I spent way too much of the last weekend watching the thirteen episodes of the Netflix Original House of Cards from my couch. Even allowing for the fictional nature of the series, fifty minutes worth of Kevin Spacey’s machinations as the amoral but hardly ambivalent Francis Underwood depresses me with a sense of my own lack of accomplishment. Yes, this character has a terrific staff, but his focus and level of energy are nonetheless remarkable. The question is what Underwood–is he coincidentally given the name of a deviled ham product dating back to the U.S. Grant administration?–directs that focus toward. As the season moves toward its conclusion, Francis discloses his feelings to his wife: what she does at the Clean Water Initiative is nowhere near as important as what he does in Congress. But just what does Team Underwood do in Congress? Through the course of thirteen episodes, they have spearheaded an education bill, not in order to improve education but to curry favor with the White House. They worked very hard to pass an environmental protection bill, uncaring about the environment but very much caring about its ramifications for a protege’s standing.
In the season’s final episode, Underwood’s equally imposing wife, Claire (Robin Wright), perhaps as a result of her husband’s attitudes and a collection of contributing factors, questions the value of their efforts. As the couple sit in their house’s open window sharing a cigarette, she asks him, when one of us dies, “what will we leave behind?”
“We’ve accomplished a great deal. And I intend for us to accomplish a lot more,” Francis replies without hesitation.
Claire’s response gets to the heart of both characters. “But for whom?”
Francis suggests that their accomplishments “for each other” is a sufficient answer. In his mind, the pursuit of power for the sake of the power holder alone is a reward in itself. Claire, who seems, throughout the arc of the thirteen episodes, to be increasingly realizing the limits of her own mortality, looks at the vessel that she and her husband have been filling throughout their lives, and finds its contents wanting.
Proverbs 11:7 admonishes us, “When a wicked man dies, his expectation will perish, and the hope of strong men perishes.” It can hardly be expected that the character who, in that same episode, goes to church and prays a singularly blasphemous prayer, would understand Wisdom’s warnings, but it seems clear that his wife–is it coincidental that this character of increasing clarity is named Claire?–is beginning to understand. Claire respects the wishes of an old woman who accosts her for running through a cemetery. She realizes that some clean water in Africa is worth more than the passage of a hastily assembled bill. She laments her lack of children and, presumably, the three abortions that she admits to a doctor.
As fascinating as the cleverness of Francis Underwood might be, as much as a viewer might be tempted to admire his Machiavellian focus, in the end, any clear-eyed critic must recognize the wisdom behind Claire’s question. Who is all of this supposed to benefit?