Wednesday, February 13, 2013

House of Cards: An American "Macbeth"


Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. – Lord Acton to Bishop Creighton, 1887

Francis "Frank" Underwood is absolutely corrupted, and isn't a "great man," except perhaps in the eyes of lesser men, no less corrupted but out-maneuvered by Underwood in the give-and-take-and-extortion business of Washington D.C. They pay him the respect and deference he expects of them, because they lost to him in the ruthless, cannibalistic pursuit of power that makes the slaughter of the French knights at Agincourt look like a Kennedy clan game of touch football. That comparison is of Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version of Henry V, not the Olivier.

Who is Frank (or Francis) Underwood? He is the leading protagonist of Netflix's feature televised series, "House of Cards," which debuted earlier this month. Frank Underwood is the majority whip in the House of Representatives, shilling for handouts and preferential treatment for his South Carolina district. A protagonist is a leading character in a story who moves the story along by his actions. He could be a hero or a villain. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a villain. Throughout the series, he makes no apology for it. Quite the opposite. He boasts of it.

In "House of Cards," there are no heroes. Only villains of various shades of villainy, from gray to the blackest of blacks, fulfilling politically correct requisites on diversity, covering all the affirmative action mandates in gender, race, ethnic origin, and religion. "House of Cards" is an equal opportunity employer in its portrayal of corruption. In that respect, the series is very realistic, a reflection of "the way things are," in the spirit of droll naturalism.

It is even more cynical than the 1962 film version of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent, which portrays the sordid lengths to which politicians will go to defeat a nominee for Secretary of State (played by Henry Fonda as Robert Leffingwell, a left-winger proposing a treaty with the Soviets), in which the villains are "right-wingers" who find dirt on a Senator whose confirmation vote is critical.

"House of Cards" is an American knock-off of a hit British BBC trilogy that ran between 1990 and 1995. It is the title of the first of that series, followed after critical acclaim and popular demand by "To Play the King" and "The Final Cut."  It follows the general plot line of the British trilogy, adapted for American audiences and issues. Season One of "House of Cards," in thirteen episodes, follows that plot line so closely, even in numerous scenes, that it's as though Spacey, his co-producers, writers, and directors laid a blank transparency over the trilogy and used a Magic Marker to write in where things should be changed, tweaked, and wrinkled.

Plot spoilers follow, so, legit cavete.

"House of Cards" is one of the most educational TV series to come along in a long time, posing as fiction, yet still instructive about how much of a giant whorehouse Washington D.C. is, not only in its politics, but in journalism and personal ethics. As knock-offs go, it's very well done, although Spacey frequently interrupts scenes and conversations with Shakespearean "asides" to the viewers.  Underwood is a perfect name of what you would find beneath rotted wood, maggots, so I don't think the name is accidental. Likely, neither is the name of his chief aide, Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly (the surname is a leftover from the British series). Stamper puts out fires and crises with extortion and blackmail by prospecting for and cultivating dirt on Underwood's enemies, with a little bribery on the side.

In the beginning of the series, Underwood plots to regain his nomination as Secretary of State, after a newly elected president, a very hollow man, reneges on his promise to nominate Underwood, and nominates someone else. Underwood contrives to get the new nominee withdrawn and a Hillary Clinton clone substituted, and then he's off and running to fresh new conspiracies.

Incredibly, all the villains are Democrats. No Republican has put in an appearance yet, although that might change in Season Two. Republicans are mentioned as the opposition, although, to tell the truth, and to judge by the behavior and record of the Republicans, the series could just as well be a portrayal of their political means and ends. Look how they keep an arm's length from the Tea Party and seasoned politicians (e.g., Allen West) who hold Tea Party convictions. Not to mention their flip-flopping on issues such as the budget, military spending, and immigration.

The story is compelling because it realistically portrays the sprawling Washington whorehouse.  The most pathetic character is the vice president, based vaguely on Vice President Joe Biden, whose biggest complaint was that the president didn't give him one of the pens used to sign an education bill, engineered by Spacey, souvenir pens given to Spacey and a couple of kids in a scene reminiscent of Obama signing an executive order for gun control or Obamacare.

Overall, the sleaze dramatized in "House of Cards" is so well done you half expect it to leave crud or mold on your screen.

The British series debuted on the expiration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's tenure. It's claimed that it helped to secure John Major the election, because "House of Cards" was broadcast days before an election. Based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, Major said of it that it had done for his triumph "what Dracula did for baby-sitting." The British series was meant to repudiate the Tories and conservatism, because Francis Urqhart (played with bone-chilling correctness by Ian Richardson), the protagonist and aside-maker of that series, is a Tory Conservative more coldly ruthless and amoral than is Underwood in his smug, cynical, and contemptuous rancidness.

But one must wonder what else could be the intention of the American version but to repudiate the Democrats.

The difference here is that Underwood is a Democrat who is manipulating people and things to expand or preserve government controls in education, development, the environment, and so on, not because he sincerely believes in or values these things, but because they're stepping stones to power. His wife, Claire, runs her of charity, CWI, which caters to the poor in Africa and is always politicking for donor support. Her campaign for money becomes enmeshed in Underwood's schemes.
 
Actress Robin Wright, who plays Claire, remarked that the character is "Lady Macbeth to Underwood's Macbeth." As a couple who tolerate each other's infidelities, and who regard their marriage as a kind of non-aggression pact and alliance in pursuit of power, they reminded me most of Bill and Hillary Clinton. For all I know, Frank and Claire Underwood were modeled on the Clintons, another Macbethian couple. There's nothing in the story that indicates otherwise. (Except that Robin Wright's Claire is a knock-out and less of a windbag than is Hillary.)

It even features a doppelganger of the British female journalist who's angling for power and gets herself in cahoots with Underwood. Zoe Barnes is a pushy, ambitious, obnoxious little vixen who also becomes Underwood's sharp-tongued mistress. In the first of the British series, the journalist, Mattie, a possible thorn in Urqhart's side, is murdered by him when he throws her off the roof garden of Parliament, even though she professes her love for him and tries to reassure him of her loyalty.  

What Season Two has in store for Zoe Barnes remains to be seen.  Underwood has personally murdered a conflicted Representative, Peter Russo of Pennsylvania, who was a loose cannon in Spacey's plans. He murders him as coldly as he killed an injured dog in the first episode, ostensively to put it out of its misery, but also because he seems to enjoy killing as an expression of his power. As with a character from the British series, Russo's drug and drinking problems become a threat to Underwood. Season One's last episode has Zoe Barnes suddenly realizing that Spacey and his Stamper fixer-aide might have been behind a lot of the nasty stuff.

At this point, I think the American version of HOC will do to the Democrats what it's alleged the British series did to the Tories. To date, all the protagonists in it are progressive Democrats pushing welfare state, environmental, and fascist economic programs (business/government development partnerships). And they're all pragmatic, compromising, malleable villains, if not conspirators against the president or other politicos.

This is how American TV series and movies usually smear the Republicans or anyone else who opposes the Democratic agenda or Progressivism. Since 9/11, Hollywood has churned out over a dozen anti-American movies. Usually the uncaring, cruel, and nasty villains are Republicans. So, if Season Two of the series continues (it's "in development"), and remains an adumbrated replicant of the British series, the Democrats will be painted in blacker terms than anyone could ever have imagined. No "right-wing" weblog or newspaper or magazine could do a more thorough job of it than has "House of Cards."

And unless the series departs from the British model, there is a question of how another thirteen episodes of it can be stretched out to the climax. The British series ends (in "The Final Cut") with a triumphant Urqhart riding to Buckingham Palace as the new Prime Minister. He has forced the King to abdicate, and has vanquished all his enemies, in the Party and out of it. And he doesn't look in the least troubled by his crimes, which were committed wholesale.

So, as a prediction, it's likely that Frank Underwood will manipulate his way the White House at the end of the American version. He is a consummate manipulator and string-puller. Please excuse the speculation. It can't be helped. Democrats are like that. Look at President Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. Their political and personal careers could be dramatized just as well as Frank Underwood's, with the focus on the darker chapters of their rise to power. Which means everything about them.

The only "anti-capitalist" elements in the American version are Claire Underwood's foundation, "Clean Water Initiative (CWI), a billionaire who somehow owns a lot of nuclear power plants, and some natural gas conglomerate, the latter two entities intimately tied to the president and to the plot and the competition for government favors. But I suppose that if you were going to indict the Democrats, you would need a couple of "private" interests lobbying for those favors (a la Orren Boyle's Associated Steel Company in Atlas Shrugged). The Republicans could also be indicted for the same practice. But in Spacey's "House of Cards," all stops are pulled and the indictment is merciless.

However, if the series does take a noticeable turn away from the British model, it could only mean that the producers were lectured to or warned by the White House and the DNC and other parties to "cool it," and find some other villains to pick on.

I have never liked Kevin Spacey as an actor. In his past hits, such as American Beauty (1999) and L.A. Confidential (1997), his cynical, sneering mien was less developed but no less repellant than it is in "House of Cards." It never goes away, just as the malevolent masculinity of Robert Mitchum never left him even when he played good guys (and he perfected that attribute as the menacing, nihilist villain Max Cady in Cape Fear, 1962). But, here is the paradox: Spacey is a Hollywood liberal. He is a close friend of Bill Clinton, once calling him "one of the shining lights of the political process." He is friends with Hugo Chavez, the Marxist Venezuelan dictator. According to Wikipedia, he has contributed over $42,000 to Democratic candidates and committees.

So, why has he produced a series that damns the Democrats, and, by implication, the Progressive agenda to turn the U.S. into a welfare state and the government into a "soft" fascist régime? If Netflix is right and the series becomes a hit, the Democrats may become a permanent dart board for anyone who doubts the propriety of the "democratic" (read "populist" or "statist") process. In 2010, Spacey said that broadcasters should carry "legitimate" political ads for free during election periods. Who would decide which ads are "legitimate" and which or not, he does not say. We already have a Federal Election Committee that does that. Spacey was asked by Wolf Blitzer about his predilection for political movies:

Emmy award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, star of the new film Casino Jack, says he blames television networks “to some degree” for lobbyist influence on the political process. He says television networks should run legitimate political ads "for free" as a public service.

“Well, I think you have to separate the idea of that what lobbyists can do is be an informational conduit for Congressman and Senators to understand specific bills and specific issues in other countries but at the same time, I think that there is no doubt that the amount of influence and power and money dampens the political process. I think it discourages people from public office,” he told CNSNews.com at the E Street Cinema before the Washington screening of the film sponsored by the Creative Coalition.

In a Hollywood Reporter interview, he said:

Spacey: "The lobbying industry and what it has done in terms of Washington politics, and Casino Jack (and Recount about the Gore-Bush issue in the Florida vote count of 2000)…I'm very driven by the opportunity to examine current situations and current things happening in the world…. I think these are very important subjects for us to understand and see how we got where we are and if we can make it better than it is…."

Interviewer:  "And reality is almost as outrageous as art, you can't even make this stuff up half the time."

Spacey:  "You're right. I would go back to the hotel in Baltimore where we were shooting the first season, and I'd watch the news at night, this last election cycle… and I'd think, our story lines are not that crazy."

Crazy as a fox? Or just plain crazy? We won't know the answer to this paradox until Season Two of "House of Cards" is aired (or live-streamed on computers). After all, Spacey, Fincher and the scriptwriters could have easily remained more faithful to the purpose of the British version, which was to repudiate Thatcher and her policies, and instead targeted the Republicans for political and dramatic excoriation. It wouldn't have taken much in the script or in the characterizations.

If Spacey is accusing the lobbying industry of being venal, conspiratorial, and corrupting, he should know that it takes two to tango. If Congressmen and Cabinet heads and bureaucrats weren't so venal, conspiratorial, and corruptible, he would have no complaint.

He could go back to the live stage and give Ian Richardson a run for his money in Macbeth or Richard the Third.

Otherwise, go figure.

17 comments:

Grant Jones said...

Ed, great review of a show that fascinates like a scorpion. There was another show much like this one called Boss. It starred Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago, ala Dead Fish Rahm. I could only watch a few episodes because all the characters were completely vile. So, it was probably an accurate depiction of Chicago politics. I've watched the first season of House of Cards. The producers/writers of that show have been able to make it worth watching. I mean unlike Boss, I can stomach and even enjoy watching House of Cards. I'm not sure why that is; I'm still thinking about it.

Edward Cline said...

Grant: I wonder how many people have watched House of Cards and not realized that it's not entirely "fiction"?

FrugalFrigate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FrugalFrigate said...

Ed, you have persuaded me to watch the show. I think the comparisons to the knights of Agincourt and Lady Macbeth did it for me. I’m not apt to watch movies or shows with no heroes to root for, but perhaps the satisfaction of seeing Hollywood finally portray its political darlings in their true colors will make the show worth watching.

Edward Cline said...

FrugalFrigate: I can be persuasive, as you well know. If you have Netflix, you can watch it on your own schedule. That's one of the benefits of that venue. Each episode is about 50 minutes long, without commercial interruption.

Edward Cline said...

Grant: Well, there are a lot of thick people out there. As I remark in the column, what confuses me is that Spacey, a Democrat, is more or less flushing the Democrats down the toilet in HOC. I still haven't figured that one out.

jayeldee said...

Ed--But you also remark in your column about Spacey's cynicism; and you are quite on the mark on that. He oozes it. And I think it must extend, even, unto his own "values" and preferences. (In his "defense", though--and this may also have something to do with his trashing the Dems--he impresses me [at least] as being far above the Hollywood norm, in intelligence. Which, however, admittedly isn't saying much....)

(I take this opportunity to also remark that "Twentieth Century", which you previously recommended, is an utter masterpiece: another Best Movie I Never Heard Of--thank YOU!)

Edward Cline said...

Jayeldee: House of Cards cost millions of dollars to make, took a lot of planning, hired a first rate cast, including Spacey (who also produced it), hired the best directors and cinematographers, and is a first rate production. It's nearly the same as the British version in all those production values. But, why does it pick on the Democrats? It's almost as though Goebbels had hired someone to shoot the same kind of film that trashed the Nazis. That's the paradox, unless Spacey is saying to his audience, "Here's the way Washington D.C. works, it's ugly, it's dishonorable, it's evil, but that's life, so, get used to it. You want your welfare state goodies and subsidies and the rest of it, this is what it takes to get it for you." As with Francis Urqhart, the protagonist in the British version, Spacey as Francis Underwood in his asides seems to be taking the audience into his confidence just to ensure that the audience believes it's a part of the corruption and crime.

Edward Cline said...

Furthermore, as with Urqhart, Underwood is simply pursuing power, while all the legislation he is behind and helps to get passed or defeated, is of secondary value to him, almost of no value. It's merely a means to an end, which is Underwood securing the post he was promised, or better. It's this personal pursuit of power that damns him and damns the Democrats, because they're amenable to it and exploitable. Fundamentally, Underwood is a nihilist, as might be Spacey.

Pete said...

Thank you for your review of the show, Ed.

I have become a great fan of your writing and this is my first comment on this blog.


I am certain a modern day progressive or liberal (like Spacey) can very much enjoy and appreciate a show like "House of Cards". As the show does not repudiate the ideas he or she upholds, but instead focuses on the power-hungry politicians and lobbying interests who corrupt or compromise the proper implementation of these ideas.

A man like Spacey might see the value of this show as reinforcing the notion that there is still way too much "Capitalism" in the system, because "rich people" control the government; and that an ideologically pure man is still needed who will be immune to the lobbying influence of big business and who will selflessly implement progressive ideas without any "selfish" concerns for power.

Using Republicans instead of Democrats as a showcase for the corruption of their pet ideas would not make sense as in the liberal world-view a Republican is outside the realm of "reason", clinging to a set of completely different and backward ideas. Therefor a Republican can only try to block, misrepresent or repudiate them from the outside, but he cannot claim to represent them and then betray them for petty personal gains.

I very much agree with you that the show is an eloquent demonstration of the whorehouse that is Washington DC. But I do not have any enthusiasm for this show's effectiveness in changing people's political affiliations or ideas.

Both liberals and conservatives are convinced that the press is corrupted, dominated and/or controlled by the other side (Rupert Murdoch vs Mainstream Media); both liberals and conservatives know Washington to be a bastion of corruption; and both liberals and conservatives can bend their understanding of this corruption to match the one portrayed in "House of Cards".

-- Pete

Edward Cline said...

Pete: Thank you for your comments. They are a fresh tack on the paradox I mentioned. I'm tempted to quote Urqhart from the British series: "You might think that. I couldn't possibly comment," which was a dissembling code to someone that he agreed with that person's assertions which he repeats frequently. I quote Spacey in the latter part of the column, in which he blames lobbyists for the corruption, almost and implicitly exclusively. He just might agree with your contention that politicians should be immune to corruption and bribes and work "selflessly" to advance progressive causes, and if we got rid of the lobbying influence, everything would be all right (how naïve a premise!). If you read my column, "The Twenty-Eighth Amendment," you'd see how that lobbying influence could be checked and neutralized by adopting Judge Narragansett's emendation of the Constitution. No politician, no matter how skillful a manipulator of people and events (as Underwood and Urqhart are), could even introduce legislation that would abridge the freedom to trade and produce at the behest of a lobbyist, not without facing opposition in Congress and very possibly being censored, evicted or criminally charged with subornation of his office and with succumbing to bribery.

In the American series, one of those corrupting "capitalists" is a super-rich man named Tusk, who owns a lot of nuclear power plants in the country (more than actually exist here) and has his hands in other capitalist ventures. He resembles George Soros in many respects, but comes from the Midwest and has no Nazi background, as Soros has. And in the British series, there's an American newspaper and media mogul who owns some British papers and TV franchises in the country, an uncouth, boisterous individual (a British, and especially a BBC, stereotype of Americans), who also wields influence in the political contest for power and is an ally of Urqhart and uses his influence to help Urqhart remove his obstacles and enemies. They both agree that all the plotting and conspiring is necessary to "expand" freedom in Britain. That motive is more obvious in the British series than is the advancement of progressivism in the American series, so, if what you say is true, then Spacey's character is more devious and circumspect than is Urqhart, in terms of why he focuses on the Democrats and not the Republicans.

Finally, while there is much cogent speculation in what you say about Spacey's motives, if true it all just might backfire on him and the other producers (who are numerous). Americans as a rule are too literal and may not grasp the subtleties you put very well in your comments. They may conclude that the Democrats are nothing more than avaricious pigs and monsters and in the series are discredited beyond redemption. And while the British series, as produced by a government-owned radio and TV entity which tows the official party line (which is usually anti-capitalist and anti-American), the BBC, produced the series to discredit Margaret Thatcher's policies and to advance the welfare state, the American series isn't so obvious in its possible purposes to advance the welfare state and progressivism (or statism), that is, to make a statement about the necessity to "purify" the "democratic" processes so that evil private interests cannot block the government's efforts to legislate the "right" laws and policies. Perhaps in the American series Spacey and his co-producers are so contemptuous of the Republicans that they didn't think it necessary to introduce any (not yet anyway, what will happen in Season Two remains to be seen). I despise the Republicans, but for different reasons than might Spacey and Company.

FrugalFrigate said...

Pete, good theory. I think you may be on to something which ought to be explored, but I agree with Edward that if you are right, most viewers would not get the underlying message that Spacey may be attempting to convey.

Grant Jones said...

Another explanation could be that the men who run Netflix are far, far smarter than the likes of Spacey. Netflix knows that to compete with cable and broadcast TV in original programming they must offer something different. They need to provide something not available elsewhere in order for their original shows to bring in new subscribers.

A columnist at Breitbart wrote that Netflix's strategy was for HOC to create a "buzz." This would garner them free publicity. To do this they created, or borrowed, a show calculated to attract attention from self-loathing leftists such as Spacey.

Pete said...

Ed: Thank you for your elaborate reply.

I have read your column, "The Twenty-Eighth Amendment", and it would be a great amendment to add indeed. For more than 100 years, however, we have seen Congress and the White House enact countless items of legislation that blatantly defy and contradict every statute that was laid out by the Founding Fathers and the constitution. So I don’t see what would prevent them from defying and misrepresenting your “Twenty-Eighth Amendment" as well. The laws that are on the books are only as reliable as the men who swear to uphold and defend them. When the different state legislatures and courts, the judges of the Supreme Court, the members of both Houses, the president and his cabinet have all gone to the same education facilities and picked up the same fundamental ideas, no law, however just and well drafted, is guaranteed to survive them for long. After all, today’s intellectuals and politicians are usually so baffled by various notions of egalitarianism that they are unable or unwilling to distinguish between the “power” of a businessman and the power of the state. As indeed I have heard it said numerous times by my peers and professors in college who do not see a fundamental difference between a Pepsi commercial and a letter from the IRS. Consequently, the “freedom to trade and produce” will end up being interpreted to mean: employing the IRS to guarantee the “freedom” of a little lemonade stand to trade and produce on equal terms with Pepsi.

Personally, I do not place a lot of blame with businesses who engage in lobbying. It seems like once the separation of state and economics has been breached, you as a businessman can either accept the cost of sending someone to the capitol as a new part of your business equation, or you can watch your (lesser) competitors doing so and putting you out of business as a consequence. Although there are some notable exceptions such as John Allison.

After watching the first season of “House of Cards”, the show left me with a condemnation of the general politics in Washington and not of any particular party. But I certainly hope that the American audience of “House of Cards” will experience the show in a similar way as you did: as an indictment of the Democrats.

I, too, despise the Republicans for different reasons than a liberal like Spacey does. Today’s Republicans are to the American Republic what the Gracchi Brothers were to the Roman Republic. While claiming to save the Republic, they end up destroying it. Or in the words of George W. Bush: “I have abandoned free market principles to save the free market.”


Grant Jones: That would explain why Netflix would produce the show in this way, but I don't understand why this would attract so many "self-loathing" directors and producers with blatant left-wing credentials.

Carl Stevenson said...

In "House of Cards," there are no heroes. Only villains of various shades of villainy, ... "

So it's an accurate representation of our government, but the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Edward Cline said...

Thank you all for your input about House of Cards. I hadn't expected this much interest. Fiction does have an influence on men's thinking, and I only wish I could convince more people of its power.

CarbonDate said...

The explanation could be simpler than anybody has posited here: it simply isn't as dramatically compelling to thrash the party which is out of power. The Democrats control the White House and the Senate, while the Republicans only control the House. They're the opposition, not the governing party.

Not all creative choices are driven by political affiliation, even in political dramas. Sometimes a critique of the existing process requires acknowledgment of reality. The Republicans are largely absent, but neither are the presented as noble and virtuous. And frankly, people who can't understand that this is an indictment of Washington generally and not of the Democratic Party specifically probably aren't watching House of Cards.