“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries” -Francis Underwood
There is not often that I openly praise a television program or film but this past year I have fallen head over heels for the Netflix exclusive series House of Cards. There will be spoilers in this review so all who have not watched season 1 of House of Cards I suggest heading to your Netflix account and watching all thirteen episodes before coming back to the article. House of Cards is a show that not only has phenomenal acting, writing, and political intrigue, it truly gets at the heart of the beast that resides in Washington DC.
Based on a British television series of the same name, House of Cards follows South Carolina Congressman Frank Underwood and his wife through the various trials and tribulations of living and working in Washington DC. Things inside the Beltway however are not happy as Frank is told in the first episode that his appointment to be Secretary of State was a false promise by the newly elected administration. Angered and feeling betrayed Frank and his philanthropist wife Claire come up with various plots and schemes to ensure the success of their family, their dreams, and a way to punish all those who were not loyal to them.
Frank Underwood is played by the talented Kevin Spacey in perhaps his best role. Frank is a South Carolinian who rose up from the utmost rural poverty to being the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives, a fact he does not forget.
Although Frank has climbed amazing far but is always working to ensure that he and his wife will never be forced back into the pit of the so called “American Dream.” Frank is disarming due to his Southern charm and quick wit, behind the mask however is a man with a killers instinct and a take no prisoners outlook. As an audience member it is hard not to like Frank even as he commits horrendous acts to numerous people throughout the season. As it says in Scripture even “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” Frank may appear charming but he has far more in common with a shark than the man of the people he pretends to be.
House of Cards lays out an assortment of characters from the staff, to lobbyists, and all levels of the political machine. The highest praise I have heard for this show is from my friends and contacts who actually work on Capitol Hill. The stories of casual drug use, open drunkenness of members of Congress (something I can personally attest to Speaker Boehner in the Capitol Hill Club), Congressmen sleeping with staffers and reporters, and overall debauchery from both sides of the aisle that I have heard would shock most Americans, but that is business as usual in Washington DC. House of Cards walks a very careful tight rope of not sensationalizing the goings on in the most powerful city in the world but also does not hide very many blemishes either. The utter disposable nature of even Congressman in the greater scheme of politics is one that is important to note. While to a district with millions of people in it a Congressman might seem important, in the machine of party politics he is actually rather small potatoes. Ideology and will of ones home district is meaningless when compared to the importance of party loyalty, lobbyist support, donors, and the press in regards to staying in office and getting things done.
While not as hard hitting as one would want, in the age of political party worship by both Democrats and Republicans it is a refreshing twist to have a television program show the American public that not everything is as rosy in Washington as they would hope. In American politics everybody is looking out for themselves and their interests, and willing to do almost anything to get that.
If it weren’t for a few mentions here and there it would be hard to figure out what political party Frank was a part of. Ideology in Washington on both sides of the aisle is meaningless when money and power are on the line. Frank helps the President push through a controversial education reform bill not because he cares in the slightest about vouchers, private schools, test standards, or anything else, he does it to ensure political advantage for himself. Democrats turn on one another for positions of power and politicians are shown to only be doing the will of lobby organizations to get the funds to either win or buy more political favors with their colleagues. Frank has frequent dealings with a large oil and gas company that demands favors from him, as he explains the relationship to the audience he tells us “I don’t give a hoot about natural gas, but I have 67 deputy whips and they all need campaign cash.” Political power and influence to get his way is the battle cry to all of Franks political maneuvering.
Policy is to be left for the little people to argue, politicians are out for themselves. Frank tells the audience in one scene “Leave ideology to the armchair generals, it does me no good” and that is a testament to how little the actual politics of politics matter to those in power. In the first season the only time that members of Congress actually stand by their principles, they open up the wrath of Congressman Underwood and I am willing to bet we will not be seeing much of them in future seasons.
The relationship of Frank and his wife Claire is one of a battle between Tradition and modernity. The couple decided to not have children, something now that Claire is unable to conceive is deeply regretting. On the outside everything for the Underwood marriage looks picture perfect. Both members of the couple are politically powerful, they have a nice home in DC and one in South Carolina, and financially they are very well off. As Frank says about Claire “I love that woman more than a shark loves blood.” The marriage however is plagued by conflict due to the corrupting influence of modernity. Both Frank and Claire have affairs with various people but at the end of the day always seem to come back together. The love shared in the marriage of Frank and Claire is one that seems to be like leather, tough and hard. Claire having her own organization, the Clean Water Initiative, is often at odds with Frank fighting over who’s work should come first. A lack of family, lack of fidelity, and lack of Traditional gender roles created a marriage that was lasting, but one that seems more like a crypt than a home.
Jewish influence in Washington politics is also featured in the first season, something that Traditionalists would enjoy. To advance a political agenda Frank uses an old editorial from a political opponents college newspaper that called the occupation of Palestine by Israel “illegal” to strike down his opponent who was the editor of the paper at the time. When the editorial is discovered Frank instantly tells his staffer to call his contact “at the ADL” and within minutes the Jewish spokesman is on television dismissing Frank’s opponent as an “anti-Semite” thus effectively ending his career. The power of Jews in Washington is shown to be a one hit kill weapon for anyone politically. Even if the rest of your personal and professional life has been a living testament to truth, justice, and the American way it can still all be torn away in a heartbeat if you cross the Jewish lobby. One day you can be cruising towards being Secretary of State, but once the ADL and AIPAC but you in their crosshairs your chances of even winning reelection next term are slim to none.
The press is a constant tool and nuisance to Frank throughout the first season of House of Cards. Actress Kate Mara plays a young female reporter named Zoe Barnes who works at the Washington Herald. Desperate to get into the big leagues of political reporting Zoe begins to whore herself out to Congressman Underwood. Needing a political mouthpiece Frank begins a relationship with Zoe that is part business and part pleasure. Originally thinking she is in control and using Frank for stories, Zoe soon realizes that Frank effectively owns her and her career. As Frank memorably says in one episode “everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” While Zoe may climb throughout the first season, she grows increasingly upset that she must be submissive to Frank and begins to attempt to subvert Frank in the last episode of the season.
Political correctness is often openly mocked throughout House of Cards. While the agenda may be pushed on the people of America, the politicians are smart enough to know better. When describing the newly elected Presidents Chief of Staff to the audience Frank rattles off that she is “a woman, check. A Latina, check.” While quotas sound nice to the public, even high ranking Democrats know that it is all a game of checking the right boxes. To advance a personal plot Frank appeals to the Black Caucus for support. When Frank asks the head of the Black Caucus Terry Womack for the support of his voting block by appealing to the mans own greed and the “historic” nature of having the first Black Majority leader in Congress, Womack tells Frank flat out that he knows that Frank doesn’t care about that. Liberal talking points about progress aside, Frank is simply trying to get his way by appealing to the Black Caucus, not promote Leftist egalitarianism.
The modern state of unions is also portrayed in part of the first season of House of Cards. While Frank is attempting to pass his education reform bill, the teachers unions strike to protest what they see as unfair changes. Alongside members of the Teamsters union the head lobbyist of the teachers organizes protests to oppose Congressman Underwood. Quickly though, the union is politically outmaneuvered and outspent, not having the public support or capital to fight an experienced political organizer like Frank. With support of the DC Chief of police, the White House, and his party underlings, the teachers unions never had a chance. What is clear to the audience is that the lobbyists have little to no connection with the people they are representing. Normal teachers are poor to middle class Americans who pay their union dues to have people represent them and fight for their interests. The head lobbyist who faces off against Frank is one more concerned with his own ego and status than the best interests of those he has been charged to represent, a sad truth of the modern American labor movement.
Throughout all of the political intrigue we see Frank desperate to control his surroundings. In an expression of modernity and the worship of self, Frank strives to always control every situation and person to best suit him and his needs. Whenever the situation is out of Franks control he quickly devolves into rage or escapism (specifically to his love of violent video games). While Frank pokes at Christianity, he never once declares he doesn’t believe in God. In an act of hubris it is clear that Frank simply believes he has no need for God and can make his own way. I am willing to bet that before the end of the series Frank will be humbled enough to call on God for help, a testament to the futility of attempting to control the things that are simply uncontrollable.
While the depth of the real powers behind Washington DC will most likely never be covered in American mass media, House of Cards is far more entertaining and intriguing than the usual pop culture slop turned out for our consumption. Frank Underwood is a true anti-hero, one who I look forward to following through the back rooms of power for at least the next two years as Netflix has recently announced a third season renewal for the show. House of Cards is entertaining, engaging, and pushes the envelope in ways most American shows don’t. While the language and scenes of sexual content are objectionable, they are not as pervasive as one would expect in the modern age. With caution I recommend House of Cards season one to anyone interested in politics and an examination of the human condition, welcome to Washington.