“House of Cards” is the ultimate partisan TV show

The creator of Netflix's original series wonders whether individualism isn't "another term for self-interest"

Topics: Netflix, house of cards, kevin spacey, TV, Television, entertainment news, streaming TV,

"House of Cards" is the ultimate partisan TV show

On Friday, Netflix debuts the first season of its new series “House of Cards” — releasing all 13 episodes at once. (A second season is guaranteed.) The show, built for binge-watching, stars Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, the scheming House majority whip bent on consolidating his own power — possibly at the expense of the newly elected president.

In the show’s first few minutes, Spacey’s Underwood strangles a dog to death as an act of mercy; it may be the kindest thing he does in the first two episodes. He’s the ultimate political creature, and on the warpath after getting passed over for the secretary of state nomination. Robin Wright plays his equally duplicitous wife, while Kate Mara plays Zoe Barnes, a young, eager journalist willing to take anything Underwood says as gospel.

The showrunner of “House of Cards” is well-acquainted with the corridors of power; Beau Willimon co-wrote the film “The Ides of March” and was a campaign worker for various Democratic Party campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s. We spoke to Willimon about the unorthodox distribution deal with Netflix and why the will to power may not be such a bad thing.

In both “House of Cards” and “The Ides of March,” you’ve written fairly unscrupulous D.C. journalists into the plot — particularly in “Cards,” where Zoe Barnes is willing to be a mouthpiece for Underwood. Do you take that dim a view of the press corps?

I guess you can take it as dark if you like. Really, I see the relationship between politicians and the press as mutually symbiotic. Politicians need to get their message out and they need press in order to do that. The press don’t wake up in the morning simply to be a mouthpiece for pols — they’re out to uncover and expose news. That often is at odds with what politicians are setting out to do — it’s both symbiotic and antagonistic. They need each other, they work in concert with one another, they work against one another. Zoe Barnes: What you’re seeing there is ambition. And that ambition propels her to make journalistically unethical choices. The idea of journalistic ethos and the idea that all journalists are standard-bearers of truth is a myth. Just as we’re exposing and questioning all sorts of myths, that’s one among them.

What sort of research did you do in creating the character of Underwood? 

I’ve worked on a number of campaigns: Chuck Schumer’s first Senate campaign. Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2000; Bill Bradley’s presidential bid in 200o; Howard Dean’s 2004 bid. From those experiences, not only did I observe a lot, but met people who have made politics their careers and maintained those relationships over time. I drew on those experiences and relationships — as well as some roll-up-your-sleeves research on Congress.

You Might Also Like

But Underwood is entirely fictional, and our first source was the BBC miniseries [on which "Cards" is based.] He’s fictional, he’s a construct. Do I take from my experiences and those of people I know to inform it? Sure. But he’s in no way based on any one person.

Are you as cynical about electoral politics, after the campaign work you’d done, as the series would make it seem?

My outlook is not necessarily the outlook of the show’s. The show does not have a point of view. You take it as you like. I am an optimist in the robes of a realist. Our process is flawed as much because of our expectations as its systemic architecture. We expect politicians to be bastions of integrity and yet we also want them to be effective leaders, and to be an effective leader you have to break the rules. Would Lincoln have passed the Emancipation Proclamation without violating the Constitution? Would LBJ have passed the Voting Rights Act had he not extorted and intimidated members of Congress? Would FDR have gotten us out of the Depression had he not had a loose relationship with the Constitution? Would JFK not have been in a position to inspire us all had his father not bought him the White House?

Real leaders have to live a paradoxical life, where they must break the rules in order to maintain them. If your expectations are high, you’re setting yourself up for disillusionment. The land of governance is paved with gray streets, not black or white ones.

So, looking at the contemporary scene: Is Obama not willing enough — or too willing — to discard the rules?

Anyone who’s made it to the White House has done ethically questionable things to get there. That saying that behind every great fortune, there’s a crime? Behind every higher office, there are crimes. Obama has proven to be just as ruthless as everyone else. He’s a perfect example –  and I say this as a strong supporter –  of someone who found it difficult to live up to both expectations of idealism and effectiveness. A lot of people so ecstatic to see him elected quickly became disappointed with the failure to fill many of the promises he’d given us.

That’s the nature of a polarized Congress — could anyone have delivered on those promises? What you’re seeing now is someone who has said, “Maybe I’ll dispense with trying to inspire people to the same degree and get to the dirty business of making things happen.”

Underwood is a Democrat, but his party affiliation is mentioned only briefly — on his campaign website, shown briefly. I had to freeze-frame it to see what party he belonged to and where he was from. Was there any statement intended by that?

It is intentional to a degree. This sort of creature can live on either side of the aisle; his strength is that he can live on either side of the aisle. As the series goes on, some of the things Francis is doing might fall more in conservative territory. Francis Underwood — I’m speaking on his behalf though I think there’s some wisdom to what he has to say — believes that ideology is useless. If you bind yourself to ideology, you cease to become agile and flexible.

But governance is about compromise, though it seems that word has become a dirty one in the past couple of years. When compromise happens, things actually get done, and ideology becomes a liability in that endeavor. It’s neither here nor there what party he belongs to. He’s going to move toward the path of progress, not trying to pander to half the people.

So Underwood is actually some sort of progressive hero?

Let us have no doubt that Francis Underwood is engaged in unapologetic self-interest. He’s out for himself — the degree to which that’s good for the rest of the nation is just icing on the cake. That’s not his aim. But any form of forward momentum has potential for us all whereas stagnation will benefit none. One of the questions the series poses is whether ruthless unabashed self-interest is necessarily a bad thing. Isn’t one of the notions one of our country is founded on — isn’t individualism another term for self-interest? We proudly call the Founding Fathers revolutionaries, but what is revolution but tossing out the rules?

Let’s talk about Netflix: How did the 26-episode commitment, and the 13 episodes’ worth of programming dropping in a single day, change how the story got told?

We were entertaining the notion of doing it week-by-week or delivering it in chunks. We arrived at 13 in one day because that’s reflective of the way viewers are watching their content. In terms of the 26-episode commitment — it liberated me and my writers. Knowing you had two seasons prevents you from having to fight for your survival with jacked-up, artificial cliffhangers in your first season. Our hope is that sophisticated storytelling and layered narrative will compel people to click the next episodes. It also means you can invest in some narrative real estate that will pay off in a meaningful way late in Season 2. Everything you see, no matter how small has the potential to pay off in an incredibly satisfying way.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>