House of Cards – Harmony Only Lasts the Length of a Breath

Harmony that’s the word that’s stuck in my mind, its not about what’s lasting or permanent, it’s about individual voices coming together for a moment … and that moment lasts the length of a breath…

So says Francis (Frank) Underwood, a Democrat and House Majority Whip to the United States House of Representatives when visiting his old ‘alma mater’, ‘The Sentinel’ a military college where he spent four defining years of his life.

Wearing a ‘blue tie’ Francis delivers his powerful words of wisdom while attending the celebratory opening of a new library on campus, one which bears his name carved deeply into the marble entablature supported grandly on columns that deliniate the entrance.

Just like the books inside, which are being converted to being an online resource, so are Frank and his colleagues held up to constant ‘online’ scrutiny by a new media force to be reckoned with in Washington, ‘Slugline’ whose reporters like former Washington Herald Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) help create ‘truth’ rather than just record it.

While the library may seem to be a permanent monument to Francis and his achievements in life, with its impressive classically inspired façade, we discover very quickly that he is clever enough to know that’s certainly not true.

Despite what we would like to think, and what little of us we do really leave behind when we move on, Frank knows that his achievements will only be but one defining second on the ‘breath’ of time.

We are left thinking that perhaps Frank has a conscience after all, but as we are to quickly learn, it was only but a passing ‘moment’.

This event takes place during episode nine in the first thirteen of the twenty-six-episode political thriller television series already released, ordered by US Netflix a cable network. This all-new American version of the former BBC hit series House of Cards (1990), a show in which politics was hailed as a dark art form; one in which manipulation thrives and absolute power corrupts absolutely, is timely.

The story so far has been released in America and Australia for cable subscribers to download in its entirety so they can watch it how they wish. I must admit that after watching the first few at nightly intervals, as it gained in momentum so did I and by the following Saturday I just had to take time out and watch all the rest in one sitting.

Good that it was a cold, dark windy winter day very like the somewhat murky cool colour palette used to shoot the series, one that helps us to get into the mood of a show where the characters are like sharks circling each other with glorious intent wearing enigmatic smiles, which like the Mona Lisa leaves us all wondering who they really are?

Narcissism definitely has a new name in the devious, ruthless and entirely fascinating presence of power broker Francis (Frank) Underwood played so ably by Kevin Spacey.

His Francis is a political force to be reckoned with and is played with great clarity by Spacey, who turns occasionally to eyeball the television audience to talk directly to them with a rich southern drawl that heralds his roots.

This was a device used with great success back in the day by the man Francis Underwood’s name was derived from, The Right Honourable Francis Urquhart MP (Sir Ian Richardson).

Author of the novel Michael Dobbs’ great character was originally given life on screen by British writer of screenplays and novels Andrew Davies for BBC 1 in 1990 and they are both involved with the writing of this series, along with a team of renowned American dramatists. This series has been masterminded by Beau Willimon.

Dobbs says the book being made into a television series changed his life. Inspired to write the story by the election campaign surrounding the appointment of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, Dobbs made up a storyline that was all about ‘getting rid of the PM’ – entirely fictional, or so he thought.

The irony was for him the day the very first episode of the BBC television series aired, was the day Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign. Her replacement John Major told Dobbs ‘that House of Cards had done for his job ‘what Dracula has done for baby-sitting’ and he took it as a compliment.

Francis in both versions has a unique ability; he is able to move mountains and captivate the majority with just the way he arranges and delivers his words.

They are full of emotion that both motivate and inspire and often lend gravitas to what he is saying, and to his perceived intent.

The show highlights how democratic politics and its politicians are now constantly under threat of an ‘entrenched culture’ for making deals because of the amounts of money supplied by third party interests to their campaigns. They are all intent on what connections in congress can mean to their own agendas, rather than freely contributing to the ‘greater good’.

Spacey as Francis Underwood provides viewers as voyeurs, an opportunity to look Satan directly in the eye.

Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself

The American version of House of Cards progresses to the point by the end of the first series where viewers are eagerly waiting to see what happens next.

Most of those reviewing it today would have not been likely to have enjoyed the opportunity to watch the original series at the time and in its original political context.

What it did do at the time was place political drama on a platform of its own, high above any other form of drama series during the last decade of the 20th century. The standards continued and were raised in America with the production of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing (1999-2006).

Actions have consequences…first rule of life. And the second rule is this: you are the only one responsible for your own actions

Politics as we discover for both Francis’s, on either side of the Atlantic, is not about the money but all about the ability to control people as pawns on a board, where the certainty of black and white choices can become very grey.

The objective for the Francis in the US version, is that eventually he will be the last man left standing and resident in the top job, the ultimate goal: President of the United States.

As the series opens we find out that the candidate in Underwood’s ‘democratic’ party for election as President of the United States had promised Francis the role of Secretary of State.

Being denied the prestigious position of power after the election was over was not something the usually anticipating Francis Underwood, or the love of his life, Claire his ‘goodwife’ had thought would happen when they supported Garrett Walker (Michael Gill) as he ran for office.

They both it seems underestimated the skill or the intent of their opponent, something they both swear they will not ever do in the future. Once bitten twice shy!

The President-elect has his new White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez (Sakina Jaffrey) break the news to Frank, rather than it coming from the President, after all he’s got bigger fish to fry now and so he delegates, something he will later regret, but not yet that would be far too easy. He has to be made to suffer.

Unwittingly the tough Linda (Sakina Jaffrey) and her son, she is trying to help get into Stanford  both come into Frank’s focus.

Success will mean for Linda that favours always have strings attached.

They will both become one of the pawns on the board of life Francis, and the lovely Claire play together that means they gave either some type of hold over, or revenge upon.

It’s made all the more seductive for us in not knowing when or how that will happen. Francis knows it will though, but all in his own good time – to his own timetable and always delivered with a smile.

The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world, is to be in reality what we would appear to be

Actress Robin Wright plays Claire with cool, sophisticated elegance. She is the perfect hostess for a successful politician, one who is able to at the spur of the moment, to pull together a fund raising party in the forecourt of the hotel who refuses to hold her fund raising function because of their owners agenda and factional interests.

500 or so noisy protesters against Frank’s education reform bill have gathered outside trying to drown out the good time the Washington elite are having to no avail.  They cave in when the people they are protesting against cross the street to offer to share their party food with them all.

Claire is dressed a great deal of the time in quiet, sleek couture garments that fit like a glove.

She is a splendid vision of fashion minimalism in clothes designed to present her stunning cool ‘Grace Kelly style beauty’ to great effect.

We find out that when Francis and Claire married they formed a mutual admiration society, a bond so strong and with such evil undertones that over the first series, as we gradually realise the extent and depth to which their depravity will go, slowly sends a chill right up and down your spine.

There is nothing that this pair will not stoop to, or condescend to do as they help each other on their mission to become the most powerful couple in the ‘free’ world.

After all image is really all about other people’s perceptions and they are both image-specialists.

They have agreed between themselves that it’s quite ok to sleep with people as a way of gaining or power over them or soliciting a favour – profiting from their embarrassment in an age of discovery.

They are a pair of new age swingers in every sense.

Claire has her own cause too, one that’s about women in her position in society doing ‘good works’ through a not for profit Clean Water Initiative that she has founded and manages, delivering ‘fresh water’ to people in underprivileged places.

She had always anticipated remaining entirely devoted to her husband and his cause. However when she’s endeavouring to get a shipment of water filters governed by a ruthless regime out of customs in a foreign country where the US has no political power things finally change. She is not a lady to be trifled with and she certainly won’t accept defeat.

Francis through his own government connections cannot help her extricate the filters or solve the problem of doing so. Completely miffed that she would have to let over $200,000 worth of donated filters just go, she enacts her own quiet style of punishment on him.

She has corporate consultant powerbroker Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), who used to be Francis’s former Press Secretary, intervene through his principal consultancy client, a powerful global natural gas company, to make it happen.

Deliberately, she unravels a very ambitious scheme of her husband’s to help Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a troubled young potential congressman from a disadvantaging background to get elected. Russo and Claire’s assistant Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt) are working hard on a separate home grown water project in his state of Philadelphia, one that is guaranteed to gain him votes. Now that goes seriously awry causing Claire to flee and Francis to go into meltdown.

‘Adam’ also tempts Claire’s ‘Eve’. Adam Galloway (Ben Daniels) is Claire’s former lover. He’s a successful New York ‘art’ photographer who lives life on his own terms and from time to time donates his work to raise money for Claire’s cause . This includes the parties involving illegal drugs held in his very stylish loft apartment in New York, where she flees to take solace.

She finds herself after 48 hours of being in Adam’s company in a place where she has with him before, restless and off track.

While Claire is flexible and can usually roll with events, she finds rather than living just for and in the moment as she does with Adam, she would prefer to live life with a structure and an ability to plan ahead, which she knows can do with Frank.

She finally remembers Francis is the one who understands her like no other man has ever done before or since and so she quietly returns home to his by now, open and waiting arms.

He knows having her, as his partner in crime can only be an asset, although we are not fooled into believing for one minute that he cannot do without her – he can and he will, which he proves by getting on with the job during her absence.

Kevin Spacey is elusive, a talented actor, director, screenwriter and producer who puts a great deal back into the career he loves. He took up a decade long appointment as Artistic Director of one of the world’s best-loved theatres – London’s Old Vic in 20013.

This led to him receiving an honorary CBE from the Queen for his services to English Drama, presented by Prince Charles in 2010.

Spacey has earned himself a unique place in the world of performance art and notes he’s reminded often by a phrase actor Jack Lemon, who was a great mentor in his life used to say, one that he’s adopted ‘if you’ve been successful in your chosen path, if you’ve been able to realise your ambition, then you are obligated to ‘send the elevator back down’. He has set up The Kevin Spacey Foundation to offer scholarships and grants to help emerging artists with both passion and potential.

Kevin Spacey gained his first Academy Award in the chilling 1995 movie The Usual Suspects as the mysterious mob boss known as Keyser Söze. Just as Söze constantly surprised us in that landmark movie, so does Spacey’s Francis Underwood continually surprise us.

A very competent ensemble cast with a number of standouts includes Michael Kelly as Doug Stamper. We don’t know who Stamper really is or what he thinks of Underwood, except that we discover he’s one of Frank’s early victims who deals with those getting in his boss’s way efficiently although occasionally with great compassion.

Whatever it takes to get the job done. Like his boss though, he justifies doing bad things for the greater good.

The theme music, which is always a powerful point for me in helping to set the mood was composed and arranged by Jeff Beal, one of the most prolific and respected composers working in both film and television today.

It’s a great score, a haunting contemporary cutting edge symphonic work that also supports our observance of dynamic scenes of Washington flashing by on the credits, that include a pair of recumbent lions, the fiercest animals in the jungle.

Its an analogy well drawn.

Being a cable production provides the series producers with a solid monetary basis for spending the time and money to produce a series of this calibre that abounds in symbolism and witty words

There is no doubt having shows made exclusively for cable television is allowing for the expansion of the great drama series we have been witnessing over the past decade.

Shows as competent as this one is can only continue to raise the standards of excellence in television drama series.

It’s certainly not perfect yet, but then perfection can be so boring, and in this there is certainly never a dull moment.

As we proceed to watch Francis build his ‘House of Cards’ he is definitely on the right path to providing us with yet another satisfying and entertaining end to our day one that offers us an insight into the seemingly ‘inexhaustible’ lusts of a Machiavellian politician’, which in Australia currently seemingly has great parallels.

Michael Dobbs reported Kevin Spacey recently said: “The original was about a wily, murderous politician worming his way to becoming Prime Minister. This is about a wily, murderous politician worming his way to the White House.

It ain’t your daddy’s West Wing!”

‘You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment’, well at least until the next installment.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

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