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Mr & Mrs Macbeth

Laura Ludtke

Series 2
House of Cards
Release: 14 February 2013

Disclaimer: this review discusses themes and plot points pertaining to the second series of House of Cards.

If the first series of House of Cards was an incisive translation of Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Michael Dobb’s political thriller for an American audience – extenuating Francis Urquhart’s machinations to become Prime Minister in the British version from four episodes to thirteen in a way that accounts for the byzantine nature of the American legislative system – then the second series offers a serious departure from its transatlantic counterpart and from the first series in the portrait it offers of a couple defined by their political ambitions. The first episode of the second series establishes this theme. The opening shot of husband and wife, running stride by stride down a winding path through a lamp-lit park until they occupy the very centre of the frame, foreshadows the way in which Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) act in concert throughout the series, even when their motivations seem at odds. This union culminates in a gratuitous threesome between the Underwoods and Edward Meechum (Edward Darrow), their loyal Secret Service agent.

In the first series, audiences learned that Francis someone who believes that the ends justify the means. When euthanising his neighbour’s dog, injured in a hit and run, he notes that “moments like this need someone who will act, someone who will do the necessary thing.” This is further evident in his treatment of his associates, whether when orchestrating the rise and downfall of Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), or in his illicit relations with the young journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Thus, it is hardly surprising that in the first episode of the second series, in the days before he is confirmed as Vice-President, he personally ensures that Zoe will no longer pose a threat to his office. What is surprising is how easily she accedes to his request for a ‘clean slate’, how easily she seems to trip before the oncoming train.

The second series is marked by two major plot arcs. The first arc deals with the aftermath of Zoe’s apparent suicide and her boyfriend’s increasingly conspiracy theory-like attempts to bring Underwood’s involvement to light. The second details the escalation of a power struggle between Underwood and the energy magnate, Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) over their influence with the President (Michel Gill). Both arcs serve to orchestrate threats to Underwood’s schemes that are beyond his control, though the former seems to be conducted without Claire’s knowledge and the latter involves her manipulating the First Lady (Joanna Going) through their newly-developed friendship. Equally, both arcs draw out important contrasts in the two marriage-partnerships of the President and his Vice-President. While the Walker marriage, the health of which is often equated with the well-being of the nation, is one in which superficial hairline fractures threaten its mirror-perfect surface, that of the Underwoods is palpably flawed but carefully managed. The first contributes directly to Walker’s downfall; the latter cements Underwood’s accession to the Presidency.

These arcs are punctuated by a number of zeigesty themes—activist hacking and agency surveillance, economic relations with China, the threat of a government shutdown, sexual assault and harassment in the military—that pin the series to a particular period in American (recent) history and make the series better suited to 2013 than the present. The theme of consent, however, is one that refracts across the series: beginning with the abortion that Claire reframed as a rape and the bill on civilian oversight on treatment of sexual assault in the military that aligns Claire with the First Lady and against Jacqueline Sharp, and leading to Underwood’s confirmation as President without the necessity of election. The consequences of the exercise of power and control without consent are significant ones.

The danger of Underwood’s desire to subjugate and ability to control is particularly evident in the final episode of the series, when Claire entreaty her husband to “do what you have to do” in order to repair relations with Walker, this securing his destruction. Her instructions—”Seduce him. Give him your heart, cut it out and put it in his fucking hands”—are identical to those given by Lady Macbeth to her husband:

…To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.

The second series of House of Cards, unlike Shakespeare’s Scottish play, leaves viewers with a distinct sense of dis-ease. Allied with Jacqueline Sharp, who, as House Majority Whip, proves more inscrutable than Underwood in her motivations and allegiances, America is unwittingly left in the hands scheming and ambitious leader we love to hate.

Laura Ludtke is reading for a DPhil in English Literature, Oxford. She is ORbits Editor at the Oxonian Review.