After years of enduring Aaron Sorkin’s sanctimonious and insufferable fantasies of virtuous government do-gooders in shows and films like The West Wing and The American President, we finally have a show which goes behind the platitudes and gets closer to the true nature of political power. Even better, the main character is a Democrat and for once, we are presented with a show which destroys the veneer of self-righteous moral rectitude that has been so assiduously constructed around the cult of liberalism through years of Hollywood and media propaganda.
House of Cards is basically the inverse West Wing. It is a breath of fresh air for so many reasons, but mostly because it reveals how our relationship to power fuels every pathological tendency you can identify. The true conduit and amplifier of deceit, duplicity, vindictiveness, avarice, manipulation, spite, and violence is, for once, correctly identified. After a seemingly endless parade of films and shows which demonize capitalism and money as the source of evil in the world, HoC points the finger in the right direction by focusing on state power. HoC also reveals the political process as the zero-sum game that it is. All of the idiotic clichés that are routinely ascribed to capitalism (e.g. “dog eat dog”, “kill or be killed”) are more accurately represented as descriptions of life in government.
With a career that already has many iconic performances, Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Frank Underwood is easily among his finest. Frank Underwood is the ultimate Machiavellian antihero; the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives who describes himself as a plumber who “keeps the sludge moving”. When his bid for Secretary of State is rebuffed by the newly elected, charismatic president, Frank sets his sights on getting his due. He’s the guy who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but he’ll win because he already has you figured out and you’re drawn in by his wry smile and gentle southern drawl. You don’t know that he’s slipped the knife in your back until it’s too late.
In the opening scene of Season 1, Frank discovers an injured dog which belongs to his neighbors. He sees that the dog is suffering, but he takes it upon himself to kill the dog before reporting the incident to his neighbors. Why? Simply because it must be done. Frank is terrifying because his conscience is completely unclouded by doubt or fear. At the same time, you kind of admire him for his ruthlessness, his masterful manipulations and dispassionate sense of purpose. Frank is the perfect sociopath. He is always calculating the odds and he’s always two moves ahead.
Robin Wright’s icy performance as Claire Underwood is a perfect complement to the cunning sociopathy of Spacey’s Frank. With a set of dubious morals combined with a strangely believable devotion to her husband, the Underwoods are undoubtedly partially modeled after the Clintons. Claire is also the executive of the Clean Water Initiative and the subplots involving the CWI provide some refreshing commentary on the myriad ways that even the most seemingly altruistic endeavors make common cause with jackals of the state.
Kate Mara does a brilliant job as the narcissistic, fame seeking journalist, Zoe Barnes. Zoe strikes up a relationship with Frank which proves fruitful for her career at first, but discovers the real courage that one needs to have ethics and pursue the truth as a journalist. Zoe’s tale offers poignant editorial on the ascendancy of clickbait journalism, the way politicians use the media to manufacture public opinion, as well as the ways in which women use their sexual wiles to get what they want.
Corey Stoll turns in a great performance as the doomed representative from Pennsylvania, Pete Russo. Russo is an idealistic freshman from a working class district whose moral compass and sense of self-control are already compromised and only degenerate further once he arrives in Congress. His story is a vivid reminder that fallible humans who are bestowed with power which exempts them from moral judgment and isolates them from the consequences of their actions is something that should be avoided at all costs. It is simultaneously a cautionary tale of the seduction of state power as well as the price one pays when loyalty takes precedence over principles.
By far, the best aspect of the show is that it is an extended exploration of power and the ways that it pollutes, perverts and destroys every fiber of human decency in those who wield it or crave it. All too often, politicians point the finger at corporations and blame money as the sole force of corruption in politics, but they’re engaging in a game of misdirection. The political apparatus is inherently corrupt because it is inhabited by people who sell corruption in the first place! This show is honest about this fact. Frank says it best when he expresses his disappointment at a former assistant turned lobbyist:
Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.
HoC is blessedly free of the tiresome trend towards gender correctness and takes aim at the scurrilous nature of identity politics. With so many films and shows bending over backwards to kowtow to the Cult of Feminism by portraying the now obligatory Strong Female Character or the endless grating paeans to multiculturalism dutifully regurgitated by irritating social justice warriors, HoC commits the unspeakable transgression of portraying women and minorities as…FLAWED. I know! It’s hard to believe, but they went there.
The women make bad choices in men. They display insecurity, vindictiveness, and pettiness. The black and Latino characters aren’t just there to fill some checkbox of progressive virtue as prescribed by the Multicultural Politburo. They’re believable well-rounded characters with foibles and shortcomings.
The show fearlessly tackles the petty politics of character assassination that are all too commonplace nowadays. Nowadays, you don’t need an actual Star Chamber. Thanks to identity politics, you can crucify people in the court of opinion and ruin their lives in ways that are worse than any state sanctioned tribunal could ever do. Zoe Barnes uses her sexuality to gain access and influence with men, but is more than willing to play sexual politics to ruin the reputation of her employer after he calls her a cunt. Frank is more than willing to exploit his wife and lie about her emotional distress to discredit a labor attorney and win sympathy from the public in order to avoid getting destroyed in a televised debate.
The moment that’s perhaps most emblematic of the pernicious confluence of identity politics and character assassination is a funny scene in which Russo is deployed to visit a “libertarian drug fiend marinating in a trailer home” to get dirt on the character that was nominated for Secretary of State over Frank. Russo’s job was simply to ascertain whether Kern penned an article unsympathetic to Israel while in college. He didn’t, but it didn’t matter. The innuendo that proliferated through the mediasphere was enough. Kern’s nomination for Secretary of State was torpedoed, he got branded a racist and was consigned to oblivion anyway.
Simply put, House of Cards is a treasure trove of viewing pleasure. Premium channels have been a fertile ground for cutting-edge television in recent years, and kudos to Netflix for having the stones to put this out. This is a show for the ages. Highly recommended.