President Underwood Is Lonely at the Top

In the third season of ‘House of Cards,’ Frank Underwood sits in the Oval Office – but for how long?

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, left, and Robin Wright as Clair Underwood in a scene from "House of Cards."
Nathaniel E. Bell, Netflix/AP

Samuel Goldwyn was known for his uncanny ability to mangle the English language in the most creative way. Once, when he wanted to let others know that he was not in accord with the popular view, he announced, “Gentlemen, include me out!” Another time he signed off on an argument before departing from his screenwriters’ room: “It is much easier to climb up a greased pole than to stay up there!” Once the door slammed behind his back, a question remained hovering in the air: “Did he really mean ‘much easier’? Isn’t climbing up harder?”

The answer seems to be – though I’ve never tried either climbing up or staying on a greased pole myself – that it is indeed easier to climb up, as the motion in itself sort of propels you up, whereas when you cling, inert, to the pole, the gravity weighs you down. And up there, on the very slippery pinnacle of power in the White House, sits President Francis Underwood at the beginning of the third season of “House of Cards,” to binge on HOT or Yes VOD channels, or to savor in 13 separate servings on Yes OH (Saturday, 22.45) and Hot Plus (Thursday, 22.50), in sync with its release on Netflix in the U.S. on the last day of February.

To recap, it is a remake of a British series, based on a book by Michael Dobbs, about a politician who never heard of the word “scruples.” For him, “morals” are phrases that tie up an edifying story – and he is prone to voice them in asides to the viewers, directly to the camera, while he schemes, manipulates and corrupts people and institutions in his pursuit of power. In the extremely successful American remake, starring Kevin Spacey, Underwood started as the Democratic Party’s chief whip in season one, became vice-president in season two, and is now president.

The first scene of the third season finds him visiting his father’s grave, on the first-ever presidential visit to his home town, Gaffney, South Carolina. His people allow him a private moment, and see him from behind. The viewers see what passes between him and the tombstone at his feet.

And as Frank sits uneasily in the Oval Office, it is indeed very lonely at the top, not only because he fears the slippery slope of the (ungreased) approval polls – having the lowest recorded score to begin with – but also because he was not actually elected (his predecessor was impeached due to the Underwoods’ conniving). There are about 18 months to the next elections, with his own party not intending to nominate him. To call him “a sitting lame duck” would be an overstatement.

It is lonely at the top not because he is alone: On the contrary, he is a part of a power couple: His blonde, shapely, ice-cool and inscrutable wife Claire is played by Robin Wright. The Underwoods are seen by all as the modern version of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, but that is only the smaller part of the story. Unlike the Shakespearean lady who prods her husband to action only to lose her marbles at the first bump on the road to power, Claire is there to install her husband in the driver’s seat, and then expects him to pave the road for her and eventually cede the right of way. She is a First Lady who sees herself as a potential Madam President. He speaks softly and is not wary of brandishing a big stick, but is prone to fits of doubt, and she is ever present to nurse him back when his prowess momentarily wanes.

A henchman scorned

Those who are on their way up are often advised to be nice to their fellow travelers and other bystanders, be they innocent or not, as one is prone to encounter them again on one’s way down. In the Underwoods’ case, the person to contend with in the third season is Doug Stamper (played by Michael Kelly), the gray eminence (actually sort of 50 shades of black) for dirty work who was left for dead in the last episode of season two, gets better in the first episode of season three, but is kept out of the loop. Hell hath no fury like a henchmen scorned.

All that comes on top of the run-of-the-mill machinations and back-stabbings of American politics – as we learned about them from the papers and TV and “The West Wing” and “Scandal,” plus a very Putin-like Russian president on a state visit behaving outrageously, and the Israelis and Palestinians bickering, as they indeed are in real life. Iran, by the way, is not mentioned at all. It’s politics, and it’s personal, and it is fun to watch, even when at times it seems over the top, and eerily reminiscent of things we have seen or suspected on our own.

The big question is how it will all end, or if it will end at all. Will there be a fourth season – possibly with Frank hovering in the background like Bill Clinton, and Claire running for the first office, like Hillary Clinton, or will there be a final curtain by the end of episode 13, with the bad being punished – with a moral to it – or spared and go on living ever after, without any moralizing.

I could tell you – episode 13 is there for all to see – but I’m not going to spill the beans and spoil the viewing fun. I’ll just mention that the phrase “house of cards” – in the figurative sense of “any insecure or unsubstantial scheme, system” dates back to the mid-17th century; Milton writes in 1645: “Painted Battlements() of Prelatrie, which want but one puffe of the Kings to blow them down like a past-bord House built of Court-Cards”.

Houses of Cards are supposedly something that children build and topple over, but the first record of height (of a house of cards – 15 tiers) was set by an Englishwoman, Miss Victoria Maitland, in 1901. The current record is held by an American, Bryan Berg, 75 storeys, built in 1992.

The British and American series seem to tell us that our democratic system may look like a house of cards, and in season two Frank told the viewers that “Democracy is so overrated.” And yet, the question remains: Who was dealt the better hand, and by whom? It’s all in the (cue)cards. Or the teleprompters.