WATCHING KEVIN SPACEY as the powerful and adept House Majority Whip Frank Underwood in House of Cards, it’s easy to see only the routine corruption and immorality we’ve come to expect from our politicians. Even before the current spate of partisan intransigence pushed Congress’s approval ratings this January to a record low of 9 percent, Americans disliked and distrusted their elected representatives. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 56 percent of likely voters believe their own congressman has sold his vote, and a Public Policy Poll from early 2013 suggests voters have higher opinions of colonoscopies, traffic jams, used car salesmen, and head lice than they do of Congress. To many of us, then, the greed, sex, power plays, and backroom deals that move forward House of Cards’ revenge plot (the President reneged on a promise to nominate Underwood for Secretary of State) look like nothing more than politics as usual.
But Spacey’s Underwood is also a feat of fantasy casting. House of Cards’ director David Fincher, who first cast Spacey nearly two decades ago as Se7en’s serial killer, John Doe, claims Spacey was always “the first and only choice” for Underwood’s part. Fincher’s pick was probably more deeply considered than those on the fantasy casting blogs and fan sites that propose cast lists for everything from Moby-Dick to remakes of Twilight, but it nonetheless participates in the same impulse: to add to or complicate a role by bringing to it a distinctive characteristic — whether looks, or life story, or knack for capturing a particular type — that its actor is already known for.
In Spacey’s case that type is seductive and unsettlingly sinister. It’s epitomized by Lester Burnham, the suburban father who tries to seduce his daughter’s friend in American Beauty; Keyser Söze, the vicious international crime boss who puts on an eerily docile, smooth-talking persona in order to escape police custody in The Usual Suspects; and, especially, Doe, a psychopath who murders by manipulating victims into acting out the seven deadly sins. In Se7en, Doe’s crimes include driving an obese man to gorge himself to death, convincing a model to overdose rather than face a life of disfigurement, and forcing a man to rape a prostitute while wearing a deadly S&M contraption. The movie’s most disturbing killing, though, comes in the final showdown between Spacey and Mills, the detective hunting him. The detective, played by Brad Pitt, is interrupted by an unsuspecting delivery man bearing a box with the severed head of the detective’s wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Egged on by Doe’s leering commentary, Mills shoots his kneeling adversary and commits the serial killer’s final murder for him.
Memories of Spacey’s earlier roles crowd your peripheral vision in Underwood’s scenes. Midway through the first season of House of Cards, Spacey confronts Marty Spinella, a union lobbyist who has called a nationwide teacher’s strike to oppose Underwood’s education reform bill. Alone with Spinella, a pool of reporters outside the conference room door, Underwood goads him: “You know the difference between you and me? I’ve made something of myself. […] But you? […] You’re just an uppity dago in an expensive suit turning tricks for the unions. […] The most you’ll ever make of yourself is blowing men like me.” And then there’s a box, or, rather, a briefcase. Inside is the Washington, DC, version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head: the brick that, Underwood confesses, he’d arranged for an aide to hurl through his own window in order to convince the media that the teachers’ unions were in league with thugs. When Underwood confesses his manipulation, Spinella, unlike Se7en’s Detective Mills, doesn’t shoot Spacey. But he throws a punch that ruins his reputation, ensures the end of the teacher’s strike, and gets Underwood his bill.
Asked about Underwood after the release of the first season, Spacey answered, “People just like me evil for some reason. They want me to be a son of a bitch.” But Spacey’s brand of evil is particular, as the differences between Netflix’s House of Cards and the BBC’s 1990 House of Cards miniseries make clear. Both series are powered by revenge plots — in the BBC version, Frances Urquhart, Underwood’s British counterpart, also does everything he can to sabotage a party leader who has passed him over for a cabinet post — and both Underwood and Urquhart are Machiavellian. Urquhart, though, relies primarily on disinformation and violence to maintain his power. Underwood, by contrast, attains his desired results by managing vice itself. Where Urquhart coerces, Underwood flatters. Where Urquhart dissembles and terrorizes, Underwood gently facilitates self-destruction. Whether it’s stroking an ego at just the right moment or engineering the alcoholic relapse of an ostensible protégé, Underwood’s political talent lies in anticipating how sin, deadly and otherwise, will drive those around him.
Many claim this dark view of political representation makes House of Cards too cynical. (Steny Hoyer, our sitting Minority Whip, said in an interview, “I like to think the whip Kevin plays is not me.”) But what does it mean to accuse a show of cynicism in its portrayal of a representative body Americans already loathe? This charge implies that we know how American representation might live up to our nation’s ideals, if only it weren’t for the corruption that Underwood epitomizes. But we don’t. In fact, we never have.
“Virtue” is not a term often used in politics now. If we notice it at all it’s to reflect on its absence, and then we use other words: scandal, vice, corruption, sin. But virtue was the byword of the 1780s and ’90s, when Americans were trying to organize a national government for the 13 newly independent states. Its ring of idealism called to mind both the founders’ Enlightenment principles and the quasi-religious conviction that the United States could become a new Eden. Virtue also solved a practical problem: that no one had a convincing explanation for how elected representatives did their representing.
Some wanted representatives to exercise their independent judgment even if that meant ignoring the desires of those who elected them. Others thought representatives functioned as agents who were bound to carry out the platform on which they ran. A third group called for a national assembly that looked like the electorate, with, as the anti-Federalist “Brutus” put it, “the farmer, the merchant, the mechanic, and other various orders of people” all “represented according to their respective weight and numbers.” The one thing everyone agreed on was that representatives shouldn’t be bought or compromisingly beholden, but even that consensus got slippery when it left the realm of abstraction. A common refrain from the Framers of our Constitution was that, left unchecked, constituents themselves would exert improper influence. The Electoral College is a hangover from the days when a good portion of American powerbrokers believed we needed appointed electors to shield our executives from the corrupting effects of the popular vote.
Virtue promised a way to sidestep these disagreements. After all, if a virtuous electorate sends virtuous representatives to the legislature of a virtuous republic, shouldn’t the virtuous end result be the same, no matter which theory of representation you subscribe to? But from the beginning Americans were skeptical that people could live up to the moral ideals the Framers pinned their hopes on, especially because these ideals weren’t straightforward when applied to a republic where most people weren’t millionaires. Benjamin Franklin, one of the wealthiest delegates to the Constitutional Convention, called for the Constitution to ban officeholders from collecting salaries — a rule that makes sense if you believe, as he did, that public service should be selfless and that payment is an inducement to corruption — but the amendment never got traction, since without salaries only those with independent incomes could afford to serve.
Politics has only become trickier in our era of lobbyists and Super PACs. House members need to raise, on average, more than $2,000 for every day in office to stand a chance at reelection. Most of this money comes from corporations and private organizations whose interests don’t align with one another, much less with those of a particular district or the nation as a whole. “Vote your district. Vote your conscience. Don’t surprise me,” Underwood tells two junior congressmen, in a line taken right out of the mouth of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who met with Spacey before filming. But voting one’s conscience is not the same as voting one’s district, even without donors and party leaders to satisfy. Caught between incompatible notions of how representation is supposed to work, congressmen inevitably have to make choices about which of these notions to privilege. And whatever interest they end up choosing, whether it’s home district, a big donor, the party line, or personal conscience, someone necessarily gets screwed.
Shows like The West Wing gloss over these contradictions with fast walking and orchestral crescendos, but House of Cards revels in them, especially in showing us who’s screwing whom. Often this is dramatized literally. Within the space of a few episodes, Underwood tells Spinella, the union lobbyist, to “get down on your knees where you belong,” commences an affair with a young reporter he’s been feeding information to, and extorts a congressman booked for prostitution. This last scene is shot from behind, the congressman sitting down and Underwood standing over him, so the former’s head aligns conspicuously with Underwood’s crotch. (Just in case you miss the metaphor, episode three works in a pun on “sexual congress.”)
Watching Underwood’s political gift for manipulating the desires and vices of those around him, it’s tempting to imagine that House of Cards has traded a naïve fantasy about virtuous representation for a more cynical one about an antihero politician who knows how to get things done. Spacey himself said as much in an interview just after the show’s premiere, where he described Lyndon Johnson as the “diabolical” figure who got the Civil Rights Act through Congress. But Underwood’s goals — power and revenge — aren’t lofty. He has no legislative agenda comparable to Johnson’s Great Society. His one big legislative success of the first season, an education reform bill, seems driven less by idealism, or even good governance — the show never says how giving standardized tests every three years instead of every five will improve the public school system — than by Underwood’s own ambition.
Maybe, though, Underwood’s accomplishments are beside the point — maybe the fantasy House of Cards is peddling is simply about being wanted. Spacey’s frequent asides to the camera, in which he seems to look straight into viewers’ eyes as he tells us what’s really going on, are nothing if not seductive. Like Bill Clinton, the character Spacey plays is masterful at creating the illusion a politician is paying us individual attention, and this illusion beats a reality in which our representatives split their attention among not just other constituents but among the special interests and party power brokers funding their careers. Whether manifested in the five decades of close attention we, as a nation, have paid to JFK’s sex life or in the current proliferation of dirty Paul Ryan tumblrs, our frustrated desire for attention has always been part of our politicians’ appeal. The fantasy, in the end, is not just about being with a powerful politician but about being with a politician so powerful he could have anyone and still chooses us.
But if House of Cards is about political fantasies, it’s also about fantasy casting. From one point of view, the show is indulging our cynical political fantasies by casting Spacey, an actor known for playing tempting but evil figures, as just the sort of potent congressional leader we desire at a time when so many of us feel functionally disenfranchised by Congress. From another, though, casting Spacey in a role that reprises Se7en’s killer is a way of holding up our fantasies about the congressmen we wish we had (and could be had by) and asking if those fantasies are really what we want.
House of Cards’ interest in congressional vice might reasonably be taken as evidence that the show has written off America’s founding idealism entirely. A quick survey of the contentious historical eras the show’s creators most often cite as inspiration likewise suggests the show is more interested in messy legislative compromise of the sort that held the Union together during the Civil War than it is in anything resembling the Enlightenment promise of truly meaningful electoral representation. Nevertheless, even as it’s unabashedly cynical about the prospects for a virtuous republic headed by virtuous leaders, the show returns to an alternate Enlightenment paradigm for representation, one that coexisted with (but was distinct from and didn’t necessarily depend on) the virtue the Founders fruitlessly strove to cultivate. “Harmony. That’s the word that’s stuck in my mind,” Underwood exclaims when he goes off script at the dedication of a library his military college names for him. “It’s not about what’s lasting or permanent. It is about individual voices coming together for a moment. And that moment lasts the length of a breath.” Underwood’s improvisation is meant as a veiled message for an old flame, a member of his college a capella group, now married with kids. But the notion of individual voices coming together goes back to the United States’ founding. Vox populi, vox dei — the voice of the people is the voice of God — cried revolutionaries frustrated with the colonies’ lack of representation in the British Parliament. After independence Americans elaborated on the metaphor as they puzzled over how their representational system would function.
For Underwood, the vox populi becomes a problem to manage when he has to leave important education bill negotiations in order to stay ahead of a story about a dead teenager from his hometown, Gaffney, South Carolina. The girl died luridly: she crashed her car while texting her boyfriend dirty thoughts about the Peachoid, a fruit-shaped water tower reminiscent of female anatomy in ways everyone in the town seems to see but no one can quite pin down. Years earlier, Underwood had fought to keep the tower standing after one of his rivals called it obscene. Now his rival hopes the dead girl and her angry parents will become the scandal that secures him Underwood’s congressional seat. It’s just the sort of mess that would justify our contempt for Congress. A national education reform bill derailed by a tabloid story involving a town no one’s ever heard of and a sexually suggestive giant peach?
No wonder, then, that Underwood goes to shameless lengths to kill the story. When the dead girl’s father rebuffs his condolences, Underwood secures a pulpit at the grieving parents’ church from which he delivers an impromptu sermon on the “soul-crushing loss” he experienced when his father died of a heart attack at 43. “My father was so young. So full of life. So full of dreams,” Underwood drawls to a rapt audience, his accent noticeably thickened. “Why would God take him from us?” But the speech is a lie. In one of his seductive asides, Underwood tells viewers he hardly knew his father, whom he remembers as a timid and ineffectual man. (“Maybe it’s best he died so young. He wasn’t doing much but taking up space. But that doesn’t make for a very powerful eulogy, now does it?”)
When the camera cuts back to Underwood’s constituents nodding along earnestly, you feel a sense of complicity that only deepens as Underwood meets with the dead girl’s parents, praying with them to a God he doesn’t believe in and offering a show of patient sympathy when it’s clear he can’t wait to get back to Washington. But in the end, the Peachoid episode is one of the more effective examples of representation on the series. Underwood gets guardrails installed on the road near the water tower and establishes a $50,000 annual scholarship — the money the town spent lighting the Peachoid — in the dead girl’s name. It’s exactly what you’d hope might happen if you ever got worked up enough to call your congressman. And although Underwood’s lie to the congregation is ugly, his words are moving. Even though Underwood doesn’t mean what he says, he still senses and gives voice to what his constituents feel better than anyone else does.
House of Cards doesn’t insist you have faith in the Enlightenment promise of the vox populi. Instead it fantasy-casts Spacey as both a temptation and a Rorschach blot. Viewers have the choice of falling for the cynical fantasy embodied in Spacey’s performance or believing despite ourselves in the effectiveness of a system of representation whose functioning we don’t understand and rarely see convincing proof of. A less unsettling show would reassure us that a few virtuous idealists could rescue our representative system from the dysfunction corruption has wrought. A less interesting show would let us rest comfortably in a wholeheartedly cynical understanding of congressional politics, or in the faith that, despite its corruption, Congress is still somehow attuned to the American vox populi. But Spacey’s performance leaves just enough room for doubt that we can’t quite pin the show to any one of these takes on congressional politics. In casting Spacey as just the sort of representative we tend to fantasize about when we can’t figure out what the connection is between the voting booth and the House floor, House of Cards confronts us with the same unsolved — and perhaps unsolvable — problem the Framers faced: how might our congressmen, with everyone and everything that influences them, come, through some combination of enlightened reason and divine intervention, to represent us?