House of Cards' Frank Underwood Always Wins—Because No One Else Understands the Game

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 14 2014 6:30 PM

House of Dupes

The false hubris and grandeur of House of Cards, Season 2.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards.
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards.

Photo via Netflix

(The following article contains spoilers for Season 2 of House of Cards.)

On Feb. 13, the snowbound and sleet-plagued Washington establishment spoke with a single voice: Netflix needed to release House of Cards a day early. “Release House of Cards a day early and you will have millions of grateful snowed-in customers,” wrote one Washington Post reporter. “Netflix would be smart,” agreed Sen. Marco Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. By the afternoon, CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter was analyzing the “House of Cards backlash” and its obvious high-stakes challenge to Netflix.

Then came the backlash to the backlash. Sure, lots of the free-stuff tweeters were outside D.C., but there was a sort of entitlement—shock, horror—emanating from the Beltway set. “They were doing Netflix a favor by watching the show,” snarked the Washington Free Beacon critic Sonny Bunch. “Think of the buzz they’d generate with all their tweets!”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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It did sound insufferable, but was it wrong? No. House of Cards and official Washington have achieved symbiosis since before the first episodes started streaming last year. The show premiered last year at the Newseum, where showrunner Beau Willimon and co-stars Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey were introduced to important journalists. (I can confirm this because Spacey sidestepped my compliment about his old role on Wiseguy so a handler could match him with Howard Fineman. For the record, Space was terrific on Wiseguy.) Spacey became Washington’s new BFF, appearing in a spoof video for the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which he attended. President Obama started winning rare, friendly headlines by talking about the show and asking Twitter not to spoil Season 2.

And the real-life media are all over House of Cards’ second season. There’s Major Garrett, the big-thinking White House reporter for CBS News, describing the latest problems of President Garrett Walker (Michael Gill). There’s Rachel Maddow giving exactly the sort of monologue she usually gives in her A-block, describing why Frank Underwood (Spacey) was an uninspiring pick for vice president. Hey, and there’s CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield conducting an interview with Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) that dramatically pivots the series. In Veep, an almost identical role goes to Alison Janney, who, yes, is still largely famous from her role on The West Wing, but who isn’t about to interview Charlie Rangel.

Now, if you happen to be a reporter in D.C., and you don’t understand why people like House of Cards so much, this media blitz is awfully disorienting. My colleague Willa Paskin is right: The show is ridiculous, set in a Washington of deeply naïve people who speak in tortured analogies, and of a few brilliant people who also speak in tortured analogies. Frank’s always doing that, sometimes over plates of ribs, sometimes while sketching a bull during a meeting. “There are two types of vice presidents,” he says. “Doormats and matadors.” One angry Democrat derides the idea behind a bill because “you can’t fix a wrecked car with new hubcaps!” A computer hacker is humiliated by his boss, barks like a dog, and is told that “if you try to bite my hand, I will put you to sleep.”

The problem in House of Cards is that Frank’s still the best at this. Do you, viewer, ever really fear that Frank Underwood’s going to lose? That he’ll be caught? No, the thrill is in guessing how he’ll evade the noose. There’s nothing wrong with that—not every show, sadly, can be set during a zombie apocalypse—but this noose isn’t even tied right. In the first episode of the new 13-part series, Underwood dons a fedora, sunglasses, and a black coat to meet with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) the inamorata/unethical reporter who knows enough to nail him.

Guess what happens next. He pushes her into the path of a train, a twist that’s no surprise for viewers of the original, British House of Cards (also available on Netflix, even when it’s snowing), and a twist that works. Until … Underwood easily gets away with it. There was no security following the incoming vice president of the United States. There’s no interest by anyone in the law or media in the death of a rising star, whose rise we watched just a few streaming episodes ago. Underwood’s next opponents are much easier to outsmart. One of them, realizing he might be beaten, gives maybe the ultimate House of Cards line reading: “Your hubris has given you delusions of grandeur, Frank!” (There are more clunkers than you’d expect in a series written by a playwright. Another favorite: “Raymond's not a politician. He relies on our political expertise as much as we rely on his business acumen.”)

Should the show be truer to Washington? No, that’s a dull ask. Nobody wants to hear Washingtonians or journalists complain that this-or-that metro station should have more stairs. The problem is Underwood’s enemies don’t seem to understand politics. The new vice president establishes his power by pushing an entitlement reform amendment through the Republican-controlled Senate—Social Security retirement age raised to 68. This will give the Democratic administration “a win.”

Republicans, chiefly one Tea Party senator, worry that it will deprive them of a “win,” and a key Republican, we’re told, was re-elected after the Tea Party “dumped $10 million” into his super PAC. Democrats worry about getting beaten, too. “If we raise the retirement age,” says one of them, “the AARP will raise hell.” So a fixer gives the AARP $45 million. The bill succeeds, thanks to Frank managing the Senate vote and an ally (Molly Parker, playing Underwood’s whip successor in the House) convincing fellow Democrats they’ll be blamed if the government shuts down.

But they wouldn’t. In our reality, one that also includes Rachel Maddow and Ashleigh Banfield, entitlement reform is popular only with people who take lunch with Pete Peterson, and if the GOP is threatening to shut down the government, the GOP will be blamed for it. Public pressure, which probably just isn’t compelling enough to portray in a soap opera, ruins the strategies of the smartest, coldest operatives.

 So do the media. Willimon’s House of Cards has now surpassed its British inspiration in length and critical obsession. The media have got to be the reason for that—the British simply don’t have the same reverence for political power. Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart is commonly called “FU,” an oh-I-get-it joke that’s saved for a big reveal in the American series. Reporters show him no particular regard. He leaks to them and outsmarts them, but when the British series portrayed the press it was covering the whip-turned-prime minister with hostile snark. In that show’s second season, Urquhart forces the King of England (a thinly disguised Prince Charles) to abdicate because the monarch allies himself with the Labor Party, the media love it, and Urquhart wins an election anyway.

In the American series, the media are completely oblivious to how Underwood cheerfully manipulates them. They turn on the president only after Underwood’s schemes have undermined him. The stars who keep showing up are inevitably spun. “You always ask the hard questions,” says Underwood to 60 Minutes lifer Morley Safer, as the journalist fails to lay a glove on him. I get why people root for this villain, but hubris and grandeur shouldn’t come so easy. 

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