Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy **Maurice**.
So, I started watching House of Cards, the deeply badass BBC serial about a manipulative chief whip in Parliament that aired starting in 1990. And it is sublime nastiness, I think it provides some of the reasons that British political serials are so much better than American political shows and movies.
The circumstances are these. The whip, Francis Urquhart, helps get a fairly weak Prime Minister elected, only to find himself left out in the cold when said PM decides not to appoint him to a Cabinet position on the grounds that reshuffles show weakness, telling him “Do you remember MacMillan? The night of the long knives?” That rejection turns Urquhart irrevocably against an ally he never particularly respected, and he sets out, with absolute glee in the brutality necessary, to take the PM down.
That nastiness is one part of the puzzle. Americans may continue to be surprised when governors hike the Appalachian Trail, or flirt with pages, or attempt to manipulate the hell out of reporters, or enjoy the fruits of high office a little bit too much, and our art has to assume that same state of shock. Urquhart assumes all of those things are true. He’s a man who cheerfully uncovers an operative’s cocaine addiction and turns it to his own purposes, encouraging the man to pimp out his girlfriend to one of Urquhart’s rivals. He blackmails a faltering MP into voting for an energy bill when he discovers the man was stopped for soliciting prostitutes—then tells the fellow that he’ll happily provide him a list with appropriately discreet hookers. Urquhart even, in one of the reminders that the series is 20 years old, sets up a false account to create the impression that the PM is involved in insider trading from his own home phone. He names fools for what they are so the audience can benefit from his expertise in recognizing them. His political strength is assuming the worst about absolutely everyone, and by having more dire definitions of worse than many people can imagine.
The brutality isn’t limited to the events or the dialogue. “We have a general election to win,” Urquhart declares before shooting a bird dead in his fields. The second episode begins with a shot of his kills hung up after the hunt. Urquhart isn’t afraid to get blood all over his hands, or to have an affair he thinks will be advantageous (with a pretty young reporter played by Susannah Harker, also known as Jane Bennet in the BBC Pride and Prejudice. It’s pretty awesome to see her getting indignant about stories that have been spiked, and drinking with the PM’s dissolute brother.) to his career. He’s effective because he has no shame, and all the appearance of rectitude. “You are a real person, aren’t you?” the young reporter asks him at one point. “Oh yes, I am a real person,” he replies, but he can’t help but laughing at the absurdity of it.
It also helps that the producers assume that the audience is smart. No one needs to explain the MacMillan quotation. No one needs to explain Question Time, so shows can just include scenes set in untranslated and unsimplified repeats of the ritual.
Nobody’s willing to appear this cold in American politics, whether in reality or in television or the movies, and no one gives mainstream audiences this level of detail—and as a result, no one plausibly builds this level of intrigue. Rahm Emanuel may curse people and send them dead fish, but he also wants the impression that he’s a decent family man and good to his brothers. We want to believe that politicians can be decent, and rather than believe they’re inevitably weak and corrupt and ineffective, we want to retreat to living in contradiction. That contradiction may be true. Power may corrupt good men. People who are effective in one sphere may be ineffective in another. But sometimes bastards are as bastards do. The British seem capable of acknowledging this in a way we’re not always capable of. Rahm Emanuel better hope he never meets a Francis Urquhart in a dark alley, a legislative floor, or anywhere else, or we’ll see how tough he really is.