Underhanded Underwood: House of Cards, A Tale of Two Cities & The “Call to Service”

About the dark second season of House of Cards

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

                                                                       – Charles Dickens

IN HOUSE OF CARDS, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) is a recovering alcoholic as well as the chief of staff to one of the most powerful men in the world. He drives around listening to an audio-recording of A Tale of Two Cities. It is a bit ironic that the writers of House of Cards picked that specific novel. A Tale of Two Cities was published in 31 weekly installments in Dickens’ literary magazine. Meanwhile, House of Cards and its publishing arm Netflix have spurned the matrix of traditional weekly episodic shows and in doing so created a pop culture phenomena – binge-viewing. 

In the second season of House of Cards, which was released earlier this month, the unrelenting hubris of Frank Underwood preys on even more individuals who underestimate Underwood’s lack of morality as well as his immense skill in personal protection. When Underwood commits another unthinkable sin solely to isolate himself from previous unthinkable sins, he declares once again that he will stop at nothing to protect his power. Hunt or be hunted he declares to his rapt audience, an audience that has grown since the show premiered in February of 2013. As a Confederate soldier Underwood’s great-grandfather may have worn gray, but Frank Underwood does not. His life is black over white, like an imported suit over a silk dress shirt.

Dickens’ novel is one of resurrection and of heroism. There is little heroism in House of Cards, and the only resurrection is the Underwoods’ ability to resuscitate themselves and thrive in the most unlikely of scenarios. Often, and with increasing frequency, Frank Underwood finds himself cornered and yet he is able to allude the constant danger present to himself and his professional advancement. With each decision Underwood falls deeper into moral ambiguity and yet finds himself a rung higher on the rickety and splinter-filled political ladder of the Beltway.

Through deft maneuvering Underwood climbs towards the highest rung by throwing others off the ladder and into a murky abyss of imprisonment, impeachment, social castration and death. More clearly Underwood’s misdeeds begin to surface to those around him and yet always he is the only one left standing as the gun smoke clears. Then Underwood gives the barrel a blow, pushes the weapon into its holster and winks at the camera. Like Dickens’ Marquis, Underwood would happily trample a small child if it gets him to his destination quicker.

Kevin Spacey has always been able to play pure evil with a wink. As his John Doe in Se7en and Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects did, he can chase the most reprehensible activities with a “oh shucks” grin. In House of Cards he trades horns for pocket squares and American flag lapels.

Robin Wright has an ability on film to make her leading men do just about anything. In The Princess Bride she emulates Helen of Troy and forces a lowly servant to go on an epic quest to save her. She is Jenny to simple Forrest Gump who is so anguished by her sudden, post-coitus disappearance that he starts running until he resembles Moses parting the Red Sea. Wright takes the art of men-directing sexuality to a new level in House of Cards. Her short blonde hair accentuates her long, slender neck and Wright’s famous pearl-soaked smile is on full display. With a slight turn of her soft head, she can destroy the lives and careers of a decorated US solider, a shy bi-polar women with a lot of baggage, and a well-recognized photographer, all the while working with her husband to leapfrog some of the most powerful couples in the world.

As House of Cards has progressed we see that she is more than just Frank Underwood’s arm candy. She has perpetually grown into an accomplice in his devilish actions and she has directed a few sinful scenes herself. She has become Lady Macbeth, willing her husband towards the throne. She suffers moments of madness, as she breaks down in tears over her deviance, but they are only moments and ultimately, like her husband, conscious represents nothing more than a brief explanation of action to an omni-present audience, whether God or spellbound viewers. The Underwood’s have quite literally begun to be aroused by blood. Like vampires they attack, and even their Secret Service detail is not safe.

“I have never given anyone a third chance, until today,” Frank Underwood warns Doug Stamper after his chief of staff disappoints him. Obviously getting caught secretly working for the VP at an Indian casino is much more egregious than asking someone to be a collaborator in the murder of a congressman and to help hide a prostitute from the authorities. Stamper, like Underwood, has his vices. He loves booze in addition to a castaway working-girl that’s hiding in Pennsylvania and exploring her sexuality. Unlike Underwood, Stamper has personal qualms about his deficits in character.

Stamper has made an effort to correct his personal faults. Yet as he too becomes more involved in the spider web of Frank Underwood he finds himself allowing certain of his deficits increasing freedom, including the worst of them all – his loyalty to his boss. Underwood holds Stamper’s vices above his head like a prickly mistletoe waiting for Stamper to kneel down and give Underwood’s Harvard class ring a kiss.

To earn Frank Underwood’s respect one could do worse than to blackmail him. It’s a lesson that Seth Grayson (Derek Cecil) learned in becoming Underwood’s press secretary. Underwood is able to use Grayson to his advantage, as a leverage in gaining the unquestioning loyalty of Stamper in addition to adding an additional weapon in his already dangerous arsenal.

The people that surround themselves with Underwood share an urge to emulate Underwood’s stiff-arm propulsion technique and yet are unable to match the master of the craft in applying his trade. Underwood is willing to provide an apprenticeship in exchange for complete loyalty. He urges one of his many protégé’s, Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker), to sacrifice her integrity and a life-long friendship for an advancement that would ultimately benefit who else but Underwood. Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) has taken Underwood’s playbook to Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), but Underwood saved a few pages for himself, pages that would ultimately lead to another casualty – a buzz saw to an aged, wide and well-rooted oak.

Even the men Underwood are obliged to serve are not safe. It was Sydney Carton who went to the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities, not Charles Darnay. The guillotine will fall in House of Cards and it will not be Frank Underwood’s neck under the blade, although it has always been meant for him. Instead it will be another’s, a man with who shares Underwood’s gluttony for power but lacks his talent for personal survival. He unwittingly sacrifices himself for the cause of Frank Underwood’s ultimate desire – to be the beating heart and not the cage that is duty bound to insulate the organ from harm.

Critics of House of Cards have cited the show’s over-the-top scenarios and disbelieving plot twists as an example of how far-fetched it is. This is in spite of the fact that many in the white-washed monuments of DC profess to love the show and its accounts of the inner-workings of DC politics. House of Cards does highlight one aspect of American politics that no doubt exists. When a reporter asks Mrs. Underwood why the Underwoods have never had children, she lies and responds that the couple’s call to service supplanted a desire for family.

A call to service is a well-worn line in Washington. Yet men and women who are called to service don’t travel to Washington. Men and women who are called to service travel to Iraq or Afghanistan. They travel to firehouses across America. They show up at the doorstep of elementary schools across the nation. Men and women who travel to Washington are not called to the capital for service. They are called for a different reason – a complete compulsion to a lust for power.

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