I remember watching the original, BBC produced, version of “House Of Cards” and not quite getting it. And by ‘it’ I mean all the shock. Even at that impressionable age, I assumed that certain people were nasty. Still, I was enthralled by Francis Urquhart, played by Ian Richardson, privately addressing the camera, otherwise known as breaking the ‘fourth wall’. That was new to me. His commentary was so brazen, his pathology so sinister, it was unnerving to see such hubris and unfettered amorality offered without any hint of irony or remorse. Urquhart’s tone was always verging on contemptuous too. It rammed home the reality, that yes, you’re watching me doing these repulsive things, so why are you pretending to yourself that you’re observing for no other reason but to revel vicariously in an exotic form of vindictiveness that you’re incapable of?
Looking at it retrospectively, I think the show was so popular as it created a moral contradiction within the viewer; it offered a fictional exposé of the traits many saw the lead members in Thatcher’s cabinet possessing and the divisive and destructive policies it enacted, allowing a retrospective form of admonishment, and secondly because it tapped into a forming cultural milieu that’s become prevalent today, where altruism, which creates and upholds community and the rights of the weak, is impeded by the consumerist greed and superficial vanities that often exist in an aspirational society, the kind of society Thatcher wanted. Urquhart was clearly aspirational, albeit on the extreme end of the spectrum, and his single mindedness, fuelled by an embittered sense of entitlement, was surely based on one of Thatcher’s most prevalent and gruesome characteristics. Urquhart, as fiction, became a more accessible and detached way of consuming Thatcher’s worst traits in a way which meant you could find them engrossing, even appealing, while quarantining this from any possible betrayal of your moral compass and political loyalties.
Most of the intriguing characters of on-screen fiction you can think of evoke a similar uncertainty. At best they’re deeply flawed anti-heroes, like Jimmy McNulty or Don Draper, or at worst absolutely vile and vindictive like Francis Urquhart, the ultimate survivor, the ultimate cockroach, doing whatever it took to prosper. They’re usually all the same; male, selfish, single minded and they all have a goal which comes first, to the detriment of themselves and possibly others. For Urquhart, having a goal, and reaching it was all that mattered to him. The allure of power alone, and holding it, perceived or otherwise, may seem a completely hollow objective, but for Urquhart being something was better than nothing, and making something out of that dismal realisation was paramount.
When I first heard that the Americans were remaking “House Of Cards” my reaction was no, please don’t. My first concern was how they were going to successfully translate the necessary rise of the lead protagonist through the vastly different structure of the US political system. I have to confess, the American political system, and how it functions, still seems nebulous to me. I will confess my opinion of the proposed remake was jaundiced by a stereotypical view of how American television tends to operate. As per usual it is swimming in good ideas for drama, but has an unfortunate propensity for rejecting them in favour of shallow dross. It’s easy to lazily rehash a foreign concept so that their audience won’t have to read subtitles, or just in case a certain brand of humour doesn’t translate. It’s standard fare for Hollywood movies these days, and this nonsense was bound to migrate over to television.
I assumed that the plot, or much of it, would be a straight lift from the original. We’ve seen this before, most recently with the appalling US remake of “Life On Mars”. Loosely borrowing the premise of a copper going back in time? Fine, make a shit show, but don’t try to write an American Gene Hunt, a completely indigenous creation. Then there’s the premise of the show and how David Bowie’s cultural influence on that period of British culture was woven seamlessly into the fabric of the show’s plot. It evoked an authentic sense of nostalgia that helped to obscure the nuance of its narrative thread, and its conclusion. The American version overlooked this aspect, or to be fair couldn’t successfully translate it, and was a pale imitation because of it.
However, there are examples of Americans remaking foreign derived shows with success and even panache. “The Office” is the best example. At worst it’s just as good as the original, but crucially just different enough that it can be viewed on its own merits. And that’s why it was a success. It borrowed the structure, and certain scenarios of the original, but nothing else. You couldn’t have David Brent in the US, Gervais and Merchant knew this, as did Greg Daniels.
Which brings us to the US version of “House Of Cards” – it too succeeds, because it borrows selectively from the premise of the original.
Having watched the first season and the first few episodes of the second season, Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood, while just as vindictive and cynical as Urquhart, comes across as warmer. Those in Underwood’s echelon fall into two categories – those who are just as cutthroat as he is, or try to be, but aren’t quite as capable as he, and the others, like Peter Russo, who is flawed, self loathing, impressionable, idealistic and as such disposable. The show is slanted towards Underwood’s perspective, after all, like Urquhart, he gives the truth, albeit his version of it, to you directly – politics is a cold enterprise, full of liars, backstabbers and chancers. His message is succinct, to attain political achievement there’s no room for inherent sentiment or goodwill, and they deserve what they get if they stand in his way. In the original “House Of Cards”, these peripheral characters were often presented sympathetically despite the inevitability of Urquhart’s spectre corrupting them. They may have been comparatively earnest and therefore weak, but they weren’t treated with contempt by the system they were a part of. Urquhart was the outlier. He wasn’t representative of the system as Underwood appears to be or wishes to be. This aspect of the remake is appropriately cynical, it taps into a fanciful notion of how politics is conducted and the prevalent traits we expect and wish many politicians assume; vindictiveness, ruthlessness, ambition, intelligence, and driven by self interest and greed. This seems favourable as we perceive many of them in a dismal light these days, all of them out of touch with common realities, often bumbling and incompetent at worst, or like Iain Duncan Smith, dangerously incompetent and in the thrall of his own moral crusade. As Alan Bennett rightly said ‘he is in the grip of ideology, and ideology tends to drive out thought’. It’s a ghastly spectacle with even ghastlier consequences for normal folk. Given the prevalent cynicism and mass disaffection towards politics and politicians in our culture Underwood becomes the ideal; a wishful hate figure that can also be admired for his effectiveness and determination.
With the knowledge that one version is derived from the other, albeit loosely, there is a strange aspect to watching the American version and seeing where and how the template set by the original has been alterted.
What struck me straight away was the warmer palette that’s used in the remake. Superficially it’s disingenuous, as it’s also shot with a clean lined, slick, surgical coldness that reflects the nature of its subject. The British version was certainly much creepier, grimier and dark. Tonally it accurately mirrored Urquhart’s psyche and its era – the immediate aftermath of post Thatcher Britain, where everything appeared to be frayed, down trodden and dirty.
One difference which makes the American version preferable is the greater depth given to the personal relationships Underwood has, and the emotional consequences they have. As in the original, Underwood starts an affair with a reporter, here named Zoe Barnes. Initially at least it is unclear if Zoe is just being used by Underwood to manipulate the media’s reporting of events, or whether he allows himself to be charmed by her. Barnes comes across as driven by career progression, and as such alluring to Underwood. She is convinced, for a period, that she is benefitting more from the relationship with Underwood than he is from her. Her decision to end the physical element of their relationship and make it professional one consolidates this impression, and makes her more formidable than her equivalent Mattie Storie, who it was made clear by Urquhart, from outset, was only a means to an end. However, Urquhart did derive pleasure from her calling him ‘daddy’, which, to him, became another means of enjoying his favourite drug – a sense of control and power. The roles are reversed in the US version, where Barnes takes steps to seduce Underwood, allured and intrigued by the self assurance and power Underwood’s position gives him.
It eventually becomes clear that all of this new discourse, and a more uncertain dynamic between Barnes and Underwood, have been created with one scene in mind at the start of season two, and to make it as shocking and surprising as possible. This was impressive, as it carried this effect despite me knowing of Urquhart’s ruthless disposal of Storie, and what caused him to do it. Despite his use and disposal of Peter Russo, you come to assume that Underwood wouldn’t tread the same path as Urquhart with Barnes. Having seen him attempt to get Barnes back onside, Underwood was not only motivated by political need and self preservation, but a personal hope that he could convince Barnes, the one person other than Claire who he’d confided in, partially at least, that he wasn’t completely immured and controlled by his own sense of ambition. When Barnes rejects Underwood’s narrative, she sees him in an entirely cynical light, and he realises that he is a cipher, acting his own life, and that his goal is all he has. At that moment Barnes becomes a physical embodiment of all of Underwood’s weaknesses, and that getting rid of her becomes a means of not only naturalising a threat, but vanquishing a reminder of what he is incapable of being; genuine.
In the original “House Of Cards” Urquhart’s wife was just as vindictive and manipulative as he is. This impression was easily fomented as her screen time was limited. She had the odd soliloquy to big Francis up when he was uncertain in the face of a crisis. She’d appear over breakfast to casually, but not really, remind them of their goals. But as a character she was essentially a mirror of Urquhart and as such didn’t really need to be developed. She was Urquhart whenever he failed to be.
Robin Wright’s portrayal of Underwood’s wife Claire has far more depth and as such requires a more convincing performance. As she doesn’t breach the fourth wall her motivations for her actions and desires are far more complex and mysterious.
In season one Claire’s screen time seemed excessive given her professional issues had very little bearing on Underwood, whom the show revolved around. What we did see was how she operated in the sphere of her professional life, specifically how she was capable of vacillating between kindness and vindictiveness seamlessly.
Throughout the show we see her in various scenarios which makes you come to question whether these traits are inherent or whether she’s accrued them through necessity to cope with political life, and Francis’s brand of it. She reignites, almost in retaliation to Francis’s unconvincing explanation of the nature of his relationship with Barnes, what is clearly an on off affair with a New York based English photographer. Here we see her confronted by the life she could’ve lead, which she ultimately rejects, possibly because the life she’s lead has made her view the world through a Francis-esque prism of cynicism and results mattering most, making her incapable of living a life of that’s comparatively obscure and of little consequence.
This temporary split adds a layer of realism, of what there can be, of the volatility that would likely exist in a relationship in which one figure’s needs are prioritised over the other. This is exemplified by how isolated Claire becomes when she thinks about having a baby. It’s something she wants. Francis doesn’t say no, but doesn’t welcome it either. She is left to grapple with it for a few episodes, before suddenly capitulating. Francis has won the VP nomination by this point – the cause of the need to expedite her decision – but you’re left to question whether she chose to be practical, or if she truly wanted to bring children directly into Francis’s realm.
Claire’s decision to conjure a narrative, which ties her and Francis’s decision to have an abortion, with the traumatic experience of her rape by Dalton McGuiness, to aid Francis’s public standing, can be construed as a reaffirmation of her commitment to their relationship and what that will require of her. But given the prior evidence of her variable nature, you’re entitled to have your doubts that she’s truly happy shouldering the responsibility that’s placed on supporting someone like Francis, with his ambitions.
The influence of big business on politics was peripheral in the first season of the remake. Urquhart had many powwows with a disgustingly bulbous and obnoxious American media tycoon, which was clearly allegorical of Rupert Murdoch’s influence over Tory policy at the time. Underwood comes across more favourably due to how he attempts to rebuff the influence and impediments imposed by big business on the effectiveness of politics, more specifically his way of doing politics. He often presents them to us as an irritant and occasionally as a liability to his plan, and as their vested interests are to make more money at the cost of good policy, you like the fact that Underwood sees them for what they are and confides his contempt. It is more satisfying to watch Underwood flaunt his manipulation of the arrogant and greedy Raymond Tusk, than to watch Urquhart roll his eyes privately in disdain. While the scenario of Tusk’s insidious mentoring of the President, who Underwood is attempting to unseat, is slightly far fetched, it does provide another opportunity for us to see Underwood’s insecurity, myopia and hypocrisy. Here he selectively has contempt for the system he knows he can exploit. Underwood views himself as more capable yet he insinuates that the President has reached that position undeservedly through favouritism and dumb luck. If that’s true then why doesn’t the same apply to Underwood? Especially as we later find out his first election to public office was helped through funding from Claire’s family.
For most of the first season you’re left guessing as to how malicious Underwood is and could be, what he was prepared to do, and how far he’d go. With Urquhart, it was apparent from very early on that no action was too depraved to contemplate. The uncertainty with Underwood is aided by a lack of depth to his history. The first time it’s touched upon comes after he commits his first murder. In one episode he returns to the military academy he attended in his youth, where he comes across as genuine, happy and contented. Other than that it’s mostly vague hints and snippets here and there. A deed from Urquhart’s past ultimately came back to haunt him. The same scope remains in the remake as we know little of Underwood’s upbringing or political rise and what steps he took to aid it.
So, given I kind of do but don’t actually know the ending, yet, will Frank Underwood become President, just as Urquhart became Prime Minister? I’m sure he’ll find a way, and we’ll be glad that he did. After all, fiction where cynicism is always the answer, and self preservation is everything, should offer an escape on those terms. In the end Urquhart got his comeuppance, by design, to ensure his legacy – untarnished, for maintaining the façade he loathed. By the end he’d lost, appropriately, trapped into maintaining all he’d unfairly earned was all he had. I get the impression that Underwood won’t be so easily satisfied, that no success is ever complete. He won’t take the easy way out, as Urquhart did, and that his rewards will be complete, perhaps.
In the abstract of the conniving and devilish nothing will top Richardson’s enactment of Urquhart, yet the US take on “House Of Cards” is a more engrossing and chilling watch. It’s characters are better constructed, and as such, less predictable, which given the audience may have a good knowledge of its progenitor, is an impressive feat.