“If you will the end, you must will the means. These things happen all over the world. Believe me, it's all for the best.” — Francis Urquhart
Emmy time is fast approaching; you can tell by the glossy ads in magazines like The New Yorker. Its latest issue had Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, stars of the Netflix series House of Cards, front and center, glaring at readers. The ad touts the show’s nine Emmy nominations, and the actors appear as hungry for victory as their characters. House of Cards, featuring Spacey as scheming Congressman Frank Underwood and Wright as his equally Machiavellian wife Claire, was a bonafide hit, as popular with viewers as it was critically acclaimed, and heralded excitement about the potential of online television.
The American version of House of Cards is a remake of a British series (or, rather, three miniseries: House of Cards, To Play the King and The Final Cut) chronicling the rise, ascendancy and decline of Francis Urquhart (played by the incomparable Ian Richardson), a high-born Conservative politician with a talent for treachery and an insatiable thirst for power. The British House of Cards, which debuted in 1990 and concluded in 1995, is mostly known for its superb dialogue and acting, which the American remake has down pat.
Less remembered but more daring was the British version’s theme of creeping dystopia, eerily prescient in our current age of shadowy national security apparatus and growing state surveillance. (The British version is also considerably shorter; the entire series runs an hour less than the American remake's first season.) Will the new House of Cards have the guts to follow suit? It should, because the original's vision is now more relevant than ever.
[SPOILER ALERT: The following section plots the entire story of the British version of House of Cards, though vaguely so.]
House of Cards, based on the novel by former conservative political operative Michael Dobbs, starts out more drawing-room mystery than Orwellian nightmare — that is, if the murder mystery were told from the view of the villain. At an unspecified future time, Margaret Thatcher has finally ended her long run as Prime Minister (she would actually end up resigning while the series was on air) and there’s no shortage of contenders for her throne. Urquhart turns to the audience in a modern soliloquy (something the remake keeps intact), letting his id run with both wit and contempt for the parliamentary world around him. After he's snubbed by the new milquetoast prime minister, who turns him down for a home secretary position, he sets up a complex plot to secure his own rise to power.
With the exception of a few elegantly timed leaks and some media manipulation, Urquhart's tricks at this point in the series are more personal than political. He conscripts his party's coke-addicted P.R. man as a minion and uses blackmail, false identities and, eventually, murder to take the Prime Minister’s spot for himself. He's aided by his ever-more-ruthless wife Elizabeth (played with a jolly, evil demeanor by Diane Fletcher) and his deputy, Stamper (Colin Jeavons), a seething apparatchik whose “thuggy talents” prove perfectly suited to aiding Urquhart's rise. Eventually, Urquhart ties up his loose ends, and the first season concludes with him as prime minister. It's brilliant work, and by itself, House of Cards’ first third tells a great tale about the devastating consequences of the thirst for power. But it's the rest of the series where things really get interesting.
The second season begins a few years later, and Urquhart seems secure in his power. Shining cavaliers move past desperate homeless, and despite Urquhart's claims of prosperity, it seems like Britain's descended back to Dickensian depths. The new king (Michael Kitchen) is terribly concerned about all this and has some actual charisma, if in an incredibly earnest way. Moreover, the murder mysteries of the first season may not be as unsolved as the prime minister might hope. But, with the help of some of his old tricks and the power of the apparatus, Urquhart manages to prevail once more. As time goes on, Urquhart begins to use surveillance teams, execution squads (from “the security services”) and even outright assassinations to enforce his rule while maintaining the facade of a normally functioning democracy. In the process, he proves that no one — not the bureaucrats who've furthered his rise, not the monarchy and not even those closest to him — is beyond the reach of the black-ops world he increasingly relies on.
As all this of is taking place, a new figure comes to loom — literally and figuratively — over the series: Commander Corder (played with barbaric relish by Nick Brimble). Corder is what James Bond would be if he stopped downing martinis and focused his talents on acquiring the sort of power mere elected officials (even ones as diabolical as Urquhart) can only dream of. Corder's history — or even his first name — is never revealed. What is clear is that he's remorselessly violent, can access any intelligence he pleases and is capable of arranging a car-bombing (with all the “traditional hallmarks” of an IRA attack) on short notice. Naturally, he's completely immune from oversight.
Urquhart caps his triumph, humiliating his enemies and the monarch as he retains power, by bringing back conscription to deal with the teeming poverty of his reign by getting the young “off their backsides.” The poor, he tells his advisor/mistress, will first crush their fellow rabble, then he'll turn them on the rest of the world. While he’s not quite going for Lebensraum, he does plan to tilt the “balance of trade” in favor of his “fierce, proud” Britain.
As the series spirals into its final season, “F.U.” — as even his own party now calls him — is a fading and increasingly despised man, who’s been in office for over a decade and is more determined than ever to cling to power. With the exception of the idealistic Europhile foreign secretary, his cabinet's full of quasi-fascists and blank-eyed cronies. There are hints of the social collapse that's taken place, mentions of the destruction of almost any government aid or cultural support. Some of his would-be successors want to even go further, snarling that even the dregs of any safety net — the little bit of remaining care for the elderly — must end: “There are too many old people in this country; it's a problem.”
Urquhart, desperate to hang on in the face of rumblings of dissent from his own party, starts a war in Cyprus, hoping to have a Falklands-like triumph, revive his political career and secure his shady business interests. Thus, he sends his conscript legion into a political morass that quickly turns into quagmire. Corder, naturally, is at the table, superior to even the generals and cabinet members in attendance, and encouraging a more ruthless approach. The military disaster is left unresolved at the end of the series, though Urquhart quickly claims victory and the restoration of “the rule of law.” But what’s especially clear is that Corder’s role has grown, cancer like, as Urquhart has faded.
It's a bracing work, still chilling despite the fact that the series ended nearly 20 years ago. The original was a product of its time, of course. Britain has plenty of its own precedents for dilapidated streets as well as the subterfuges of the Urquharts and Corder. (When the original House of Cards began, Northern Ireland still hosted a major insurgency and assassinations and bombings were very real.) But the power of House of Cards came in tying together these elements into a coherent whole and, despite a few blunt moments, a surprisingly subtle whole. While I’ve highlighted some of the more prominent points, while watching it, there's never a single Statue of Liberty on the beach to reveal exactly what kind of world Urquhart has created. Instead, there are hints, flashes and the occasional dead character. But then, the series takes place at the highest levels of power — those lofty social circles that usually remain immune to the petty horrors of everyday life, even in terrible times. In their offices, parliamentary debates and even traipsing through each other’s lavish bedrooms, its inhabitants are safely ensconced in the prosperity that, as Urquhart once puts it, “some of us have always enjoyed.” They are free to care about affairs and office politics, until the consequences of their actions finally hit home.
After watching House of Cards, I realized that even a world as bleak as 1984 could have enough room for an entertaining drama or even a soap opera if it just focused on Big Brother and the power plays of party leadership. Except for the occasional show trial, most of the horror would remain in the background. After all, the members of the world's worst regimes must be surprisingly adept at not taking their jobs home with them.
The American remake of House of Cards differs in many areas, even as it keeps much of the original's core (author Michael Dobbs is involved in this version as well). Underwood is a South Carolina Democrat (albeit of the more conservative Blue Dog variety) and thus far doesn't seem to have Urquhart's hard-right edge, though he does relish humiliating those lower down the totem pole. The American version is much longer, so there's more time to dwell on subplots and side characters, and sometimes, this is a strength. An episode when Underwood leaves the usual Washington backstabbing and returns to his old military academy is arguably some of the best television produced in years.
Perhaps the American series will eventually go farther (it certainly has actors and writers capable of doing so) but right now, it remains focused on the salacious stew of Washington culture and its characters' personal darkness. It's great stuff, even brilliant at times, but there isn’t the tight, terrifying arc of the original — no sense yet that everything is bending towards a world as inevitable as it is tragic. For now, Underwood's a schemer, but hardly the tyrant that Urquhart was born to be. That's a pity because Spacey’s certainly capable of playing such a role and because it would give the portrait a far more controversial bite than the simply seedy amoral persona currently being presented. This is one of the remake's only real weaknesses and keeps it just shy of the masterpiece-level brilliance of the original.
In the first season, the Corder analogue is a trigger-happy bumbling cop who is dependent on Underwood's favor and follows him into the executive branch as his bodyguard. Perhaps Corder will turn out to be another character — it’s still early — but so far the power dynamic implied doesn't bode well for establishing a Dickenisan Black-Ops State.
More interestingly, Underwood uses his monologues to confess personal secrets, while Urquhart used them to draw the viewer into complicity (“I thought you liked strong leadership?”) as he built his corrupt new world, body by body. At the end of the British House of Cards, the viewer feels like they, along with Urquhart's herd of voters and political sycophants, have played their own role in his crimes.
Meanwhile, the vision of the original House of Cards has started to come true in tent cities, warrant-less surveillance and the seeming immunity granted to both criminal financiers and war criminals. The British House of Cards certainly drew on the events of its time, but some of its political world, like endemic surveillance, rule-by-assassination or “security services” increasingly running roughshod over politicians, were then mostly fantasia; now, they seem disturbingly plausible. Taking the American House of Cards in the same direction will require proceeding into uncomfortable, even unpopular territory.
Emmy time this year coincides with news full of fast food strikes, potential intervention in the Middle East and a widespread culture of surveillance ranging from the NSA down to stop-and-frisk. The American House of Cards heads into its second season in a very different world from ‘90s Britain, but the core themes of its predecessor are now headlines. For all its accomplishments, the American version’s greatest challenge is to address those issues with the clarity and guts of the original, making it clear that the vision of a Dickensian Black-Ops State is as applicable here today as in the London of another time.
Tellingly, the final line of the British House of Cards doesn't belong to Urquhart, but to Corder. Growling in the ear of Urquhart's successor, he speaks as the voice of the assassins and spies that have come to define a hollow democracy:
“Everything's under control. You'll be in charge now. Anything you need, we're right behind you.”
Urquhart can say nothing. Like us, he has willed the ends long enough to finally suffer the means.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local paper Mountain Xpress and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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