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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The two friends spoke casually early on. They’d sit around and talk politics, and discuss how things worked. Procedural stuff. Obscure parliamentary rules. Carson knew a lot about Congress from his years with Daschle, and if he didn’t know something, he knew whom to ask.

“The show requires a lot of interaction with high-level people in Washington,” Carson says. “There were some brave and kind people who talked to us in the beginning, when we were just some show that was going to be on the Internet. I called friends in Washington: ‘Can you take us on a tour of the White House? Of Congress?’ Many nice people did that for us.”

As political consultant, Carson reads the outline of a script, the rough draft, and the completed draft, checks it for accuracy, plausibility. Much of the time, he finds, the writers hit the mark.

“The job is becoming harder because the show is getting much smarter about politics,” he says. “It’s also becoming easier, because the writers’ room and the team is getting a much better feel for the world of politics and power.”

One of the many surprises of House of Cards, given its vision of a political system rank with ambition, vanity, and lobbyists, is how many fans it has inside the Beltway.

“People in Washington love it,” Carson says. “They appreciate our attention to detail. We respect the political world and take it very seriously.”

What Netflix offered Willimon was this: two seasons guaranteed up front — twenty-six episodes — and full creative control. It was an arrangement unheard of in television.

“The two-season guarantee was huge,” Willimon says. “It really liberated me as a storyteller because I had a much broader canvas to work on, and I didn’t feel the need to fight for my life the way a lot of shows do on regular broadcast networks week to week. It meant that there were things I could lay in early in season one that might not come back fully until season two, which allows for more sophisticated storytelling.”

This sort of freedom makes Willimon the envy of other TV writers. Next to the average showrunner on network or cable television, who is subject to corporate notes and the tyranny of weekly ratings, Willimon is Butch Cassidy in a world of singing cowpokes.

House of Cards has been a critical as well as a popular success. In 2013 it received nine Emmy nominations and became the first online program to win an Emmy Award — three in all, including best director for David Fincher, whose dark color palette of blues and browns, noirish sensibility, and sharp compositions established the House of Cards style. What also distinguishes the viewing experience is the way it is consumed: in the Netflix model, each season is released all at once, allowing viewers to stream the show anytime, on any Internet device, and to watch in chunks, in dribs and drabs, or in obsessive marathon sessions known by the catchword of the online media-streaming age: “binge-watching.”


Well, yes, quite.

Like lamb stew or marriage, House of Cards is even better the second time around. I have, I confess, gone on another “binge-watch,” and am competent to state that with repeated viewing, the cunning of Willimon’s structure, the design of his tapestry, is all the more evident and impressive. So it goes with any artful narrative, I gather, though we’re not always compelled to have another go at it, are we? Without doubt, part of the House of Cards phenomenon is the ease and accessibility of the streaming technology — you can watch on your phone while sitting on the throne at three a.m. if you must. That’s well and good. But what is the thing, the scent, the food, that so attracts us, that keeps us in pursuit?

Let’s have Willimon answer that.

“I am attracted to the same things a lot of the viewers are — the deliciousness of a man who is bound by no rules. Who has unshackled himself from the law. There’s a reason why Orson Welles said that Shakespeare’s greatest characters were villains: it’s because they give us access to that part of ourselves that says, ‘I don’t have to play by the rules.’ In Francis you see someone who is living that dream.”

Beau Willimon ’99CC, ’03SOA studied painting and playwriting at Columbia. His play Farragut North was made into the Oscar-nominated film The Ides of March. He is the creator and writer of the Netflix political drama House of Cards.

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