This is a series where, when Claire Underwood tells her husband “Francis, let’s be realistic,” her idea of pragmatism is to suggest that Frank ought to nominate her to be ambassador to the United Nations as a reward for her years of loyal service as his wife. It’s a position for which she is entirely unqualified and which seems to have little to do with her periodic interests.
A scene that juxtaposes Claire picking out eggs for the annual hunt on the White House grounds as Congress rejects her for the position might have been powerful if Claire really cared about the position as something other than recompense for her suffering at Frank’s side. But she’s not a substantive woman shackled by an old-fashioned conception of political spousehood and denied her full potential. Claire is a tourist, someone who tried to buy herself prestige with her Clean Water Initiative and used her own sexual assault to neutralize a news story about her abortion. The Senate’s rejection of her is the right choice, even if it happens for the wrong reasons.
If “House of Cards” mistakes the Underwoods’ emotional decision-making for hard-headed manipulation, it’s also strangely inconsistent on the subject of political real talk. During Claire’s confirmation hearing, she actually appears surprised when senators object after she accuses them of grandstanding, assuming that they will prioritize her substantive answers over gaffes. In that moment, her view of the world makes Leslie Knope look as conniving as Lyndon Johnson.
Later, though, when the House leadership asks Frank not to run for another term as president, he decides to position himself as a straight-talker.
“We’re here to serve you, when in fact we’re serving ourselves,” Frank says in a televised speech introducing a radical overhaul of the social safety net and a new jobs program. “Our need to stay in power eclipses our duty to govern. That ends tonight. Tonight I give you the truth. The truth is this: The American dream has failed you.” In discussing a case with the solicitor general, Frank declares he’s going to expose covert CIA programs because “I know what the country needs; it needs closure.”
Scenes such as these, or a sequence where Frank invites members of Pussy Riot to a state dinner with a Vladimir Putin-like autocrat, are meant to suggest that our hopes for more honest government open us to exploitation by cynical politicians. But there’s a deeper naivete at work in “House of Cards”: the assumption that there’s actually a wide craving for bipartisanship, for national healing over torture, or for entitlement reform that Frank would be able to exploit. In its own way, “House of Cards” is as deeply sentimental as shows such as “The West Wing.”
Maybe most irritating is the way “House of Cards” signals to us that Frank is a bad man. He’s a murderer, a man who has sex outside his marriage, a fellow who sells out a poor friend for political gain. But even though Frank’s transgressions are intimate and nasty, they’re actually relatively small-scale.
“House of Cards” has always had its token victims of the Underwoods: Megan Hennessey (Libby Woodbridge), a Marine private and sexual assault survivor whom Claire exploits to further a political campaign and a personal vendetta; Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), a sex worker Frank uses to ensnare a political opponent; Freddy (Reg E. Cathy), whose dreams of opening a restaurant chain are first helped and then ruined by his connection to Frank.
But the show is utterly uninterested in the people who are affected by policy changes that politicians pursue out of raw self-interest. The teachers affected by education reform proposals in the first season are an abstraction, represented by a thuggish union boss (Al Sapienza) — their students don’t even merit a thought. When Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a congressman Frank killed in the first season, showed concern for the shipworkers in his district, his sentiments came across as a sign of weakness.
“House of Cards” shares Frank’s contempt for actual citizens: From the second season on, they appear mostly as undifferentiated masses in protest scenes. When he announces his jobs plan, the set makes him look as though he’s speaking from the void, into the void. This total disinterest in the actual impact of Frank’s policies, the human cost of his governing rather than his political machinations, has the effect of buying into his approach to life: the one gets treated as much more important and interesting than the many.
This faux-sophistication extends to visuals, too. “House of Cards” shoots Washington in elegant and unruffled blues and grays, full of restaurants cast in buttery light. But it’s also the kind of series where, after Claire asks Frank to give her a recess appointment to the U.N. over the objections of the Senate, she actually breaks a pair of eggs into a frying pan. Because you can’t get anything done without breaking a few rules, get it? These kinds of images are obvious in a way that suggests Willimon has a high opinion of his own intelligence — and an awfully low estimation of ours.
If the Washington captured by “House of Cards” feels distinctly airless and empty, it’s no wonder the Underwoods dominate the town so thoroughly. They’re cool to the point of resembling the walking dead more closely than actual human beings. Frank and Claire barely need to breathe, even as the people around them strangle and stifle.