Text by — LEANDRO BONAN
Traslated by — FEDERICA VECCHIO
The opening scene of House of Cards is a car which, speeding up in a residential district in Washington DC, runs over a dog, without braking or slowing down. A gentleman comes out of his house and, as soon as he realizes that even the last glimmer of hope for its life is faded, he does not hesitate to choke him to death.
This is the way we meet Frank Underwood, an influential congressman interpreted by the astounding Kevin Spacey.
He is partly responsible for the recent election of the President, presiding the campaign, and he expects himself to be nominated Secretary of State in return. As the promise is not kept, Frank, with the help of his emotionless wife Claire (Robin Wright), excogitates a Machiavellian plan in order to take revenge on the president and to get hold of the power he had deprived him of, with the same approach and determination he had when dealing with the dog’s death.
The series is currently at its second season, while a third one is being filmed, and it is inspired by the namesake trilogy written by Margaret Thatcher’s political counselor, Michael Dobbs. It can count of a magnificent cast of actors, which is already an immense guarantee.
Other than Kevin Spacey, winner of two Oscars (the usual suspects 1996, American Beauty 2000), the series greatly benefits from David Fincher’s film direction (among his most celebrated movies Seven, Fight Club, The curious case of Benjamin Button) and from Beau Willimon’s film script, author of a movie that is in some ways similar to the series, The Ides of March (George Clooney).
Therefore, no wonder why House of Cards has been highly rewarded in the last two years with, among the other prizes, one Golden Globe and three Emmy.
Even though, in fact, some other series had in the past put intrigues and revenges in the spotlight of their plots, House of Cards is characterized by the remarkable innovation of presenting a cruel and remorseless character that inevitably reminds us of one Shakespeare’s “evil”, but at the same time it impels us to grow fond of him and, at last, to support him.
Unquestionably this progressive identification with Underwood is encouraged and promoted by the direct dialogue that he carries on with the audience, revealing part of his secret plan and inducing who is watching to look forward to its realization.
The “expedient”, which is called “break of the fourth wall” – that is to say the wall that separates the stage from the audience – is not new, but it works indeed: Shakespeare makes large use of it in The Life and Death of King Richard III, which, coincidentally, narrates the duke of Gloucester’s attempts to take over the English throne, even if killing brother and nephews is what it takes.
We must admit, however, that the authors own much to the English playwright: Frank’s duplicity and dissimulation towards the President is without any doubt a modern version of the relationship between Iago and Ophelia while the congressman and his wife, if deeply interpreted, have the same perfidy that characterizes the Macbeth couple (“I love her like a shark loves blood”, is the comment, in one of the episodes, that Underwood makes while tenderly looking at Claire).
The two, as a matter of fact, spend whole nights conspiring their revenge looking out of a window, sharing a cigarette.
Even tough Frank speaks directly to the audience, and even though from time to time he convinces it to be part of his plan, he actually tells us only what he wants us to know, and the domain of his project, along with the connections among the several actions are unveiled gradually, leaving astonished who was absolutely sure about his full comprehension of the whole plot and, nevertheless, who thought he was Frank’s confident.
Furthermore, this surprise is enhanced by the fact that, in order to achieve its goal, the congressman does not hesitate to bring into play unethical and dishonorable characters, like the journalist Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara), eager and anxious for scandals and fame, or the lobbyist Remy Danton, one of his former partners, violating more than once the laws that he contributes to create himself.
Despite this, he never gets contaminated or corrupted by the environment or the circumstances, keeping an impeccable and flawless image. His conscious never blames him for his action,that are perceived by him as essential in the world of Politics, which is lacking of God.
Rephrasing Max Weber, Power, according to Underwood, is “the legitimate use of strength”, or more specifically, is the use of strength itself which becomes legitimate if who exercises it is in a powerful position.
That is why, perhaps, he is able to get approval and compliance from his whole audience: people do not expect integrity from a politician, the absence of honor is almost taken for granted (as quite often judicial news remind us).
Yet, what we look forward to, what we hope for, is that he is capable, clever, and that he does not forget that Power, in politics, is given and taken from electors. Doesn’t matter if he minds his own business or if he plans his personal fortune and success, as long as he keeps an eye on the people who made possible his attempt to succeed.
Hence, Underwood manages to hide the cruelty that his role requires, justifying it as necessary, and he does it so well that he comes out perfectly clean.
We could almost see him, in his suit, piddling with the ring that his family passes on family to family, looking at the audience, whispering like Shakespeare’s Richard III:
“And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ;
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.”