In honor of Valentine's Day this week, I'd like to introduce you all to my favorite new television power couple. Before you go too hearts-and-flowers over them though, know this: these two routinely cheat on each other, scheme, plot to overthrow the government and take cold-hearted revenge on anyone and everyone. So why is this a love story, then? Because irrespective of all the rest of it, the one thing they never do is lie to each other. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Frank and Claire Underwood, the main characters of House of Cards.
"What say we blow this charity event and bathe in the blood of our enemies tonight?"
House of Cards is a political thriller set in Washington, DC (yay local locations!) and directed by David Fincher, who brings the same murky, moody color palate he gave to the films The Social Network and Fight Club. The story centers on Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), the Democratic House Majority Whip from South Carolina. Frank has been promised by the newly-elected President that he will be made Secretary of State, however when the President reneges on his promise at the last minute, Frank bitterly begins to plan an elaborate plot to get even with the other Washington players who have stolen his chance for glory. Swept up in the intrigue is a Congressman from Pennsylvania with a secret substance abuse problem, a young political reporter eager for a Deep Throat to call her own and more high end prostitutes than you can shake a stick at.
While the intrigue is definitely the driving factor behind the show, the emotional core is Frank’s relationship with his wife, played ice-cool by Robin Wright. Wright’s Claire is the head of an environmental non-profit that stands to gain significantly if Frank gains more power and Claire is more than willing to stand with him in his machinations to get the job done.
I love how Spacey and Wright play their relationship. They’re vicious and ambitious and brilliantly power hungry. They manipulate everyone around them, from their own staff to a man dying of cancer (really) to the security guards hired to protect them. The only people they don’t manipulate is each other, because they understand each other and genuinely love each other so much. Franks says of Claire that he loves her “more than sharks love blood” and we understand exactly the nature of their relationship. Even when Frank begins an “illicit” affair with a reporter, the first thing he does is rush home to tell Claire what he’s done, not out of contrition or guilt but for what it could do for their plans. Claire, for her part, instantly recognizes the potential and encourages it. Ozzie and Harriet, they aren't.
There's also a drunk, naked Congressman. But who doesn't have one of those in their bathtub, really?
The fact that they are so much in each other’s camp makes the few times when their relationship is truly tested all the more fascinating to watch. In the first episode, as Frank is blindsided by the news that he’s been betrayed and won’t be nominated for the Secretary of State, he sullenly checks out for a day and doesn't talk to Claire until later that night. Claire, no intellectual slouch, has already figured out what has happened and demands to know why he didn't call her. When Frank says he’s sorry, she walks out of the room, calmly disgusted at him. “My husband doesn't apologize,” she says. “Not even to me.”
It’s tempting then to see Claire as the instigator for what happens next, but she’s no Lady MacBeth spurring her husband on to murder. They’re absolutely equal partners in their machinations. If anything, they’re far more like a more successful and angrier version of Les Miserables’ Thenardiers, paying false deference to people who have more power than them (for the moment), but knowing that it will all soon change.That said, the influence of Shakespeare is all over the show. Reductively, it’s a modern retelling of MacBeth with a bit of Richard III thrown in. Even Spacey’s many asides where he speaks directly through the camera to the audience to illustrate his internal monologue or bring the viewer into his confidence about how other characters will act echo Shakespearean characters’ long soliloquies. Fans of Shakespeare will also recognize the epic plotting and gigantic emotions that are also hallmarks of his work.
False piety, for example.
Given the pedigree, it's surprising that one of the only shortcomings is in the writing. The series is written by Beau Willimon who most recently wrote the play Farragut North which was turned into the movie Ides of March. Willimon really believes that his “Washington insider” status lends a kind of verisimilitude to his work, which frankly is not large and his only real successes have focused on behind the scenes Washingtonia. The problem? He’s not that accurate. Willimon writes a Washington that behaves the way Hollywood imagines it is, not like the way it actually does. He knows just enough to be inaccurate. He understands some of the more technical aspects of American politics correctly but misses by a mile when it comes to writing the way politicos, reporters, staffers and informants actually speak and act. For a series that is trying so hard to seem gritty and accurate to life, to have characters say things that actual insiders would never say feels particularly jarring. Still, the pacing of the show is excellent and when Willimon can tear himself away from congratulating himself in writing for his four month long internship on the Hill that he did five years ago, he can put together a bunch of really compelling characters and really solid drama.
The entire first season of House of Cards is available only on Netflix instant. Well worth losing your weekend over this one, folks.