Contains minor spoilers
“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” – Francis Underwood
Meet Francis Underwood, majority whip to the President of the United States.
He’s a charmer. He’s respected.
He’s a liar. A cheat. A Machiavellian master manipulator. A cold hearted SOB.
See what I did there? 🙂
Francis Underwood is simply a man you want to hate. Just listing those qualities is enough of a reason to suggest so. He walks around with a swagger, with his devil may care smile, planting seeds of deception. When others pick up on that seed, he joyfully watches that seed grow, aiding their capitulation to their eventual downfall. From the opening three minutes of episode one, you know exactly where and what he stands for.
I’m not sure what it is about Kevin Spacey, but he has a knack of playing political figures – from Casino Jack to HBO’s Recount, his performance as Francis Underwood has got to be my favourite. Maybe it’s because he has a face that looks like a sly Republican…
In House of Cards, he is essentially Emperor Palpatine/The Emperor from Star Wars, a Karl Rove figure, manipulating everyone just so the outcome is in his favour. Trust me, this Sith Lord has power and after being shafted from a key promotion after years of ‘faithful’ service, he is hell bent on revenge.
He is a character that is not interested in money, because money would only get you so far. Power is what he wants, because power is how someone can define themselves. While he may lie and cheat to everyone else, the only time he is honest or truthful about his experiences is when he is addressing the audience, looking right down the camera (aka breaking the fourth wall). This nuance (introduced and directed expertly by David Fincher in the first two episodes) ranges from the devilish funny to the obscene. We should be upset by what Francis says, but it is because he is so brutally honest about how politics are run, that you can’t help but take his word for it and enjoy it. As each episode goes on, this insightful nuance becomes less. But when he does address his feelings, it is a welcome relief from the constant two-way dialogues from the other characters, but most importantly, it doesn’t come off as an over-reliant ploy.
“I love that woman…I love her more than sharks love blood” – Francis Underwood
If you think Francis is bad, then his wife (played by Robin Wright) is equally ruthless, a trait no doubt inherited from her husband. She’s happy to put her most loyal worker of the company in a compromising position so she can lay off half her workforce…and then asks her loyal worker to join them! She is equally demanding of her husband, getting him to exercise despite Francis’s reservations about being “lectured to”. There are moments where their relationship is not perfect and we see them being tested when various obstacles crop up. But just when you start to feel sorry for her (just an ounce of pity), then she does something that makes you switch back to your original opinion.
The truth is, Francis and his wife, Claire deserve each other! There is no secret or indiscretion that they don’t know about. They are happy to use each other to gain advantage – she uses him to get favours for her work, like some political endorsement, he uses her for one-upmanship and for show. They know what is at stake. They know what the end game is.
Watching this show, you automatically search for a character that can be a hero, a white knight that you can root for. But after a long thought, I’ve realised that there isn’t any. To borrow the phrase (and not the contents of the book), everyone is a fifty shade of grey. They are characters trapped or consumed by their secrets and some even pay the ultimate price. Even the show is dark with the majority of the scenes containing low light, keeping the characters motives, secrets and ambitious, ambiguous. If you have seen David Fincher’s The Social Network, you get the same feeling.
Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) for instance is a great example of a character blurring between the lines. She is a journalist who uses her ‘special relationship’ with Francis to advance her career. She suddenly (and quickly) becomes the rising star of journalism, appearing on TV on a frequent basis to the annoyance of her boss. Ambitious and not taking things for granted, she goes back to Francis to obtain more stories and he reciprocates, like a shady Deep Throat character from the Watergate scandal. It’s a beneficial relationship that works for them – he leaks information (such as partially shredded documents) that destroys his competitors and she becomes the participant feeding the frenzy in this social media crazed world.
In essence, House of Cards is a compelling drama from start to finish. It’s an insight to probably what we already know or gathered about politics as an outsider. It is the art of power and manipulation. Whilst I only have vague memories of the original House of Cards starring the late Ian Richardson (I was only five years old at the time), the remake is outstanding. It’s not to say because the remake is fresh in our minds etc, but it’s the spirit in which it is made that makes it stand out on it’s own. With the amount of power, money, personal exploitation and media centric buzzwords, House of Cards becomes a darker and unsettling look at the US political system.
Whilst the last episode doesn’t end on that OMG cliffhanger, the ending does provide a subtle reminder to the audience that a storm is coming for Francis. If he doesn’t realise this soon enough, then his plans will ultimately be jeopardized.
What would I like to see from season 2? Francis showing some humility? Not a chance. We may have seen Francis have moments of freedom such as playing with his PS3 or getting drunk with his old school friends, but this man is all about business.
He won’t stop until he becomes President of the United States. For him, that is the ultimate statement of power.
Welcome to the anti-hero of politics.