The quest for power knows no nationality or political allegiance.
In House of Cards, the BBC’s seminal 1990 miniseries, based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart is the Machiavellian chief whip of the Conservative Party in the days following Margaret Thatcher’s fall from grace. After being passed over yet again, the deceptively placid Urquhart schemes, manipulates, and plots his way over the bodies of his colleagues and former friends in a bid for that most elusive of goals: true power.
On Friday, Netflix will unveil its American remake of House of Cards, written by Beau Willimon (Farragut North) and directed by David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). In a paradigm-shifting move, the streaming video giant Netflix will be releasing all 13 episodes of the show’s first season on the same day, a move that could sound a death knell for the traditional scheduling models of network television. Gone are time slots, episode run times, and any sense that the viewing experience is being dictated by anyone other than the consumer, who can choose to watch as few or as many episodes of House of Cards as he wishes.
“It’s fully in the audience’s hands to decide what their own experience is,” Willimon told The Daily Beast earlier this month. “The same way that you read a novel. You can read Anna Karenina in two days, or you can read it over a year. And I think that’s better because it personalizes the experience.”
Francis Urquhart, one can’t help but think, would surely appreciate this power grab.
In Willimon and Fincher’s version of House of Cards, Urquhart is reincarnated as Francis “Frank” Underhill (Kevin Spacey), a Democratic chief whip from South Carolina whose shark-like intelligence—and ruthless amorality—is depicted as a natural side effect of the American Dream. Here, the story is transplanted from Westminster to Washington, where the plot revolves around the dynamic between Underhill and the ambitious reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Like Frank, Zoe is overlooked and undervalued, dismissed as a blogger and a “Twitter twat” at one point. Trading secrets and access, the two form a mutually beneficial alliance that could ultimately topple an entire presidential administration.
“She is not as dangerous as Frank is, but I would definitely say she’s unpredictable,” said Mara. “To him, she is dangerous. They’re dangerous to each other.”
“It becomes very intimate between the two of them and not just mentally,” she continued, laughing. “There are a lot of really dark, twisted conversations they have. They’re definitely in a lot of situations that are a little bit shocking. But it’s that power struggle; each of them plays with that in their work, but also in their personal relationships as well.”
Frank and Zoe’s dynamic isn’t as cut and dried as it appears at first glance, and which of them has the upper hand in their relationship is continually shifting and evolving. “It’s not just about politics in the workplace or in Washington,” said Mara. “It’s about politics at home and in the bedroom: between lovers, between friends.”
A ruthless plotter like Frank knows you can’t trust anyone, least of all those closest to you. That idea appealed to Fincher, who had never previously worked in television and who not only executive produced House of Cards, but also directed the first two episodes.
“The idea of Machiavelli taking you under his wing and walking you through the corridors of power, explaining the totally mundane and crass on a mechanical level to the most grotesque manipulations of a system that is set up to have all these checks and balances was just too delicious,” said Fincher. “But I didn’t see how it could be transferred. I didn’t understand enough about the politics of Washington, D.C. ... Beau not only had an affinity for it but was really deft in how he took the grass roots—hand-shaking, kissing babies, and opening malls—and how that moves into a larger context ... I’d never thought of the grass roots—how far those grass roots reach into the marble dome.”
Willimon is no stranger to D.C. politics. As a playwright, he brought the secrets and scandals of the campaign trail to life with the brilliant Farragut North (which was adapted for film as the George Clooney- and Ryan Gosling-led Ides of March), and he worked on the Howard Dean campaign. “You get on the trail and you’re like, ‘These people are human. They eat, they shit, and they want to be home with their family. They get angry, they get pissed off, they can be wildly insecure at times,” he said. “They’re human beings. A lot of politics is about personal relationships. It’s about exploiting and manipulating the irrational parts of who we are.”
The most important aspect of House of Cards that had to translate was Francis’s direct address to the audience, a shattering of the fourth wall that allows the viewer access to his innermost thoughts and desires, which tend to be about ruthless destruction.
“Even though it was done in 1990, it’s not a device that’s often used or used well,” said Willimon. “Francis’s remorseless amorality, his unabashed pursuit of power for power’s sake; we wanted to keep that basic architecture. But at the same time, the world has changed a lot in 25 years. Not just in terms of the political landscape, but also the media. And television has become a lot more sophisticated.”
“You didn’t have antiheroes like Francis on the airwaves all that much back in 1990,” he continued. “Now we’ve had a lot of them: Tony Soprano, Dexter, Walter White. Audiences are well-versed in these sort of characters and expect a lot from them. We had to up our game.”
Indeed, House of Cards veers sharply off of the path established by the original after the first two episodes, expanding the overarching plot as well as the supporting characters. Andrew Davies’s original miniseries and its two sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut, clock in at 12 episodes total. But the idea here is that the first two seasons of the U.S. remake will comprise 26 episodes, which meant “expanding laterally” and “digging deeper,” said Willimon.
Frank’s wife, Claire, played with perfect froideur by Robin Wright, is given her own storyline within the U.S. version, while her British counterpart was largely an extension of Urquhart. But the pairing of Frank and Claire gives House of Cards a jolt of unpredictability; their scenes together reverberate with tension and wit. (“Their marriage is fascinating to watch,” said Mara, “and how power is given back and forth” between them.)
Callbacks and inside jokes for those familiar with the original are laced throughout. Willimon felt that Frank Underwood as a name “felt Dickensian and more legitimately American” than Francis Urquhart. “But you’ve got to keep the initials,” he said. “In the original, [Francis] came from aristocracy and privilege, but the American mythology is coming from nothing.” Francis’s famous catchphrase—“You very well might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”—also makes an appearance, while other characters are updated and modernized. (Coke-addled publicist Roger and his female assistant, Penny Guy, become Corey Stoll’s hard-partying congressman, Russo, and his secretary/lover, Kristen Connolly’s Christina.)
House of Cards appears to posit that ruthlessness is next to godliness. So does that mean that a good man can never succeed in American politics?
“That’s a good question because I would ask you then, ‘What is a good man? And does one exist?’ I think we want two things from our politicians that are at odds with one another,” said Willimon. “We want them to be these bastions of moral integrity on the one hand, and then we want them to be effective leaders on the other. But to be an effective leader, you often have to do things that are morally or ethically abhorrent, or at least in a gray area, as far as most of us are concerned.”
“You can’t become president of the United States, or a senator or a congressman, without some heads rolling along the way,” he continued. “There’s the saying, ‘Behind every great fortune there’s a great crime.’ I think behind every great office there’s a great crime ... That’s scary to a lot of people. But it’s also delicious and entertaining. Especially when your protagonist doesn’t have an ounce of guilt about it. And one of the great things about the direct address is he basically says to you, ‘I have zero remorse about pursuing my own self-interests.’ And I think there’s a part of all of us that respects that sort of selfish pragmatism. Especially when it’s done so cleverly and by someone as charismatic and seductive as Kevin Spacey.”
(Andrew Davies, who wrote the original House of Cards and has an executive producer credit on the American remake, disagreed with Willimon here. “I’m going to say something rather awful now,” he told The Daily Beast. “Where [the U.S. version] falls down is that the leading character doesn’t have the charm. You don’t want to go on the ride with him, the way you did with Ian Richardson, who was in effect saying: ‘You and me, we’re just so clever and we’re going to get up to all sorts of tricks together. Come on. You’ll enjoy the ride.’ You go along with him almost like you go along with [Walter White] in Breaking Bad…You want him to do all right. Then you find that to get where he wants to be, he has to be much more ruthless than you would like him to be.”)
Still, Spacey endows Frank with a reptilian intelligence, a cunning that gives him an edge over everyone he encounters. He is, in some ways, the best worst part of ourselves.
“We intentionally want it to be seductive,” said Willimon. “We want you to root for this person despite yourself, and we want to implicate you too. You become willingly complicit in his exploits, simply by viewing him and having him talk to you and tuning in episode after episode. What does this say about you? Is there a Francis Underwood in you somewhere?”
Ultimately, however, Willimon says that while Frank’s methods are extreme, they also connect to our own struggles. “The root themes of this show are ambition, trust, betrayal, desire,” he said. “These are things we all experience ... We experience politics in our own lives every day. We often don’t call it politics, but all of our lives are political, and what Washington allows you to do is simply take all of those things that we experience and amplify them with huge stakes.”
The stakes are also high for Netflix, with the paradigm-shifting scheduling of this show, a model it will use for its other upcoming original offerings, including Arrested Development. The hope is that the first few episodes of House of Cards will be so appealing that viewers will want to continue watching—and perhaps binge-watch the entire 13-part first season when it's released on Friday.
“Our goal is to try and shut down America for day,” said Willimon, laughing. “Or at least our target demographic.”