It's All in the Game

It’s possible that people who live in Washington and work in a cottage industry that includes writing and reading this magazine feel about Netflix’s series of political intrigue, House of Cards, the way a resident of Los Angeles (me, say) feels about the guys on Entourage: I’m surrounded by assholes like these every time I walk into a coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard, so why would I want to watch them on TV? Nonetheless my guess is that power couples like Francis and Claire Underwood don’t frequent the bars on the U Street corridor. Frank is the majority whip of the House of Representatives, and Claire is an activist, and together they consolidate their power in the shadows of each other, smoking at the back window of their townhouse in the wee hours; these moments of nocturnal rendezvous, right down to the cigarettes themselves, are post-coital except the coitus, which Frank and Claire have with other people but not each other. They divulge virtually everything when they talk, and on the rare occasion when they don’t, things unravel. Their relationship is so symbiotic that when one does conceal something from the other, not only their relationship but their individual fortunes plummet—a nosedive they can pull out of only when they become a team again. The Underwoods are Bill and Hil crossed with the Macbeths, with power apparently an end unto itself since the vice presidency that Frank schemes for seems unworthy of all the plotting and is, as he should know better than anyone, an unreliable stepping-stone to the White House.

Stendhal said that politics in art is like a gunshot at the opera, though some translations have implied that the outburst to which he referred was more anatomical. In any case the disruption, whether gunshot or gas, is offensive but impossible to ignore. In House of Cards the shot and the opera are interchangeable; whereas the more high-minded West Wing or Lincoln is driven as much by ideas as personalities, in House of Cards the issues—whether a shipyard closing in this episode or an education bill that Frank is trying to shepherd through Congress in that—are props to advance the series. While we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the goings-on in House of Cards aren’t irresistible, and while no one doubts, especially these days, that Washington warrants our cynicism, the jaundiced scorn of the series leaves it earthbound, not just because cynicism is cheap no matter how earned it is but because it shortchanges the drama’s potential complexities. Whatever anyone thought of Bill Clinton or Dick Cheney, amid their debased fantasies of comely interns or Middle Eastern wars, each surely had his convictions and thereby the constituencies that accounted for and sustained his power.

The 1990 British series of the same name on which House of Cards is based had more of a partisan subtext, and not a particularly subtle one. In England the show was a commentary on the social indifference of the Conservative Party that just had seen the departure of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; the London of this earlier House of Cards was overrun with rats scurrying across city streets. The Frank Underwood of the American version, developed by David Fincher and directed by estimable directors like Carl Franklin and James Foley, is a Democrat so nobody can make the typical claims of media bias, I guess, though we have no sense of what Underwood’s party means to him. Importing from the British show certain tropes, among them an imperious catchphrase that became notorious in the U.K. (“You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”), the template of Fincher’s version seems closer to Allen Drury’s 1959 blockbuster novel Advise and Consent, adapted to the screen with pulpy panache by Otto Preminger. If the writing of House of Cards is wildly uneven to the point of shameless, making so little effort to cover up the dialogue’s expositional intent that often Underwood just faces the camera and tells us point-blank what’s going on, that conceit (borrowed from the U.K. show) is salvaged by the casting of Kevin Spacey. For all his blackhearted amorality, we can’t help rooting for him in the same manner we root for Tony Soprano and Walter White.

House of Cards’ chief writer, Beau Willimon, scripted the 2011 George Clooney campaign thriller The Ides of March, which—besides having the new show’s same flaw and virtue, which is perfunctory storytelling redeemed by insider verisimilitude (Willimon worked on campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean)—reminds us that movies and TV shows about politics are suddenly conspicuous. There aren’t necessarily more of them than before, politics having been a subject of video drama going back at least as far as Frank Capra, but in the past five or six years more American audiences have felt compelled to see not only Lincoln but Veep, Boss, Recount, Scandal, Hyde Park on Hudson, Parks and Recreation, State of Play, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Good Wife, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Campaign, Fair Game, and Game Change. Those are only domestic examples with explicitly political stories; they exclude the likes of The Iron Lady, The King’s Speech, Invictus, In the Loop, The Lives of Others, and the Danish series Borgen.

The success ten years ago of Aaron Sorkin’sThe West Wing has something to do with this phenomenon. Debuting in the post-impeachment twilight of the Clinton administration and gaining popularity about the time the Supreme Court allocated the White House to George W. Bush, The West Wing became an alternate-universe presidency for the disenchanted, with Martin Sheen’s flawed chief executive Jed Bartlet so evocative of an elder Kennedy or maybe a Kennedy cousin that once the hour was over, you felt a palpable pang turning on the news and confronting reality again. Even The West Wing’s version of Ann Coulter, as played by Emily Procter, was vastly more appealing—fair-minded, not a little vixenish if we’re being honest, and touched by the show’s inevitable tone of nobility. Unlike with her real-life model, you never had the feeling that if you cracked open the soul of Procter’s character, a swarm of locusts would emerge.

Although it continued another five seasons afterward, The West Wing was a casualty of September 11, 2001, when a harsh new century made the series feel quaint, and a harsh new politics felt unavoidable even to audiences that avoided politics. The watershed moment when life became so grandly cinematic as to render fiction inadequate was the 2008 presidential election, with a cast that was the stuff of Hollywood dreams: a crusty rage-fueled war hero tortured by a cruel enemy for five years and haunted by how he didn’t measure up to his admiral father or grandfather; a former first lady whose senatorial career was born of a callous infidelity by her husband for whom she had sacrificed her earlier promise; a backwoods Annie Oakley governor whose star power bulldozed the ways in which she was out of her depth; and, unlikeliest of all, a biracial Hawaiian with a Swahili name who five years before could have strolled down any street unrecognized but now was the world’s most famous man. The author of Advise and Consent would have killed for such characters if, as a hardened UPI reporter, he didn’t find them so baldly preposterous. The 2008 election wasn’t just an alternate universe invading our own but verged on science fiction altogether, especially uncanny for how it approximated The West Wing’s final season in which an obscure young Latino legislator upset his party’s prohibitive front-runner and then defeated his vastly more experienced opponent, a grizzled Western senator. The measure of the ’08 election’s outlandishness is that no TV or film version of it, including either The West Wing or last year’s Game Change about Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential run, could match let alone surpass it.

In a moment when fiction races to keep up with history, and when contemporary politics have succumbed to ideological paralysis, House of Cards competes by suggesting that things are worse than we think, assuming you accept that corruption is worse than fanaticism. Since our current state of affairs is more mired in philosophical zealotry, in which centuries-old legislative precedents are routinely shattered in order to, for instance, filibuster presidential cabinet appointments, the prosaic concerns of House of Cards as they have to do with abuse of power run the risk of appearing dated or even irrelevant. On the other hand, the messiness of how human beings interact is not only what makes House of Cards a soap opera that even the apolitical might appreciate but also what politics ritualizes, with Spacey’s Underwood almost as Shakespearean as the actor intends him to be. Like the parliamentary whip of the British show who felt double-crossed by his prime minister, Underwood has been promised the State Department by a new president who then reneges; he plots his revenge while initiating a sexual relationship with a scheming young female reporter who’s ready to sleep her way to a scoop. Where the original series had a satirical and at times darkly burlesque edge, the American House of Cards is as cool as its visual sheen; Washington, D.C., may never have looked better than in the opening credits, where it becomes the glittering American Paris that Thomas Jefferson envisioned. In retrospect, a lot of Underwood’s machinations don’t make sense; once we’ve untangled our brains from his Machiavellian twists and turns, we realize that the convolutions of plot exist only to show us how clever he is. Nonetheless, the American version is more ambitious than its forerunner, playing out across the bigger canvas that 13 rather than 4 episodes demands, with at least one subplot—involving an ambitious third-term representative troubled by booze, cocaine, and hookers—paying off well enough that, once it’s resolved, the season never entirely recovers.

Even if you haven’t seen the show, you’re not likely to be surprised by the news that finally it belongs to Spacey and, as Claire, Robin Wright. While there hovers over his shoulder the famous photograph of Lyndon Johnson leaning far enough into Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas’s personal space as to nearly knock him over, Underwood masterminds his vengeance with such gusto that you have to wonder if he isn’t secretly grateful for the treachery that motivates it. In the service of power, he’s more voluptuary than assassin, though he earns the latter title too in the series’ opening scene when he kills a dying dog with his bare hands, delivering a monologue about the difference between pain that has a point and suffering that doesn’t. The American series’ best improvement on the British, in which the MP’s wife was relegated to muttering mischief in her husband’s ear, is ice queen Wright; the foil for Spacey’s flamboyance—“I love her,” he says, “more than sharks love blood”—she emerges from her surrounding carbon-dioxide mist to give every indication of being the more dangerous, her mystique growing with everything we don’t know about her (she’s the only major character with no backstory). Frank is haunted by the fear of being forgotten in time. Claire is haunted by ghosts both more immediate and more elusive. One is the spirit of politics future: What do we leave for those who follow us? The other is the child that Claire hasn’t had, and the prospect of whom Frank despises. Sooner or later, like the opera and the gunshot, children and politics future are one and the same.

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