Card Sharks

Beau Willimon's House of Cards grabs us and doesn't let go.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2014
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Illustrations by Carlo Giambarresi

Urquhart here. I might look a bit drawn and peaky, but that’s because I have just watched, in unbroken succession, all twenty-six episodes of the American version of House of Cards (it’s rather habit-forming, I’m afraid), a political thriller whose subject is Power. If I may say so, the show’s creator and writer, Beau Willimon, has reinvented the 1990 BBC miniseries in ways I scarcely could have imagined, back when I was putting a bit of stick about in Parliament as chief whip.

Yes: I, Francis Urquhart, the original F. U., precursor to Willimon’s Francis Underwood (and Kevin Spacey’s Underwood, I should say), have cleared my busy schedule to taste the Machiavellian juices of Willimon’s concoction. Now, while I still have my wits about me, I introduce to you the story of a young artist who became a playwright, jumped into the waters of campaign politics, wrote a play based on the adventure that became a major motion picture, signed a most unorthodox deal to remake House of Cards for an outfit called Netflix, and then, at thirty-five — the age of presidential eligibility, come to that — shot like a Bloodhound missile to the very heights of American television.

I use the term television loosely, of course.


“The show’s subject is much bigger than political power,” says Beau Willimon ’99CC, ’03SOA during a break from writing the third season of the Netflix drama House of Cards.

“It’s about power in all its forms. Power over one’s self, and the power dynamics of relationships — friends, spouses, family. I think political power, to a degree, is an attempt to master our fate. For politicians, it’s an attempt to cheat death: ‘I can’t cheat death completely, but I can control as much of the universe as possible while I’m here.’”

In the show’s first episode, Congressman Francis Underwood (D-SC), snubbed for a promised cabinet post by the new president, plots a course of vengeance that will mimic the cold calculus of his legislative style. “Forward: that is the battle cry,” he says in one of his Richard III–style asides, delivered with a Dixie drawl. “Leave ideology to the armchair generals, it does me no good.” Underwood has a way of summing things up. Early in season two, while taking a breather from his battle, he relaxes in his window with an electronic cigarette. “Addiction without the consequences,” he says. Of all his pungent epigrams uttered to the fourth wall, this one speaks less to Underwood’s condition than to ours: having been made complicit by his direct appeals, we then participate in his evil with the luxury of immunity. House of Cards may hook us with top-notch storytelling, but the rush is provided by the show’s brand of wish fulfillment: Underwood’s wicked manipulations and forceful takedowns provide vicarious satisfaction (if not inspiration) for anyone who has toiled in a bureaucracy. Other characters fight other addictions in House of Cards, but power is the strongest intoxicant of all.

“It’s an interesting paradox,” Willimon says. “A lot of people think of power as a form of control, and yet addiction to power in some ways removes control from the equation. It’s a balancing act. The more you become addicted to power, the less control you have over yourself, because of what you’re willing to do to acquire it or maintain it.”

1995. AUTUMN.  A rowboat glides along the Harlem River, propelled by eight Columbia oarsmen. Two members of the crew seem different from the rest. A scruffy hint of the free spirit about them. The hair a little long.

One is Jay Carson ’99CC, of Macon, Georgia. The other is Beau Willimon, of St. Louis.

Carson’s kick is politics. At thirteen, he was riveted by the 1992 presidential campaign, wowed by the brains of Bill Clinton’s young communications director, George Stephanopoulos ’82CC.

Willimon is an artist. A painter who could draw before he could talk. He wants to use the canvas to tell stories.

The two met at freshman orientation, drawn to each other by a shared sense that no one else wanted to hang out with them. They quickly became best friends.

1997. Carson sees a flyer in Hamilton Hall advertising an internship with George Stephanopoulos. As Clinton’s senior policy adviser, Stephanopoulos has left the White House after the president’s second-term victory over Bob Dole, and returned to Columbia to teach.

Carson applies for the internship and gets it. While Stephanopoulos teaches a seminar on presidential power, Carson spends hours in the International Affairs Building, doing research for his mentor’s political memoir All Too Human.

Stephanopoulos sees his protégé’s hunger for electoral politics and gives him a tip. “There’s a little-known congressman from Brooklyn who’s running for the Senate,” he tells Carson. “He’s in third place right now, but I know him from my time in the White House, and he’s going to win. Go work for this guy.”

The candidate is Chuck Schumer. He is running against the powerful three-term Republican senator Alfonse D’Amato. Stephanopoulos makes a phone call, and Carson joins the campaign.

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