"Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ Thinks It’s Tough, But It Goes Easy On Washington"
This post discusses, in its entirety, the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards.
Over the past two days, I watched all of Netflix’s most ambitious original series yet, a remake of the British miniseries House of Cards. While the show raises interesting questions about both television business models and narrative structures, and while it’s deeply entertaining to watch Kevin Spacey, as Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood, chomp scenery and occasionally on Kate Mara’s ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes, I couldn’t help but feel that House of Cards has a fatal flaw. For all that the show looks attractive, and even half-authentic to the District sometimes, and for all House of Cards is trying its darndest to replicate the repellant chilliness of the British original, it’s actually far too nice to the people and institutions the show would like to skewer. And that’s because House of Cards itself falls prey to some of the kinds of thinking that are most pernicious in the nation’s capital.
Part of the problem is House of Cards‘ insistence that there’s a grandness, rather than a grandiosity, to Frank—while the show believes he’s malign, it’s still convinced that he’s Milton’s Satan rather than Dostoyevsky’s, who Arturo Perez-Reverte once described as “petty. A civil servant with dirty nails.” He declares in the first episode that “My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving,” and House of Cards seems largely to agree with his assessment. Frank may hold up an education bill to get a version that suits his ends, or derail the nomination of the man who was chosen to be Secretary of State over him, but he does get a bill to the President’s desk roughly on deadline, and once the other man is out of the way, speeds the confirmation of his hand-picked replacement. What really distinguishes him from his colleagues, however, and what the show portrays as the source of Frank’s efficacy, however unattractive it may be, is his treatment of power as a higher good than policy. “Leave ideology to the armchair generals,” he says in one of his many editorial asides to the camera. “It does me no good.”
House of Cards is full of acid portraits of people whose conviction has made them weak or duplicitous without being excellent at it. Even if the show has some sympathy for their dedication to and principal on the issues, it never gives them triumphs over Frank, and frequently suggests that passion makes them obvious, slow, or otherwise unfit to play the game that Frank has mastered so well, his competence overriding our moral calculus. During a subplot that involves the passage of a major education reform bill, Frank’s partner on the legislation, a life-long liberal reformer who’s a stand-in for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy turns out to be a naive patsy without the stomach for compromise or maneuver. “I could put my mind to policy, but I’m no good at this brand of politics,” the man tells Frank in agreeing to take the fall for a leak of his proposed bill that garners negative press coverage, and to let Frank take over writing the next draft. His actual ideas about the issues are never mentioned, simply summed up by Zoe as “very far left wing” for a headline. Somewhere in Massachusetts, Kennedy is rotating in his grave fast enough to dislodge the dirt above him so he can haunt House of Cards writer Beau Willimon for this perfidy.
Elsewhere in the education fight, the only discussion of policy are facile mentions of charter schools, collective bargaining, and performance standards. A union official appears in one scene to declare that “Charters jeapordize our ability to organize, which is reason enough” to object to Frank’s draft of the bill. Otherwise, the movement is represented only by picketers who melt when Frank and his wife serve them barbeque, and by a paid lobbyist who is manipulated into decking Frank in his office, giving him the advantage he needs to force a settlement to a teacher’s strike and a legislative deadlock. When Frank manipulates Congressman Russo (Corey Stoll) into running for Governor of Pennsylvania, his opposition is largely personified by the head of a shipbuilder’s union decimated by the BRAC process that shutters a local shipyard. The man is ultimately undone by his unwillingness to get personal in his fight with Russo, who he has known since childhood, and then subsumed into the political power structure when he is given an opportunity to run for Russo’s seat in congress. During a battle to pass a wetlands bill, House of Cards gives us bleeding-heart liberals who Frank describes as quailed by the sight of their own heart’s blood—in a twist, they’re manipulated by Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright), who has a grievance to fulfill. Even Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt), a brilliant young activist Claire hires to help expand the international operations of the clean water non-profit she runs (in one of House of Cards‘ most perceptive subplots, Claire stops work in the District of Columbia to focus her efforts on the trendier third world) isn’t allowed to be both principled and effective for long. When Claire sells the organization’s credibility to an oil and gas company in exchange for help getting machinery out of South Sudan, Gillian baits Claire into firing her. But instead of exposing Claire as the pathetic shill that she is, Gillian’s chosen method of revenge is a pregnancy discrimination suit. “Organizations like yours get 90 percent of the grant money and cozy up to corporate sponsors who destroy the environment,” she spits at her former boss. But it’s hard for me to believe, given all we’ve seen over the course of the show, that she’ll be able to triumph over the Underwoods. And her chosen method of retaliation makes her look like a cheap liar, rather than a principaled hero worth rooting for against Claire.
In a stronger anti-hero show, we’d see the costs of Frank’s actions, or have credible alternatives to his behavior that challenge our romance with the sheer force of hisa bility. But House of Cards is fundamentally flawed on that score. When Zoe tells her editor that an article she’s working on isn’t good enough because it’s all political horserace speculation, it’s laughable, not perceptive: House of Cards is rooted in the idea that precisely that kind of horserace gossip is the true substance in Washington. “I don’t give a hoot about natural gas, but I have 67 deputy whips and they all need campaign cash,” Frank tells us at one point, and his entire relationship with a lobbyist for precisely that issue is based on what will gain him a relative advantage. The show’s race to the finish line is entirely concerned with who’s up and who’s down in a vice presidential vetting process. And Frank is only outflanked when he meets Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), a billionaire whose influence is international where Frank’s is global, and who proves not to be stronger or more interested in the merits of any given issue than Frank is, but better at political arbitrage.
But the thing is, actions like Frank’s have consequences beyond what they mean for his position on Capitol Hill. The decision to go out and stay on strike is an extraordinarily difficult one, which the show presents as essentially a gambit by lobbyists rather than a wrenching choice by teachers. When military bases close, the impact on the people who lose their jobs is more profound than the pain a Congressman experiences while being yelled at by a constituent in a town hall meeting. It really does matter that non-profits get coopted by their relationships with corporate donors. Accidents at nuclear power plants really do destroy people’s lives. But House of Cards is fundamentally less interested in those consequences than in the manipulations that lead them to come to pass. And in the world of the show, none of those negotiations are ever based on substance. Maybe it’s trying to say that this is a deplorable state of affairs. But the way House of Cards allocates its attention means the show ends up largely buying into Frank’s worldview: substance doesn’t matter, because it’s not the basis on which decisions are made, or on which people rise to significant power.
It’s difficult for me to take seriously any critique of Washington that is so enamored, whether that was Willimon’s intention or not, with one of the ugliest parts of our political culture, and one of the most substance-free elements of our political journalism. And part of what’s odd about watching House of Cards‘ journalism subplots is the extent to which the show believes it’s being awfully tough on Washington political reporters, when actually it’s letting them off relatively easy. It’s meant to be shocking when Zoe, who we meet as a young reporter at the Washington Herald, offers herself up to Frank as a mouthpiece, promising to print anything he feeds her, no questions asked. But the show, which generates friction between Zoe and her editor Tom, by suggesting that he’d be resistant either to blogging or to Zoe’s cable news-facilitated rise, is years out of date when it comes to either Zoe’s mode of reporting or Washington journalism’s approach to the internet. In 2013, when House of Cards is set, the Washington Post, which the Washington Herald is a clear stand-in for, has built a publication-within-a-publication around first-generation blogger Ezra Klein, given Alexandra Petri, a woman about Zoe’s age, a humor blog, and hired Max Fisher to blog about foreign affairs. In one of the most risible moments in the show, Frank tells Zoe that she shouldn’t go to television because she’s “more than a talking head.” “If I were to say Politico wanted to hire me, what would you say?” she asks him. “That would pique my interest,” Frank tells her, suggesting it would be more substantial than working as a correspondent for CBS. The show seems entirely unaware that in real life, Politico has regularly been accused of practicing precisely the kind of speedy, quid-pro-quo journalism that Zoe is meant to be exceptionally guilty of practicing.
House of Cards is so eager to make Zoe an outre figure by linking her compromised journalism to her affair with Frank that it misses a larger story of more profound and widespread professional degradation. The show, in a bit of truly revolting gender politics, argues that all female political correspondents are sleeping with their sources. “I used to suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story,” Zoe’s rival Janine (Constance Zimmer, giving much better than she gets) eventually admits to her. “As career strategies go, it’s not worth fucking your way to the middle.” But House of Cards ignores that it doesn’t take the entanglement of an affair to get lots and lots of political journalists to practice the kinds of quid pros that Zoe adapts to so easily. It might have been shocking five or ten years ago that a publisher would protect and promote a reporter with Zoe’s standards because she liked the young woman’s hustle. But today, Washington journalism has adapted. Reporters like Klein have demonstrated that working online—and that succeeding on cable television—is no barrier to doing quality policy journalism of the kind the bores Zoe. And concurrently, the barriers to the shoddy kind of work Zoe is doing fell long ago.
The scandal of Washington journalism is hardly that one reporter would print a single-sourced story, or fail to interrogate information and spin handed to them by a source with whom they’re eager to preserve a relationship. It’s that so many of them do it, and have been doing it for so long. And, in keeping with House of Cards‘ myopia, the consequences of this kind of journalism Zoe practices are salacious and personal—in the show she unwittingly contributes to the relapse and death of Congressman Russo—than the reality, which is that they are systemic and unglamorous. The real villain of a show like House of Cards should be someone like Betsy McCaughey, whose pre-blogging collaboration with a Phillip Morris lobbyist resulted in “No Exit,” the error-ridden article in The New Republic that helped kill President Clinton’s health care reform bill. But that would require a show that’s interested in policy, and in its outcomes for ordinary people.
There are a few instances where House of Cards gets it right not by reaching for repulsion, but simply by documenting the way Washington actually works. As Frank’s fight with teacher’s unions over an education bill heats up, he looks for a way to discredit them, make the organizations seem at war with each other and distanced from the actual interests of their members. Claire suggests the phrase “disorganized labor” as a useful bit of rhetoric, and the show watches it spread through cable news like wildfire. House of Cards goes further than it needs to in having Frank use agents provocateur to make it seem like some union members are starting brawls and tossing bricks, giving the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus a chance to opine on television that a prominent union lobbyist “might want to tone down the rhetoric before disorganized labor turns into organized crime.” But seeing that simple, clever, empty phrase leach into the discourse, and the power it gives Frank, is ugly enough.
Then, there’s Frank’s efforts to discredit the nominee for Secretary of State who displaced him, by drawing attention to an editorial published when the man was editing his college newspaper, though it does not bear his name, that suggests that Israel has a moral imperative to pull back from the West Bank. The only reason Frank can get it into circulation at all his is no questions asked deal with Zoe, and then even she is skeptical, asking “Did he write the editorial? Did he personally write it? Then there’s no story.” But Frank is clever enough to give her the frame she needs to sell the story to her editor, and by the time she’s making the pitch—”I’m not saying there’s a story. All I’m saying is there’s a question that needs to be answered.”—Zoe half-believes it herself. Any attempt to beat back the ridiculousness of the charge only draws the nominee in deeper. When he insists “This is ludicrous” on a cable news appearance, Frank summons Anti-Defamation League Dennis Mendel to his office, Mendel declares that “We do not consider Israel and Palestine a laughing matter,” and Frank informs us that “It’s too easy.”
In between these two anecdotes, a gaffe Frank commits and that’s immediately Auto-Tuned, and the way Zoe’s appearances on television enable her own rapid rise through the Washington journalism stratosphere, House of Cards could mount the critique of cable news that Aaron Sorkin only dreamed of writing in The Newsroom. But it doesn’t really have the time to spend on this weird engine of Washington capital, nor the interest in parsing out the brilliant malevolence of Fox News, the attempts by MSNBC to punch back, and the increasing irrelevance of CNN. And maybe more to the point, House of Cards relies too heavily on appearances by real-life talking heads to lend the show a timely frisson to risk alienating the people who help ground it in the real world, a Washington entanglement of the show’s very own.
Towards the end of the show, when Zoe begins to realize the extent to which Frank has used their relationship, and how complicated their machinations are, Janine, by then working alongside her at a web-based publication, bucks up the younger woman by telling her “The only articles I have written that truly mattered scared the shit out of me.” House of Cards wants to be the same kind of terrifying expose of what happens in Washington. Instead, it feels more like one of Frank Underwood’s targets, spun in circles, and too clueless to realize its own dizziness.