Sunday, February 16, 2014

House of Cards: A Tale of Pain-Worshipping Killers

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.

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