Some were disappointed when last week Netflix earned only a single “major” Emmy (for Best Director) for its first original series, House of Cards. But it took HBO five years to win its first Emmy, so Netflix’s win is a major accomplishment.
House of Cards is the first major attempt by a digital delivery service to create original programming. It is also an important notch on the career belt of a writer, Beau Willimon, who straddles the world of Greek tragedy and realpolitik. He has an MFA in playwrighting from Columbia, but he was also one of the original Howard Dean faithful and worked on campaigns for Charles Schumer and Bill Bradley. Willimon wrote a successful play about Washington politics in 2008, Farragut North, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film version of the play, The Ides of March (2011).
House of Cards has relevance to those of us who are interested in working-class issues and who also enjoy high quality television for three reasons. The first is what the show has to tell us about Washington D.C. politics. Second, House of Cards is interested in modern day unions, and it portrays them with surprising sympathy. Third, the show engages with questions of contemporary education reform, which is newly in the spotlight this month with Diane Ravitch’s best-selling book on the subject, Reign of Error.
On the political front, as Michelle Dean argues in The Nation, House of Cards, with Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as the centrifugal force of evil, plays into one of our “great myths of American culture: that the problems in its politics are fundamentally about individual morality.” Indeed, Underwood is amoral. He believes that it is acceptable to murder when the creature in question (a dog or a person) is so pathetic that it doesn’t deserve to live. He manipulates a young reporter for sex, cheats on his wife (with her blessing, to an extent), engineers the downfall of a prospective Secretary of State (when Underwood himself is denied the position), leaks a draft of a bill to compromise its author, provokes the head of the teacher’s union to punch him so that he can accuse him of assaulting a Congress member, takes money from a large oil concern to help his wife’s charity, and the list goes on.
My only amendment to Dean’s argument is that House of Cards does hint that money lurks behind the individual amoral choices of an evil genius like Underwood. Corporations have candidates of both parties in a financial chokehold—or, as Frank Underwood puts it, with his trite homespinnery: ‘[W]hen the tit’s that big, everyone gets in line.” Everyone is corrupted by money and power, but Underwood is better than most at perpetuating his schemes—in figuring out who is weak, who is narcissistic, and who is stupid.
House of Cards is also surprisingly sympathetic to modern day unions. Early in the season we meet the rugged and sincere members of the Philadelphia shipbuilders union, who are proud that they sent one of their own—Congressman Peter Russo—to Washington. But Russo, snared in Underwood’s web, sells out his union brethren when he is ordered not to protest the closing of the shipyard that employs his friends and family. We are completely on their side when they beat the crap out of Russo when he comes to town seeking their continued support. We see how hard it is for working-class people to win via the ballot box—given the way that capital moves in the nation’s capitol.
House of Cards is even reasonably sympathetic to teachers’ unions, at a time (in real life) when teachers are under attack. The teachers come into the plot when Underwood is assigned the job of passing education legislation for the president, and the key elements of Underwood’s bill—performance standards, charter schools, and collective bargaining restrictions—send a (fictional) national teacher’s union out on strike.
In an unusual display of union solidarity, the teachers’ union convinces a group of unionized hotel workers to boycott Underwood’s wife’s charity banquet, and the Teamsters come out to protest Underwood in person. While Underwood is able to cool their ire with some plates of delicious barbeque, the appearance of a tri-union alliance, portrayed positively, in my “most popular now” queue on Netflix is not an everyday thing.
House of Cards gets much of the education reform story right. In Washington and across the country, education reformers from Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates speak from the same playbook—one that insists that the public schools are failing, especially in cities and poor communities, and that blames the failure on the schools themselves instead of on poverty, gun violence, and epic incarceration rates of black, brown and poor men.
While in House of Cards the only force fighting back against the bad education bill is the teachers’ union, in real life, a growing movement of parents, students and teachers are protesting the kinds of reforms that Frank Underwood is pushing his fictional DC. As Diane Ravitch explains in her new book, American schools are mostly succeeding, and, where they are not, poverty and segregation are the real causes.
If there are any idealistic heroes in House of Cards they are not activists but journalists. At the end of season 1 we see that Frank Underwood’s sexual conquest, the journalist-turned-blogger Zoey Barnes, might be the only outsider who has figured out Underwood’s nefarious long con that ends in the death of a fellow Congressman and the redemption (of sorts) of a high-end prostitute. House of Cards, despite its overwhelming cynicism, has a kernel of idealism. This is the idealism, perhaps, that drives most of us with a passion for writing, reading, and activism. And as long as we believe that we can make a difference—we just might be right.
Kathy M. Newman