Congressman Francis Underwood understands exactly why he is in politics. It is not merely for power – that would be too simplistic for a man so mindful of himself as Underwood, and it isn’t merely for something as simplistic as “control.” Politics for him is a means of survival in the world. It is the foreseeability of political life that drives him, the kind of control where one rejects the inertia of modern life and strives for something clear-cut and tangible. As opposed to a life stripped of suits and superficialities, a life in politics allows Underwood the convenience of a straightforward philosophy: to get what you want, all you need to do is to plan ahead.
Underwood, played so wistfully by Kevin Spacey, looks into the camera in the very first episode of House of Cards and talks about two kinds of pain: The sort that makes one strong, and useless pain – the kind of vain and trifling suffering that simply leaves one weak and indisposed. “I have no patience for useless things,” he then says, as he strangles a wounded dog that is discernably suffering from Underwood’s second class of pain.
Within its first few minutes, House of Cards lets its audience in on the rationale behind its protagonist’s unkindness: for Underwood, malice is a means to escape suffering. It is better to be cruel than to be misplaced, and it is better to perish than to paddle about in a life disarray and volatility.
To escape suffering that is both vain and futile, Underwood has decided on a life in politics. It is a life that allows him to plan ahead, to foresee his fates, and to evade whatever entropy that could bring him pain. This is why he is so staggered by the broken promise of the president he helped elect. He is left aghast when the newly-appointed White House Chief of Staff briefs him on their decision not to appoint him as Secretary of State.
You can see Underwood’s fleeting despair in Spacey’s eyes: He is anguished, and he could fall to pieces at any moment. But he controls himself. He is already plotting his next move, already striving to take back the control thieved from him. Fleeting, transitory feelings of sorrow and triumph mean nothing to him. He’d rather spend his mind and energy on something grander, even if it takes patience, distress, and exploitation to attain it. All that matters for Underwood is the long-term, and he will use whatever means necessary to attain whatever goal he has set out to do. That is how he takes back control, paying no heed to what his peers consider a greater good. To him, compassion and morality are merely obstructions. He sees no use in morality, and so he simply refuses to abide by it.
It is almost as if Spacey’s Underwood wholly understands his place in the universe: It is a world that he would feel quite small in without that inkling of control in whatever sphere he can find it in. He is aware that very little of life – life as that grand notion of existence – can be controlled. So in order to attain such control, he must either create his own universe like an artist, or slither his way into a world that could grant him direction, and in turn, composure.
How Underwood functions – designing schemes and crafting characters to fit into it – is in many ways, akin to the conduct of an artist. His craft, however, involves real people, and that is why it is so cruel. He inscribes his own aspirations onto them, and molds them into what he wants them to be, and then, he simply controls them.
Like all great artists, he has a partner who pushes him, inspires him, and tames the profitless pain that he dreads so intensely. That is Claire (Robin Wright), his wife, who shares Frank’s plights as if they were her own. But she too needs her husband for her own ambitions and her own work, and that is why the two make such an exquisite pair.
Claire and Francis veer far away from Hollywood clichés and the televised pitfalls of coupling characters. They make no effort to flaunt their devotion to an unseen audience sitting at home – unless there are actual cameras and unless they can use it to their advantage. They know too well what it is they want, both from the world and from each other, and they use one another’s services to attain them. Despite this, their relationship is not at all so cold and so removed from tenderness and humanity. They need each other, and the other’s absence could cause everything else to crumble. (When Claire escapes to New York after a quarrel with her husband, Underwood almost sabotages his entire long-term political ideals as a result of his own exposed vulnerability.) She guides him, with her words and with her presence, and he serves her, not as a stooge, but as an equal.
House of Cards is much more than a mere tale about a begrudged congressman looking to avenge a broken promise. Its title is a metaphor for its philosophy; that everything needs to be in its right place in order to attain control in a world where there is none, and one minor slip can bring it all to ruin.
Corey Stoll’s beautifully crafted character, Peter Russo, personifies the inversion of this intricate, cruel philosophy. He is plagued by a history of substance abuse and alcoholism, and divorced with two children. Nothing in his life typifies Underwood’s schema of control, and he drabbles in useless pain like he drowns himself in alcohol. Yet he is still a congressman, still equal in rank to Underwood, needless of Underwood’s elaborate Machiavellian cunning.
But then he slips, and everything falls apart. Underwood and his team save him from political suicide, and as part of a Faustian bargain, they force the congressman under their control, before forcing him to ruin. Underwood’s philosophy triumphs, and Russo’s lack of it causes him to choke under the weight of a brutish world.
House of Cards utilizes Russo’s defenselessness perfectly as a means to explicate its doctrine of cruelty. He is a looking-glass through which one can see the life of a man who leaves his fate to life itself, and who makes no attempt at all to trounce it with resolve. It is because of this that he simply sinks and fades away.
What is so refreshing about House of Cards is that it is not afraid of its own darkness and its own malice. The characters in House of Cards feel as unencumbered as real people are in real life, and they are just as lost. They do not feel written, and they do not breathe as if one has forced them to – sometimes they even stop breathing, not because it is time for them to go away, but because they have lost control.
And this is a show that revels in this very notion of control, and builds its entire philosophy around it. Underwood knows that the only way to survive this existential world is to design a great scheme that could guide you towards a checkpoint, a self-fabricated vocation just so you don’t lose control, and he’s good at it, and not once does he deny his aptitude or his needs. He speaks to his audience as if they are his only confidants, yet not even they are fully allowed to see through him. He’d rather be alone with his own mind and his own fears and insecurities than to divulge them even to a fourth wall. He trusts no one, not even his own audience, and he is alone because of it. But he’d rather suffer through the loneliness of restraint than to lose control in an unkind life. If he slips, even for a moment, everything will crumble. He knows too well that it isn’t patience that he lacks when it comes to useless pain. It is vitality.