House of Cards gets its power from a few key elements: the Shakespearean magnitude, historical and present political mirrors, the dark and extra-dirty world, and the guilty pleasure of rooting for its deliciously wicked central couple.
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For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy.
There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.
Back in 2013 house of cards came on the scene as Netflix’s first ever self
commissioned original series. Since then the series created by Beau Willimon has
not only grown as a mature, textured piece of television, but also offered a
sturdy foundation for the towering house that Netflix built.
Inspired by the 90s BBC series starring Ian Richardson, and the 1989 book by
Michael Dobbs, House of Cards’s appeal is based on its darkly distinctive mood
and world, it’s Shakespearean magnitude, its
heightened mirrors of our own world and historical past, and the guilty pleasure
of rooting for its deliciously wicked central couple — Frank and Claire
Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Let’s walk through each of
these elements which make this series so enduringly binge worthy. Beware there
will be a few spoilers coming.
[And the butchery begins.]
House of Cards draws on
the spirit of Shakespearean history and tragedy to imbue its drama with hyper
real grandeur and intrigue. We feel we might be watching a heightened version
of today’s politics presented as exaggerated history for a future
audience. The show captures perhaps better than any modern example the
spirit of what Shakespearean audiences must have felt going to see productions
of Richard III. In the historical play the villainous Richard, who Spacey
played at the London Old Vic in 2011, speaks openly to the audience,
using his asides, not to confess but to gloat about his wicked designs.
House of Cards, like it’s
BBC predecessor, utilizes the same confessional fourth wall break
[Please slit my wrists with this butter knife.]
The theatrical device could easily
fall flat on camera. But it works thanks to Spacey’s
enjoyably devious performance, the over-the-top nature of this extra dirty
world, and the disconnect between Frank says to us, and how he appears to
[I will not run for President. Look they’re thinking it’s
too good to be true and it is.]
Getting this window into his mind fascinates us
and knowing his secrets gets us on his side until we subtly root for his success
at all costs. We feel in the know, superior to the foolishly honest victims
All of this psychologically works on us the same way Shakespeare played his
audiences. In Othello, Iago is motivated by resentment when a fellow
promotes another over him — just as Frank’s plot against the President is
set off by him feeling robbed of his promised cabinet position. Claire takes a
cue from Iago’s tactics of suggestion, as well, when she plants the idea of an
affair in the First Lady’s head.
[I just have a thing about women who sleep with
But the Shakespeare play that most deeply shapes House of Cards
thematically is Macbeth.
The Underwood’s channel the
Macbeths disconnect between inner and outer to hide their true selves. As Lady
[Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.]
When Frank speaks to Peter
Russo’s ghost in church, this recalls how Macbeth is haunted
by the ghost of Banquo the friend he murdered. Most strikingly though is Lady
Macbeth as a model for Claire. At times, like Lady Macbeth, Claire seems the
superior mastermind, the even more ambitious one really pulling the strings.
Claire’s convincing lack of need for romance, fidelity, or motherhood reminds
us of Lady Macbeth’s famous words
[I’m willing to let your child wither and
die inside you if that’s what’s required.]
references having given suck, or breastfed, a child but we’re told that
the Macbeth’s are childless. Their implicit lost child is
echoed in Claire’s past abortions. And neither woman expresses regret for a
childless destiny. Yet in both stories the couple’s lack of children starts to
haunt them, at least politically. The Macbeth’s and their barren crown, and
the Underwoods in their inability to present the shining picture-perfect
family of Frank’s Republican opponent, Conway.
[You guessed it, I still hate children.]
The Macbeth’s ascent to power leads to a mixed-up
world in which fair is foul, and foul is fair. Yet in the vast majority of
Shakespeare’s plays divine order or great chain of being must inevitably be
restored. it remains to be seen if the House of Cards universe believes
in poetic justice, but if Macbeth is any indication the
story doesn’t end well. The Macbeth’s breakdown from within, as Lady Macbeth
obsessively tries to wash invisible blood from her hands, and Macbeth
reflects that “life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
The dangerous nihilism of the Macbeth’s can only drive human beings insane where
we cannot continue to engage with the world of nothing that means nothing.
Like a mix of Shakespearean history and tragedy, House of Cards also draws
loosely and colorfully from our own historical past and present. In season
4, Underwood and Conway introduce a meta-commentary comparing themselves to
Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.
[If you were a Democrat you’d be unstoppable you’d be the new JFK.]
[And if you were a
Republican would you be? Nixon?]
Underwood’s comparison to the notorious
Nixon, whom Spacey also played in the 2016 film Elvis and Nixon, is a plausible
parallel. Brought down by his own paranoid plots, crimes, and scandals
Nixon was experienced and ruthless. Kennedy was young, relatable
and charismatic, just as the social media friendly Conway speaks directly to
Americans and gives people hope. In the show, the candidates represent opposite
parties to their historical parallels. Underwood is a Southern Democrat,
long after the age when Democrats held the South. And Conway is a
Republican from New York.
[Oh you’re a New York Republican that’s an attractive
fiction isn’t it?]
[And you’re a Democrat from South Carolina that’s even bigger fiction.]
[Well there you go.]
This recalls an earlier presidential
race between Harry S. Truman and Thomas Dewey in 1948 — a pragmatic Democrat
versus a young New York Republican with a lead in the polls. Famously the belief
that Dewey would win was so strong that the Chicago Tribune printed the false
headline: Dewey Defeats Truman, only to be disproven by the final vote. Like Gerald
Ford, Nixon’s successor, Underwood becomes president without ever winning an
election, having taken on the offices of both President and Vice President after
a series of cabinet changes and resignations.
[One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated]
Meanwhile, Underwood’s wheeling and dealing with Congress is
inspired by JFK successor Lyndon B Johnson, also a southern Democrat and
former Majority Whip. Frank Underwood proudly displays a famous picture of
Lyndon B. Johnson staring down a frightened congressman; both also
introduce ambitious social programs — LBJ’s Great Society and Underwood’s
America Works. The outcomes of the programs are opposite: building the
welfare system versus demolishing it. But both Underwood’s
and LBJ’s hopes to define their legacies are derailed when global conflicts
overshadow their legislative agenda. And of course there’s today. Claire’s and
Frank’s power couple status invites comparisons to the Clintons.
While the Nixonian undertones have been eerily close to new stories about
Trump’s claims of tapes and calls for impeachment.
[You know it’s at times like
these I wish I was Nixon — had every nook and cranny bugged.]
Yet again like Shakespeare’s histories, the show is willfully rearranging loose historical
or present inspirations to create something larger than life.
[All three of us took bullets. Well I know why we’re smiling: we survived.]
House of Cards
captures a tone of outright, over-the-top wickedness, letting us live our juicy
imaginings of how bad Washington might be, while scaring us with the thought, at
times, that it’s not purely exaggerated. One of the biggest differences between
Netflix’s series and its BBC ancestor lies in the look, feel, and mood. Her Card’s
Parliament is brightly lit, visually reflecting a stuffy, staid political
landscape at its civilised surface, hiding all intrigue. But from its first
episode — directed by David Fincher — the updated House of Cards is dark. From the
pounding music, to the literal darkness of an overwhelming number of frames,
we’re told the Underwood’s world is an underworld. This is a window into the shadows.
[How very Deepthroat of you.]
Adding to the dark is a calculated
distance between the characters and the camera. Rarely do we get a true close-up.
The space around the characters retains their outer personas which they rarely
let draw. No one is allowed inside. Camera movements are flawless tracking shots,
always smooth. Composition is precise. Never do we see a human shake or
messiness to the camera or framing. The production design heightens this feel of
sterility. Frank and Claire — almost unbelievably free of clutter — seem to
possess almost no personal items. Their perfectly empty homes visually
underline that they lack a personal life; that they are their work and outer
personas. Meanwhile the pristine surface belies the dirty plotting underneath. The
darkness also leads to a muted color palette and understated desaturation.
Both contribute to our feeling that the environment is clean and attractive
yet not vibrant, human, or alive. We emotionally perceive the light is cold
and it often is, but viewers have noted that many frames involve an interplay of
cold and warm, or blue and yellow, often with blue in the foreground and yellow
in the background. The blue and yellow create a spiritual contrast — not between
black and white, which in noir might represent good and evil, but between warm
and cold, making us think of the pull between human warmth and icy ambition.
The frame is neatly streamlined, not crowded by diverging colors. Both lights
also stem from realistic light sources — daylight or interior lights — so there is
a functional foundation which is then moderately stylized thanks to the
darkness and precision of lighting setups that strategically avoid multiple
shadows. All of these visual cues together with music add up to a
consistent mood and world. The atmosphere seems at once severely removed from our
factual DC, and a close to home actual mirror of the disillusionment we feel about our
actual political landscape. What keeps us engaged most of all is the central
relationship between Frank and Claire. Their ups and downs, evolution and growth,
together and away from one another. Like the Macbeth’s the Underwood’s are truly
close. Setting aside their duplicity, they almost seem like a relationship other
couples should study to learn how to communicate, work together, and read each
[Are you unsatisfied?]
They’re soul mates.
[I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.]
Yet their connection
isn’t traditionally romantic or primarily sexual — they rarely have sex
and they each accept and expect the others’ sexual affairs. Yet both place much
higher importance on achieving their shared plans.
[Your wife — what does that even mean to you?]
[Do not mistake any history you have shared for the slightest
understanding of what our marriage is, or how insignificant you are in comparison.]
in later seasons though we start to doubt the love and respect between the
couple as their marriage falters, and looks, in bleaker moments,
like a purely political arrangement.
[I’m starting to question all of it Francis.
What any of it is worth; what are we doing this for?]
In the White House the
couple now sleeps in separate rooms — the hall between them signaling their
growing, gaping distance. The virtue Frank demands from others is loyalty.
[Don’t surprise me.]
But to Frank it’s about others being loyal to him. Apart from those he
deceives, he treats everyone as a servant, even a dog who must obey before all else.
[After a dog’s bitten you, you either put it to sleep or you put a muzzle on it.]
This derives from Frank Urquhart’s worldview
[Well, everybody can be valuable, that’s my philosophy.]
Viewing all other people as pawns and servants leads to
a tyrannical, dictator-like state, and ironically pushes people to consider
turning on him, most notably Claire. Whereas Claire believes — and we initially
perceive — if a couple are equal partners it becomes clear that he views her as
another loyal subject merely the most privileged and important one.
[And you will be the First Lady!]
Though it’s not clear whether this is result of the
isolating role of the presidency, or has been his feeling all along, Claire’s
leaving at the end of Season 3, and her attempt to take political power in her
own name in Season 4, finally proved to Frank that he needs her as much or
more than she needs him.
[I said you were nothing in the Oval without me. It’s the other way around.]
Season 4 ends with a very significant
moment, when for the first time they break the fourth wall together.
[That’s right. We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.]
This cements the fact that they are now partners in crime
Claire has finally convinced Frank that she is his equal, not his servant.
The state of their union is strong yet the title House of Cards underlies the
delicate fertility of you of any union or political empire,
just as Frank’s career is always one dirty secret away from ruin.
[How did this happen!?!]
if we can predict anything for certain about the future
episodes of House of Cards, it’s that inevitably Something Wicked
This Way Comes.
This post was previously published on Youtube.
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Photo credit: Screenshot from video