the Secretary of State of the newly-elected President. When that fails, he machinates to make himself the next Vice President (which is itself the exciting central plot of the first season). Of course for a man as ruthlessly ambitious as Frank Underwood, this is only the beginning. He forges ahead with full brio to secure the crown, i.e., the Presidency of the United States.

There are other storylines, all supporting, which emphasize the connectivity of Washington power politics. In Season One, a troubled Congressman is manipulated to serve as a high-end stooge for Underwood. A hungry young journalist begins an unethical relationship with him in order to advance her career. In Season Two, Underwood will manage the election of his successor as Whip, a third-term Congresswoman named Jackie Sharp. Other seemingly trivial connections will later have significant consequences.

What House of Cards Means For Us

Critics have pointed out the relentless Machiavellianism of the main character, and that is true. Frank Underwood is literally a dangerous politician: an antihero with homicidal tendencies (not that dissimilar from his Britsh antecedent). And while that relentlessness might suggest a soulless, possibly sociopathic center, there is a lot to cheer about this show.

For all its melodramatic excess and self-importance, House of Cards benefits from the high intelligence of its storylines. Real issues in Washington are laid out dispassionately, without the ideological emphasis which made other political series, particularly,The West Wing less than credible. For example, in Season Two, Claire Underwood, is trying to push through major legislation on behalf of sexual assault victims of the military. This issue is personal for Claire, as she was once raped by a man, who later on had a distinguished career as a general. She expends a lot of political capital trying to pass it through Congress, even enlisting the First Lady as an ally and having Frank, lobby Jackie Sharp (herself a military veteran) directly. Surprisingly, Jackie, now with her own base of support, balks at Frank’s efforts, even threatens to fight the bill publicly if necessary. The Underwoods, realizing that such a fight is too costly (and needing her support in other matters), back off. The most powerful couple in the show is not immune to political realities.

Why does House Whip Sharp oppose such legislation? She could be cultivating support with the military brass, which opposes the independent review provision in the bill. She may not want to expend her own political capital fighting for something so divisive—at least not yet. She may also wish to mark her independence and authority by conspicuously opposing Vice President Underwood. Or probably all three.

This does not mean that the issue will not be revisited. It also does not mean that horse-trading or bullying, will not be employed to make that bill a law. It simply means that the "political realities" trumped the moral impetus on this issue at this time, just as in real life.

House of Cards is a cynical series, but it is cynical in the sense that it is realistic about the business of governing, which is another definition of politics. People who come to Washington D.C., whether they are representatives, aides, lobbyists, or even the President of the United States, come with a set of interests and objectives. At some point, there is process by which things are distributed. Sometimes, conflicts break out, but eventually the opposing forces have to sit and negotiate. Those who oppose indefinitely, risk being shut out entirely.

There is something in the American character, which opposes such bare cynicism. We crave white knights who battle and vanquish the forces of evil (or at least neuter them). We hope for our leaders to negotiate above petty interests for the greater good. Would that were so more often. While sometimes "the better angels of our nature" rally us to a cause which transcends the merely political, it might be time to give more credit to the dealing and scheming, which is how the business of Washington gets done.

No matter how ruthless Frank and Claire Underwood are, they know their power is limited to how well they play the game.

Composed and Revised in New York
January 27-28, 2015

PS - House of Cards was co-created by Director/Producer David Fincher. In one of those ironies worthy of a Hollywood movie, Fincher directed The Social Network, which was written by Aaron Sorkin, who in turn created the West Wing, which is diametrically as opposite from House of Cards as is humanly possible.


House Of Cards, Kevin Spacey, Netflix, Political, Robin Wright, Washington

Meet the author

author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
Poet, playwright, commentator. I write wherever I can. Currently I reside in the City of New York.

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author avatar Retired
30th Jan 2015 (#)

The Underwoods may know their power is limited but the current occupants of the White House know no such limits.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
31st Jan 2015 (#)

Oh my, LeRain. I am going to completely disagree with that comment, but affirm your First Amendment right to say that. And thanks for reading me.

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