- Beau Willimon
Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.
Truly God is good to the upright to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
When my wife and one of our sons gave me a Netflix subscription for Christmas, this series was my first foray into its offerings. Once I started watching the series I was never tempted to look up any of the feature films stored away on the site. Indeed, let me warn you up front, in case you have not seen any of the series, be careful that you start watching early in the evening, or better yet, on a Saturday. House of Cards is like peanuts or M&Ms. There is no way you can watch just one episode. This is to cable shows what a John Grisham page-turner is to books. One night it was almost 2 A.M before I reluctantly turned in for bed (after my 3rd episode for that day). For me this is the Downton Abbey of Washington politics!
I have always loved Kevin Spacey’s work (especially in American Beauty), and in this series, adapted by Beau Willimon from the BBC series of the same name, even though his Francis Underwood is despicable, I found myself drawn to him. In the first two seasons we follow his rise in Washington politics, from the position of Majority Whip in the House of Representatives right up to the White House, first as Vice President, and then the Oval Office itself.
At the beginning he expects to be named Secretary of State because during the campaign he used his considerable political weight on behalf of the newly elected President Garrett Walker. When he is told that the prestigious post will go to another, he sets out on a subtle campaign that will discredit the preferred man, and eventually affect the politics of Pennsylvania as well as Washington, and even end in a man’s death. Indeed, Underwood’s schemes are so clever and circuitous that “Byzantine” fails to convey their complexity. He sometimes is thwarted in a devious plan, but always is able to land on his feet and eventually influence people and events to benefit himself. This almost always involves lying and playing to other people’s pride, ambitions, and desires. Spacey often breaks the “fourth wall” by looking knowingly at the audience and letting us hear out loud his thoughts.
Robin Wright as his wife Claire is Spacey’s equal in terms of charm and guile, even malicious, tactics in achieving her goals. She is the head of a clean water advocacy group. Probably at the beginning she was sincerely concerned for the cause, but, emulating her husband, she slowly allows her self-interest to dominate every decision that she makes.
Underlying the series is a cynical view of politics and the role that Big Money plays in it. Underwood is willing to do anything or say anything to advance himself and Claire is willing to join him. He preaches a very good sermon at his home church, but it is a ruse to get the parents of a dead girl not to sue and cause a scandal. He helps some colleagues at times, and others he uses, and even kills, moving the series toward the trajectory of Mac Beth.
The journalists in the series are a mixture of types, one of them a young woman willing to sleep in any bed for the sake of a story that will advance her career, and others genuinely wanting to discover the truth for the sake of better government. However, after one of them mysteriously dies on the tracks of the subway, and her friends persist in trying to find out if she was murdered, one is maneuvered into prison, and the other flees the city, ostensibly to care for her mother. Contrary to the many films about crusading journalists and the power of the press, it is money and power that rule the world in House of Cards.
It will be fascinating to watch how Underwood fares as President: will the long arc of the story bend toward justice (as in Mac Beth), or is this really a tale written by cynics for cynics? I am hoping that there is sincere meaning in showing on the posters and title card an upside down American flag, a device or symbol that also showed the filmmakers’ view of what is happening to our nation in the film In the Valley of Elah. T hen too, there is not only the flag distress signal, there is also the name of the series, a flimsy structure that can fall any time, either of its own weight or the slight disturbance of one of the cards. We can start to find out on February 27, the date on which Netflix will release Season 3.