Chapter 1: Directed by David Fincer & Written Beau Willimon
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Bleak, For Lack of a Better Word, Is Good
Looking back at the work of House of Cards (@HouseofCards) Executive Producers, feature film director and all-around bad ass, David Fincher, and lead actor and impersonator extraordinaire, Kevin Spacey (@KevinSpacey), one appreciates that they are less interested in reality than they are in honesty. Not that realistic storytelling isn’t part and parcel of their brands, it is, but reality often doesn’t mesh with or could take a back seat to honest, brash and bold narratives with deep and resonant socio-political themes. Oh and they like it a bit bleak. Actually, very bleak. But bleak is good. Bleak cleanses the palette while filling you up with all that ‘truthy’ goodness.
Fincher’s Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — all blunt-force trauma type films that strip society naked and give it a nice, deep and insightful rectal examination. With low key-lighting. This applies to both Fincher’s directing style as much as to his narrative tastes. Fincher has always been interested in the grit that molds our lives, and the mold that rots in the crevices of the human heart. Even the hearts of characters who, on the surface, live a semi-charmed existence. Nothing is clean. Everything is dirty. Even heroes. Especially heroes.
Spacey’s no slouch either. He excels at playing outwardly charming and charismatic while harboring dark, conniving and sociopathic tendencies. Glengarry Glen Ross, Se7en, The Usual Suspects, in some ways even American Beauty and deliciously in Horrible Bosses. Playing House Majority Whip Francis “Frank” Underwood in HOC is by no means new territory for Spacey (see: You Don’t Know Jack, A Time To Kill, Looking For Richard and the HBO film Recount). Spacey relishes playing the part of corrupted or corrupting authority figures in part because that’s what great actors do best, unless your Daniel Day Lewis, in which case you do everything best. Sorry, Kevin. In other parts because Spacey is a great actor who actively cares, as opposed to Day Lewis who’ll spend a year in Antarctica in a glacial cave learning how to blow glass into the shapes of polar bears before re-entering society to make a film and win an Oscar. Many actors are apathetic about the world outside their Californian harems. Spacey is that rare bread (like Clooney, Affleck, Penn among them) who transcends predictability and wants to be politically engaged and socially aware, both in their real lives and through their art, both for art’s sake and as an extension of their beliefs. In short, Spacey — like Fincher — is always ready to say something meaningful and open wounds we’d rather let heal. Hey, somebody’s gotta do it.
I knew very little if next to nothing about HOC showrunner Beau Willimon (@BeauWillimon), who shares EP credits with Spacey and Fincher. Willimon, at 36 years old, is a playwright and a political creature having volunteered in his youth with the Democratic political machinery of DC heavy weights like Chuck Schumer, Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton. The old axiom is write what you know, which he did in Farragut North, a play that was co-adapted by George Clooney and Grant Heslov (both achieving Awards glory at the moment for producing Argo) into the critically acclaimed political drama Ides of March. From his short list of credits, what’s clear is that Willimon also likes to deal in the bleak truths that many of us don’t like to confront, about what we think we know versus what is really happening in the hallways of power. He examines this space without idyllic Rockwellian nostalgia, certainly without any rah-rah jingoism, nor in a meaningless, deconstructivist or Warholian post-modern sense. Willimon approaches his subject matter with the keen need to explore the deep existential themes formed in 1940s-1950s France, by Camus and Sarte, during the early years of the American empire. Willimon is wants to courageously explore the dirty America, and tell the stories of genuinely dirty Americans, while also highlighting the flaws in the democratic system. To examine what Alexis de Tocqueville opined in Democracy In America as being a ‘tyranny of the majority’.
The Ends Are The Means: There Is No Try, Do or Undo
Chapter 1 opens by immediately setting both the show’s tone and the moral and ethical platform of its central character: Democratic Congressman and House Majority Whip Francis Underwood. Underwood tends to a wounded hound, hit by a car, on the road outside his personal Xanadu in an upscale part of Washington DC. Sending away his bodyguard for help, Frank snaps the suffering dog’s neck. Doing what is necessary, not because it is merciful but because it is practical. His job is to get things done, some times by undoing. This is a man who also understands that revenge and retribution are both a means to their own end. There is no separating politics from itself, and pinning on to it some naive and idealistic notions of ‘greater good’ and ‘national utility’. The political machine, particularly in the hive of scum and villainy that is Congress, is not just a trading ground for policy; it’s a Nietzschean Agora of optics.
The beauty of House of Cards, much like the two seasons of BOSS (the prematurely cancelled and masterfully crafted political teleplay on STARZ about mayoral politics in Chicago), is that it is a political show made for politic’s sake. The ends are political, and so are the means. Politics is an etherial deity working through the characters in the show. Much like The Island was the real main character on NBC’s LOST, Politics is physically manifested as an island onto itself on Capitol Hill and the US Congress (the nominal ‘House of Cards’ itself) and thus serves as the show’s main character. That is to say, the politics of it serves both as backdrop and as the core narrative thrust. Everyone, even Frank (though he’d be hard-pressed to admit it), is a pawn of the grande ‘national experiment’, an idea that itself is a metaphysical construct in a purely political universe.
Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?
Watching HOC, I begin to ponder whether the dark anti-hero that we love to hate and hate to love is becoming passé. Have writers worn this template out of the realm of novelty and into the garbage dump of cliché? Everybody’s an anti-hero now, wading in cesspools of grey. Here we go again, right? Maybe. To be fair, Frank Underwood as a character is just a sign of his times.
I think back to the Clinton 90s, when TV was dominated by Aaron Sorkin, Aaron Spelling and David E. Kelley, who created and wrote shows about good people, stumbling through life, out to do good things and right wrongs in a shitty world. Then 9/11 and Bush Jr.’s regime of idiocraty. It was then that America truly came face to face with the horrifying truth about itself: not only had it been lied to for a long time, those who lied did so with extreme purpose and commitment. There was both design and thorough execution to catastrophe after catastrophe. Suddenly Americans realized that they too must shake off the dust of their creature comforts and regain that sense of purpose and commitment that catalyzed them to act only a generation or two ago. Especailly if they were never to fall for the same tragic lie again. This inward resolution required a lot of introspection. Can good people achieve resoluteness without going some place dark? Maybe in order to regain some dignity, in a vast maze of indignity, one must break bad in order to find a way out of the other end sane and in one piece. With that ponderance, a sea-change of writing styles emerged in narrative fiction. Stories, especially on television, broke bleak, became incredibly more layered and so did their lead characters.
Has that time passed? Has four years of Obama rendered us back into the consumption happy Clintonian malaise? Emphatically, I’d say no. In fact, the Obama years have made the questions even harder to answer about what kind of morally ambiguous purpose and commitment a society requires to ‘get things done’ in Washington — or anywhere else for that matter. Obama isn’t lying to Americans like Bush did. He’s telling the world straight up, “we will use our drones against America’s enemies, even if they are American”. Constitution be damned. We will not go galavanting about the globe starting new wars, we’ll bring our boys home and fight smart ones that cost less money. Television and film have taken the same route: out with the schmaltz and Spielbergian manipulation, and in with the Fincheristic truth serum: we’re going to fuck with your head and tell you all about it too.
Bleak, broken and disturbed people became lead characters and the good, trusting and idealistic were merely casualties in their wake. In the post-9/11 world, good people became TV villains who could, with their smarmy hope for the best, wipe out our plans. Tony Soprano. Walter White. Jack Bauer. Ben Linus. All characters who live and die in the bloody and murky belly of a Godless existence, if only the good and loving people who surrounded them would just get out of their way and let them do what’s necessary, so everyone else can go spend the day at The Gap.
Chapter 1 of HOC, where we find Underwood passed over for his rightful place as Secretary of State, sets our chief protagonist on his central journey of retribution. A journey as old as humanity and storytelling itself. Not to right a wrong necessarily. Frank would differentiate being wronged from having his loyalty betrayed. The former is a moral stance, one which Frank doesn’t care to take, the latter is a practical one based in systemic hierarchies established at the birth of the Republic. No, moral stances would involve a desire for some sort of personal redemption, and I fully believe that what makes Frank a rare character and ultimately what makes him tick is that he begins his journey already redeemed. By the respect he demands, the power he yields, an assuredness of goals and a confidence in the empire he’s building. Purpose. Commitment. Execution. Rather, his journey of retribution requires obliterating the sanctimonious self-righteous of the neanderthals that surround him. If the powers at be don’t want to play by the set of broken rules they’ve all agreed can be broken at will (in exchange for a piece of the pie, of course), he will unbrake them while on a warpath of nihilistic revenge.
Underwood surrounds himself with supporting characters to achieve his ends, and these tools, with their own complexities and desires, are ends themselves. The ability to manipulate, cajole and destroy these people is the lever Frank uses to orchestrate his retribution. Everyone from his loving wife Claire, played gracefully by Robin Wright, a character who hasn’t yet hit her stride but provides both a hauntingly stern and loving foil to her husband. The greatest scenes are of the two sharing a cigarette and a glass of wine at their living room window, plotting and scheming together and always in the dark. She too is ambitious and is probably the only person or thing her husband truly loves. She also loves him, enough to let him use her and be used by her to manipulate elements in the way of their ascension. It is a symbiotic relationship, one molded in dependency and the mutually exclusive desire to attain more power, money and influence.
Or to an upstart young reporter at The Washington Herald, Zoe Barnes, played by Roony Mara’s brilliant sister Kate (who landed the role thanks in part to leverage applied on Fincher by her little sis). Zoe is one of the more fascinating supporting characters on the show, jumping into political (and literal?) bed with Underwood for what seems like professional or personal gain (it’s not clear yet where her motives really lie). This relationship is also symbiotic but in a slightly alternative way. The writers seem to be setting Zoe up as Underwood’s real true foil, a complicating (and lurid) love interest and simultaneously Underwood’s creation, ally and dangerous equal. Zoe might be the only person capable and willing to be just as dangerous and unrelenting as Frank is. Even if that means being a potential enemy; something he may or may not know yet. Although, Frank constantly reminds us that he always knows what’s happening in Washington, even when it doesn’t seem like he does.
Spacey gets to do what he does best: talk to us. He did it from beyond the grave in American Beauty and in a police precinct confessional in The Usual Suspects, and he’s doing it again here. The reason he does it so well is really because Spacey is a spawn of the theatre and bringing audiences in, or reaching out to them, seems to be in his thespian genes. He also has that Sinatrian flare for turning phrases and words in ways that give the simplest syllables different colours of emotion and meaning. Breaking the fourth wall and talking straight to us, we get to be passive participants as Underwood cleaves his way through the thick, muddy and disgustingly ineffectual congressional underbrush. His machete is an Education Reform Bill that he aims to get passed through congress by hook or by crook (mostly by crook). He could care less about education, of course, but this is the newly elected President’s chief campaign promise and by being the main power broker behind the bill, he can position himself to make or break the presidency. Guess which one he’ll choose? Through Frank, and the education bill, we’re introduced to a government that is paralyzed, waist deep in its own molasses and irrecoverably self-interested. There’s just way too much money at stake to let votes fall to the wayside in the name of idealism. The nation and the health of its citizenry is itself a mere afterthought. Don’t let your naivete hit you on the way out of Frank’s Congressional office.
Yes sure, politicians lie, Old White men lust for power, spouses scheme and betray, careers are destroyed, money corrupts and the young and ambitious plot. On the surface none of this seems new or fresh, but its in the execution where HOC breaks new ground. Fincher and Spacey take subject matter that we’ve seen before and infuse their stark pedigree into it, greasing its wheels and making it immensely watchable and thoughtful. Through technique, a sense of pride and evidentily a lot of fun. Thats another thing, the story plays out in ways that allow its non-passive participants to enjoy themselves. Spacey, Wright, Mara and Fincher are clearly having the time of their lives. So are we, especially in the moments of painful nuance, where the show is its most revelatory. Of course! No wonder America is in the shits! No wonder the economy is tanking! It’s no damn conspiracy of shadow governments and powerful bankers! It doesn’t need to be. It’s happening right here before our eyes. All you have to do is listen to the waterfall of terrible on CNN (the Honey Boo Boo of broadcast news) or, if you can stomach it, sleepwalk through the raw, unfiltered, grainy security camera footage of genuine political reality TV on CSPAN.
The core idea is that it doesn’t matter who the President is — it really doesn’t. That is not only HOC‘s groundbreaking revelation, it’s also the illumination on the first term of an Obama presidency that has many naive liberals scratching their heads. While ‘Change’ did come in the form of a sensitive, intellectual, cool-under-pressure African-American President who Americans could be proud of again, the rickety political system itself wasn’t about to fall in line. It’s not like the movies folks. The President doesn’t just walk into Washington’s stale institutions, shout orders and make the ouchies go away. At least, not outside the White House he doesn’t. This was hinted at in simple terms by Harry Truman who once said of incoming president Dwight Eisenhower “Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
HOC lifts the rug, and unleashes the cockroaches (or Donkeys and Elephants, whichever you like) that scurry about in Congress clogging pipes only they know exist and unplugging them when it is politically or financially expedient. A den of machiavellian plumbers, dressed to the nines and overcharging for shoddy workmanship. Therein lies another point about HOC: it’s about politics but remains largely apolitical. It resists the pulpit style, ‘with us or against us’ ideological squawking of Sorkin’s Newsroom (though I am guilty as charged, I love that show). In HOC, much like in reality, Democrats look, sound and act a lot like Republicans and vice versa — it’s all the same hail storm. What the public sees however, is the manipulated little puppet show we’ve always intuitively known it was. It’s like WWF, in the ring pretending to smash one another to smithereens, following a dramatic script pitting good against evil. Slip backstage and you’ll find professed enemies having beers and a night out before getting on the bus to the next hick town, where they will curry more favour with the plebeian masses.
We Want Frank On That Wall
Spaceys character has been compared to Richard III, though I would argue he’s more a cross between Citizen Kane and Captain Ahab (more on that later). Histrionic comparisons aside, Underwood actually shares more thematic DNA with Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep in 1992’s A Few Good Men, written by, who else, Aaron Sorkin. We’ve come full circle haven’t we? In the climax to that great but now dated film, dated because it plays too sentimental in a post-War On Terror era, Jessep tells Tom Cruise’s idealistic prosecutor (in the now famous “you need me on that wall” speech) that men like the Colonel were society’s convenient and dirty little secret. That deep down society knew they wanted and needed men like Jessep out in the field, doing what they couldn’t imagine doing themselves, all so that the order can be kept and the mighty American fallacy could live on. The men who remote the drones, the bureaucrats who clog up voting lines and rig elections, the intelligence officials who order men to be tortured. That courthouse scene is mirrored, thematically, in the Chapter 1 open between Underwood and the wounded pup. Underwood knows that he is necessary, that he is needed and that he must do what others will not. But unlike Jessep, Underwood doesn’t seem to have a sense of the moral high ground. He’s in it for the kicks. Watch his opponents and congress burn for shits and giggles. If Heath Ledger played a congressional version of The Joker, he might look a little like Frank Underwood. They could even swap suspenders. Morbidly and alarmingly, that might be why he’s so damn compelling to watch and sympathize with.
If A Few Good Men were made today, Aaron Sorkin wouldn’t be writing it and Jessep would be the main character and the ending much less a rousing sentimental resolution and more a hammer to the balls. And unlike the great but schlockful world of 1990s TV and Film, we exist now in a time where House of Cards declares openly, by breaking the fourth wall and letting us in on the deep dark secrets we’ve suspected all along, that not only do we demand the dark truths about the world, Colonel Jessep, we can handle it.