It’s a strange world, to be sure. I remember watching the original British House of Cards, an adaptation of the Michael Dobbs novels (To Play the King and The Final Cut being the other two instalments) originally adapted by Andrew Davies and starring the late and estimable Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. Like many of my vintage I remember with great fondness Urquhart’s catch phrase: “You might very well think that, but I could not possibly comment.”
When I heard it had been been further adapted and expanded Stateside, but retaining the same House of Cards title, my initial reaction was scepticism – with no small reason. The record of American broadcasters is not great in taking much-cherished British dramas and comedies and ruining them beyond all perspective in attempting to bridge the cultural gap – which is infinitely wider than the Atlantic ocean. There seems little doubt that there is a wide gulf of understanding, such that mainstream Americans, being perhaps the most parochial nation, simply don’t “get” the cultural, linguistic or historical references of other nations, yet we Brits are expected to pick up American references in the raw – and do!
How wrong can you be? In this case, even if in no other, Beau Willimon has worked with David Fincher and others to translate perfectly the full weight, power and subtlety of the American political machine into the native idiom, but communicated in a universal language that every nation can understand perfectly – power games happen everywhere, and this is a series that gets to the nub, much as Shakespeare achieved in Richard III among many of his political plays – and that is no small praise.
That this process is such a resounding success is due in no small measure to the phenomenon that is Kevin Spacey, and not simply because he breaks the fourth wall and talks direct to camera in his implicit confessional moments. Spacey’s Francis J Underwood (though unlike the British version he is not referred to by his colleagues as “FU”) has depth and power – and there is no actor better equipped to articulate more eloquently from the heart. Spacey’s Underwood is the ultimate Machiavellian machine, driven by greed and ambition, which will in their turn be his downfall, even though he is still hanging on and grimly aiming to be re-elected come the following Presidential election at the end of series 3.
But don’t go away thinking this is a one-man show. Even Spacey’s anti-hero needs to be equipped with first class material to give of his best, and indeed to have sounding boards to provide plot and conflict. Perhaps most of all he needs the best of villains, against whom to pit his wits – and in the course of this sizeable and complex drama he gets a whole assortment of them, worthy of all superhero movies combined.
Take one such: by season 3, Underwood has schemed, plotted and stabbed in the back sufficient contenders that he has finally risen to the pinnacle. He is president, and as such has to pit his wits against the devious Putinesque Russian president Viktor Petrov, played with slyness and cunning by Lars Mikkelsen – a fine match indeed for Underwood, but ultimately only a bit-part baddie compared to those closer to home.
The bare bones of the original HoC are retained, but Americanised, and a great deal more content and complexity is added to flesh out those bones, and this is no bad thing. There is a rich cast of characters, such that sometimes it can be difficult to keep up with who they all are and what part they play in the intrigue. The only difference is that where Frank keeps we viewers posted with his inner feelings and motivations, for others we must pick up the clues en route and identify to whom they are truly loyal – which in some cases hangs on a knife edge, possibly until the characters themselves decide which way to fall.
Take Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), US Solicitor General and thorn in Underwood’s side. Trying to gain the upper hand, Frank offers her a massive promotion to become his next appointee to the Supreme Court, but Heather upstages Frank by running against him for the Democratic nomination. No doubt who the eventual winner of all the machinations will be, but the life of a power-hungry Machiavellian is beset on all sides by complications.
Infinitely resourceful and power hungry though our central protagonist is, he still needs support – and the rock of Underwood’s world remains his wife Claire, played with a reservoir of resourceful energy by Robin Wright. Naturally, the expansion of House of Cards to 3 series, each of 13 episodes (compared to 4 episodes per novel in the British series), gives much greater time for the nuances of the relationship to be explored, creating far greater subtlety than you might have envisaged. The spanner thrown in the works at the end of series 3 is that Claire wants a divorce, and that could have all manner of impacts in series 4, 5 and 6, since this is a saga all set to run and run.
The spouse of the top dog is no small thing in American politics, given that voters elect not just the President (thus far exclusively a male preserve) but also the First Lady – and until things change a single president would be frowned upon and a gay president utterly impossible. It might not be an elected role but it carries an ambassadorial role to represent all that is good, wholesome and American to other nations, and to represent the female gender within the Presidency. Who knows, were Hillary Clinton to be elected president the whole dynamic may change, but that is a long way off yet – and how Bill feels about being the “first gentleman” is not recorded.
I urge you to watch, if only to demonstrate that drama can be as sophisticated and complex as real life politics, but I await to find if, arguably unlike real life, there is a dramatic morality tale in the making, whereby people are punished for their sins by an unseen hand of fate. Maybe the writers of House of Cards have a trick or two up their sleeve yet, but knowing Spacey he will make quite sure Frank goes out in a blaze of glory one way or another, sly old devil that he is.
And as a parting shot, next time you vote remember the words of this Frank: