The politics are incredible, of course--the Democrats casually offering up "entitlement reform" to avoid a shutdown is so contrary to the recent past, and the notion that such a move would credibly be seen as a Democratic win, is so contrary to our recent experience and current ideological stances of the parties as to be make the show risible as a political commentary on our times.
Just as well, then, that that isn't what the show is.
House of Cards has a peculiar DNA, one that in part predetermines its contours, and possibly even its outcome.
It originated, of course, as a novel, published in 1989, a result, the author writes, of a bruising election in which Dobbs, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, observed that "Margaret Thatcher won that election comfortably, but she made many enemies while doing so – too many, I thought." This, and "a furious row" with Thatcher, led him to write "a novel based around the dark political arts." He chose as his subject a fictional plot to get rid of a Prime Minister. The novel depicts its protagonist, House Whip Francis Urquhart, using all the secrets he has garnered (and favors he is owed) in rescuing errant MPs from their own follies in his years of faithful, neglected service for his own political gain.
It's a pretty good read--though many elements we associate with House of Cards do not exist--Urquhart's wife (Miranda in the novel) is essentially a walk-on part, there is no affair with Mattie Storin, the journalist who unravels the skein of Urquhart's plots, and, far from killing her, Urquhart's nerve fails him in his final confrontation with Mattie, and he instead kills himself, throwing himself off the roof of the House. Urquhart not only lacks the steel of his later incarnations, he also lacks the charm, and the story is told in an omniscient third person voice.
As to the BBC television adaptation, Dobbs informs us, "during a week that had the nation holding its breath in astonishment, the first episode of the television series aired almost on the day she was forced to resign. It seemed almost impossible, but she was gone." The casting of Ian Richardson (whose performance as Urquhart, by his own account, drew from his portrayal of Richard III), the addition of a perverse--very perverse--sexual affair between Urquhart and Mattie Storin (parallel to the seduction of Lady Anne over her husband's tomb), and most of all Urquhart's mix of scheming and charm are redolent of Shakespeare's Richard III. Andrew Davies's brilliant contribution to the story is just that--he took an entertaining political thriller, and buffed it, re-shaped it, and drew from it, the stuff of Shakespeare's history plays. The adaptation even features a catchphrase that has entered the political lexicon:
As in Richard III, Davies has Urquhart address us, the viewer, and makes us complicit in his crimes:
A genuine soliloquy, that--one of many dotting the BBC trilogy--and in as close to Shakespeare's own form as one could get away with in the 1980s.
James Cappio, in "If Richard III Had Married Lady Macbeth" has pointed out that House of Cards has not one but two Shakespeare plays in its DNA:
Very much like Richard, Urquhart so thoroughly seduces us that we root for him in spite of ourselves. That is largely due to Ian Richardson’s indelible performance. Richardson, one of the great Shakespeareans of his generation, had just played Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company before taking the role of Urquhart; by letting Richard influence him, he created one of the most iconic characters in all of British television. Urquhart’s signature phrase—“You may think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”—is still widely recognized in Britain even today.Indeed, at the end of the Trilogy (the second installment is To Play the King (1993), the finale is 1995's The Final Cut; interestingly, Dobbs again in the novel ends with Urquhart primed for a fall; the television adaptation changes the ending again. Only in the third novel and series do the story lines essentially coincide), Elizabeth Urquhart surpasses her husband in villainy. With Urquhart's "house of cards" at last beginning to collapse, his powers beginning to fail, and his last ambition, to surpass Margaret Thatcher as the longest-serving Prime Minister of Great Britain, Elizabeth arranges a special gift for her husband on the day he does so.
House of Cards borrows from the Scottish play even more blatantly than from Richard III. When it’s first suggested to Urquhart that he could be Prime Minister, he actually says “Glamis, and Cawdor, and King hereafter” and shortly his wife is insinuating that he should topple his leader. To be fair, he doesn’t need nearly as much persuasion as Macbeth did. Diane Fletcher’s movie debut was in Roman Polanski’s bloody Macbeth, so her brilliantly menacing performance as Elizabeth Urquhart can be said to have Shakespearean roots.
[HERE BE SPOILERS, albeit for a nearly twenty-year old series]
Note how, as Urqhart dies, Elizabeth is there to--comfort him? Seek absolution? And Cordor (Cawdor mixed with cordite, yes?) offers his services to Tom Makepeace--presented as a good egg, but, as Corder informs him "You'll be in charge now," we hear the strains of "Francis Urquhart's March", as the theme is titled, suggesting that the new regime will be much more like the old than expected.
All of this makes up the DNA of the new series. Kevin Spacey, of course, is also an actor noted for his Richard III:
Set in America, without a Parliamentary system and its tools that the Whip would more commonly have, and two full decades after the novel, the creative staff had its work cut out for it. With Dobbs, Davies and Spacey as Executive Producers, their vision is deeply embedded in the new show. Dobbs in his novels was interested primarily in intrigue--means, and stratagems, and much less so in policy; he kept trying to craft a moral ending (indeed, had the BBC accepted his ending, the parallel to Shakespeare's play, in which the natural order is restored, the usurper vanquished, would have been even more clear).
The American show takes the most intriguing new dimension to the BBC's ersatz-Shakespearean history play--the partnership of Francis and (in the US) Claire Underwood, played with astonishing discipline, and cool-banked fire, by Robin Wright--and places it firmly front and center. It's pace is at once quicker, cinematically very much so, and slower--halfway through season 2, we have not yet reached the equivalent point of the ending of the first series of the BBC adaptation--which only had four episodes; I have just finished watching episode twenty-two of the U.S. version. So, yes, there's some filler, but there is also much more character development, and some twists we don't expect--last season I was faked out into thinking at one point that, unlike his UK counterpart, Peter Russo was going to survive the season. So Beau Willimon deserves a lot of credit for doing more than an extended dance remake of the BBC original. He has translated the history play into an American milieu, and made it work.
Did he get the politics wrong? Well, yes. But then, so did Shakespeare.