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Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ Thinks It’s Tough, But It Goes Easy On Washington

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This post discusses, in its entirety, the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards.

Over the past two days, I watched all of Netflix’s most ambitious original series yet, a remake of the British miniseries House of Cards. While the show raises interesting questions about both television business models and narrative structures, and while it’s deeply entertaining to watch Kevin Spacey, as Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood, chomp scenery and occasionally on Kate Mara’s ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes, I couldn’t help but feel that House of Cards has a fatal flaw. For all that the show looks attractive, and even half-authentic to the District sometimes, and for all House of Cards is trying its darndest to replicate the repellant chilliness of the British original, it’s actually far too nice to the people and institutions the show would like to skewer. And that’s because House of Cards itself falls prey to some of the kinds of thinking that are most pernicious in the nation’s capital.

Part of the problem is House of Cards‘ insistence that there’s a grandness, rather than a grandiosity, to Frank—while the show believes he’s malign, it’s still convinced that he’s Milton’s Satan rather than Dostoyevsky’s, who Arturo Perez-Reverte once described as “petty. A civil servant with dirty nails.” He declares in the first episode that “My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving,” and House of Cards seems largely to agree with his assessment. Frank may hold up an education bill to get a version that suits his ends, or derail the nomination of the man who was chosen to be Secretary of State over him, but he does get a bill to the President’s desk roughly on deadline, and once the other man is out of the way, speeds the confirmation of his hand-picked replacement. What really distinguishes him from his colleagues, however, and what the show portrays as the source of Frank’s efficacy, however unattractive it may be, is his treatment of power as a higher good than policy. “Leave ideology to the armchair generals,” he says in one of his many editorial asides to the camera. “It does me no good.”

House of Cards is full of acid portraits of people whose conviction has made them weak or duplicitous without being excellent at it. Even if the show has some sympathy for their dedication to and principal on the issues, it never gives them triumphs over Frank, and frequently suggests that passion makes them obvious, slow, or otherwise unfit to play the game that Frank has mastered so well, his competence overriding our moral calculus. During a subplot that involves the passage of a major education reform bill, Frank’s partner on the legislation, a life-long liberal reformer who’s a stand-in for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy turns out to be a naive patsy without the stomach for compromise or maneuver. “I could put my mind to policy, but I’m no good at this brand of politics,” the man tells Frank in agreeing to take the fall for a leak of his proposed bill that garners negative press coverage, and to let Frank take over writing the next draft. His actual ideas about the issues are never mentioned, simply summed up by Zoe as “very far left wing” for a headline. Somewhere in Massachusetts, Kennedy is rotating in his grave fast enough to dislodge the dirt above him so he can haunt House of Cards writer Beau Willimon for this perfidy.

Elsewhere in the education fight, the only discussion of policy are facile mentions of charter schools, collective bargaining, and performance standards. A union official appears in one scene to declare that “Charters jeapordize our ability to organize, which is reason enough” to object to Frank’s draft of the bill. Otherwise, the movement is represented only by picketers who melt when Frank and his wife serve them barbeque, and by a paid lobbyist who is manipulated into decking Frank in his office, giving him the advantage he needs to force a settlement to a teacher’s strike and a legislative deadlock. When Frank manipulates Congressman Russo (Corey Stoll) into running for Governor of Pennsylvania, his opposition is largely personified by the head of a shipbuilder’s union decimated by the BRAC process that shutters a local shipyard. The man is ultimately undone by his unwillingness to get personal in his fight with Russo, who he has known since childhood, and then subsumed into the political power structure when he is given an opportunity to run for Russo’s seat in congress. During a battle to pass a wetlands bill, House of Cards gives us bleeding-heart liberals who Frank describes as quailed by the sight of their own heart’s blood—in a twist, they’re manipulated by Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), who has a grievance to fulfill. Even Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt), a brilliant young activist Claire hires to help expand the international operations of the clean water non-profit she runs (in one of House of Cards‘ most perceptive subplots, Claire stops work in the District of Columbia to focus her efforts on the trendier third world) isn’t allowed to be both principled and effective for long. When Claire sells the organization’s credibility to an oil and gas company in exchange for help getting machinery out of South Sudan, Gillian baits Claire into firing her. But instead of exposing Claire as the pathetic shill that she is, Gillian’s chosen method of revenge is a pregnancy discrimination suit. “Organizations like yours get 90 percent of the grant money and cozy up to corporate sponsors who destroy the environment,” she spits at her former boss. But it’s hard for me to believe, given all we’ve seen over the course of the show, that she’ll be able to triumph over the Underwoods. And her chosen method of retaliation makes her look like a cheap liar, rather than a principaled hero worth rooting for against Claire.

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