A house of cards is an expression used for describing both literal and abstract arrangements, fragile but precariously built. One incorrect move, a whiff of air and the house crumbles. Post five seasons, the Netflix US series House of Cards has managed to keep itself intact whilst slowly disfiguring at times in parts. Beau Willimon, who also wrote The Ides of March, revamped the UK miniseries into a political thriller reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but only here each season has strove to keep the protagonists alive, and many a Duncans dead. What is striking is that this political thriller is not only about politics, but most of the times works like a fascination about what politics could be if the strings are played ruthlessly. Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood and Robin Wright is on the screen as Claire Underwood, both power hungry, bodies of mean politicos and ruthless ambition.
In four seasons, Frank goes from being a Whip to POTUS, and Claire takes her own course of action to become his running mate. What is more interesting is how many other plot points are introduced to complicate the lives of these Machiavillean characters, and also to make us ponder upon the uses and the spaces of transgression power and privilege allows. House of Cards is not only a story of hunger for power, it is also a story that includes happenings like polyamory and sexual fluidity. In each season, our two protagonists are shown to straddle between their want of power and their need for pleasure and how the latter often comes due to the former in ways that would be deemed as transgressive and illicit: the three-way scene with Edward Meechum in the first season, the ambiguous history with Tim Corbet and the latest development with Eric Rawlings as his personal trainer. Though the relationship with Tim Corbet can be seen as something outside power, and hence never fully resolved, the relationship with Meechum and Rawlings has less to do with love or any emotion of reciprocating attraction, but is a different kind of manifestation of power: a powerful man can do anything, have anything. Transgression of and with a powerful person also works as a transaction- a transaction of trust. When the trust is breached, or the transaction is made emotional, it is terminated or deferred. Similar resolution occurs for Tom Yates and Claire Underwood, when the needs-wants arrangement exceeds itself. Journalists, other important intermediaries like Doug Stamper, are shown to be so good at their job that they are ultimately bad. Everyone in the show has a power streak but either it is not enough or it is connected with someone more powerful than them. Divided journalism, blind loyalty to power and hierarchies within the Oval gives every small element their own scent of power and that is what the two protagonists capitalise on from the first season. If someone wants to be a governor, someone wants to be a president, someone wants to be the Chief of Staff or in case of even Claire Underwood: someone wants to be vice-president. The most conniving of the lot knows what people want before they express it, and in return of giving them that, the conniver consolidates her/his position. Anyone who decides not to want it anymore or is too innocent to have it in the first place becomes inconsequential: characters like Jackie Sharp, Heather Dunbar or even Walker, the president whom Frank replaces become exemplary of this.
Ultimately, HOC is a story of how within the power matrix, every emotion can become a manifestation of power, a deviation or an acceptance of it. Cinematically, Frank’s breaking of the fourth wall is a reminder of the gaze of the powerful. It is resonant of how Tony Davies talks of men in political thrillers: “In Thrillers, men pursue, hide, threaten, fight, kill; but more than anything, they look.” Claire Underwood’s character organically builds up to take slowly away from this man’s look and add to her own, Lady Macbeth seems to want what Macbeth wants but this time, it is for herself. She is subtle, more grounded, a seething silence emanates even from the costumes and her gait; she is the most unreadable character (even the new character of Jane Davis says so!). The mise-en-scene is filled with very uniform colours, uniform costumes; in shades of blue, white and black, one wonders if cold war was physically manifested, this is what it might look like. Everyone looks like a uniformed army pursuing different goals of power. The characters devote a lot of time in how they look on the outside (how when the cards are crumbling they resort to different modes of workout!) to hide the machinations of the inside. This is even done through the cinematography: use of symmetry, dark lighting, no simultaneous panning and tilting of the camera which works to give a feel of constant calm within the storm. Though five seasons for the want and hunger of power can be quite tiring, the dark humour of the show has lessened as each season has passed by, and the episodes in Season 5 at times almost feel like a child’s race for class monitorship, it somehow fits well with the current scenario in the US: power can make people seem irrational in their rational best, you feel tired with the extent people can go to for power. But at the same time you root for them, you still want to see whether they fall, whether this house of cards will crumble someday. It is our fascination and intrigue for ruthless ambition but some idealistic silent trust in the fall of evil that the show exploits, and with power being transferrable if not extinguishable, you will want to see if and when someone replaces the people who seem to know more than the American people about what they want, and what makes America great.