House of Cards, Politics, Power

(WARNING! SERIOUS HOUSE OF CARDS SPOILERS AHEAD. Do not read past this point until you finish Season Three which, seriously, you should have done already. Do I need to call Doug?)

We will now interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to share the following message from our corporate sponsor, Netflix.


You are entitled to nothing. Not social security, not transparency, not a single one of the things Frank Underwood has ever promised.

But you’re going to like it.

House of Cards creator Beau Willimont has no interest in creating a fable. In an interview with Vulture, he says of his process, “We approach stories through character, and all of them have different worldviews. The world itself is neither moral or amoral. The world is the world.” This show deals in pure power, ruthless ambition, greed, and destruction. To view the House of Cards universe under a moral lens is to deeply misunderstand the vision of its creator.

So where does that leave us, in the context of the real world? Is House of Cards a fantasy? Are we so fatigued by gridlock and inefficiency in Washington that we’re happy to imagine a world where presidents drive bulldozers over the Capitol in the name of tangible action? Is House of Cards just Game of Thrones with different costumes?

The show works on so many levels partly because of Americans’ deep cynicism towards Washington. We know our politicians are corrupt. We know they lie to their constituents and cheat on their spouses and compromise their values. We know our presidents kill, yet we’ll watch the State of the Union address and eat up President Obama’s words. Or at least want to. People believe in the president not because they think he always does the right, just, or legal thing but because they believe, deep down, that the ends justify the means. We’re more Machiavellian than we would like to admit. And House of Cards, for all its unrealistic plot twists and ham-fistedness, has hit hard on simple truths. But the show would be too simple (and too obvious) if social or political criticism was truly at its heart.

After all, the show takes an ultimately ambivalent stance on most of its political themes. Are women empowered in House of Cards? Sure, but they’re also the tools of the men they work for (Jackie), or being killed off once they become inconvenient (Zoe and Rachel), or using sex as a weapon (everyone). Are race, gender and sexual orientation discussed? Tangentially. Rachel and Frank’s fluid sexualities are footnotes in their respective stories, and the points the show makes about Russia’s homophobic laws are less about social criticism than they are about underscoring Putin Petrov’s willingness to wreak havoc on people’s lives if it means not showing weakness.

House of Cards is a show about politics but it is not an essentially political show. At its core, House of Cards is about characters, and the character’s actions therefore reveal much more than any moral or political stance the show appears to take.

It is telling that Claire Underwood begins to crack only after queer-rights activist Michael Corrigan commits suicide in a cell they are sharing, as she sleeps less than five feet away. He hangs himself with her scarf. For the first time, Claire can’t minimize her role in the suffering of another person, as she likely could when Frank murdered Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo. She cracks, letting a carefully orchestrated and near-miraculous plan for peace in the Jordan Valley fall apart in a fit of passion.

The House of Cards universe does not reward sudden turns towards good.

After all, Claire’s bout of morality is nothing if not self-serving. Like I said, Corrigan is not the first casualty in the Underwoods’ war for power, and Claire is reacting more to the visceral feeling of seeing a corpse than to the spiritual or moral realization that she was wrong. She doesn’t understand Corrigan, his unwillingness to be pragmatic, his fierce attachment to his values.

The show does something tricky in the second half of Season Three as the Underwood marriage begins to unravel – Claire can no longer justify her actions to herself, not because she has had a moral awakening but because the ends no longer justify her means. It’s not until Petrov demands Claire’s resignation (understanding the Underwoods’ complex power dynamics and knowing full well that this, more than failure to secure peace in the Jordan Valley, will be Frank’s undoing) that the marriage truly begins to fall apart. The only thing that is truly intolerable to Claire Underwood is being subordinate. For the entirety of the show, Claire has been as ruthless and unrelenting as her husband, thinking that she was building herself a place of power equivalent to his. Suddenly, that belief is taken away. She makes her exit.

She won’t be gone for long.

Claire and Frank could not exist outside of Washington. They have no real ideals. Claire easily gave up her charity work when it meant she and Frank could move up politically, and Frank has never fought for something other than himself.

The Underwoods are not exceptional figures in either Washington, real or imaginary. The most cutting commentary House of Cards makes might just be that Washington is the fertile ground upon which ruthlessness and blind ambition thrive.

Obviously there is more to discuss and I can’t wait another year to talk House of Cards again, so please leave comments/suggestions on what to do with my life until Season 4 drops.