Editor’s Note: Catch up on Netflix’s House of Cards with this collection of articles Washington D.C.-based Becky Graebner wrote analyzing the first season, concluding with her predictions about season 2. Jump to the ones that interest you or just dive in from the beginning:
Part 4: Why We Love to Hate Politicians
Part 5: Can Evil Sometimes Be Good?
Part 6: A Cast of Master Obfuscators
3 Washington D.C. Stereotypes House of Cards Hits Too Close for Comfort
I grew up in a small town and went to college in the Midwest, got my first “real” job on the East Coast, and moved to Washington, D.C. I’m sure the Washingtonians could smell fresh blood the moment I stepped out of the car. Although I have been here for a few years, I always find Washington, D.C., hard to describe—it isn’t a normal city and it doesn’t play by normal rules. Manners are rare and the smile exotic. If the district had a “state” song and a “district” animal… it would be “Money” by Pink Floyd and the indestructible cockroach.
Yes, Washington, D.C., is gorgeous and a lot of good people work and live here; the picturesque bridges over the Potomac River, the utopian dream that is George Washington Parkway, and constant influxes of young, bright-eyed people who want to change the world. However, despite its white, marble buildings and shining waters, D.C. is not all that it seems. Rules have been suspended within the 68.3 sq miles of the District. In fact, D.C. becomes a sort of alternative universe compared to the rest of the country.
A lot of television shows are set here, most recently, the political-thriller House of Cards (HoC). Why is D.C. a popular “show” location? Probably because any ridiculous plot line can work here—anything can happen and be believable. As a Washingtonian watching HoC, it is easy to say that its “fiction” is more similar to reality than one would like to admit. Be afraid. The following are three HoC characters you would meet in D.C.—Washingtonians know them well.
1. The Above-Average-Ambitious Washingtonian: Frank Underwood
The first scene of episode one depicts Frank Underwood suffocating a dog. (What a nice introduction!) While the dog was most likely going to be put down anyway, how many people could stomach doing it with their bare hands? Frank could. A few scenes later, Frank the dog killer is passed over for the position of secretary of State. A promise to him was not kept (wrong thing to do to someone who is capable of smothering an animal). Frank vows revenge and the plot is set.
Now, this might have seemed like an “episode one on steroids” — within the first 15 minutes the main character has already killed an animal (sorry I keep harping on this — I just love dogs), plotted retribution against his own political party, and turned the audience’s interpretation of a lot of things on its head–but this example of flip-flopping at warp speed isn’t far from the truth. Frank’s swift vow of revenge can be attributed to “Climbing-Ladder Syndrome,” a sickness commonly found in Washington, D.C. residents. Symptoms include rash decisions, swearing, and wishing ruin on everyone around them; some may even resort to watching YouTube videos of piano-playing cats. Causes can be, but are not limited to, being passed over for a job, being back-stabbed, and/or being lied to. I think psychologists could find a correlation between proximity to Capitol Hill or the White House and levels of anxiety.
The Frank Underwood character is the devil hiding inside every ambitious person — but in HoC, we get to see the devil in action. He is chaos, he is the Nordic god Loki. His outbursts and actions are those that many of us ponder in the dark recesses or our minds, but never act out because of morality. But D.C. has no rules, remember?
The pursuit of power is like a sickness—once you get a taste for it, you want more–and if the door is shut, you get out your sledgehammer and create a new one. The almost desperate decisions that you see in HoC are pretty standard for a city bent on attaining power, and backstabbing, ladder-climbing, and the pursuit of “the next best thing” are the main food staples of the District. Frank Underwood participates in all of this–he loves it. When people trek up to their offices on the Hill, carrying their sledgehammers, they know what they are getting into.
2. The Über Devoted Staffer: Doug Stamper
Man, is he creepy—and when I say “creepy” I mean he is creepy good at his job. He makes problems go away and dreams up new ones when they need to be exploited: he is a political minesweeper. Politicians play dirty and, truth be told, their staff members sometimes add “minion” to the end of their business cards’ title line. Many viewers probably see the Stamper character as well-written fiction. Wrong. “Stampers” are real.
I am going to pull a “Zoe Barnes” and put a “details gag order” on myself for this next tidbit. I happened to be in state X (it was not D.C.) and I witnessed a person trespassing on private property, taking pictures of me, my companion, and our surroundings. After a short car pursuit, police involvement, and admission of guilt, it came out that this law-breaking photog was actually hired by a distinguished member of one of the houses of our bicameral legislature to take pictures of the private party of his opponent—the parent of my companion who was running for his seat. The pictures were taken with the intent of creating fodder for a smear campaign. All he got were snapshots of two people enjoying a leisurely drive through the countryside and the exterior of a garage. Although a bad photographer, this guy was a Doug Stamper. He was hired to find a weakness—or to create the environment to promote and exploit one. Although this Stamper wasn’t touting prostitutes, drugs, or alcohol as a means to corrupt his employer’s opponent, it was nonetheless dishonest and low and, sadly, illustrates the far-reaching influence of D.C. grime. Doug Stampers exist—they are not HoC fiction. In D.C., in one second, three people could be plotting your demise. The next time someone offers you a drink, ask who he’s really working for.
3. The Naïve Intern: Zoe Barnes
Zoe Barnes is pretty annoying but she isn’t all that bad. The poor girl just wants to be noticed and respected. This sounds like a familiar D.C. phenomenon. Why? It reminds me of the migrant creatures that flock to D.C. in the summer: interns. I have solid experience with, and as, an intern. I was an intern for three months in D.C. and my motto was to just blend in, work hard, and not piss anyone off. Besides that one Marine on the escalator (I apologize, sir), I think I did well. I have dealt with 16 of my own interns so I know the breed well. D.C. interns come to this city intending to take the capital by storm and make long-lasting change. They are a little nosey and sometimes inflate who they are. Like Zoe slipping into the event where she meets Congressman Frank Underwood, I have heard many a tale of interns showing up for closed-door events or even giving themselves new job titles when they meet important people:
Hill Staffer: “So what do you do?
Masquerading Intern: “I’m in Foreign Policy—I am the Research Assistant on X nation at Y think tank.”
Hill Staffer: “Oh really? My fiancee works there and that’s her position.”
Masquerading Intern: Busted
It’s all real, people… and this is just the beginning.
NEXT: The House of Cards Vision of Infidelity: More Fact than Fiction
The House of Cards Vision of Infidelity: More Fact than Fiction
The topic of infidelity isn’t exactly funny—or a subject that many T.V. producers and writers can write into their plots without making the audience completely hate the characters engaged. House of Cards’ writing involving the marriage and unfaithfulness of Frank and Claire is subtly genius and creepy–because the audience doesn’t necessarily come to completely dislike them for their moral derailment. This might mean that the writing is so genius that the audience is tricked into not judging the cheating characters, or it might simply shed some light on the moral condition of D.C. and greater society. I think it is a little bit of both.
When people gain power, they start to feel untouchable. And when they think they are untouchable, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. They are also more likely to become a target for those who also seek fame, power, and wealth. Celebrities and politicians frequently fall prey to a false sense of indestructibility, as well as to power-hungry gremlins…and some are led astray from their marriages.
Infidelity is not a phenomenon specific to Washington, D.C.—it occurs from sea to shining sea–but the sinful game has higher stakes in the District. Due to the nature of the cheating players’ jobs, their environment, and media coverage, unfaithfulness seems to be both concentrated and magnified in D.C. History is full of famous “D.C. wanderings.” It’s pathetic that I have so many to choose from. Let’s start at the top…
President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky! She was the Anne Boleyn of the mid-nineties White House: a young intern gets tangled up with the most powerful man on the planet and he is impeached (and later acquitted). A scandal of this magnitude should be a mortal wound to a politician: he has an inappropriate relationship with a member of his own staff and repeatedly lies to the public. However, despite the affair, Clinton left office with a soaring approval rating and is still revered today. Kind of sick.
John F. Kennedy is also rumored to have carried on affairs while president of the United States of America—the most famous being with Marilyn Monroe. Other rumored liaisons included Jackie Kennedy’s press secretary, two White House secretaries, and a Georgetown socialite. The number of JFK’s alleged affairs reaches two digits. Kennedy’s affairs are fairly public now–interviews and stories about them still pop up in newspapers today. Strangely, people still consider the Kennedy family to be pure and perfect—and something to emulate.
D.C. also has stars like Newt Gingrich, who had two affairs, one of which occurred while his (first) wife battled cancer. Sadly, this situation was repeated with John Edwards and his mistress Rielle Hunter while his wife fought for her life. Elizabeth Edwards passed away from cancer a few years after the affair was uncovered; but not before kindly reaching out to Edwards’ mistress and their love child. Elizabeth Edwards: classy lady with an unclassy husband.
There is also the atomic bomb of the extra-marital affair involving the widely respected General Petraeus,who was then the acting director of the CIA, and Paula Broadwell, his “official biographer.” Petraeus stepped down as director.
I could go on and on. Welcome to Washington, D.C.
And with this primer of real-life Washington, we turn back to House of Cards’ portrayal of marriage and scandal. Although set in D.C., the Underwood affairs were semi-out-of-left-field to me—but I guess that’s how a lot of cheating goes. I’m sure the majority of this country never imagines their perfect president, congressman, governor, or general could ever be capable of unfaithfulness. Well, they were wrong—as I was with the Underwoods.
Frank and Claire are a very strong couple, and it is obvious that they love each other; Claire buys Frank a rowing machine so that he will be healthier and live longer. Frank hates the “monstrosity” but he humors Claire and starts using it anyway. Frank even gives the audience a flash of his humanness: “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.” The Underwoods are affectionate, open, and honest with each other. When Frank starts his revenge plot, Claire is completely onboard and willing to help. They are the epitome of the word “team”–and it is creepy how well they work together. Despite how strong the Underwoods seem in the beginning, it soon becomes evident that their marriage is also a business transaction where the ultimate payout is power. Frank is willing to cheat on Claire with Zoe as “payment” for her writing Frank’s dictated articles. Claire’s motive for cheating on Frank is a little less certain. Boredom? Or is she really hurt by his relationship with Zoe and wants revenge? Honestly, I think she just wanted a place to go and someone to be with while Frank was with Zoe.
Although they both are aware of the other’s cheating, they return home and pick up where they left off, pretending they are perfect and continuing their plan to dismantle those above them. How is this possible? Well, they are both very committed to their “power plan” and both see their cheating as necessary evils in the quest to achieve their end goal. Frank sees his affair as necessary to secure the cooperation of Zoe — who is key to putting out damning information that will push him further up the ladder.
Like I said earlier, Claire is a little harder to read. It might be the armor-like sheath dresses she wears or her lack of facial expressions, but I think Claire just required affection and human contact while Frank was absent… and resorted to her past photog lover. Claire is a stone-cold character — a far cry from loyal and wholesome Buttercup in Princess Bride — but I did feel a little bad for her during these episodes. She might have some tricks up her sleeve though — especially after making a few deals behind Frank’s back. I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of Claire yet. Nonetheless, despite each person’s shortfalls and their cheating/backstabbing antics, the Underwoods need each other for their plan to succeed — for them both to get ahead. They are like two Dobermans chained to a stake. They can venture independently as far as their chain takes them, but, in the end, they need the other’s strength to pull the stake out of the ground.
In Washington, D.C., not all marriages are as tough and deeply rooted in power grabbing as the Underwoods’ marraige — not many survive lambasting news articles and paparazzi. You have to wonder what holds those that do together. Is it really “till death do us part” or is there another element? Are they willing to overlook transgressions in order to maintain the gilded life that has been attained and to achieve the riches and fame to come? The marriage and cheating of Frank and Claire might all be fiction, but is their story really that crazy compared to the real-life examples above? Yea, that’s what I thought. You got us again, House of Cards. The show is a little too close to D.C. life for comfort.
NEXT: Seduce Your Way to the Top? Meet the Anne Boleyns of Washington, D.C.
Seduce Your Way to the Top? Meet the Anne Boleyns of Washington, D.C.
This week’s House of Cards essay will expand on last week’s piece, “The House of Cards Vision of Infidelity: More Fact than Fiction.” Yes, unfortunately we remain stuck with this slimy theme of infidelity. This week let’s talk about the women.
Men have had a leg up in the world, especially in the workplace. Females are still trying to catch up. Salary comparisons and lack of women in certain fields will underline this fact. Unfortunately, some women feel like they are faced with two options: be ruthless and work really hard to achieve their goals at the risk of the “ice queen” label, or take an easier route and use other means. Some women do decide to use medieval methods (think Anne Boleyn in the Tudor days) in order to succeed in the workplace — and this is all too evident in big cities like Washington, D.C.
Women have employed method #2 for centuries (men have as well). But dabbling in this kind of currency can lead to two very different ends: career destruction or the attainment of dreams. Last week, we talked about how scandals tend to be both concentrated and magnified in D.C. The cutthroat culture here seems to breed an underground marketplace of give-and-gets, with scandal as the most likely outcome. Ultimately, Washingtonians must decide if they are going to enter that market — or try to forge their own way up the ambition ladder.
As you may have noticed, in all of my “salacious examples” from last week, the female actors were all the “underdogs.” They were not in positions of power as General Petraeus or Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were. Monica was an intern, Paula a biographer, Rielle a videographer. Although smart and accomplished themselves, compared to their public-office-holding men, they had less to lose and more to gain from their affairs: a better job, book deals, and the affections of the president. The heart of a woman is a very wild place — we cannot count out feelings of love — but this also isn’t a Disney movie; this is D.C. I cannot guarantee that all used their “womanly wiles” to get ahead (Marilyn Monroe was famous in her own right), but many did profit from their relationships with their famous liaisons and, decades later, remain famous due to their association with the scandal.
House of Cards gives us a glimpse into the world of Monica and/or Paula pre-affair… and the dilemma between hard work and easy street. HoC’s two leading ladies, Claire and Zoe, are both very ambitious. They both feel that they can achieve more if they push just a bit harder. Claire wants power, to be the wife of the president or secretary of State, and some money for her struggling charity. Zoe wants to be noticed and promoted at work. Everyone wants to “be somebody” in D.C.
Zoe starts out as a likeable character — occasionally annoying, but not morally corrupted … yet. However, the hunger for a newsworthy story becomes too great and she engages in an affair with Frank Underwood, a married congressman. I think this is when I started to really dislike her. She gets creepy towards the end of season one, while wearing Claire’s clothes and examining which side of the bed Claire sleeps on. She tries to turn the tables on Frank and exert some of her own power.
I had the biggest problem with the Frank-Zoe storyline because of the big jump from “symbiotic relationship between ladder climbers” to “symbiotic relationship” with a side of “extramarital affair.” Zoe could have written Frank’s stories without engaging in “other activities” and would have gotten the same fame and attention that she craved. Frank needed Zoe just as much as she needed him — thus the affair was a sort of “extra” in their little arrangement. Zoe used Frank knowing that he was her ticket to the big time and that, eventually, she could blackmail him.
Claire’s path to power via the sheets is a little more “traditional” compared to Zoe’s. Claire hitched her wagon to Frank because he was going to be somebody big. She married him to guarantee that she would be second in command no matter how far up the ladder he climbed. Episode one showed Claire’s utter disbelief when she found out that Frank was not nominated as secretary of State. I think she took the news that she was NOT to be Miss Secretary of State worse than Frank did. Frank and Claire have some love for each other — but not enough to stay true to their wedding vows. While she does engage in an affair, Claire’s extramarital relationship doesn’t seem to lead to any gains for herself. Are we seeing the soft, vulnerable side of Claire?!
Nonetheless, while Frank is off with Zoe, Claire uses Frank’s influence and name to wheel and deal behind his back (with Remy, the powerful corporate lobbyist) for the benefit of her charity. Although Claire doesn’t use her affair for gain (that we know of), her own marriage of convenience is just as wrong because she uses it as a means to advance herself.
In the end, I bet most of the women named last week and this week regret their decisions to have relationships with their political lovers. True, they all got their book deals, but their own credibility and all of their hard work? Evaporated. (They should be thankful they didn’t lose their head like Anne Boleyn!) Zoe stopped her affair and attempted to continue her professional relationship with Frank — but it was too late. You can’t simply pretend that such perfect blackmail material just “didn’t happen.”
Like Zoe, Claire also ended her affair with her long-time photographer friend and came home to Frank. However, unlike Zoe, Claire’s ongoing immoral actions happen within her marriage — not in the space outside of it. Therefore, she is not really redeemed.
In real life, Monica has tried to overcome her tarnished image through a line of handbags — but I’m not sure it is working. She is a household name — one half of the largest scandal in White House history. Although time has passed, the others have not escaped the public either. Rielle ran for cover with her baby after Edwards went public, Marilyn died tragically — adding to the mythology of the Kennedy White House. One of the Gingrich women ended up married to him; the other ended up divorced and bitter. These women could have been great political powerhouses and respected in their own right but they decided to risk it all when faced with an influential man who could put them on the fast-track to their dreams. They used their bodies to up the ante in hopes of advancing themselves… and ended up disgraced.
The moral of the story: work hard and be ruthless. Never sell out—even if he commands the fiercest fighting force on the planet—because you can’t recapture time or innocence. Once the public judges you, the sentence always stands.
NEXT: Why We Love to Hate Politicians…
Why We Love to Hate Politicians
Politicians… we love to hate them. And sometimes we love them more than they deserve.
Politicians have a tough rap in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, many citizens have come to associate public office with corruption. Thanks to the media, it has become the norm to see “scandal” written all over the papers, and these frequent scandals have exposed some of our leaders as immoral, untrustworthy frauds.
Playing with our already preconceived perceptions of politicians in Washington, D.C., House of Cards portrays almost all of its political characters as being corrupt. I shiver to think that there are politicians running around D.C. killing their mentees, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. A lot of the activities seen in HoC are things that our beloved senators, congressmen, and presidents have been caught doing. What’s even more shocking is that the public seems to take them back. Are we so jaded that bad behavior has become the norm? Not quite — but I do blame Disney.
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The Cornucopia of Sin: Peter Russo
Peter Russo is introduced to the audience when he picks up a telephone mid-meeting and yells at his assistant that she should be holding his calls. His anger vanishes as soon as he realizes it is the president — and he carries on a phone conversation as his guest sits waiting, obviously impressed. Only thing is, it is not the president on the other line — it is Russo’s assistant, one room away, talking dirty to him over the phone. Wow — and with that, we meet Peter Russo.
Take two isn’t much better; we find him at his apartment, in bed, with the same assistant (oh, and she does have a name — it is Christina). Great — so, not only is he playing around at work but now he’s actually having a relationship with his assistant. He seems to get worse and worse each time you meet him. Later on we watch as he gets picked up for drunk-driving (while with a prostitute). Strikes three and four.
From there, we see him doing cocaine and mushrooms, and bribing people to do his bidding (or Frank’s bidding as payback for making his DUI disappear). By this point, we hate him. We loathe him — and we feel bad for Christina and his adorable kids. Yes, he has kids! Add “dead-beat dad” to his resume of pathetic titles.
But, even after all of this bad behavior, Peter Russo’s character manages to grow on you. What? I fault Disney and the creation of the thing we call a “Cinderella story.” The audience just can’t help but like Russo as he slowly climbs out of his dark hole (there is some redemption for him after all). Unfortunately for him, although the audience starts to root for him to succeed and become good, he has a tragic ending. He is the Othello to Frank Underwood’s Iago. He was doomed to never succeed.
The Prince of Blackmail: Doug Stamper
Doug, Doug, Doug. He is master at his craft and that is being the eyes and ears of everything in Washington, D.C. Doug isn’t as extreme in his sin as Peter Russo since he isn’t indulging in “vices” himself — such as drugs or alcohol (he does get a strike against him for that one time with the prostitute though). He is evil because he’s a puppeteer. He makes people do what he and Frank want by blackmailing them.
He blackmails Russo to get a false statement from Roy Kapeniak so that Mr. Kern is ruined and cannot be confirmed for secretary of State. His handiwork (the shredded draft for the education bill) is used as ammo to ruin Blythe so that Frank Underwood can swoop in and pick up the pieces — making himself look good. He pays off the prostitute to keep Russo’s DUI a secret and then uses the funds as leverage to make her another useful pawn. Stamper’s steady stream of funds and protection guarantee her cooperation in the plot to destroy Russo. Stamper also meets with a D.C. cop, offering him funds and powerful backers if he decides to run for D.C. mayor.
Stamper is a creep, and his brief charade with the prostitute after he picks her up to find out if she knows that Russo was a congressman is 100% sleazy. However, as with Russo, the audience might be conflicted on how evil Stamper really is. I wouldn’t say that you are rooting for him like Peter Russo on his slow path to redemption, but you get some warm fuzzies when he takes the prostitute in and gives her a roof over her head. He didn’t have to do that — he could have just kept paying her off. Is that a glimpse of humanity we are seeing in Doug? Should we give him another chance? He is an enigma… maybe he will throw us all and turn out to be a good character. Hey, it’s what we are all hoping for in our Disney-loving hearts.
The Director of all Chaos: Frank Underwood
I am honestly at a loss as to where to start regarding Frank. He’s the master of all the bad that happens in House of Cards. He calls the shots that send Stamper into action and his plans are what ruin the lives of several characters: Blythe, Kern, and Russo. He doesn’t do drugs, he doesn’t drink profusely, he doesn’t use prostitutes (although he does cheat on Claire)… his sin is that he has an insatiable taste for power. Frank is very good at making his hands look clean — even though they are the most covered in blood. And, weirdly, even though Frank is (probably) the most “evil” of characters, we still like him — at least I do!
It is probably obvious by reading my takes on Peter Russo and Doug Stamper, above, that I loathe them more than I do Frank. I know, I just said Frank was “the most evil”! But it’s true — I do like Frank. Maybe it’s his southern accent or honest love of BBQ; I just cannot completely hate him.
Why? How? Look at all the evil he is capable of?! This, ladies and gentlemen, is the “Cinderella story” coming back around to haunt us. The public loves a good Cinderella story — we hope that the best in everyone will conquer the evil. And this, I think, this is why we allow corrupt politicians to run our country — we hope that their past transgressions will magically disappear and they will be perfect models of public service. Not only do you see this when we watch fictional shows like HoC (we root for characters to be good and do good deeds — to prove us wrong), but we also apply this thinking to real politicians.
Look Who’s Back…
In real life, Representative Anthony Weiner is attempting to run for mayor of New York City. In case you forgot, Weiner resigned from Congress in June 2011 because he sent inappropriate pictures to a woman via his Twitter account and then lied to the public for several days, claiming he didn’t. In the end, Weiner admitted to sending sexually suggestive photographs to several women over the span of three years. Note: he had been sending these photos for years. He only apologized because he got caught. If he hadn’t, he would probably still be doing it. We are thinking of re-electing his man?
I’ve beaten the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship to death in previous pieces in this series — just remember, we let that gremlin stay on as president and we still give him Secret Service protection. Where is the justice?
It came out a few months ago that Secret Service agents were using prostitutes abroad…
In 1985, Barney Frank’s male prostitute roommate/lover used Frank’s house to run an escort service. Frank stated in the subsequent investigation that he had no idea this was occurring in his residence. He was reprimanded for using his office to clear his lover’s parking tickets and for “misstatements of fact” in a memo regarding his lover’s criminal record. Frank remained in the House of Representatives for 28 more years—leaving in January 2013. What?
The list goes on and on.
We need to let go of our “Disney happy-ending fantasy” and realize that instead of three strikes, we should be using a “one-strike you’re out” policy. House of Cards has shown us that the transgressions of fictional politicians actually mirror that of some real-life Washingtonians.
No, not all politicians are bad — there are a few examples of men and women with real moral fiber on the Hill. Stand tall, you few! But I’m not buying the “they are human and they also have flaws” argument. Throw it out. It doesn’t apply. When a group of people put their trust in one person to “represent” them, they should be the most honorable of men and women. Holding office is serious business and it is a privilege. Whoever is elected, they signed up for this job — they campaigned to have the pleasure of representing the people of their home state in our distinguished government. They should expect to be held to the highest of standards, for their conduct to be scrutinized, their words analyzed, and to be found out (and punished) if they screw up. No excuses. Politicians might surprise us by changing their ways and executing the job they were hired for, faithfully and honorably; but, when they don’t, we need to cut the Russos, Stampers, and Underwoods loose. Otherwise, we’re all doomed.
House of Cards‘ straight-from-the-headlines plot and the recent return of Anthony Weiner to the national scene remind us that real life rarely ends like a Disney movie.
NEXT: Can ‘Evil’ Sometimes Be Good?
Can ‘Evil’ Sometimes Be Good?
In order to write these articles, and at the suggestion of my lovely editor, I have watched season one of House of Cards twice. Not only was watching it a second time still entertaining, but it’s always good to watch a show again. You pick up on things that you missed the first go because you were too busy trying to figure out the plot and the characters. I started pass #3 last Sunday night (not because I’m a nut job) but because I finally got a good friend of mine, another Washingtonian, to give it a try. We’ve gotten through two episodes so far. Let’s just say, HoC has gained yet another fan.
As we were watching, my buddy would inquire about Person X or Y: Is he good or bad? Is what Peter just said true? Is XYZ about to happen?! Obviously, as I have seen the show, I knew these answers and I tried not to give too much away. However, I did say that Frank got “a little shady” towards the end of the season. Even though by the end of episode two it is evident that Frank is manipulator and destroyer of lives AND after I gave full disclosure that my friend might not like Frank by the middle of the season, he still cheered for Frank when he cornered Michael Kern on CNN and when Linda Vasquez brought him in to her office to “fire him.”
It became evident that my friend was rooting for Frank — he even asked if Frank would turn out to be a good guy in this strange land of the evil, manipulation, and moral corruption. Although he probably will not turn out to be a good guy in the end, the audience will probably still enjoy it most when Kevin Spacey is on the screen — playing the role of the mad dog, Loki God of Chaos — and I think my friend will be part of that crowd. I started to think about what season two would be like…would Frank achieve his ultimate goal of becoming President of the United States? Then, it happened. A small thought moved out of the recesses of my mind and into my full awareness. I could no longer deny its existence.
My dangerous thought: Despite all of the “bad” things Frank Underwood had done, no matter how much you disliked him after some of his actions, Frank Underwood would be a good President.
There. I said it — and here’s why…
1. When He Pinky-Swears, He’s Serious.
Keeping promises is extremely important — it’s even more important when you’re the most powerful man on the planet. The country needs to believe in their leader — and know that he is serious about taking care of their needs (it’s how you get votes). Conversely, the bad guys need to know that what the President says isn’t just bluster.
Well, Frank definitely doesn’t bluster! Remember that hit-and-run with the neighbor’s dog in the opening scene? Frank vowed to have his bodyguard look into it. I’m sure the audience totally forgot about that incident as episode one went on (Frank’s vow of revenge, the setting of the plot, and the meeting all of the characters), but before episode one closed, the police arrived and arrest the culprit. Even though Frank is a high and mighty person on the Hill (he definitely considers himself to be high and mighty), he still made a point to have his staff follow up with the kid who killed his neighbor’s dog. Whenever Frank swears to bring someone down, he does. Case and point: Michael Kern, Peter Russo — or anyone else who lines up against him. Frank might be creepily dedicated to his promises; but that’s imperative when you’re president.
2. He’s Good at Real-Life Games of Chess.
Chess is a tough game for those who are short-term planners — if you can only plan out two or three moves, you’ll probably get beat. But, if you can work out possible combinations and anticipate your opponent’s movements down to when you can call “check mate,” you will be very, very good.
While promoting the country’s interests, sometimes the President is forced to deal with difficult characters — other presidents, terrorists, lobbying-groups, competition in an election, etc. If the president is able to read his opponent and predict his movements, he will be about to out maneuver them, compensate, and, ultimately, succeed in meeting his goals.
I can tell you right now, Frank Underwood is probably an amazing chess player. He outsmarts everyone around him because he is several steps ahead. He can plan out his opponent’s movements and deliver quick blows when needed, or sit back and let them dig themselves a hole. Frank’s handling of Blythe was pure genius—and example of his long-term strategic planning. He knew Blythe would fall on the sword if he put him in just the right position—and he did. Then, at the urging of Blythe, Frank was already in the perfect position to take over and reap the glory—just like he had planned. Check mate, Blythe.
3. His Temperament — If Not His Behavior — Is the Perfect Mix of Good and Evil.
Leaders need to be firm, but not ruthless, and compassionate, but not a pushover. To gain respect, admiration, and loyalty, a leader must be realistic about the evil around him, yet faithful that there are forces for good. Leaders need to know when to be harsh and when to be merciful. Without a balance, a leader either becomes ineffective and indecisive or heavy-handed and extreme. The key is to be capable of cruelty — but not to use it. Leaders need to be Clark Kent; always capable of becoming Superman, but not always showing off the cape.
Frank is like a Sicilian Clark Kent. Although Frank does engage in some wicked activities (like murdering Peter Russo), he has the Sicilian “family business” priority of family loyalty. (I use, “family business” in the way the Corleone family would use it). Frank regards loyalty as an extremely important virtue — and demonstrates this by viewing promises as sacred and by respecting and taking care of those who deserve protection. Although Frank likes to think that he’s a lone wolf on his quest to the White House, he does care for his wife, his staffers, Freddy (his favorite BBQ owner), and his neighbors and their injured dog.
Yes, he is a bit of a watered down Michael Corleone; he can go out and ruin a Congressman’s life via blackmail and bribery, yet will come home and work out on his rowing machine — just to make his wife smile, but Frank has the gift of balance. He knows when to go hard and when to be gentle. He would be formidable to any foes during a national crisis. Can you imagine Frank Underwood during the most recent North Korea “crisis” — oh man.
4. Bushels of Charisma.
Making a nation fall in love with you (so that they’ll vote for you) is tough business. It requires a lot of smiling, laughing, and pretending you’re always at ease — no matter how awkward you feel. A successful candidate needs to be like the 98 Degrees song and say “all the right things at exactly the right time,” and ALWAYS look super cool. Charisma and the cool factor can buy an election: Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 and McCain vs. Obama in 2008 are examples.
Frank has a southern drawl and he just reminds you of your favorite uncle who spoils you with those gifts mom and dad refused to buy you. His good acting and charm can win over anyone. Frank would slaughter any opponent in a Presidential debate. I can already see the memes that debate would generate…
Frank Underwood for President.
NEXT: A Cast of Master Obfuscators
A Cast of Master Obfuscators
The art of reading body language is extremely helpful in Washington, D.C. Those who wheel and deal for a living must possess this ability—otherwise, they will be unable to decide who is lying, who is telling the truth, and will not be able to gain leverage over competitors. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood is amazingly good at reading his opponent. He knows when someone is lying to him and when to push peoples’ buttons just a little bit harder in order to get what he wants. He is a master at reading people.
Although I am not as good as Frank, I like to consider myself pretty good at reading those around me. However, no matter how hard I try, I don’t stand a chance against the characters in House of Cards. As soon as I think I’ve figured out a character, they change their mask and I have to start my analysis all over again. In one episode, Character X might show their soft side, but two episodes later, the same character might take part in a murder?! Eventually, I realized I cannot read the characters at all—or predict what they know or what they will do.
The show producers and writers obfuscate the true intentions of several individuals, which allows for great plot twists…and leaves the audience in doubt as to who they can trust. It’s hard to piece together the truth or predict the future when the audience is not sure who is truthful and who is a deceiver. Below are a few questions that season one leaves unanswered. What is certain is that House of Cards teaches the audience a valuable lesson about Washington, D.C.: trust no one.
Aside from Frank, the person you are least likely to trust or understand is Claire Underwood. I find her the hardest character to crack on the entire show. She is impervious to my deep psychological evaluations each episode (psych major here!); and I have subsequently labeled her an enigma. The majority of her actions can be interpreted in one of two ways: as well intentioned and caring or as part of the “greater plan” to dominate and destroy everything around her.
Question one: How much does Claire know about the murder of Peter Russo?
We all know Frank killed Peter—but is Claire aware of the monster within the man she is married to? The audience is never quite sure how much Claire knows—is she just playing “the good wife” or is she really in the dark regarding some of Frank’s more sinister plans?
When Frank returns home (after killing Peter), Claire meets him in the living room—and tries to comfort him. Earlier in season one, Claire tells Zoe that Frank tells her “everything”—so I wouldn’t put it past her to know that killing Peter was part of the plan, but Claire’s show of support isn’t transparent. It could either be an act of goodwill; to comfort her husband after such a horrific suicide, or she could be verifying that she had knowledge of Peter’s murder at the hands of Frank–and feels for her husband for having to carry out the killing.
Later on, Claire tells Frank she cannot sleep—because Peter is haunting her thoughts and she is having nightmares. Claire is visibly shaken in this scene (it’s probably the most emotion Claire has ever demonstrated on the show), and you are not sure if this fear is because Claire regrets what they did to Peter or if she is just struggling to process his “suicide.” Frank’s response is “I know, he haunts me too.” So, is Frank identifying with her nightmares because he too is also haunted by the fact that he had to kill Peter—or is he just trying to calm her down?
Verdict: Claire comforts Frank because she knows he killed Russo. It’s ok Frank, I understand killing is tough. Therefore, Claire knows he killed Peter.
Question two: Why does Claire suddenly want children?
Episode 13 of season one showed Claire at the doctor’s office, exploring her likelihood of becoming pregnant. The audience has seen Claire’s hot flashes—so we know that she is a little older and nearing the end of her child-bearing days. It is made known early on in the show that Frank and Claire do not want children—and the subject is dropped. However, the audience is left a trail of breadcrumbs to suggest that Claire might want children after all; she seems to enjoy the Russo kids and she asks Francis what they are “working towards” if they have no offspring to inherit their legacy. Towards the end of season one, the audience is led to believe that Claire does want children—hence why she consults a doctor…BUT, this is after her lawyer tells her that “expectant mothers” will be given more sympathy by a jury in court. Remember Claire’s upcoming court battle with Jillian? Jillian is pregnant—and Claire knows very well that she could lose the case because Jillian will garner more sympathy due to her condition. Is Claire’s interest in becoming pregnant due to a hidden desire for children…or because she wants a leg up in court?
Verdict: She wants to use her (possible) pregnancy as leverage in court.
Zoe wasn’t hard to read in the beginning of season one, but after breaking off her fling with Frank, I am not sure where Zoe’s loyalties lie. Like Claire, some of Zoe’s actions are confusing—you aren’t sure if her reason for doing them is good or bad.
Question three: What’s with Lucas?
The audience probably felt bad for Zoe when she felt like she needed to run away from her apartment and “small life”—but you couldn’t help but wonder why she had to call Lucas? Lucas’ reappearance in Zoe’s life seemed too quick to be anything legitimate. Is Zoe staying with/dating Lucas because she wants his help with her story or does she legitimately like him? Remember, they hadn’t spoken in six months. So, out of nowhere, she wants to stay with him? (Note: she did end up in his bed.) Zoe, we already talked about the “Anne Boleyns of D.C.” Zoe also never responds after he admits he loves her — nor does she shed any further light on her feelings after the topic comes up again. Zoe’s interest in Lucas seemed too strategic…
Verdict: Zoe is using Lucas (for now), but I think she will legitimately fall for him later. (At least, let’s hope.)
Question four: Is Zoe really on Janine’s side?
Zoe obviously tries to kill Janine’s story on the watershed bill and its link to Peter Russo and Frank Underwood—she goes as far as to warn Frank that Janine was digging around. Therefore, we can assume that Zoe does want to protect both herself and Frank. However, as the puzzle pieces start to fall together and Zoe realizes that Frank may have been the puppeteer all along, she starts to place herself in the Janine-Lucas camp that is against Frank. However, Zoe continues to get stories from Frank via text…which means he is still valuable to her.
Verdict: Zoe will face mounting obstacles in season two that will force her to decide where her loyalties lie. In the end, she will pick the side of truth.
I will never like Doug Stamper. I would rather fight Frank Underwood for the last rack of BBQ ribs on earth than admit I like Stamper. That being said, I do have to admit that although I am prejudiced against him, he still throws me for a loop sometimes.
Question five: Deep down, is Doug Stamper caring or controlling?
When Stamper first meets Rachel, he gives her a wad of cash and asks for her silence — then he proceeds to unbutton his pants. Yuck. However, the first “loop” was thrown when Stamper stuck up for Rachel after her boss acted inappropriately towards her. After he found Rachel a place to stay (in Nancy’s house) and, later, an apartment, I started to think that maybe I was misguided in the beginning… maybe Stamper would turn out to be a nice guy. Stamper didn’t have to get Rachel an apartment — not even as a trade for Rachel to get Peter drunk and guarantee that he screw up his interview. He could have just given her money like the first few times. He also didn’t have to take care of her creepy boss. Does Stamper have a soft spot for Rachel?
In regards to Peter Russo, it looked like Stamper had a hard time with the aftermath of the botched interview and murder—he seemed upset and almost full of regret.
Verdict: I think Stamper cares about other people, but, ultimately, realizes that he must follow Frank’s orders and keep people in line—for fear that someone could bring down the entire Underwood team. I think something could develop with Rachel but, if asked by his boss, he would “tie off” loose ends.
I look forward to season two—and the answers to these questions. Only the Lord knows who is good and who is bad in this series, as all of the characters have become completely impossible for us mortals to read.
NEXT: 4 Reasons Why Netflix’s House of Cards Is Such a Hit
4 Reasons Why Netflix’s House of Cards Is Such a Hit
House of Cards was a slam dunk for Netflix. The name is practically an entertainment buzzword. The show is so widely known that a spoof was made, “House of Nerds,” for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The video featured Washington, D.C., superstars like John McCain, Jay Carney, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all fighting with Frank Underwood to get the best seat at the dinner. The dinner crowd loved it — and so did the House of Cards fans.
Obviously, this show carries some sort of magic in its pocket—it wins over audiences left and right. Heck, half of Capitol Hill, which the show portrays in a not-so-flattering light, knew enough about it to laugh at the spoof at their “Nerd Prom.” So what is it about this dark horse of a show that has made it so great?
Pure genius on many levels.
1. Characters that are too good at “being bad”
Southern gentleman Frank Underwood is the first piece of genius in this show. I’ve pointed out in previous posts that no matter what Frank does, you still fall for his South Carolinian charm and charisma. He’s smooth-talking and has a soft side. He has the audience eating out of his hand and then, WHAM, he’s slapped with the title of “murderer.” Oh well, you still love him and you still want him to succeed. You just cannot hate Frank — his quips, smartass dialogue, and honest facial expressions make the audience laugh even in the darkest moments. Frank is the perfect bad guy who continuously baits the audience only to have them coming back for more.
2. An Academy Award-Winner from South Orange
Kevin Spacey. Give that man an award. I’m not sure I will ever be able to view him as anyone other than Frank Underwood from here on out. Honestly, I’m surprised he took this part. Can you imagine that phone call with his agent?
“Hi Kevin, we have a part for you in a series exclusively for Netflix. It will all be shot and released all at once. Yes, the whole series, Kevin. No, it will only be available on Netflix. It’s a play on a British show called “House of Cards.” No, I haven’t seen it…have you?”
This man is an Oscar winner, yet he decided to take a gamble on Netflix and this concept to release everything at once. Thank goodness he did because his acting makes House of Cards what it is. His ability to make Frank Underwood so cool in the midst of such darkness is the pièce de résistance of the House of Cards masterpiece.
3. This country may claim to hate Washington, D.C., but they secretly love the skinny on what happens here
(Ficticious) Frank made fun of (real life) Washington during the “House of Nerds” spoof—and he’s 100% on target.
It must be so hard to write jokes about a town that already is one. Democrats, Republicans, the House, Congress…you all came together to make this spoof; that’s what real bipartisanship looks like. I may lie, cheat, and intimidate to get what I want, but at least I get the job done. So I hope some of you were taking notes…
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The government is deadlocked, constantly bickering, and the media wars over “Right, Left, Red, BLUE” have given the majority of the country a bad taste in its mouth. Washington, D.C., is seasoned with lies, fear, and he-said-she-said.
Although tired of the discord, Americans are still very interested in what their government is doing in the swamp. Americans have a fascination with Washington, D.C. It runs one of the most powerful nations in the world but it is also a circus of a town. It is a prime example of a train wreck — something terrible you just can’t help but watch.
House of Cards is a perfect balance of D.C. crazy and entertainment. People enjoy watching because they like feeling like they have a handle on what goes on in D.C and are “in” on the D.C. secrets. Right now, the government is going through a therapeutic cleanse; the media is telling the country all about its activities in the shadows from spying and monitoring, to targeting certain groups for tax-exempt status, security breaches, and Secret Service scandals. People are tired of government let-downs. They want answers; they want change. If the real government isn’t going to give them what they want, Frank Underwood will. At least he can give them some hope that the “sludge will keep moving through the pipes” in the midst of elephant rides, juggling acts, and lion tamers.
4. Freedom to watch, when you want
Americans love having the freedom to do what they want: eat ice cream for breakfast, sleep until noon, get a B.A. degree in “Muppet History” or “Weapons Systems of Classic Sci Fi.” They also like watching what they want on their many electronic gadgets — whenever they want. This is what is so clever about the release of House of Cards’ entire season in one fell swoop. Fans are able to watch the show at their own pace, whenever the fancy strikes.
This release strategy was also an ingenious marketing tool for Netflix. The House of Cards name is thick in the air around the water cooler — and friends and work colleagues are inquiring where they can watch it. Not everyone has a T.V. or cable, but most do have a laptop and an internet connection (internet is in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right?).
This decision to go “online” vs. “cable” was another stroke of genius. Netflix went the “progressive route” and targeted the Americans and their ‘ol ball and chain — their computer and their internet addiction. This strategy to opt for the internet over cable was risky. Why limit viewership to people with Netflix accounts? But Netflix nailed its audience once again; Americans love free stuff.
Signing up for the “free trial subscription” is easy. It is possible to watch the show in its entirety before the trial expires; but you might succumb to the wiles of Netflix and stay on as a paying customer. Netflix is chock-full of cool shows and movies… smart move, Netflix.
In fact, bravo, Netflix. Well-played and good show. I’m sure even Frank would give you a round of applause. Ok, maybe not…
NEXT: Real Life Lessons We Learned From Watching Fictional House of Cards
Real Life Lessons We Learned From Watching Fictional House of Cards
The show House of Cards isn’t over yet—but my writing filibuster for season one, that has delayed the realization that there is not yet a season two, is nearing an end.
There is an entirely new season being written, shot, and acted as we speak. I like to think that Kevin Spacey is delivering a monologue at this very moment in Baltimore (they film most of the show in Charm City because it is less expensive). But, for now, all we have is season one—and we will have to be content watching Frank lie to Peter Russo over and over again until season two arrives.
How does one “wrap up” a filibuster on House of Cards? On the venerable Frank Underwood? Book readings and spontaneous speaking aside, in some real-life filibusters on The Hill, our officials use their floor time to get right to the point. Some spurn a day-long Harry Potter book reading in order to lay out the problems or their fears regarding Proposal X. Some use the time to stand on their soapbox and outline what they think is wrong with the present—and further describe their vision and hope for the future. Others illustrate how far we have come by explaining past challenges and our “lessons learned”—showing us how much farther we could go.
We have learned several lessons from both real-life D.C. and fictional House of Cards in our analysis of season one. I have already laid out predictions and character analyses, we have compared Zoe and Claire to infamous D.C. ladder-climbers, and I have relayed stories that make House of Cards seem a little bit too real. Hopefully, the audience will be able to apply these lessons to real-life; and skirt the pitfalls of the “glamorous life” thought to exist in Washington, D.C. In House of Cards season two, let us hope that the characters have learned some lessons from their experiences in season one.
Lessons for House of Cards Characters:
1. Current-day John Edwards and General David Petraeus.
Lesson for Frank Underwood: Be wary of ladder-climbing women and spinning webs of lies. Is it really worth the risk of potentially ruining one’s career and credibility?
2. Monica’s plight.
Lesson for Zoe Barnes: Riding the coat tails of a political all-star might sound like the perfect plan, but after the magic dissipates, you could be left with nothing but ruin and confusion.
3. Bill’s impeachment, General Petraeus’ resignation, Rielle’s current reputation, etc.
Lesson for Frank and Claire Underwood: Lying and backstabbing usually doesn’t end well…
Lessons for the audience:
1. Be wary of that intense staffer—he might seem shallow but he makes up for it in craftiness. He isn’t afraid to throw you under the bus, blackmail, or arrange your murder.
Lesson from Doug Stamper: Don’t ever show your weaknesses or let someone get “dirt” on you.
2. Power makes people feel indestructible but it also makes them more interesting to prying photographers and journalists.
Lesson from Peter Russo: Whatever you do, right or wrong, (more likely the “wrong”) will get found out.
3. Politicians love the “Cinderella Story” angle that allows them to snag a second chance with a disillusioned and disappointed public.
Lesson from Peter Russo: An official might say he has reformed… but he probably didn’t. Don’t get played.
4. Freddy’s BBQ.
Lesson from Freddy: There are decent, hard-working people in the world.
And I will end on that sweet, BBQ note with Freddy. Filibuster concluded.
After eight weeks of analysis I think it has become clear what path not to take. Don’t become Doug Stamper, Zoe Barnes, or Frank Underwood, and definitely don’t follow in the footsteps of Monica Lewinsky, Rielle Hunter, Bill Clinton, or General Patraeus. No short cuts and don’t get wrapped up with the underground crowd. Until we meet again in season two, stay strong, readers, and play out your political ambitions the smart way.
NEXT: Forecast for House of Cards Season 2: Stormy with a Chance of Homicide
Forecast for House of Cards Season 2: Stormy with a Chance of Homicide
Remember House of Cards? Well, lucky fans, season 2 will premiere on Netflix on Valentine’s Day 2014. I know, such a sweet holiday for such a sweet show! *Snort*
You may recall that I closed my series on season 1 with a few predictions for season 2. (Click here to read the original article.) After watching the trailer for the upcoming season, I decided that I needed to make a few more. Like season 1, season 2 is going to be brutal and people are likely to get whacked by the Underwood Power machine. I decided to take a leaf out of Beatrix Kiddo’s book and write my own “Death List Five” for season 2. My “Death List” is composed of the characters that, in my opinion, are most likely to end up dead by the final episode. I am open to suggestions.
Becky’s Death List Five:
1. AN ANNOYING OBSTACLE: Mr. Raymond Tusk
After watching the trailer, it looks like this man is going to find himself in Frank’s cross-hairs. Nobody comes between Frank and power.
Being BFFs with the President might make him seem untouchable, but nobody says “no” to Doug Stamper… there might be an unfortunate chain-saw accident on Tusk’s property. You just never know…
2. KARMA SUCKS: Zoe Barnes
One of my fellow, HoC watchers submitted Zoe as a possible dead body for season 2. They argued that “there was no way she could walk away from Frank (alive) after being in so deep.”
I could be persuaded to agree.
3. NICE BUT NOT A PIVOTAL CHARACTER: Lucas Goodwin
Lucas is a likable character, but with Janine as Zoe’s other sounding board and accomplice in “Operation Sink Underwood,” it wouldn’t be too upsetting to the plot if Lucas kicked the bucket. We all know the writers like to keep things interesting…
Would Zoe even bat an eyelash? Meh, maybe.
4. DANGEROUS WITH A PEN: Janine Skorsky
I think Janine is fairly likely to die because she is a) a nosy, outspoken journalist, b) already on Stamper’s radar, and c) underestimates the bad guys she is trying to expose.
Stamper and Underwood wouldn’t allow her to live long enough to write a juicy, tell-all story…
5. LOOSE ENDS GET SNIPPED: Rachel Posner
Of all the characters, I think Rachel is the most likely to end up dead. The trailer shows Rachel brandishing a butcher knife in front of Stamper (or, at least, it looks like Rachel). This might be a sneak peek of Rachel’s demise. Rachel is what Stamper calls “a loose end”–and we all know Stamper’s track record when it comes to cleaning up loose ends…