The Old Stone House

Everyone says the new House of Cards series is terrible. True, it’s truncated and improbable and has the score of a Wagnerian meltdown. I tuned in anyway out of curiosity for the Claire Underwood/Hale presidency and because, having watched the show from day one, I didn’t feel I could abandon it now.

Where did House of Cards jump the shark? Maybe when Frank hurled his secretary of state down a flight of stairs. Maybe when Frank died, perhaps on the way back to his home planet. But for a long while it was a fine drama about two people who want to rule the world and will do just about anything to get there. Congressman Frank Underwood seems like another political hack on day one, but he has clearly defined goals and even a philosophy of sorts.  To choose wealth over power, he says, is a schoolboy error. ‘Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years,’ he says. ‘Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.’

Seasons one and two featured Frank fighting it out in the congressional trenches as House Majority Whip. By season three, he has achieved his ambition of becoming president, and that’s where the pace began to slow. I recall Jonny Geller wrote on Twitter that ‘House of Cards s3 takes a long time to say – that having power is not as much fun as getting it.’ But I liked the more low key and reflective style. Having Frank get exactly what he wants exposes his limitations. Critics complained that the Underwoods’ enemies were vanquished too easily. The point was that the halls of Congress were Frank’s natural home. He’s a hustler and a plotter, not a leader. In the glare of the Oval Office he can’t fake it so easily. Frank would have thrived as a lord or baron in feudal England but is completely unsuited to the 21st century, 24-hour cycle political America. And it shows.

A key theme in the third season is symbolised by the monks who work in the background of the White House to create a sand mandala. Claire is transfixed by their work. The sand mandala puzzled me for a long time until I read this quora thread – I take my hat off to the quora commenters, they worked this out long before I ever could:

Starting from the creation of the mandala (beginning of show, for Frank and Claire) and ending with its completion (them as President, First Lady): they (both the monks and the Underwoods) had to make a lot of frustratingly small, painstaking, tedious, yet well-planned moves to get where they are now.   These monks may not know each other well initially, but they’ve come together under a common goal to create something worthwhile; Frank & Claire have as well- nothing explicit has been stated but during the Season 2 interview it was alluded to that they could have at least started off as a marriage of political convenience.  When they’re finished, they’ve each created something remarkable- their work has paid off as we see the results of it.

However, despite these similarities, striking differences are apparent- the monks work knowing full well that when they are finished, their work will be destroyed; contrast this with Frank, who constantly speaks of ‘power being the stone building that lasts centuries’ and what it means to leave a legacy.  Ironically, the knowledge that the mandala will be destroyed is exactly what allows the monks to work in peace.  Even in terms of how this episode was shot, we see multiple scenes of Frank and Claire juxtaposed with the Tibetans, frantically scrambling past the monks, who work in harmonic peace, to maintain their power. Frank and Claire have finished their mandala, but, different from the monks, they’re trying to preserve theirs.

This is it. Frank is obsessed with legacy and empire building. He doesn’t understand that the McMansion and the old stone building will both be so much sand, in time. Political thinkers dislike this line of argument, because it diminishes the importance of political achievements, and careers. And of course we must all make something of our brief lives. But it is surely helpful and natural to have a wider perspective. Claire realises this at several points during series three, and gradually understands that – for all her high poll ratings as First Lady, and appearances on the world stage – it’s all so transient, except perhaps her moment of connection with the American prisoner in Petrov’s dungeons. Even Frank, when he opens the Underwood Library at his old college in season one, has a moment of transcendence while drinking with his old friends. ‘The library doesn’t matter,’ he says, ‘but I want to think this place did.’ All too soon though Frank comes back to earth, and gets back into the grind.

Another illustration of this is Frank’s lieutenant Doug Stamper. Doug is Frank’s faithful Smithers, devoted to his boss even after death. He becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Rachel Posner, who Frank and Doug use to bring down a congressional rival. Inevitably Rachel outlives her usefulness, and Doug is dispatched to track her down in New Mexico. Posner argues for her life, and is so convincing that Doug lets her go. But a moment later he changes his mind, and runs her down on a desert road. Doug is a recovering alcoholic, who has just fought off a messy relapse. He goes on in the AA way about how much he has changed, but all he’s really done is quit drinking. It would be the act of mercy, of letting Posner live, that would signify the deep, lasting change.

In All the Kremlin’s Men, his taxonomy of Vladimir Putin’s court, Mikhail Zygar writes that Putin advised a colleague ‘to watch two American TV series: Boss and House of Cards. ‘You’ll find them useful,’ the president recommended.’ Zygar adds that the shows ‘affirmed his belief that Western politicians are all cynical scoundrels whose words about values and human rights are pure hot air and simply a tool to attack enemies.’ The show therefore feeds into a Putinesque troll-state authoritarian view of the world – that life is the struggle for land and resources, and every civilised law and democratic precept is just this struggle by other means. But I wonder what Putin and his advisers thought of the sand mandalas, or the Pussy Riot episode, or Tom Hammerschmidt’s tenacious pursuit for the truth, or Claire’s presidency.

There are worse political dramas you could be watching.

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