Thursday, February 7, 2013

House of Cards: Money, Power, and the Meaning of Life

"It only takes ten seconds to crush a man's ambitions..."

If you don't already have Netflix House of Cards is a good reason to get a subscription. I didn't expect them to air an original TV show. Can I even call it a TV show? It wasn't made for television, it doesn't look like TV, and each episode is a "chapter" rather than titled. It feels a novel and all the chapters were released at once. House of Cards is incredible. It's as good as any political thriller I've read. How did this change in entertainment happen and and will it stick? It's from the people who brought us such films as Fight Club, The Social Network, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so it's no surprise that House of Cards is a amazing, but will it be a successe for Netflix? At a $100 Million price tag for two seasons can it make a profit?

This may become my favorite show of all time. I love politics and philosophy. Putting the two together with an talented cast, an intricate storyline, high production values, and excellent writing? I'm hooked. They've managed an inside look at dirty politics using issues and themes playing out in the real world, but just incredible enough to keep your attention without going over the top. I've never seen something so engaging and brilliant.

Kevin Spacey plays House Majority Whip Francis "Frank" Underwood an ambitious and borderline sociopathic  politician who's hell bent on revenge after being passed up to be nominated for Secretary of State. The themes of the story are leaning towards the dark side, but still realistic and psychologically accurate. Frank is an antihero. You get from the first scene that there's something wrong with his mental health, but you cheer him on because he's the one wronged and revenge is sweet when it's carried out by someone so methodical and calculating. Prototypical characters such as Iago and MacBeth are evident in Underwood.

House of Cards draws heavily from Shakespeare. The most obvious evidence of this is Spacey’s frequent direct to camera speeches. Shakespeare often utilized soliloquies and Frank's inner thoughts are directly told to the audience. He often delivers commentary on the world that could have been annoying if it weren't so damn insightful and brilliant. Underwood draws us in with his speeches and we become co-conspirators in his game of power and revenge. and to some degree may find ourselves pulling for this ruthless man, even as we are, at once, repulsed by him.

In a political drama such as this it would seem you'd take shots at either political party or ideology, but it sidesteps this completely and talks about how money and power are corrupt by their very nature. That ambitious people will do whatever it is they need to do to get ahead. No matter what rules you put in place to stop it they will find a way to get what they want.

It feels like what Washington is really like dramatized in a way I've never seen with such detail that you almost want to look away because it's so intimate. House of Cards is about the inner workings of Congress yes, but more about the nature of greed, ambition, and the inner complexity of love and relationships.

Claire Underwood runs a non-profit charitable organization called CWI (Clean Water Initiative) her character shows how proximity to power gets donations and favors. His wife’s depiction stands in stark contrast to Underwood’s inner-monologue. Claire is revealed primarily through subtext, and a focus on her gestures and actions. The camera rests on her as she visually responds to her environment, and in that way we come to know her, as much as we can. Wright’s depiction of this inscrutable woman is finely tuned, and impossible to turn away from.

Zoe Barnes is an ambitious young reporter who entangles herself in a scandalous arrangement with Underwood to further her career. A young woman dancing the line between becoming a shark, or simply learning to navigate the waters infested with them. Her role is an entryway for the creators to explore and critique journalism in the age of the internet. She comes off as a conniving homewrecker. Little does she know that the Underwood’s are not a typical couple.

Francis and Claire: a strangely beautiful union

The first indication that that something is different about this couple is when Francis doesn't get nominated as Secretary of State Claire refers to it as a loss for "us". It's clear she sees his proximity to power is her own as well and that the two of them are partners in a way that is both beautiful and creepy. The two of them are the same, but Claire is a little softer in her ambition. It's cleaar that she still cares about people by some of her smaller actions in a way she knows her husband wouldn't understand. Still it's clear that she's as much a shark as Francis. Seeing how they plot together and talk all night planning the downfall of their enemies can't help but be admired.

Emotional Pain and Substance Abuse

It's hard to explore the meaning of life without showing pain and substance abuse. Congresman Peter Ruso gets caught in Franks web when he's arrested for DUI. Is he running from a painful past or haunted by memories? We never find out what has left him damaged and ultimately it doesn't matter we all understand pain without it having to be explained. Even though he's in the highest halls of power he can't resist the call of self destruction. When he goes back to his district we only get a hint at his rough childhood. He shows his girlfriend a crack in his childhood bedroom ceiling and says that he used to stare at it for hours and knew every line. See how rough life is for his constituants he left behind to move to Washington we only get a hint of why he used drugs and alcohol and it's all we need.

The Culture of Washington: Prostitutes, Lobbyists, and Proximity to Power

The look and feel of this show is authentically Washington. Representatives away from their families make high end prostitution big business. The parallels between prostitution an the lobbying of congress is made clear and often. And the politicians themselves are both Johns and whores. It seems everyone is taking advantage of someone. Corruption is just a mondane business as usual fact of life. I like the way they weave it into the storyline and draw you into this culture while keeping you intrigued with Frank's mater plan for revenge.

It's a significant accomplishment when any narrative is able to craft but multiple nuanced and richly drawn characters into one masterpiece.  These people are to be both admired and reviled, but more than that they are simply, people. Real flawed and ultimately interesting. These aren't people who I would want to know personally, but from a distance it's like watching forces of nature colide. People who are born with the kind of destructive ambition that takes them to highest levels of power, and that ultimately may earn them the catastrophe which you can only assume awaits them.

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