Stepping out of the darkness, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, introduces himself to the audience. “There are two kinds of pain,” he begins, cradling the head of a whimpering dog injured in a hit-and-run, “pain that makes you strong or useless pain.” Brusquely, he tilts the dog’s head to one side and rotates. “I have no patience for useless things,” he comments as he snaps the dog’s neck.
House of Cards, Netflix’s $100 million project and the brainchild of Beau Willimon and David Fincher, invites viewers in for a ride in the ruthlessly ambitious mind of a South Carolina congressman. Underwood, who specializes in the backroom politics of Capitol Hill, is the epitome of Cards’ central duality. He exemplifies the nuanced view of politics Fincher’s work presents: a heavy dose of contemporary cynicism dulled by a steady stream of age-old idealism. Painted as both the most corrupt and the most powerful man in Washington, Underwood is simultaneously the immoral bureaucrat of today and the commanding congressman of yesteryear.
Underwood is the point man for Fincher’s Washington critique. Although much of the show’s initial publicity was directed towards the ways that Netflix altered the consumer experience—automatically shortening credits and optimizing episode times to fit trends in its consumer viewing database—the show itself also demonstrates a careful attention to public opinion. Choosing salient political topics as episode fodder (education and environmental policy frame two of the show’s large story arcs), Cards plays directly into contemporary political cynicism. Fincher’s illustration of Washington satisfies every pessimistic vision held by Washington outsiders, sparing no prey in his caustic portrayal of journalists, lobbyists, executives, and even the military.
The Ends Justify the Means
Underwood’s blatant exploitation of both family and friend to reach the top dominates the series’ plot, but the objects of Frank’s wrath are often Fincher’s most frequent targets. The congressman manipulates media coverage through Kate Mara’s Zoe Barnes, a redheaded fireball of ambition whose curt language and je m’en fiche attitude make her the show’s most compelling character. Barnes’ raw lust for prestige jumps off the screen as Mara perfectly balances the professional and edgy aspects of Zoe’s character. Underwood uses Barnes as a media microphone to leak valuable stories; through her, he pens articles that torpedo a secretary of state nomination and release valuable White House documents.
Barnes is the focal point of the show’s derogatory treatment of the news media. Working at the Washington Herald, Barnes’ breaking news stories are treated with suspicion by her coworkers and managing editor. The White House correspondent, Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer), cavalierly asks her whom she seduced to get her scoops—pre-empting a later conversation at indie publication Slugline where Skorsky tacitly asserts that a female journalist who doesn’t exploit her body for stories isn’t doing her job correctly. Barnes, who had been maintaining a sexual relationship with Frank that his wife Claire (Robin Wright) was perfectly aware of, reflects on this conversation and discontinues her dalliance with Underwood, who immediately cuts her off from breaking news. The harsh message about female journalists resonates loudly, but Fincher isn’t done. Zoe’s next hookup? Her former colleague at the Herald, a news reporter she exploits in her new quest to unearth the truth behind a dead congressman.
That dead congressman is Pennsylvanian Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a youthful representative who lives with little regard for those around him. Coming up from working-class South Philadelphia, Russo’s drive to Capitol Hill should be a redemption story. Instead, Fincher conveys Russo’s identity through his addictions to alcohol and cocaine. Caught driving while intoxicated with an escort, Russo is backed into a corner when Underwood pulls up, absolving him of all legal harm at a steep price: a debt to Frank. The debt to Underwood traumatizes Russo throughout the series. While Frank convinces him to get clean by dragging him into myriad political no-win situations, the former alcoholic is forced to swap political integrity for its personal counterpart.
Not only do Russo’s struggles with alcoholism and substance abuse fit into larger suspicions about the morality of elected officials, the way he prioritizes individual goals over his constituency matches contemporary political cynicism. His tragic ending, with the tantalizing twosome of alcohol and ample cleavage ruining the six months of sobriety he built up while running for office, preys on common conceptions about the immorality of politicians.
In an age when satisfaction with the legislators of Capitol Hill is at an all-time low, Cards taps into a reservoir of resentment in its spare-no-prisoners treatment of politics. Claire Underwood’s management of a nonprofit involves about as much emotion as her husband’s management of the country. She begins by firing half of her staff; later, at the expense of torpedoing her husband’s prized energy bill, she accepts money from a company specializing in oil production to fund projects overseas. Her noble intentions are tainted with the unmistakable stain of corruption. Much like every other character in the show, her morals are contingent on her goals and ambitions—she unscrupulously sacrifices integrity in her means to achieve the desired ends.
Claire is not Zoe, in whom Fincher exploits the inconsistency between puerile features and her aggressive and cavalier sexual presence in emotionally unsettling ways. However, Claire’s apathy as she makes her husband into a cuckold while simultaneously maintaining a detachment from her new lover is downright eerie. Her intimacy with Frank resembles more of a business partnership than a marriage; their union is predicated on mutual support and romantically falls apart when business interests conflict. Employing a cynical view of Washington that extends to the bedroom, Cards gives no room for love in sex, only a predominating thirst for power. Here, Frank quotes Oscar Wilde, “everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Desires for power drive sexual relationships and even the sanctity of marriage is a tryst broken in Fincher’s consummate cynical portrayal of Washington.
An Archaic Conception
For all of its political criticisms, Cards simultaneously harkens back to a forgotten ideal about the America political realm. Although the show preys upon the immoral conceptions Americans hold about Congress, it offers a tacit reassurance of the predominant worry about politicians; namely, that is, Fincher’s characters get things done.
Like the legislators of yore, Underwood is brutal but undeniably effective. Viewed through one lens, the congressman cleverly uses the death of an impoverished schoolchild for political gain, forcing the hand of his union boss opponent. Seen through another, the plea is another ruthless Washington power play. Frank’s tactics are of dubious morality but highly effective. A no-nonsense former militiaman from the South, Underwood presents a brusque tone and aggressive rhetoric that conjure up images of legislative titans like Lyndon Johnson and John C. Calhoun. His syrupy Southern drawl is at odds with his menacing attitude and creates a persona seemingly in tension with itself but also self-serving in his single-minded pursuit.
Frank’s persona reflects the dominant overtone of the series: the quest for power. It manifests itself in Zoe’s endless pursuit of the story and Claire’s emotionless abuse of both her husband and her own employees to further her own ambitions. It manifests itself in Russo’s dogged quest for the governorship and the almost-tangible hunger of Underwood’s ambition. Referenced ceaselessly in his monologues to the audience, Underwood’s preference for power over fame and fortune dominates his personality. In the series’ penultimate episode, locked into war with a billionaire as he is vetted for the vice presidency, Frank makes a haughty comment about his opponent—noting that his wealth is more important as a measure of power than material well-being.
A Reassuring Discomfort
In this way, Cards skirts a tenuous line. At the same time that it fulfills the audience’s skepticisms about politics, it aims to satisfy idealistic beliefs about what politicians can truly be. House of Cards specializes in providing us a moribund version of what we, at our core, want to see. Although Fincher satisfies every deep fear we have about politics in a reassuringly horrific sense, the director assuages our concerns with strong central characters conjuring up utopic ideas of past politicians. Immorality and the thirst for power in Washington may be the dominant themes of Cards, but Spacey’s captivating and dominating Underwood is not long behind. In more ways than one, Netflix tailored the show to the psyches of an American conscious deeply suspicious of politics, simultaneously exploiting our fears while providing a light at the end of the tunnel.