House of Cards Explained: Shakespeare, History & Guilty Pleasure

House of Cards Explained: Shakespeare, History & Guilty Pleasure


For those of us climbing to the top of
the food chain there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted. Welcome back. Back in 2013 house of cards came on the
scene as Netflix’s first ever self commissioned original series. Since then
the series created by Beau Willimon has not only grown as a mature, textured
piece of television, but also offered a sturdy foundation for the towering house
that Netflix built. Inspired by the 90s BBC series starring
Ian Richardson, and the 1989 book by Michael Dobbs, House of Cards’s appeal
is based on its darkly distinctive mood and world,
it’s Shakespearean magnitude, its heightened mirrors of our own world and
historical past, and the guilty pleasure of rooting for its deliciously wicked
central couple — Frank and Claire Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and
Robin Wright. Let’s walk through each of these elements which make this series so
enduringly binge worthy. Beware there will be a few spoilers coming. [And the butchery begins.] House of Cards draws on the spirit of Shakespearean history and
tragedy to imbue its drama with hyper real grandeur and intrigue. We feel we
might be watching a heightened version of today’s politics presented as
exaggerated history for a future audience. The show captures perhaps
better than any modern example the spirit of what Shakespearean audiences
must have felt going to see productions of Richard III. In the historical
play the villainous Richard, who Spacey played at the London Old Vic in 2011, speaks openly to the audience, using his asides, not to confess but to gloat about his wicked designs. House of Cards, like it’s BBC predecessor, utilizes the same
confessional fourth wall break [Please slit my wrists with this butter
knife.] The theatrical device could easily fall flat on camera. But it works thanks to Spacey’s enjoyably devious performance, the
over-the-top nature of this extra dirty world, and the disconnect between Frank says to us, and how he appears to everyone else. [I will not run for President. Look they’re thinking it’s too good to be true and it is.] Getting this window into his mind fascinates us and knowing his secrets gets us on his
side until we subtly root for his success at all costs. We feel in the know,
superior to the foolishly honest victims All of this psychologically works on us
the same way Shakespeare played his audiences. In Othello, Iago is
motivated by resentment when a fellow promotes another over him — just as
Frank’s plot against the President is set off by him feeling robbed of his
promised cabinet position. Claire takes a cue from Iago’s tactics of suggestion,
as well, when she plants the idea of an affair in the First Lady’s head. [I just have a thing about women who sleep with their bosses.] But the Shakespeare play that most deeply shapes House of Cards thematically is Macbeth. The Underwood’s channel the Macbeths disconnect between inner and
outer to hide their true selves. As Lady Macbeth says: [Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.] When Frank speaks to Peter Russo’s ghost in church, this recalls how Macbeth is haunted by the ghost of Banquo the friend he
murdered. Most strikingly though is Lady Macbeth as a model for Claire. At times,
like Lady Macbeth, Claire seems the superior mastermind, the even more
ambitious one really pulling the strings. Claire’s convincing lack of need for
romance, fidelity, or motherhood reminds us of Lady Macbeth’s famous words [I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required.] Lady Macbeth references having given suck, or
breastfed, a child but we’re told that the Macbeth’s are childless. Their implicit
lost child is echoed in Claire’s past abortions. And
neither woman expresses regret for a childless destiny. Yet in both stories
the couple’s lack of children starts to haunt them, at least politically. The
Macbeth’s and their barren crown, and the Underwoods in their inability to
present the shining picture-perfect family of Frank’s Republican opponent, Conway. [You guessed it, I still hate children.] The Macbeth’s ascent to power leads to a mixed-up world in which fair is foul, and foul is
fair. Yet in the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays divine order or
great chain of being must inevitably be restored. it remains to be seen if the
House of Cards universe believes in poetic justice, but if Macbeth is any indication the story doesn’t end well. The Macbeth’s
breakdown from within, as Lady Macbeth obsessively tries to wash invisible
blood from her hands, and Macbeth reflects that “life is a tale told by an
idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” The dangerous nihilism of the Macbeth’s
can only drive human beings insane where we cannot continue to engage with the
world of nothing that means nothing. Like a mix of Shakespearean history and
tragedy, House of Cards also draws loosely and colorfully from our own
historical past and present. In season 4, Underwood and Conway introduce a
meta-commentary comparing themselves to Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in the
1960 presidential election. [If you were a Democrat you’d be unstoppable
you’d be the new JFK.] [And if you were a Republican would you be? Nixon?] Underwood’s comparison to the notorious Nixon, whom Spacey also played in the
2016 film Elvis and Nixon, is a plausible parallel. Brought down by his own
paranoid plots, crimes, and scandals Nixon was experienced and ruthless. Kennedy was young, relatable and charismatic, just as the social media
friendly Conway speaks directly to Americans and gives people hope. In the
show, the candidates represent opposite parties to their historical parallels. Underwood is a Southern Democrat, long after the age when Democrats
held the South. And Conway is a Republican from New York. [Oh you’re a New York Republican that’s an attractive fiction isn’t it?] [And you’re a Democrat from South Carolina that’s even bigger fiction.] [Well there you go.] This recalls an earlier presidential race between Harry S. Truman and Thomas
Dewey in 1948 — a pragmatic Democrat versus a young New York Republican with
a lead in the polls. Famously the belief that Dewey would win was so strong that the
Chicago Tribune printed the false headline: Dewey Defeats Truman, only to be
disproven by the final vote. Like Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, Underwood becomes
president without ever winning an election, having taken on the offices of
both President and Vice President after a series of cabinet changes and resignations. [One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated] Meanwhile, Underwood’s
wheeling and dealing with Congress is inspired by JFK successor Lyndon B
Johnson, also a southern Democrat and former Majority Whip. Frank Underwood
proudly displays a famous picture of Lyndon B. Johnson staring down a
frightened congressman; both also introduce ambitious social programs —
LBJ’s Great Society and Underwood’s America Works. The outcomes of the
programs are opposite: building the welfare system versus demolishing it. But
both Underwood’s and LBJ’s hopes to define their legacies
are derailed when global conflicts overshadow their legislative agenda. And
of course there’s today. Claire’s and Frank’s power couple status invites
comparisons to the Clintons. While the Nixonian undertones have been
eerily close to new stories about Trump’s claims of tapes and calls for
impeachment. [You know it’s at times like these I wish I was Nixon — had every nook
and cranny bugged.] Yet again like Shakespeare’s histories, the show is
willfully rearranging loose historical or present inspirations to create
something larger than life. [All three of us took bullets. Well I know why we’re smiling: we survived.] House of Cards captures a tone of outright, over-the-top
wickedness, letting us live our juicy imaginings of how bad Washington might
be, while scaring us with the thought, at times, that it’s not purely exaggerated.
One of the biggest differences between Netflix’s series and its BBC ancestor
lies in the look, feel, and mood. Her Card’s Parliament is brightly lit, visually
reflecting a stuffy, staid political landscape at its civilised surface,
hiding all intrigue. But from its first episode — directed by David Fincher — the
updated House of Cards is dark. From the pounding music, to the literal darkness
of an overwhelming number of frames, we’re told the Underwood’s world is an
underworld. This is a window into the shadows. [Miss Barnes]. [How very Deepthroat of you.] Adding to the dark is a calculated distance between the characters and the
camera. Rarely do we get a true close-up. The space around the characters retains
their outer personas which they rarely let draw. No one is allowed inside. Camera movements are flawless tracking shots, always smooth. Composition is precise.
Never do we see a human shake or messiness to the camera or framing. The
production design heightens this feel of sterility. Frank and Claire — almost
unbelievably free of clutter — seem to possess almost no personal items. Their
perfectly empty homes visually underline that they lack a personal
life; that they are their work and outer personas. Meanwhile the pristine surface
belies the dirty plotting underneath. The darkness also leads to a muted color
palette and understated desaturation. Both contribute to our feeling that the
environment is clean and attractive yet not vibrant, human, or alive. We
emotionally perceive the light is cold and it often is, but viewers have noted
that many frames involve an interplay of cold and warm, or blue and yellow, often
with blue in the foreground and yellow in the background. The blue and yellow
create a spiritual contrast — not between black and white, which in noir might
represent good and evil, but between warm and cold, making us think of the pull
between human warmth and icy ambition. The frame is neatly streamlined, not
crowded by diverging colors. Both lights also stem from realistic light sources —
daylight or interior lights — so there is a functional foundation which is then
moderately stylized thanks to the darkness and precision of lighting
setups that strategically avoid multiple shadows. All of these visual cues
together with music add up to a consistent mood and world. The atmosphere
seems at once severely removed from our factual DC, and a close to home actual mirror of
the disillusionment we feel about our actual political landscape. What keeps us
engaged most of all is the central relationship between Frank and Claire.
Their ups and downs, evolution and growth, together and away from one another. Like
the Macbeth’s the Underwood’s are truly close. Setting aside their duplicity, they
almost seem like a relationship other couples should study to learn how to
communicate, work together, and read each other’s minds. [Are you unsatisfied?] They’re soul mates. [I love that woman. I love her more than
sharks love blood.] Yet their connection isn’t traditionally romantic or
primarily sexual — they rarely have sex and they each accept and expect the
others’ sexual affairs. Yet both place much higher importance on achieving their
shared plans. [Your wife — what does that even mean to you?] [Do not mistake any history
you have shared for the slightest understanding of what our marriage is, or
how insignificant you are in comparison.] in later seasons though we start to
doubt the love and respect between the couple as their marriage falters, and
looks, in bleaker moments, like a purely political arrangement. [I’m starting to question all of it Francis. What any of it is worth; what are we
doing this for?] In the White House the couple now sleeps in separate rooms — the
hall between them signaling their growing, gaping distance. The virtue Frank
demands from others is loyalty. [Don’t surprise me.] But to Frank it’s about others
being loyal to him. Apart from those he deceives, he treats everyone as a servant,
even a dog who must obey before all else. [After a dog’s bitten you, you either put
it to sleep or you put a muzzle on it.] This derives from Frank Urquhart’s worldview [Well, everybody can be valuable, that’s my philosophy.] Viewing all other people as pawns and servants leads to a tyrannical, dictator-like state, and
ironically pushes people to consider turning on him, most notably Claire.
Whereas Claire believes — and we initially perceive — if a couple are equal partners
it becomes clear that he views her as another loyal subject merely the most
privileged and important one. [And you will be the First Lady!] Though it’s not clear whether this is result of the isolating role of the presidency, or has
been his feeling all along, Claire’s leaving at the end of Season 3, and her
attempt to take political power in her own name in Season 4, finally proved
to Frank that he needs her as much or more than she needs him. [I said you were nothing in the Oval without me. It’s the other way around.] Season 4 ends with a very significant moment, when for the first time they
break the fourth wall together. [That’s right. We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.] This cements the fact that they are now
partners in crime Claire has finally convinced Frank that
she is his equal, not his servant. The state of their union is strong yet the
title House of Cards underlies the delicate fertility of you of any union or political empire, just as Frank’s career is always one dirty secret away from ruin. [How did this happen!?!] if we can predict anything for certain about the future episodes of House of Cards, it’s that inevitably Something Wicked This Way Comes.

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