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Houses of Cards

Aggiornamento: 26 dic 2023

The House of Cards saga began in 1989 with a novel by British writer Michael Dobbs. Adapted for a twelve-episode BBC TV miniseries, it ran to acclaim from 1990 to 1995. Netflix reset the story in a North American context, expanding it to a series of seventy-three ‘chapters’ for TV broadcast from 2013 to 2018. Again, it was praised on all sides. The  UK-US collaboration in the popular arts was driven by commerce without benefit of officialdom save for tax breaks. While displaying similarities in the two cultures, it also marked their difference.

It’s no surprise that the shared thread of House of Cards leads back to Shakespeare. The master villains of Francis Urquart (Ian Richardson) in London and Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in Washington D.C. are both in the bloodline of Richard III, first published in 1597. Richardson, a Shakespearian actor, played Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1975 and admitted that he based Urquart on Shakespeare’s Machiavellian antihero. Frank Underwood was modelled on Francis Urquart.

From the midst of his legal troubles in 2018, Spacey teased us with Let Me Be Frank, a rogue video of several minutes. In his character’s lazy South Carolina accent he rubbed in what Richard III taught us. Spacey said that since his employers had killed off his character, we missed his cutthroat shenanigans. Evil was our delight. Beneath our hypocritical tut-tuts we felt that dramatised virtue was a bore and Mephistopheles  always the star of the show.

Urquart dies at the end of Dobbs’ first novel. (He reappears in the second and third novel that  extend the series like an exploitative afterthought.) Dobbs wrote strict third-person narrative. Richardson as Urquart not only quotes from Richard III but adopts its practice of breaking the fourth wall and having the antihero speak directly to the audience. Frank Underwood will do the same in the American adaptation. When he dies, his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright),  will use the trick.

The late Gore Vidal used to play peekaboo as a late 20th century Richard III. He would take a moment from his contemplating of the Gulf of Salerno from his home, La Rondinaia, high above Ravello, flash a diabolical grin and say it again: Not sex—of course he was getting on—but  power was the name of the biggest game. He based his authority on being part of the Kennedy family.

Both Francis Urquart and Frank Underwood would certainly echo him from their fictional worlds. Urquart hardly looked the great lover though he had Maddie, the virginalish young journalist, calling him “Daddy” before his drive for power led him to murder her. His wife, Elizabeth, keeps a separate bed where she cogitates schemes with his bodyguard that will eventually call for her husband’s violent death. She was a matronly, proper upperclass vixen, a refined version of one of those loopy three sisters who led Macbeth astray.

As for Frank Underwood, while we watch him copulating with his beautiful wife Claire, we can’t help reviewing Spacey’s subsequent legal history. It takes the steam out of the scene to know that  his brush with the law concerned preying on young males as they tried to climb the thespian career ladder. In any case, Underwood soon sets his own sex life aside. Claire, though she dawdles a bit, puts her clothes back on, forsakes bedroom gymnastics and chooses instead to jog in the latest sportswear along the highway to power. She’s a Lady Macbeth with a personal trainer who steers her past hand-washing madness to a muscular matriarchy.

However, the struggle for power is a chess game, and chess is an elitist pastime. Rooks and pawns are cold to the touch. Our storytellers had to add the heat of murder and sex—the fuel of popular art. Both London’s House of Commons and Washington’s House of Representatives have a chief whip. The official sees to it that the government—the administration—obtains the votes necessary to stay in office. The dark and juicy side of his job is to dig up scandal in order to constrain members to vote the way required. The scandal is overwhelmingly sexual with some drug taking and forbidden business deals thrown in.

Now both Prime Minister Urquart and President Underwood got their start as chief whips in their respective governmental systems. They are vermin and, in the establishing image of each episode, the UK series has rats chewing at the foundations of the Palace of Westminster. The US version replaces it with an architectural tour of D.C. by night, the familiar monuments gone sinister under the weight of darkness.

While our two cultures share much, they are still continents apart. A political fantasy of a parliamentary system on the skids topped with a king had to be imagined anew to suit a presidential republic of a unique superpower at its peak. The fictional UK will be backward looking: Mrs Thatcher’s overthrow, Westminster infighting, Falkland glories, imperial high handedness past its shelf-life in Cyprus. The US as world number one will be concerned with keeping the universe in order in line with its own national interests. It will have a clumsy mitt in every international dumpster. Above all, as the richest country in the world, its representation in drama will be super-duper.  Hence the twelve British episodes of the 1990s become the money-bags investment in the seventy-three US ‘chapters’ of 2013-18.

Indeed, the Netflix series colossal might be running still but for the blackballing of Spacey in 2017.  Like Richardson, Spacey and Richard III had been old friends. He can be seen in Al Pacino’s directorial debut, Looking for Richard in 1996. It was a documentary with Pacino playing the  Shakespearian villain. Spacey read the part of Buckingham but also spoke about the character of Richard like an historian of the theatre. He would cross the Atlantic and prove himself more than only an actor. He was the artistic director of the venerable British public treasure, the Old Vic Theatre, from 2003 to 2015. Among the roles he played there was Richard III in 2011. In those balmy London years, Spacey told The Mirror he loved living in the UK. “I will never renounce being American but there is a part of me that is British now, I may go for dual citizenship - who knows.”

It’s  important to see each version of the House of Cards both in the time it is set and in the time it was made. Francis Urquart's machinations followed close on the premiership of Margaret Thatcher that ended in 1990. Obsessed with her, Urquart’s objective was to remain prime minister longer than she had. It was filmed in the early 1990s when such matters were fresh and explains why its actors are using landline telephones and boxy computers. The US version set in an first third of the 21st century and filmed in 2013-18 would be unimaginable without cellphones whose whispers drive most scenes.

The US project was epochal. There had been nothing before like House of Cards on US TV. Netflix introduced the age of streaming in 2013. When the series finished in 2018, everyone had joined in. Amazon and Hulu came first while HBO struggled to keep up and Apple and Disney prepared to launch. Binge watching was the new fad. Whole series would be consumed at a sitting or flat out in bed. This made the 1990s’ UK House of Cards seem like a miniature and museum piece. It dated from the time the public marked a weekly hour on the calendar for its dose of drama.

image by ephasive on DeviantArt

It’s an open question whether streaming furthered dramatic art. To re-see the essential UK House of Cards, i.e., the first four episodes, we recognise the shape of traditional theatre. Despite the episodic presentation and dramatic ups and downs, it has a beginning, development and ending. Richardson’s mesmeric voice, his ironic posh politeness, his smirks and deviltry gives it an overall unity. With 2013 and the US House of Cards streaming has put us on a roller coaster. We feel that the stops and starts of melodrama are inexhaustible and that Netflix can keep us plunging forward forever. It’s not that the dramatic situations are not compelling, that talent isn’t brimming over and that Spacey like Richardson doesn’t knit the whole together with a magnetism of sorts. But speed, surprise and uninterrupted forward movement do not on their own make for a work of art.

Spacey’s dismissal for allegations of sexual predation and the resulting death of his character, managed to stop the roller coaster ride. But it made for a rushed and muddled last curtain. President Claire née Hale, steeped in Underwood villainy, condemns her dead husband and envisages to all appearances a triumphant feminist future for the country. Addressing the audience through the fourth wall, she says,

"Here's the thing — whatever Francis told you the last five years, don't believe a word of it."

But the unifying theme of House of Cards on both sides of the Atlantic holds true. Politicians are corrupt by their very nature. The cleverest and most ruthless come out on top of a pile of corpses. Claire and her murderous gentle-sex  enemies and allies prove to be  no exception.

That was then, 2018 on the airwaves. What about now in the flesh? 2024 opens with the voters of the world more inclined to see politicians in an even dimmer light than the authors of House of Cards. They have lost so much faith in elected individuals that they often prefer outright authoritarians. The slaughtered innocent are no longer a mere pile. They fill an entire landscape.

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