The first series of the American House of Cards translates rather well the homonymous British mini-series with the splendid Ian Richardson. Spacey’s House of Cards is more polished and more ironic. Kevin Spacey pontificating to camera while having sex is priceless. The second series drags on slowly until it shakes off any concern for realism and becomes more enjoyable. It is the excess that makes it likable again. Murder, threesome sex, and abortion are the spice that makes House of Cards the mirror image of West Wing. Like West Wing, House of Cards is not a realistic depiction of politics (see my post). While West Wing embodies the politically correct sugary politics of a world with no real problems, House of Cards revels in an excessive thirst for power.
Power: power in the show is Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) getting away with murder, controlling people, and advancing his career. It’s the power of the one over and above the many gained through blackmail and violence. Underwood is devious and charming. He flatters Congressmen and women to vote a certain way rather than just telling them what to do. This is contrasted with Jackie Sharp’s (Molly Parker) way of being the House majority whip. Coming from the military, she is tough and straight-talking and, more importantly from Frank’s point of view, prepared to ‘kill’. Being American culture markedly individualistic, the underlying conception of power is one that is very much about the individual and about might, including physical might. This is very different from the much more subtle and complex idea of power in Gomorra that emerges from relationships and the interactions between characters (see post).
Family: House of Cards goes against the sacred of American TV: the family. As argued previously, the family is sacred and brings redemption. House of Cards does not question this ‘self-evident TV truth’; on the contrary, it reinforces it by emphasising that Frank’s and Claire’s childlessness is a sign of their selfishness and love for power. They even go on to ruin other people’s families. Frank ditches Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) as his lover and takes her away from the arms of her boyfriend Lucas (Sebastian Arcelus). He also gets Jackie Sharp to severe her links a father figure, almost as an initiation rite for his power-crazy sect. Power requires ruthlessness and no tender feelings for anyone.
Gender: Claire Underwood is played by amazingly beautiful Robin Wright. Claire is a beautiful goddess. She has the beauty of a cold evil queen who will put her partnership with Frank over and above love. Her childlessness, ambition and confidence are taken as signs of her selfishness and evil character. House of Cards is everything but subversive. Childless Claire sacks one of her employee who is heavily pregnant. She has four abortions, one as a result of a rape, but the others to have a career. Like Underwood, (in the minds of many Americans at least) she ‘kills’ for power. It’s interesting that abortion is part of the picture and is dealt with in a sensitive way, but it still underlines the Underwoods’ disregard for any value other than power. Abortion is rarely mentioned in films/TV although it is estimated that approximately a third of American women will have an abortion by the age of 45 (Guttmacher Institute). Abortion in films/TV is generally seen as extreme (the result of rape, incest etc) and becomes almost the defining characteristic of the character. This is one of the factors that explain why abortion is such a contentious issue in the US and why the percentage of Americans accepting legal abortion under certain circumstances has remained unchanged since the 1970s at around 50% (Gallup in Dillon 2014). Abortion remains an abstract moral issue disconnected from the everyday reality of women. As Michele Dillon remarks, abortion is “depersonalized from the women who have had to negotiate the lived reality of an unwanted pregnancy and its moral and practical dilemmas.” (Dillon 2014). House of Cards does nothing to erode this as abortion is just another sin of the ruthless couple Frank and Claire Underwood.