America remains a country fascinated by—and terrified of—power. We idolize and raise up sports and movie stars, yet dissect their every mistake ad nauseum. We rebelled against a king, but were all too comfortable with the apotheosis of George Washington. This tension is at the heart of the American psyche: power is abhorrent, repellent even to the average American. Yet it remains seductive all the same.
Enter Frank Underwood, the protagonist of Netflix’s House of Cards. He is a trumped up version of our moth-like attraction to power. Just as President Bartlett was Aaron Sorkin’s liberal response to the Bush years, Underwood is David Fincher’s (and Kevin Spacey’s) kneejerk reaction to the cynicism of politics today. Underwood uses people—up to and including his wife—without a qualm. He kills a friend. He destroys the political careers of friends, enemies, and people he hardly cares about, to advance a tenuous goal that only barely comes to fruition. He destroys the economic development of a region to make a point. He sobers up a functioning alcoholic, then uses that same weakness to destroy—and then end—his life. We, the viewer, hate this man. Yet we can’t look away.
We know, deep down, that sociopaths like this don’t exist in Washington. Or, at least we think we do. But then why does the image of a latter-day Richard III and Lady Macbeth languidly smoking cigarettes and plotting over a gloomy Washington appeal to us so much? That appeal is the point. We know it’s not real, but recognize enough reality to be seduced by the darkness. Fincher and Co. cast a familiar setting in an unfamiliar light and, in doing so, expose the deeply American fascination with—and fear of—power.
Recently, Netflix began its transition from streaming service to content provider with House of Cards, a full-length, hour-long television series starring luminaries like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. David Fincher’s masterfully directed first episode established the theme of the show superbly: Fincher’s Washington is dark and gloomy, laden with gauzy shadows. Netflix reportedly paid $100 million for the program. It shows. The show oozes prestige: Oscar nominees in the lead roles, with strong performances from established actors like Kate Mara (Shooter) and Corey Stoll (Hemingway in Midnight in Paris). In other words, Netflix hit a home run. So why has much of the critical response—especially from Washington political wonks—focused on the “realness” of the show? And does that even matter?
Frequent attacks against House of Cards centered on the manipulative politicians, the glamour of the journalists, and the ritzy non-profit run by Robin Wright’s character. Washington journalists, especially, zeroed in on these criticisms because they know the both worlds—political and media—so well.
Ezra Klein, wunderkind editor of Washington Post’s Wonkblog, made perhaps the most coherent political criticism in a February 17 Facebook post. House of Cards, argued Klein, props up the most pervasive Washington myth: that its politicians are “ceaselessly, ruthlessly, effectively scheming.” House of Cards does portray this myth quite consistently. We see a House Majority Whip conduct a season long scheme to become Vice President of the United States, rampaging roughshod over his own party’s Speaker and the White House Chief of Staff along the way. Lobbyists are frequently engaged like levers, openly and unscrupulously blocking or pushing through legislation at a Congressman’s whim. A Secretary of State nominee is adroitly and stealthily smeared in the press as a rival vaults over him for the nomination. Ezra nails it: politicians do not have the time or the information to be carrying out such long-term plots. They’re merely scrambling to keep up with the Joneses.
Ezra’s critique is both entirely correct and also wholly irrelevant. The show certainly misses out on the nuances of our political process and political system, writ large. CNN does this all the time. Focusing on individual personality over the realities of our political system is practically a pundit’s badge of honor at this point. What House of Cards does get right is the setting. From the sprinklers to the feel of a Congressional office, House of Cards nails the ebb and flow of the Hill. This location accuracy accentuates the gloomy decay—moral and physical—David Fincher layers onto the city. Richard III probably—in fact, certainly—wasn’t historically accurate. But it got enough of the small things right to make its drama more compelling.
The cold opening of the show hammers this point home. The show opens with absolute darkness, as the pained yelps of a dog invade the viewer’s senses. A car peals away, and the lights half come on. Hazy, semi-dark Washington slowly unfurls as Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) bursts out of his home, concern etched across his face. Underwood quickly takes command, ordering his secret service agent away before approaching the whimpering animal. He calms the dog, whispering that it’s going to be okay. Underwood then breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience in what will become the show’s central conceit. “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong and useless pain,” he says, “the sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” With that, he suffocates the dog, never taking his eyes from the camera.
Second later, the dog’s owners run outside and Underwood calmly reassures them the perpetrator will be brought to justice. Spacey’s performance brings to bear the full range of the actor’s capabilities: sinister yet genteel, supplicant yet brimming with ambition, he is every inch the consummate Southern politician. His accent is just a touch absurd—Spacey reportedly chose the Southern to recall the patrician British accents used in the original UK show—and repeatedly makes the viewer wary. That wariness is the genius of Spacey’s performance: he’s a politician we’ve seen a thousand times, yet something seems slightly off. The viewer spends much of the time watching the show determined to prove Underwood is not the Washington they know. No politician kills a dog before his first cup of coffee.