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  • For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy.

  • There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.

  • Welcome back.

  • Back in 2013 house of cards came on the scene as Netflix's first ever self

  • commissioned original series. Since then the series created by Beau Willimon has

  • not only grown as a mature, textured piece of television, but also offered a

  • sturdy foundation for the towering house that Netflix built.

  • Inspired by the 90s BBC series starring Ian Richardson, and the 1989 book by

  • Michael Dobbs, House of Cards's appeal is based on its darkly distinctive mood

  • and world, it's Shakespearean magnitude, its

  • heightened mirrors of our own world and historical past, and the guilty pleasure

  • of rooting for its deliciously wicked central couple -- Frank and Claire

  • Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Let's walk through each of

  • these elements which make this series so enduringly binge worthy. Beware there

  • will be a few spoilers coming.

  • [And the butchery begins.]

  • House of Cards draws on

  • the spirit of Shakespearean history and tragedy to imbue its drama with hyper

  • real grandeur and intrigue. We feel we might be watching a heightened version

  • of today's politics presented as exaggerated history for a future

  • audience. The show captures perhaps better than any modern example the

  • spirit of what Shakespearean audiences must have felt going to see productions

  • of Richard III. In the historical play the villainous Richard, who Spacey

  • played at the London Old Vic in 2011, speaks openly to the audience,

  • using his asides, not to confess but to gloat about his wicked designs.

  • House of Cards, like it's

  • BBC predecessor, utilizes the same confessional fourth wall break

  • [Please slit my wrists with this butter knife.]

  • The theatrical device could easily

  • fall flat on camera. But it works thanks to Spacey's

  • enjoyably devious performance, the over-the-top nature of this extra dirty

  • world, and the disconnect between Frank says to us, and how he appears to

  • everyone else.

  • [I will not run for President. Look they're thinking it's

  • too good to be true and it is.]

  • Getting this window into his mind fascinates us

  • and knowing his secrets gets us on his side until we subtly root for his success

  • at all costs. We feel in the know, superior to the foolishly honest victims

  • All of this psychologically works on us the same way Shakespeare played his

  • audiences. In Othello, Iago is motivated by resentment when a fellow

  • promotes another over him -- just as Frank's plot against the President is

  • set off by him feeling robbed of his promised cabinet position. Claire takes a

  • cue from Iago's tactics of suggestion, as well, when she plants the idea of an

  • affair in the First Lady's head.

  • [I just have a thing about women who sleep with

  • their bosses.]

  • But the Shakespeare play that most deeply shapes House of Cards

  • thematically is Macbeth.

  • The Underwood's channel the

  • Macbeths disconnect between inner and outer to hide their true selves. As Lady

  • Macbeth says:

  • [Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.]

  • When Frank speaks to Peter

  • Russo's ghost in church, this recalls how Macbeth is haunted

  • by the ghost of Banquo the friend he murdered. Most strikingly though is Lady

  • Macbeth as a model for Claire. At times, like Lady Macbeth, Claire seems the

  • superior mastermind, the even more ambitious one really pulling the strings.

  • Claire's convincing lack of need for romance, fidelity, or motherhood reminds

  • us of Lady Macbeth's famous words

  • [I'm willing to let your child wither and

  • die inside you if that's what's required.]

  • Lady Macbeth

  • references having given suck, or breastfed, a child but we're told that

  • the Macbeth's are childless. Their implicit lost child is

  • echoed in Claire's past abortions. And neither woman expresses regret for a

  • childless destiny. Yet in both stories the couple's lack of children starts to

  • haunt them, at least politically. The Macbeth's and their barren crown, and

  • the Underwoods in their inability to present the shining picture-perfect

  • family of Frank's Republican opponent, Conway.

  • [You guessed it, I still hate children.]

  • The Macbeth's ascent to power leads to a mixed-up

  • world in which fair is foul, and foul is fair. Yet in the vast majority of

  • Shakespeare's plays divine order or great chain of being must inevitably be

  • restored. it remains to be seen if the House of Cards universe believes

  • in poetic justice, but if Macbeth is any indication the

  • story doesn't end well. The Macbeth's breakdown from within, as Lady Macbeth

  • obsessively tries to wash invisible blood from her hands, and Macbeth

  • reflects that "life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

  • The dangerous nihilism of the Macbeth's can only drive human beings insane where

  • we cannot continue to engage with the world of nothing that means nothing.

  • Like a mix of Shakespearean history and tragedy, House of Cards also draws

  • loosely and colorfully from our own historical past and present. In season

  • 4, Underwood and Conway introduce a meta-commentary comparing themselves to

  • Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.

  • [If you were a Democrat you'd be unstoppable you'd be the new JFK.]

  • [And if you were a

  • Republican would you be? Nixon?]

  • Underwood's comparison to the notorious

  • Nixon, whom Spacey also played in the 2016 film Elvis and Nixon, is a plausible

  • parallel. Brought down by his own paranoid plots, crimes, and scandals

  • Nixon was experienced and ruthless. Kennedy was young, relatable

  • and charismatic, just as the social media friendly Conway speaks directly to

  • Americans and gives people hope. In the show, the candidates represent opposite

  • parties to their historical parallels. Underwood is a Southern Democrat,

  • long after the age when Democrats held the South. And Conway is a

  • Republican from New York.

  • [Oh you're a New York Republican that's an attractive

  • fiction isn't it?]

  • [And you're a Democrat from South Carolina that's even bigger fiction.]

  • [Well there you go.]

  • This recalls an earlier presidential

  • race between Harry S. Truman and Thomas Dewey in 1948 -- a pragmatic Democrat

  • versus a young New York Republican with a lead in the polls. Famously the belief

  • that Dewey would win was so strong that the Chicago Tribune printed the false

  • headline: Dewey Defeats Truman, only to be disproven by the final vote. Like Gerald

  • Ford, Nixon's successor, Underwood becomes president without ever winning an

  • election, having taken on the offices of both President and Vice President after

  • a series of cabinet changes and resignations.

  • [One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated]

  • Meanwhile, Underwood's wheeling and dealing with Congress is

  • inspired by JFK successor Lyndon B Johnson, also a southern Democrat and

  • former Majority Whip. Frank Underwood proudly displays a famous picture of

  • Lyndon B. Johnson staring down a frightened congressman; both also

  • introduce ambitious social programs -- LBJ's Great Society and Underwood's

  • America Works. The outcomes of the programs are opposite: building the

  • welfare system versus demolishing it. But both Underwood's

  • and LBJ's hopes to define their legacies are derailed when global conflicts

  • overshadow their legislative agenda. And of course there's today. Claire's and

  • Frank's power couple status invites comparisons to the Clintons.

  • While the Nixonian undertones have been eerily close to new stories about

  • Trump's claims of tapes and calls for impeachment.

  • [You know it's at times like

  • these I wish I was Nixon -- had every nook and cranny bugged.]

  • Yet again like Shakespeare's histories, the show is willfully rearranging loose historical

  • or present inspirations to create something larger than life.

  • [All three of us took bullets. Well I know why we're smiling: we survived.]

  • House of Cards

  • captures a tone of outright, over-the-top wickedness, letting us live our juicy

  • imaginings of how bad Washington might be, while scaring us with the thought, at

  • times, that it's not purely exaggerated. One of the biggest differences between

  • Netflix's series and its BBC ancestor lies in the look, feel, and mood. Her Card's

  • Parliament is brightly lit, visually reflecting a stuffy, staid political

  • landscape at its civilised surface, hiding all intrigue. But from its first

  • episode -- directed by David Fincher -- the updated House of Cards is dark. From the

  • pounding music, to the literal darkness of an overwhelming number of frames,

  • we're told the Underwood's world is an underworld. This is a window into the shadows.

  • [Miss Barnes].

  • [How very Deepthroat of you.]

  • Adding to the dark is a calculated

  • distance between the characters and the camera. Rarely do we get a true close-up.

  • The space around the characters retains their outer personas which they rarely

  • let draw. No one is allowed inside. Camera movements are flawless tracking shots,

  • always smooth. Composition is precise. Never do we see a human shake or

  • messiness to the camera or framing. The production design heightens this feel of

  • sterility. Frank and Claire -- almost unbelievably free of clutter -- seem to

  • possess almost no personal items. Their perfectly empty homes visually

  • underline that they lack a personal life; that they are their work and outer

  • personas. Meanwhile the pristine surface belies the dirty plotting underneath. The

  • darkness also leads to a muted color palette and understated desaturation.

  • Both contribute to our feeling that the environment is clean and attractive

  • yet not vibrant, human, or alive. We emotionally perceive the light is cold

  • and it often is, but viewers have noted that many frames involve an interplay of

  • cold and warm, or blue and yellow, often with blue in the foreground and yellow

  • in the background. The blue and yellow create a spiritual contrast -- not between

  • black and white, which in noir might represent good and evil, but between warm

  • and cold, making us think of the pull between human warmth and icy ambition.

  • The frame is neatly streamlined, not crowded by diverging colors. Both lights

  • also stem from realistic light sources -- daylight or interior lights -- so there is

  • a functional foundation which is then moderately stylized thanks to the

  • darkness and precision of lighting setups that strategically avoid multiple

  • shadows. All of these visual cues together with music add up to a

  • consistent mood and world. The atmosphere seems at once severely removed from our

  • factual DC, and a close to home actual mirror of the disillusionment we feel about our

  • actual political landscape. What keeps us engaged most of all is the central

  • relationship between Frank and Claire. Their ups and downs, evolution and growth,

  • together and away from one another. Like the Macbeth's the Underwood's are truly