Beltway Shakespeare: Treachery and vanity in ‘House of Cards’

I can’t tell whether I was actually sick the week season two of Netflix’s House of Cards dropped, or if I was glued to the couch because I just couldn’t stop watching. Based on a series of novels by Michael Dobbs, later turned into a three-season show on the BBC in the 1990s, the American version of “House of Cards” charts the Richard III-like course of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the Democratic majority whip in the House of Representatives, and his wife Claire (Robin Wright).

The first season drew tremendous critical attention. Not only was it Netflix’s first foray into original scripted programming; it was shepherded by the Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and created by the Academy Award-nominated writer Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”).

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And it was tremendously bold in its chutzpah, offering a sort of anti-“West Wing” fairy tale about two sociopaths climbing over their own victims to seize power for themselves. In films like “Se7en” or “The Usual Suspects,” Kevin Spacey has demonstrated his capacity to play such a character. And as in those films, in the first season of “House of Cards” almost no one realizes just how dangerous he is, except for the viewer, whom he takes into his confidence regularly.

The real revelation, though, has been Robin Wright as Claire Underwood, an ice-cold yet searing Lady Macbeth who not only supports her husband’s Machiavellian moves but at times propels them, disapproving of any sign of weakness. “My husband doesn’t apologize...even to me,” she tells him early in the first season. For as terrifying as Spacey can be at moments, it is Wright who again and again provides the stuff of nightmares, sliding without blinking from seduction to total annihilation of those who are in her way.

The show, which ended its first season with Frank murdering a congressman in order to ascend to the role of vice president (come on, who hasn’t done that?), has apparently been quite popular in Washington, D.C. Indeed, in December President Obama told a meeting of technology company chief executive officers: “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient...this guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.” (Ironically, the meeting was about surveillance by the National Security Administration. I wish I were kidding.)

Kevin Spacey, a guest on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on Feb. 16, likewise said that some in Congress have told him the show is “99 percent accurate, and the 1 percent that isn’t is that you could never get an education bill passed that fast.” (In the first season Frank accomplishes this feat in 100 days. The third episode of the second season—written by Bill Cain, S.J.—boasts a similarly dazzling effort. Frank forced the Senate to pass a bill raising the retirement age through the most exciting use of parliamentary procedure you are likely ever to see.

But while it can be compelling to watch a congressman and his wife slowly shredding not only the Constitution but the lives of everyone they touch, the show struggles in general with the burden of its own emptiness. It’s strange, but as focused as the series is on treachery, villainy and other words that sound like they should be uttered by characters from Shakespeare, there is never much heat here. The icy cynicism of the Underwoods numbs everything, including the viewer’s feelings.

In season two Willimon and company have increased the risks to Frank, putting him in situations that are harder for him to control. But even as Frank admits he is not sure how things will turn out, he’s still pulling all the levers. He lacks a worthy adversary. Those touted as possibilities—the president, the president’s secret advisor, the new whip—are shown rather quickly to be, if not patsies, still not very smart.

Claire gets more interesting colors to play, including one moment of catharsis at the end of the season that is brilliantly played, and a sequence with Spacey and another toward the end of the season that will undoubtedly be one of the show’s most talked about moments. (To summarize that moment in Internet-speak: Squee!)

But Claire is also far more vicious than in season one, so cold at some moments she belongs in “Frozen.” It seems as if every time someone touches her she withers a little more inside.

And at some point, amid all the brutality and calculation, the show really does become like a house of cards, collapsing emotionally in on itself.

Undoubtedly, that empty, sick feeling is intended. In a way, “House of Cards” is a dramatic version of HBO’s comedy “Veep,” a precise encapsulation of present-day frustrations with U.S. politics (even if the issues we face are far more partisan gridlock than palace coup).

But at the end of the day, as brilliantly as it is conceived and written and acted, it somehow has yet to satisfy. Maybe I’m just a sucker for the idealism of “The West Wing,” the way it called not only its characters but also all of us to a better version of ourselves.

Or perhaps, given both our own political realities and the nightmarish, almost satanic cast of the family Underwood, I’m just longing for an even more primal sort of scream.

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