:: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 ::
House of Cards: An American "Macbeth"
Posted by Edward Cline at 4:25 PM
tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost
always bad men.
– Lord Acton
to Bishop Creighton, 1887
"Frank" Underwood is absolutely corrupted, and isn't a "great
man," except perhaps in the eyes of lesser
men, no less corrupted but out-maneuvered by Underwood in the
give-and-take-and-extortion business of Washington D.C. They pay him the
respect and deference he expects of them, because they lost to him in the
ruthless, cannibalistic pursuit of power that makes the slaughter of the French
knights at Agincourt look like a Kennedy clan game of touch football. That comparison
is of Kenneth Branagh's
1989 version of Henry V, not the
is Frank (or Francis) Underwood? He is the leading protagonist of Netflix's
feature televised series, "House
of Cards," which debuted earlier this month. Frank Underwood is the
majority whip in the House of Representatives, shilling for handouts and
preferential treatment for his South Carolina district. A protagonist is a
leading character in a story who moves the story along by his actions. He could
be a hero or a villain. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a villain. Throughout
the series, he makes no apology for it. Quite the opposite. He boasts of it.
"House of Cards," there are no heroes. Only villains of various
shades of villainy, from gray to the blackest of blacks, fulfilling politically
correct requisites on diversity, covering all the affirmative action mandates
in gender, race, ethnic origin, and religion. "House of Cards" is an
equal opportunity employer in its portrayal of corruption. In that respect, the
series is very realistic, a reflection of "the way things are," in
the spirit of droll naturalism.
is even more cynical than the 1962 film version of
Allen Drury's Advise and Consent,
which portrays the sordid lengths to which politicians will go to defeat a
nominee for Secretary of State (played by Henry Fonda as Robert Leffingwell, a
left-winger proposing a treaty with the Soviets), in which the villains are
"right-wingers" who find dirt on a Senator whose confirmation vote is
of Cards" is an American knock-off of a hit British
BBC trilogy that ran between 1990 and 1995. It is the title of the first of
that series, followed after critical acclaim and popular demand by "To
Play the King" and "The Final Cut." It follows the general plot line of the
British trilogy, adapted for American audiences and issues. Season One of
"House of Cards," in thirteen episodes, follows that plot line so
closely, even in numerous scenes, that it's as though Spacey, his co-producers,
writers, and directors laid a blank transparency over the trilogy and used a
Magic Marker to write in where things should be changed, tweaked, and wrinkled.
spoilers follow, so, legit cavete.
of Cards" is one of the most educational TV series to come along in a long
time, posing as fiction, yet still instructive about how much of a giant whorehouse
Washington D.C. is, not only in its politics, but in journalism and personal
ethics. As knock-offs go, it's very well done, although Spacey frequently interrupts
scenes and conversations with Shakespearean "asides" to the viewers. Underwood is a perfect name of what you would find beneath rotted wood, maggots,
so I don't think the name is accidental. Likely, neither is the name of his
chief aide, Doug Stamper, played by Michael Kelly (the surname is a leftover
from the British series). Stamper puts out fires and crises with extortion and
blackmail by prospecting for and cultivating dirt on Underwood's enemies, with
a little bribery on the side.
the beginning of the series, Underwood plots to regain his nomination as
Secretary of State, after a newly elected president, a very hollow man, reneges
on his promise to nominate Underwood, and nominates someone else. Underwood
contrives to get the new nominee withdrawn and a Hillary Clinton clone substituted,
and then he's off and running to fresh new conspiracies.
all the villains are Democrats. No Republican has put in an appearance yet,
although that might change in Season Two. Republicans are mentioned as the
opposition, although, to tell the truth, and to judge by the behavior and
record of the Republicans, the series could just as well be a portrayal of their political means and ends. Look how
they keep an arm's length from the Tea Party and seasoned politicians (e.g.,
Allen West) who hold Tea Party convictions. Not to mention their flip-flopping
on issues such as the budget, military spending, and immigration.
story is compelling because it realistically portrays the sprawling Washington whorehouse.
The most pathetic character is the vice
president, based vaguely on Vice President Joe Biden, whose biggest complaint
was that the president didn't give him one of the pens used to sign an
education bill, engineered by Spacey, souvenir pens given to Spacey and a
couple of kids in a scene reminiscent of Obama signing an executive order for
gun control or Obamacare.
the sleaze dramatized in "House of Cards" is so well done you half expect
it to leave crud or mold on your screen.
British series debuted on the expiration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's
tenure. It's claimed that it helped to secure John Major the election, because
"House of Cards" was broadcast days before an election. Based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, Major said of it
that it had done for his triumph "what Dracula did for baby-sitting."
The British series was meant to repudiate the Tories
and conservatism, because Francis Urqhart (played with bone-chilling
correctness by Ian Richardson), the protagonist and aside-maker of that series,
is a Tory Conservative more coldly ruthless and amoral than is Underwood in his
smug, cynical, and contemptuous rancidness.
one must wonder what else could be the intention of the American version but to
repudiate the Democrats.
difference here is that Underwood is a Democrat who is manipulating people and
things to expand or preserve government controls in education, development, the
environment, and so on, not because he sincerely believes in or values these
things, but because they're stepping stones to power. His wife, Claire, runs her
of charity, CWI, which caters to the poor in Africa and is always politicking
for donor support. Her campaign for money becomes enmeshed in Underwood's
Actress Robin Wright, who plays Claire, remarked that the character is
"Lady Macbeth to
Underwood's Macbeth." As a couple who tolerate each other's infidelities,
and who regard their marriage as a kind of non-aggression pact and alliance in
pursuit of power, they reminded me most of Bill and Hillary Clinton. For all I
know, Frank and Claire Underwood were
modeled on the Clintons, another Macbethian couple. There's nothing in the
story that indicates otherwise. (Except that Robin Wright's Claire is a
knock-out and less of a windbag than is Hillary.)
even features a doppelganger of the British female journalist who's angling for
power and gets herself in cahoots with Underwood. Zoe Barnes is a pushy,
ambitious, obnoxious little vixen who also becomes Underwood's sharp-tongued
mistress. In the first of the British series, the journalist, Mattie, a
possible thorn in Urqhart's side, is murdered by him when he throws her off the
roof garden of Parliament, even though she professes her love for him and tries
to reassure him of her loyalty.
Season Two has in store for Zoe Barnes remains to be seen. Underwood has personally murdered a
conflicted Representative, Peter Russo of Pennsylvania, who was a loose cannon
in Spacey's plans. He murders him as coldly as he killed an injured dog in the
first episode, ostensively to put it out of its misery, but also because he seems
to enjoy killing as an expression of his power. As with a character from the
British series, Russo's drug and drinking problems become a threat to
Underwood. Season One's last episode has Zoe Barnes suddenly realizing that Spacey
and his Stamper fixer-aide might have been behind a lot of the nasty stuff.
this point, I think the American version of HOC will do to the Democrats what it's
alleged the British series did to the Tories. To date, all the protagonists in
it are progressive Democrats pushing welfare state, environmental, and fascist
economic programs (business/government development partnerships). And they're
all pragmatic, compromising, malleable villains, if not conspirators against
the president or other politicos.
is how American TV series and movies usually smear the Republicans or anyone
else who opposes the Democratic agenda or Progressivism. Since 9/11, Hollywood
has churned out over a dozen anti-American movies. Usually the uncaring, cruel,
and nasty villains are Republicans. So, if Season Two of the series continues
(it's "in development"), and remains an adumbrated replicant of the
British series, the Democrats will be painted in blacker terms than anyone
could ever have imagined. No "right-wing" weblog or newspaper or
magazine could do a more thorough job of it than has "House of
unless the series departs from the British model, there is a question of how another
thirteen episodes of it can be stretched out to the climax. The British series
ends (in "The Final Cut") with a triumphant Urqhart riding to
Buckingham Palace as the new Prime Minister. He has forced the King to abdicate,
and has vanquished all his enemies, in the Party and out of it. And he doesn't
look in the least troubled by his crimes, which were committed wholesale.
as a prediction, it's likely that Frank Underwood will manipulate his way the
White House at the end of the American version. He is a consummate manipulator
and string-puller. Please excuse the speculation. It can't be helped. Democrats
are like that. Look at President Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. Their
political and personal careers could be dramatized just as well as Frank
Underwood's, with the focus on the darker chapters of their rise to power.
Which means everything about them.
only "anti-capitalist" elements in the American version are Claire
Underwood's foundation, "Clean Water Initiative (CWI), a billionaire who somehow
owns a lot of nuclear power plants, and some natural gas conglomerate, the
latter two entities intimately tied to the president and to the plot and the
competition for government favors. But I suppose that if you were going to
indict the Democrats, you would need a couple of "private" interests
lobbying for those favors (a la Orren Boyle's Associated Steel Company
in Atlas Shrugged). The Republicans
could also be indicted for the same practice. But in Spacey's "House of
Cards," all stops are pulled and the indictment is merciless.
if the series does take a noticeable turn away from the British model,
it could only mean that the producers were lectured to or warned by the White
House and the DNC and other parties to "cool it," and find some other
villains to pick on.
have never liked Kevin Spacey as an actor. In his past hits, such as American Beauty (1999) and L.A. Confidential (1997), his cynical,
sneering mien was less developed but no less repellant than it is in
"House of Cards." It never goes away, just as the malevolent
masculinity of Robert Mitchum never left him even when he played good guys (and
he perfected that attribute as the menacing, nihilist villain Max Cady in Cape Fear, 1962). But, here is the
paradox: Spacey is a Hollywood liberal. He is a close friend of Bill Clinton,
once calling him "one of the shining lights of the political
process." He is friends with Hugo Chavez, the Marxist Venezuelan dictator.
According to Wikipedia, he has contributed over $42,000 to Democratic
candidates and committees.
why has he produced a series that damns the Democrats, and, by implication, the
Progressive agenda to turn the U.S. into a welfare state and the government
into a "soft" fascist régime? If Netflix is right and the series
becomes a hit, the Democrats may become a permanent dart board for anyone who
doubts the propriety of the "democratic" (read "populist"
or "statist") process. In 2010, Spacey said that broadcasters should
carry "legitimate" political ads
for free during election periods. Who would decide which ads are
"legitimate" and which or not, he does not say. We already have a
Federal Election Committee that does that. Spacey was asked by Wolf Blitzer
about his predilection for political movies:
Emmy award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, star of the new film Casino Jack, says he blames television
networks “to some degree” for lobbyist influence on the political process. He
says television networks should run legitimate political ads "for
free" as a public service.
“Well, I think you have to separate the idea of that what lobbyists can do
is be an informational conduit for Congressman and Senators to understand
specific bills and specific issues in other countries but at the same time, I
think that there is no doubt that the amount of influence and power and money
dampens the political process. I think it discourages people from public
office,” he told CNSNews.com at the E Street Cinema before the Washington
screening of the film sponsored by the Creative Coalition.
a Hollywood Reporter interview, he said:
lobbying industry and what it has done in terms of Washington politics, and Casino Jack (and Recount about the Gore-Bush issue in the Florida vote count of
2000)…I'm very driven by the opportunity to examine current situations and
current things happening in the world…. I think these are very important
subjects for us to understand and see how we got where we are and if we can
make it better than it is…."
Interviewer: "And reality is almost as outrageous as
art, you can't even make this stuff up half the time."
Spacey: "You're right. I would go back to the
hotel in Baltimore where we were shooting the first season, and I'd watch the
news at night, this last election cycle… and I'd think, our story lines are not
as a fox? Or just plain crazy? We won't know the answer to this paradox until
Season Two of "House of Cards" is aired (or live-streamed on
computers). After all, Spacey, Fincher and the scriptwriters could have easily
remained more faithful to the purpose of the British version, which was to
repudiate Thatcher and her policies, and instead targeted the Republicans for
political and dramatic excoriation. It wouldn't have taken much in the script
or in the characterizations.
Spacey is accusing the lobbying industry of being venal, conspiratorial, and
corrupting, he should know that it takes two to tango. If Congressmen and
Cabinet heads and bureaucrats weren't so venal, conspiratorial, and
corruptible, he would have no complaint.
could go back to the live stage and give Ian Richardson a run for his money in Macbeth or Richard the Third.
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