A dog is hit by a car. The car steers away, tyres screeching. A man appears, looks at the dog and says the following, “There are two kinds of pain: The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things”. And then, he kills the dog with his bare hands. Ruthless pragmatism couldn’t have had a better on-screen depiction. The man in the picture is US Congressman Francis “Frank” Underwood. This is the opening scene of House of Cards, a series based on US politics at the highest levels of government.
House of Cards was one the first big-scale Netflix originals which aired between 2013 and 2018. It was the brainchild of Beau Willimon and David Fincher and starred veterans like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. The main plot revolved around the White House and US Politics, with many sub-plots diving deep into other aspects. It was a hard-hitting tale of the things that happen in the power corridors in the world’s oldest modern democracy.
The series shows how “democracy is so overrated” and how in a post-truth world, nothing is permanent: not public opinion, not ideology, not even morals. Anything can happen, at any time. The stakes are as high as they could be and when it comes to the office of one of the most powerful political figures of the world, it’s a different ball game altogether. That ball game is the crux of this tale called House of Cards.
House of Cards traces the journey of the US government through the years 2012-2018, with focus on the life and actions of Frank Underwood. Frank is someone who is fuelled with an intense desire to succeed in the ultimate game of democracy and ruling over the people, the political scene, and the prevalent public opinion.
He deploys all the tactics in the book to achieve his goals, ranging from rigging or rather, swaying the public opinion by using the press, to killing his adversaries in cold blood. He uses manipulation, layering it with rhetoric along with acts of intense persuasion to get things done his way. His intricate game helps him succeed and he is sworn in as the President of the US of A.
House of Cards is a strong political commentary on the things that go over and under in the domain of US politics. The series leads with an unapologetic and unabashed portrayal of all the political vices, backed by solid writing and great acting performances.
It also deals with various themes pertaining to the human psyche. It shows lust for power, dominance, money, political mileage, public opinion, morality, and moral bankruptcy in a highly dramatised, yet realistic way. Different characters exhibited different shades of morality and emotional bankruptcy which vary as people move from one situation to another. The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties, and that journey is a very crucial one.
The roads traversed by each of the central characters are unique and each has its own exclusive trajectories.
Frank Underwood is a man who is ruthlessly pragmatic, revengeful and a go-getter in every true sense of the word. His entire journey in US politics, from the House Majority Whip to the President is a testimony to how ambition can make someone do things, which, for lack of a better word, are unimaginable to others.
Frank utilises all the tricks in the book and alters each of them to suit the battle as well as the adversary. Betrayal, revenge, manipulation, and even murder have been constant arrows in Frank’s quiver. His wife Claire, however, is someone who is much more subtle and has her own ways of getting things done and settling her personal as well as professional scores. She is the ideal aide to Frank and together, they strike the perfect balance in their joint quest for power, money, and dominance. Claire’s plans and their subsequent execution help her in establishing herself in the American political space, and she gets elected as the President after Frank’s death.
Both Frank and Claire answer to their own set of demons and find themselves responding to different calls of morality. Their moral compasses vary a great deal, but their end goal, however, remains constant. This leads to different twists and turns in the tale and makes the show much more interesting to watch.
All in all, House of Cards stands out as one of the most influential political shows of the recent past. Its reach has been such that former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have expressed, on record, their adulation for the show. Apart from that, they have also vouched for its accuracy in terms of the portrayal of political events and endorsed the way the series has been created. House of Cards has also been well-received by critics and award givers alike. The show has been an instant hit and remained so until its end, despite massive controversies that hit it during its penultimate season.
Now, shifting focus to the present-day USA. US Presidential elections have just taken place. The competition between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is a tough one and a new leader is yet to officially emerge.
Throughout these times, fact has been stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction is so good and nuanced that one might want to revisit and challenge this quote. This election season was a good chance to get a balance of both. It was quite an experience to follow the leaders on their campaign trails, see them pull stops in their rallies, and mix facts, agenda, and rhetoric in influencing the public opinion.
Simultaneously, it is an equally extraordinary experience to watch House of Cards, to observe how this political game has been portrayed on screen. Both fact and fiction are equally mind-boggling and equally interesting. That’s how I see it. Why don’t you try it, too?
Akashdeep Baruah is a media consultant, writer and editor who writes on pop culture.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.