I
reviewed Season 1 of “House of Cards” a year ago, in “House
of Cards: An American Macbeth
.” and in “House
of Cards: Bewitched by Power
.” What follows is a review of Seasons 1 and 2.
Virtually
all of Executive Producer Kevin Spacey’s
films
are explicitly anti-capitalist, or vehicles of nihilism, or are
overly done instances of cynical “slices of life as it really
is.”  Spacey is a dedicated
Democrat. He worked for Jimmy
Carter’s campaign
, was a friend of Ted Kennedy, is friends with Bill
Clinton
, endorses Obamacare, and curses the Republicans for opposing President
Barack Obama’s legislative agenda – that is, the legislative agenda Obama
wishes to implement by executive orders.
One
of the most significant murder scenes in the first season of “House of
Cards,” Episode 2, occurs when House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin
Spacey) leaves the House office building and is cautioned by police not to go
near a derelict (Parker
Webb
) who has been handcuffed to a lamppost just outside. The bedraggled,
filthy-looking derelict is raving and shouting as though he were in pain. We
don’t know what he is protesting, we don’t know the nature of his anger. He was
stopped by the police when he tried to enter the building, and began to take
his clothes off. (Minute
44.22
, for those who subscribe to Netflix.) Spoilers ahead.
But
when Underwood confronts him, the derelict stops his raving. In his astonished
expression, it seems he is seeing the face of evil. Underwood says,
“Nobody can hear you. Nobody
cares about you. Nothing will come of this. Why don’t you let these nice
gentlemen take you home?” [The police.]
The
derelict looks pacified. The madness in his eyes recedes, and is replaced
first, by a look of wonder, and then by a look of hopelessness and defeat. He
has been told that whatever he feels or thinks, doesn’t matter. He should just
pack it in and let the “nice gentlemen take him home.”
Underwood
rises and goes to his waiting limousine. He glances back at the derelict with a
look of contempt. End of scene.
I
call it a murder because Underwood has effectively, consciously killed the derelict’s soul.
That
scene also affects me personally. Underwood’s words were approximately what I
heard repeatedly for years about continuing my writing career. Further, if
you’re able to watch that scene, you’ll see that Underwood is addressing you, the viewer, and not just the
derelict. The camera angle is not accidental, and neither is the message. Spacey
frequently addresses the viewer throughout both Seasons. But that particular
address, more than any of the others, is intended to address the viewer.
That
killing was preceded in Episode 1 when Underwood breaks the neck of a neighbor’s
dog that has been struck by a hit-and-run driver. He delivers a brief soliloquy
to the viewer (treating all viewers as superfluous “groundlings” from
Shakespearean times) on “useless pain” before he reaches down and
(off camera) kills the whimpering dog.
There are two kinds of pain. The
sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s
only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”
“There,” he says.
“No more pain.”
To
Underwood, the derelict also suffered from “useless pain.” And
in Episode 13, the last of Season 1, Underwood calmly murders a Representative,
Peter Russo, because the man was suffering from “useless pain” – and
also because the man posed a threat to his political plans by wanting to expose
the congressman’s machinations to torpedo the nomination of another politician
for Secretary of State, a post Underwood coveted, and was promised by the newly
elected president, but was subsequently denied. Everything Underwood does from
first Episode to last in Season 1 is calculated to achieve vengeance and
acquire more political power.
And
to cause as much useful pain as
possible, by compromising, corrupting, and back-stabbing his vicitms. And by murder.
The
desire to inflict pain is intrinsically linked to the desire to attain an
irrational value, such as power, and especially political power. Power can only
be attained by inflicting pain on others. Underwood regards that pain as useful, as a weapon, as a means to an
end. Power, however, especially political power, is an illusory means of
keeping reality at bay, at arm’s length, in a bid to repeal the law of cause
and effect. Underwood and his ilk in the series are constantly scrambling to
retain their power or acquire more of it over others, over their enemies and
over their allies, as well.
Political
power is a means of postponing the consequences of cultivating a desire for and
a dependency on the irrational. It is a postponement whose burden is thrust on
the innocent; it is they who must bear the pain and the consequences.  Pain, as practiced in the political realm
always – always – entails sacrifice,
a sacrifice of one’s values, or of others. “House of Cards” is an
education in altruism.
On
the other hand, the pursuit of power can be overtly, obviously, blatantly
nihilist in character. This can be observed in the policies enunciated and implemented
by Barack Obama. He is motivated by a hatred of America and a desire to destroy
it.
Cynicism
is merely a passive form of nihilism; nihilism requires the active, conscious
destruction or sacrifice of the good to the evil, to the irrational. Underwood
might be forgiven if he were merely cynical, for a cynic might be persuaded of
the futility of his world-view, of the surrender of his values, which, as a
cynic, he regards as impotent, hubristic illusions, as annoying obstacles which
must be bypassed or crushed. But Underwood’s whole character – evident in
virtually every gesture and expression – is nihilistic at root. When he takes
the Vice Presidential oath of office, he tropes the viewer with the boast that
not “one vote was cast” for him in the nominally elective office:
“Democracy is so
overrated.” 
At
the end of Chapter 24, Season 2 is revealed a ménage
à trois
        in Underwood’s malevolent,
perverted world – founded on pain. The three characters (I won’t
“spoil” things by identifying them) embrace and kiss over one
character’s hand that has been cut by broken glass, and as it is being
bandaged.
Here
are some significant quotations from the dialogue which buttress the theme here
that nihilism, rooted in pain, underlays Seasons 1 and 2 of “House of
Cards.” 
Raymond Tusk (Gerald
McRaney
), a billionaire who has interests in the nuclear power industry,
and whose surname is the expected liberal evocation of a wild boar’s deadly
tusks, with which the animal also digs for roots, to a reporter for the Wall
Street Telegraph (aka, the Wall Street Journal):  “America can be just as dangerous as
Iran.” Meaning that people can be set up and killed by men like him.
Jacqueline Sharpe (Molly Parker),
Majority Whip in the House, to her lover, a lobbyist, Remy Danton (played by
Mahershala Ali): “I like the pain.”
Francis Underwood to Jacqueline
Sharpe, whom he tells that her greatest virtue (or usefulness to him) is her
“ruthless pragmatism.”
Francis Underwood to Doug
Stamper, his chief of staff (Michael Kelly), who has performed numerous
criminal actions on behalf of Underwood, but who has acquired a value (falling
in love with a prostitute who was used to bring down Representative Peter
Russo), something that has impaired his effectiveness and value to Underwood.
Underwood demands that Samper tell him the truth: “I’m sorry you must be
honest.” By series end, his continued pursuit of that value proves to be
his undoing. Up to the very end, his only value was unswervingly
“serving” Underwood; he had no other values. As long as he did Underwood’s
bidding, he was safe. His first excursion into the realm of personal values
proves to be deadly.
Francis Underwood to President
Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) in a private letter: “I am pulling the
trigger myself. We all must make sacrifices to achieve our dreams. But
sometimes we must sacrifice ourselves for the greater good….Sometimes you have
to sacrifice the one for the many.” But Underwood is not talking about his
own suicide, but about Walker’s impending impeachment, finessed by Underwood.
Claire, Underwood’s wife (Robin
Wright), to a person she has used and betrayed, about the shifting sands of
politics: “There were realities we couldn’t ignore.” Claire is a
consummate altruist, having in Season 1 overseen a Bill Gates-type of
organization called the Clean Water Initiative, committed to bring “clean
water” to America and the Third World (a status which Barack Obama seems
to want to reduce America to). She has no self-worth other than the number and
size of wounds and sores she can stick her fingers into. (Novelist/philosopher
Ayn Rand made that observation about career altruists/philanthropists.) Others’
pain makes her “strong.” She, like her husband, has a vested interest
in pain and works to find and exploit it.
None
of the characters, not even the minor ones, express so much as a smidgen of
joy. The only “joy” Underwood and other characters show evidence of
is a congenital smugness in victory over others, as proof that their
“ruthless pragmatism” is efficacious, that pragmatism “works.”
Among
other acts of power and influence, Underwood orchestrates the appointment of a
Hillary Clinton doppelganger in looks and comportment, Catherine Durant (Jayne
Atkiinson), as a pliable Secretary of State whom he can control. Both Spacey
and the creator of “House of Cards,” Beau Willimon, admire Lyndon
B. Johnson
.
Katya
Abazajian of The
Forum
observed:
There’s a still of Frank
Underwood in his office and he’s reading the biography
of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert Caro
… Naturally the plot is based on the
British series, but the character is [based on] LBJ, and also on Richard III.
Kevin Spacey played Richard III before starting the series, hence the device of
the asides, which is taken from Richard III. But a lot of the character is
based on LBJ. [Screenwriter Beau Willimon said the character is “two
scoops of LBJ with a dash of Richard III and a pinch of Hannibal Lecter.”
]
All
the good or semi-good characters in the series wind up dead, defeated, or
demoralized.
As
mentioned above, Kevin Spacey is an outspoken Democrat dedicated to the welfare
state and to the statism of Barack Obama. His friends have been among the most contemptible
and murderous
political figures, including the late Venezuelan Marxist
dictator, Hugo Chavez. However, all the villains –passive cynics and the active
nihilists alike in both Seasons – are Democrats or are “bipartisan”
in allegiance to no particular ideology. Unless I blinked and missed him, not
one Republican character appears in the series. So Spacey’s choice of political
party to serve as the vehicle in which to dramatize the slimy, conspiracy-governed
bedlam of modern Washington politics is baffling and paradoxical. He cannot
have done the Democrats any favors by depicting them all as power-hungry whores
– which they are in real life and have demonstrated repeatedly. Republicans are
mentioned in the series as well as the Tea Party, in disparaging terms.
The
series has received almost unreserved praise in newspapers and blog sites. John
Dekel of the National
Post
(Canada) noted, almost with envy:
Most, if not all, of these acts
are done at the whim of Underwood, whose daring plan to upend the U.S.
political system begins when he is passed over for the role of Secretary of
State. As the series progresses, he exacts his revenge through a careful chess
match of political players whom he manipulates with a dizzying jumble of
pragmatic efficiency and dirty tricks. All the while, Underwood addresses the
audience — letting the viewer in on his intentions via a direct address style
borrowed from the British series the show is based on.
Underwood is also ruthlessly
efficient — a politician’s most important attribute and one scarce in today’s
Washington, D.C. It’s this duality, the actor argued, that has made House of
Cards
the improbable hit it has become….
Brian
Lowry of Variety
wrote:
As usual, Underwood goes about
the business of charming, cajoling and coercing those he must bend to his will,
while this season’s cast includes a young congresswoman (Molly Parker) who’s no
slouch in that department either. Meanwhile, Underwood’s efforts on issues like
negotiating a sweeping budget deal – in the process bargaining over entitlement
benefits – will certainly resonate among those with a taste for seeing
Washington issues dramatized, albeit with much better-looking players.
Still, as shrewd and ruthless as
Underwood is, it remains something of a drawback that almost nobody else in a
town built on power seems particularly adept at recognizing this or combating
him – including, it should be noted, the sitting president (Michael Gill), who
also has a billionaire confidant (Gerald McRaney, reprising his first-season
role) planting bugs in his ear. When McRaney’s character complains that the
Commander in Chief is “easily manipulated” in a later episode, that almost
doesn’t do his malleability justice.
Last
August, reporting on the success and popularity of “House of Cards,” Todd
Leopold of CNN
asked Beau Willimon, the show’s creator, for his perspective on Frank
Underwood’s immorality and premeditated criminality.
I don’t consider myself to be a
cynic nor the show to be cynical. In fact, Francis Underwood is an optimist.
Where I think people mistake his optimism for cynicism is that he’s
unapologetically self-interested. He believes ideology is a form of weakness —
a form of cowardice. It hems you in in ways that don’t allow you to be
flexible. And inflexibility is anathema to progress.
The problem with Washington right
now is that people are too stuck to their ideology. When you have both parties
who will not find ways to compromise, who won’t meet in the middle, you have
paralysis. It’s the perversion of idealism. I think what Francis has done is
liberate himself from belief systems altogether.
The writer and producer observes
that one of the character’s models is Lyndon Johnson, known for his shrewd
knowledge of the legislative process both as a senator and as president.
Willimon added that “House
of Cards” isn’t necessarily a show about politics, despite its Washington
setting. It’s a show about power — in all its manifestations. “That power
is displayed in our love lives, or our work environments, the way we comport
ourselves when randomness brushes up against us,” he says.
So,
idealism and principles are “perverted,” and if one adheres to them,
in Underwood’s world that is a mark of weakness and cowardice. The best
solution to “progress” is to “liberate” oneself from them.
Then one may progress to power, and “get things done.” And this isn’t
evidence of nihilism?
The
New York Times’ Adam Sternbergh wrote approvingly:
The result of all this near
monastic devotion is a show that — even in a landscape newly populated with
cynical-to-downright-nihilistic political shows, like “Veep” and “Scandal” and
“Homeland” — stands out for its unblinking commitment to a singularly dark
vision of politics. “House of Cards” is a very dark show. And this season, it
gets darker.
A quick recap for the
uninitiated: Francis Underwood, played by Spacey, is a congressman from South
Carolina, who in the series’ premiere is passed over for the post of secretary
of state and thereafter decides to indulge an unfettered and relentless pursuit
of power and revenge. By season’s end (first-season spoilers coming! So many
spoilers
), he has positioned himself to take over the vacant vice presidency;
bedded a young reporter; bribed a hooker; groomed a protégé to run for the
governorship of Pennsylvania; sent that same protégé into a destructive
personal spiral; then finally murdered him, framing it as a suicide. And that’s
just in Season 1.
Emily
Yahr of the Washington Post appropriately quoted Barack Obama’s predictable
enthusiasm for “House of Cards.”
The drama’s success, particularly
in mainstream awards, defied all his expectations, Willimon said. He sounded
equally proud that the show has received “incredibly positive responses” from
people on both sides of the political aisle, from operatives to high-level
staffers.
“There are people who criticize
certain aspects of its authenticity, and they’re right,” Willimon said,
admitting that they exaggerate and condense some elements of D.C. life. “We do
a great deal of research into every story line. . . . More often than not,
people from Washington have said time and time again it’s one of the more
accurate portrayals of Washington.”
The series has one very
high-profile fan: President Obama was recently seen on video during a meeting
with technology executives (including Netflix chief Reed Hastings) asking for a
preview of Season 2. “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked
about Spacey’s mischievous character. “I was thinking, ‘Man, this guy’s getting
a lot of stuff done.’ ”
Well,
of course.
Some
observations about the production of “House of Cards.”  Variety
reports it has been optioned for a third season by Netflix. One can’t really
know how long the series can be stretched out, unless, by the end of Season3,
Spacey and his co-producers decide to stick to the original BBC
storyboard
, in which Francis Urquhart (starring Ian Richardson ), the conniving
Chief (Tory) Whip in Parliament, schemes his way up to the office of Prime
Minister, committing murder on the way. He is assassinated at the behest of his
wife at the end during the unveiling of a statue of Margaret Thatcher. Of the
two productions, the BBC version is truer to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Richard the Third
than is the Netflix version.
The
original plot and thematic template for the Spacey “House of Cards”
was the BBC production of Michael Dobbs’s novel.  Dobbs, once chief-of-staff for Thatcher, wrote
his novel in a fit of pique against Thatcher over policy differences.  This was an act of backstabbing. I so
disliked Dobbs that I named a villain after him in A
Crimson Overture
. The BBC production even broke the rule of civility by
depicting Thatcher’s funeral – while she was still living – and even having
Francis Urquhart sneer at the occasion.
The
opening credits show a Washington D.C. in time-lapse shots from morning until
nightfall, presaging in visual format the theme of the series.
Perhaps
a solution to the paradox is that Spacey and his colleagues in the production
of “House of Cards” are so nihilistic and so sure of the efficacy of
evil that it won’t matter if the Democrats are “vilified” in the
series. They are sure that the Democrats will retain power in Washington. Perhaps
the term “vilification” is inappropriate. As a viewer, I had no
problem accepting the premise that the depictions of the chief characters were
very close to “real life,” except that Spacey’s characters were more
articulate in their dialogue than any Congressman could ever be. That was the
only difference.
The
message of Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards” to us – the viewers, the
derelicts, the groundlings – is that the real-life Francis Underwoods and their
ilk in politics are in charge, that they set the terms of existence, that it is
hopeless to fight them, futile to try to defeat them, and foolish to even think
of a world in which society is not one of the hunters and the hunted. They
don’t hear us, don’t care about us, and want to convince us that nothing will
come of caring about how anything ought to be. Their world depends on pain and
their ability to inflict it on us. Their world depends on everyone being
reduced to subservient, nihilistic dross.

Spacey and Company, however, forgot one great
historical fact: the American Revolution, which, in their eyes, in their world,
one “liberated from ideology,” is invisible and literally incredible.
We need to remind them of that Revolution.