Watching the Netflix series House of Cards, an alluring yarn with Shakespearian dreams, I am struck by the predictable depiction of Frank Underwood’s driving ambition, which is, of course, power. What else would it be?
I should not be surprised. Within a few episodes Underwood becomes a voyeuristic peephole for popular fantasizing, like performing cunnilingus on a young woman while she makes small talk with her oblivious father, or crushing a man’s career with a casual phone call. This isn’t Masterpiece Theatre, after all. Netflix, deploying its new business strategy of “content”, knows that voyeurism sells. Voyeurism made Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner rich men.
Of course no one has a monopoly, and selling dirty pictures is not an instant ticket to success. Pornography has been around since the advent of graven images. Flynt and Hefner simply had the shrewd genius for knowing which way to aim the peephole so as to collect the most money. And Netflix has the budget to hire all the smart people it needs.
Director David Fincher and writer Beau Willimon have their own genius for breathing life into endless twists and turns of character, one reason why House of Cards is so alluring. A wreck of a man finds himself in a toney bathtub with a razor blade, receiving instruction on the proper way to use it, and ends up running for high office, and then discovering a backbone. The unbelievable thing is that it’s believable.
Kevin Spacey playing Underwood has an arresting opening scene where he segues almost unnoticeably from dinner jacket to impromptu mercy killing, and back again. This is no James Bond parody. There is a glint of tempered steel in this soul, a tantalizing clue as to how it came by its wealth, position, and black tie.
All of which makes Frank Underwood a disappointment.
Reducing Underwood to a mere villain, a device, a conventional personification of conventional evil, is much too easy. It panders to a juvenile understanding of the world, which is perhaps the point, much like Playboy and Hustler. A good woman is one with big breasts and well-rounded thighs. A good politician is one whose only ambition is to serve his country. The bad guys chase power. And power, if you believe Fincher and Willimon, is the sort of thing the viewers they have in mind want to fantasize about: leather seats and silent chauffeurs; the house cleaned and the bills paid; giving orders to people who just listen and nod; respected figures secretly at your beck and call; enemies who fear you; and the always irresistible treat of watching the high and mighty revealed as sleaze and punished for their sins. These are the dreams of people trapped by life, who think winning is the opposite of losing, good the opposite of evil, power the opposite of helplessness.
But it doesn’t answer for the man who fought his way from poverty to privilege stooping in a dark street to personally wring the life from a broken and suffering animal. And that’s the disappointment.
Netflix is rumored to have spent $100 million on House of Cards, a sum that at one time might have paid for an entire presidential campaign. It’s unfortunate they didn’t aim a little higher than Shakespeare. After all, four hundred years ago it was popularly if ignorantly believed that the state was a manifestation of God’s authority on earth, that the right of kings was the duty of the people to obey God without question. Staging a play about a king with very human vanities and failings must have been pretty lurid and juicy stuff. Four hundred years later, the material’s not so fresh.
Here I will indulge myself with a quote from The Cage:
“Because I’m one of those ‘technical people’ who can not be trusted to run the world. You see, people like Jim Dornan [the CEO] take one thing in life seriously. Power. Of course they’ll deny it. They don’t like the word.”
“Of course not! That would give away the game!”
“Listen to me, Max. This is important, and you’d better understand it. Someone like Jim Dornan spends his entire life in one large organization or another. For him, the taste of power is the taste of freedom, of autonomy, of control over his own destiny. And that’s what matters.”
“Oh, come on, Doc! There must be other ways to control your destiny.”
“Not really. In this world there is only one way to make life bearable, let alone enjoyable. Organization. It’s how we build specialized knowledge. It’s how we get economies of scale. It’s why I have electric power, running water, fresh food, and can drive to the City whenever I like.”
“And we don’t even have a decent road. Yeah, okay, I get it.”
“Well, when you work in an organization, either you are making the decisions, or someone else is making them for you. It’s that simple.”
“So one guy has freedom, and everyone else is his slave?”
“Everyone else gets to make a few decisions within the limits of their authority, and then jockeys for more power, for more autonomy. Unless they don’t care, and a great many don’t, which is fortunate, because every organization needs workers. Technical people. We can’t all be in charge.”