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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Urquhart here. Still awake. Pity about Dean. And to think that that scream nonsense happened before social media — nowadays a gaffe can finish you off in seconds rather than hours. But a quick death is so much more desirable, don’t you think?

I believe our Underwood would agree. He has no time for such useless things as suffering. A merciful man, Underwood. And Mr. Spacey does get his teeth into a role, doesn’t he, much as Willimon provides the meat. How fitting that Spacey, just before House of Cards, played the lead in a world tour of Richard III, and that Willimon attended the final performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I, for one, find it impossible to watch Underwood’s exploits and not think of dear Richard’s public disavowal of kingly ambition even as he laid waste to those in his path.

But it’s not just the spirit of Richard III dealing from the deck’s bottom in House of Cards. There’s a dash of the Macbeths, and some Iago for good measure. Mostly, though, there is Willimon, whose handsome Underwoods, I feel, are not devoid of morality — there is always a price for getting things done. 


I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.
                                                                                   — Francis Underwood

“What draws me to the show is Frank and Claire Underwood,” says Pugliese. “I hadn’t seen a relationship like that on TV. It’s something that everyone on the show, the actors and directors, could get — even its elusiveness, even its sublime mystery. It’s the heartbeat of the show.”

In Francis and Claire Underwood, Willimon’s childless DC power couple, we see an attraction that is narcissistic and tactical, tender and devout, like that of two androids in a corrupt human world who share a singular affinity. Theirs is an open marriage, yet prone to suppressed jealousies both sexual and professional, in which tense conversations are cut short on the stairs by innocuous-sounding yet pointed exit lines. But mostly, their same-species rapport feels like the one thing as powerful as their ambition.

Pugliese hadn’t been in a writers’ room in seven or eight years. Though he’d been working on TV shows and writing plays, the writers’ room scenario meant a serious grind. He’d told himself that only the right marriage would bring him back.

“I met with Beau before the season started,” he says. “We had a remarkable, liking-the-same-things kind of meeting. He reached out and asked me if I wanted to come into the room for this season. I had promised myself that it had to be an extraordinary person and situation. This was it.”

“Kevin Spacey's performance in Richard III hugely influenced the conception of Francis Underwood,” says Willimon. “Kevin was able to bring a humanity and humor to Richard III, one of the more nefarious characters in Western literature, and have him rise above near sociopathy so that you saw someone who was three-dimensional and human and flawed — which doesn’t excuse his actions, but layers them in such a way that they don’t come off as pure evil. That’s something I constantly remind myself of, because we try to do the same thing with Francis. I’ve never wanted Francis to be a mere sociopath — he has to be more. That’s why we have access, glimpses, even if they are few and far between, of his humanity — his moments of vulnerability, his ability to love and even to have compassion, in his own way. The sociopath is incapable of empathy, and Francis is very capable of empathy. He makes the choice, when necessary, to suppress it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“What's amazing about Beau is that he has this strong sense of structure, yet also a profound and courageous ability to do the unexpected.”

“We can't pay you much, but it would be really great to have you help out with this. It’s so intricately political, and it’s so important that we get the details right.”

When Jay Carson got Willimon’s call, he was working as executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and senior adviser to Bloomberg Philanthropies. It was 2011. Willimon had just signed a deal with Netflix to make House of Cards.

The whole thing sounded a little crazy to Carson, as it might have to anyone who thought of Netflix as the company that conveyed DVDs in red-and-white envelopes, Mercury-like, to your home. Still, Carson was in a good position to help. After the Dean campaign, he had worked four years on the senior staff of Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD); was communications director for the William J. Clinton Foundation; and, in 2009–2010, was chief deputy mayor of Los Angeles.

In some ways, Willimon’s request felt to Carson like the reverse of the Dean situation, when Carson had called on Willimon for help. Carson and Willimon were no longer the guys who said “Yeah, absolutely” at the drop of a hat. But Carson agreed to become the political consultant for House of Cards.

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