PA­TRICK FREYNE

House of Cards is back, and the pres­i­den­tial com­pe­tency on dis­play is a joy to be­hold

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS -

House of Cards is back and it’s vy­ing for rel­e­vance in our new po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. It is, in many ways, a relic from the olden times, the long-ago, the time be­fore the Trumpen­ing, when peo­ple be­lieved that to ma­nip­u­late your way to the apex of po­lit­i­cal power, you needed to be a ca­reer civil ser­vant who un­der­stood the in­tri­ca­cies of Amer­ica’s in­sti­tu­tions, not just a blowhard in a dis­tressed wig who dresses like a pres­i­dent at par­ties.

Yes, af­ter four months watch­ing a lump of melted cheese with a rudi­men­tary face drawn on it tantrum its way to­wards im­peach­ment, there’s some­thing com­fort­ing about Frank Un­der­wood’s brand of cal­cu­lat­ing, dare I say, re­flec­tive, evil.

At the end of the fourth episode of this new run, Frank pro­nounces: “The Amer­i­can peo­ple don’t know what’s best for them. I do. I know ex­actly what they need. They’re like lit­tle chil­dren, Claire. Chil­dren we never had. We have to hold their sticky fin­gers and wipe their filthy mouths, teach them right from wrong, tell them how to think and how to feel and what they want.”

And I find my­self think­ing: “Yes! Un­der­wood tells it like it is. He says what we’re all think­ing. Ma­nip­u­late me Frank! Vote Un­der­wood!”

Much like Pres­i­dent Bart­let in days of yore, Frank Un­der­wood is the fan­tasy Demo­cratic pres­i­dent of the Trumpocal­yse. The Un­der­woods are not Trump. If they are any­one, they’re the Clin­tons as seen on right-wing con­spir­acy sites – mur­der­ous em­bod­i­ments of the “deep state” ma­nip­u­lat­ing a na­tion via fake news. And doesn’t that sound won­der­fully com­pe­tent right now?

Pres­i­dent Un­der­wood cer­tainly makes a con­trast with Trump. When Frank breaks the fourth wall in or­der to mono­logue ver­bosely like a Shake­spear­ian vil­lain, or in­deed Foghorn J Leghorn, this sug­gests a rich in­ner life seem­ingly ab­sent from the ac­tual pres­i­dent who en­gages in apha­sic Twit­ter rants at three in the morn­ing.

Fur­ther­more, Frank Un­der­wood is played by Kevin Spacey, who seems to know all of his lines, whereas Trump is played by sev­eral weasels in a rub­ber man suit, who pre­fer shriek­ing in­co­her­ently and can’t re­mem­ber any poli­cies. Also, House of

Cards’ stately and re­as­sur­ing pi­ano and trum­pet sound­track com­pares starkly with the theme mu­sic of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which is, as you know, an oom­pah-pah tuba, two half-co­conut shells and a slide whis­tle.

And what a won­der­ful mar­riage Frank and Claire Un­der­wood have. Claire (Robin Wright), now a vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, makes for a won­der­fully icy Mut­t­ley to Frank’s steam­ing Das­tardly. They had a rocky time last year but dur­ing an episode in the new sea­son, where Frank sits con­fer­ring with Claire as she lies in bed with her speech­writ­ing lover, there’s a ten­der­ness that’s ab­sent from more con­ven­tional tele­vi­sion ro­mances.

Cou­ple­of­schemers

Yes, the cou­ple that malev­o­lently schemes to­gether stays to­gether. I be­lieve that most cou­ples would thrive if they ended each day clink­ing a gob­let of wine and smil­ing smugly over their evil-do­ing (I’m think­ing of writ­ing a re­la­tion­ship man­ual). My wife and I cer­tainly do, and if you’ve been fol­low­ing my writ­ing you’ll know we’ve been ma­nip­u­lat­ing my ne­far­i­ous as­cent through the hi­er­ar­chy of

The Ir­ish Times for some time now (Don’t worry – none of my col­leagues reads this col­umn, I view writ­ing it much like Frank break­ing the fourth wall. I’ve tried look­ing off into the dis­tance in the mid­dle of meet­ings to scheme aloud in the past, but they’ve no­ticed that).

Any­way, I’m di­gress­ing. Un­like Trump, who veers from one pol­icy non-se­quitur to the next as his fizzing synapses de­cay, the Un­der­woods play a Machi­avel­lian long game. As se­ries five be­gins, Frank’s power is still un­der threat from hunky Repub­li­can chal­lenger Will Con­way (Joel Kin­na­man). Con­way is a well-mean­ing, soul­ful war hero with skele­tons in the closet (pos­si­bly lit­eral ones), a per­fect Pene­lope Pit­stop for Das­tardly and Mut­t­ley to thwart.

So our anti-he­roes launches into a vig­or­ous round of plot­ting, some el­e­ments of which are con­ve­niently fa­mil­iar. They stoke fears of the Isis-like ter­ror­ists who dom­i­nated the fi­nale of sea­son four, but Frank has had the sur­viv­ing ter­ror­ist se­cretly im­pris­oned the whole time (clas­sic Frank). There’s an im­mi­gra­tion ban. There’s some voter re­pres­sion, some pres­i­den­tial over­reach and some false-flag op­er­a­tions in which Frank fakes ter­ror­ist in­ci­dents in or­der to dom­i­nate the news cy­cle and threaten polling day. In short: Frank, you scamp! It feels pacier, leaner and wit­tier than last sea­son, pos­si­bly due to the new showrun­ners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gib­son. But don’t worry, it’s still en­ter­tain­ingly ridicu­lous. The joy of House of Cards is the joy of watch­ing clever bad­dies ma­nip­u­lat­ing naive vot­ers and less amoral un­der­lings. Ul­ti­mately, ev­ery­one other than the Un­der­woods and the view­ers whom they have taken into their con­fi­dence is seen as a schmuck.

In re­al­ity, of course, Frank is a schmuck’s idea of what an evil ge­nius looks like. Pol­i­tics fea­tures plenty of peo­ple who think that they’re Frank Un­der­wood, so­lil­o­quis­ing for their mir­rors and twirling metaphor­i­cal mous­ta­chios, but who are ac­tu­ally Boris John­son or Michael Lowry or Rod­er­ick Spode. I sus­pect the most dan­ger­ous politi­cians ac­tu­ally be­lieve that they’re saintly Pres­i­dent Josiah Bart­let – even if they’re a bunch of weasels in a rub­ber man suit.

So the po­lit­i­cal world is, I think, more ac­cu­rately shown in dra­mas like David Simon’s Show Me a Hero, in which poli­cies are a prod­uct of mess­ily com­pet­ing in­ter­ests, or come­dies like Veep, in which short-term op­por­tunism and in­ci­den­tal id­iocy over­ride any long-term vi­sion.

Mean­while, in the “real world”, what we can see in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Brexit is not the clever machi­na­tions of a malev­o­lent in­tel­li­gence, but the mean­ing­less off­spring of in­equal­ity, ide­o­log­i­cal de­cay, bad faith, stu­pid­ity and in­for­ma­tional chaos.

But maybe that’s miss­ing the point. Look at Frank and Claire as they scheme their way to­wards an end to term lim­its and the own­er­ship of a dy­ing su­per­power. It’s a fan­tasy of con­trol. The ap­peal of House of

Cards is of watch­ing some­one who is ca­pa­ble of such ma­nip­u­la­tions. And for good or evil (mainly evil), isn’t that some thought at times like these?

I be­lieve that most cou­ples would thrive if they ended each day clink­ing a gob­let of wine and smil­ing smugly over their evil-do­ing (I’m think­ing of writ­ing a re­la­tion­ship man­ual). My wife and I cer­tainly do

Higher power: Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards

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