There is no question that Othello’s antihero is Iago, but is Iago also the protagonist or is that role, instead, filled by the ill-fated Moor? In his play, Richard III, the protagonist is the evil would be king and the antagonist is anyone who threatens his claim to the crown. Villains as heroes.These qualities are what makes up the genius that resides in the Bard’s tragic plays. Those questions of ambition are what altered the medium for all time. Even Hamlet, in his quest for revenge, becomes a force of destruction to all of those around him. A righteous cause reaps a horrible fate.
The BBC series, House of Cards, was adapted to television from a book written by Michael Dobbs courtesy of Andrew Davies. When Francis Urquart, the Chief Whip of the British Conservative Party, played by Ian Richardson, gets passed on a promotion after the end of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister, he goes on a tear to make them all pay. Utilizing the broken “fourth wall” theater law, Francis destroys lives and careers with an amoral detachment, his sneering false self-deprecation foreshadowing the awful consequences of finding oneself on his bad side. The character was modeled after Shakespeare’s Richard III. When the show landed stateside, the two teamed up with David Fincher (Se7en, Benjamin Button, The Social Network, Fight Club) and adapted the show for American audiences centered around the intrigues of D.C.
Frank Underwood…where do I start? This may be Kevin Spacey’s finest performance. The show doesn’t just defy the way the modern world consumes art, launched as the maiden original of the Netflix brand, it is a truly career defining work. Spacey embodies the moral bankrupt and predatorily ambitious U.S. State Representative and House majority whip Francis “Frank” J. Underwood. In the same way as his classic archetype Iago can in one moment be endearing and trustworthy, so does Frank maneuver the halls of power, never forgetting a betrayal, never forgetting a misstep. He has the killer instinct of a shark.
In one scene with his equally ambitious wife, Claire Underwood, sublimely acted by Robin Wright, as she exits the room Frank looks directly into the camera and says, “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”
These people are villains who will stop at nothing to achieve their own ends. The Underwoods live in a Machiavellian vacuum. Even when they aren’t on the same page, in the same bed, or cashing in the same favors, they are still on the same team.
I end up thinking half of the time, well why not? Of course, if people are going to offer themselves up with all of their hubris and reckless behavior, why wouldn’t the Underwoods capitalize on the mistakes of others to achieve their own ends? This is America. Capitalism is what drives the machine. Commodity comes in the form of favors and blackmail. It’s corrupt but if it works…and we are talking about the halls of power in Washington, D.C., where everyone would step over a corpse to get a breadcrumb. If everyone is doing it, why not the Underwoods too? Maybe Frank just does it better than everyone else.
This new incarnation of House of Cards sticks very close to the original formula that the BBC miniseries established, right down to the dewy-eyed journalist who falls into the cross-hairs of the Underwoods upwardly mobile scheming and the self-destructive “boy from nowhere” Roger O’Neil in the original BBC series (Peter Russo in the American adaptation). They are hometown fellas made good but haunted by addictions in the face of their ambition. The taste of power and their own habits become the rope they hang themselves on. Frank holds the end of said rope.
I watched the whole series with the same addictive compulsion of a fiend. Three days, twelve episodes, non-stop. It’s that good. When you are immersed in Frank’s internal logic, you start thinking his methods are almost acceptable. If it’s the shark tank he lives in, why not be the meanest and most sinister shark to circle prey since Jaws?
Frank sits astride two worlds. One is a reflection of himself in a decrepit neighborhood devouring a plate of ribs a boy from South Carolina can’t live without. The scenes where Frank is eating at Freddy’s Barbecue may be the only time we get to see the authentic human at the center of the layered anti-hero. People have to eat after all. The grime and the poverty are second skin to Frank, a man born to a hard life of toil and risen to exalted ivory towers. He goes to work chipping away at the polished halls of marble and the quiet rooms of the highest powers in the land. Frank knows he doesn’t belong, but he doesn’t give a damn. He will take what he wants and destroy anyone who gets in his way. Or die trying. He pursues power with a rabid fixation.
Claire appreciates his single-minded mode. She, a statuesque and gorgeously blonde ice queen, seems haunted by her choices. She waffles and vacillates but ultimately makes the decisions that drive the machine of she and Frank’s destiny. In a particularly disturbing scene, her former body guard lies prostrate with terminal cancer. His time is short. “I hate your husband.” He says. Then he proceeds to confess his love to Claire. She slips her hand under his bed sheets and proceeds to stimulate this poor dying married man, all the while recounting why she chose Frank. “Do you know what he said when he proposed?” she says, as her hand works under the covers. “He said you will never be bored.” Frank slipped the ring on her finger because he knew she would say yes. Claire explains to Steve, his desperate eyes panic-stricken and his head shaking on the pillow, “Frank is the only man who has ever understood me.” Then she leaves the man who protected her for eight years to die in his bed.
“We should pay for the funeral,” she later says to Frank, in passing. Is it evil? Steve was, after all, lusting after his boss’s wife for eight years. Who can say but that Claire made her choice. She follows a whim from time to time but always comes back to the seat of power.
In this way the female characters are much more multifaceted than the BBC series original. Instead of being an adjunct of Franks’s ambition, Claire has ambitions that live outside of her husband’s. And they sometimes conflict. Does it stop her? Not a chance. Frank has his work cut out for him.
The American series exists in the modern age. Elements of truth lurk around every corner, from the Vice President, to the intrigues that destroy political careers. It’s all there. We see it play out in real-time on the news machines that grease the dialogue of the powers that be. We hear it all in sound bites. In a climate of perpetual deception, where one word taken the wrong way can topple reputations built over decades, who are the three-dimensional counterparts to characters like Frank and Claire Underwood? And how do we, the constituency and the journalist that strive to tell the stories, know when we are looking right at them?
It’s been said that truth is stranger than fiction, and when I watch House of Cards I say a silent prayer that in this case, the old trope has to be wrong. The idea that well-dressed psychopaths pull the puppet strings of absolute power is chilling and beyond unnerving. But catching the train to House of Cards’ world of intrigue, danger, and murder is priority one in my list of what to watch in the coming months.
I give House of Cards a 9.5 out of 10. Not only is Netflix reshaping the way we access well developed ideas that are given the full benefit of a long running time, House of Cards is the sort of political thriller that even a layperson can get sucked into. Just leave your conspiracy theories at the door. You don’t want to end up in a trailer, typing incendiary blog posts, and catching the eye of a D.C. opportunist. It doesn’t end well, if the show is any indicator.