IN “Chapter 2”, the second episode of Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-), ruthless senator Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) turns to the camera and addresses the audience following a heated exchange with former colleague Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali). Speaking of Remy, Frank says: “Such a waste of talent; he chose money over power”.
Delivered with a bold and intrepid tone, it is a hypocritical statement since Frank Underwood possesses both money and power. If this slippery senator’s word was his bond, the audience might be fooled into thinking that money and power are vastly different. However, as HOUSE OF CARDS attests, along with films set against a political backdrop such as the stage-to-screen adaptation of FROST/NIXON (Ron Howard 2008) and CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (Mike Nichols 2007), not only are wealth and power presented as one and the same but they also reveal a distinct lack of class diversity when it comes to politics onscreen. These examples are dominated by the pursuit of the almighty dollar and the notion of getting one’s foot inside the corridors of power.
In his 2015 book HOUSE OF CARDS AND PHILOSOPHY: UNDERWOOD’S REPUBLIC, J Edward Hackett argues that the show represents the working class on only one occasion throughout the first three seasons: when Frank decides to “suppress” the shipbuilders’ and teachers’ unions, a move that will ultimately benefit his White House aspirations. Meanwhile, Frank’s deliciously devious wife Claire (Robin Wright) fires her entire staff in the first episode of Season One, with little screen time dedicated to the good causes that Claire is in charge of at an environmental, non-profit organisation. Instead, the character’s primary purpose in the first two seasons is that of an accomplice to her husband, a silent partner to his ascension of the proverbial ladder of power, of which she will also benefit. Hackett would argue that this is an example of capitalism winning, even when capitalists themselves appear to be losing.
NOT ONLY ARE WEALTH AND POWER PRESENTED AS ONE AND THE SAME, THEY ALSO REVEAL A DISTINCT LACK OF CLASS DIVERSITY WHEN IT COMES TO POLITICS ON SCREEN.
While capitalism on screen is often represented as the tailored suits of Wall Street trying to make a quick buck - clearly seen in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film WALL STREET - the true nature of a capitalist system exploiting the working class is never more apparent than when it is presented alongside a political agenda. Historical drama FROST/NIXON presents a transparent class divide between its two titular characters. Youthful British interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) pays disgraced President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) a substantial amount of money to conduct a series of interviews in the hope that he will reveal secrets of the Watergate scandal. Instead, Nixon controls much of the interview by rambling around each question and shutting Frost down when he attempts to confront him. Frost almost bankrupts himself trying to fund Nixon, who could easily pull the plug on the interviews if he is not paid. FROST/NIXON presents a man with power in one hand and money in the other, but also reveals exploitation and corruption, something Frank Underwood is never truly up front about in HOUSE OF CARDS.
THE TRUE NATURE OF A CAPITALIST SYSTEM EXPLOITING THE WORKING CLASS IS NEVER MORE APPARENT THAN WHEN IT IS PRESENTED ALONGSIDE A POLITICAL AGENDA.
In his article “The Vice in Vice President: HOUSE OF CARDS and the Morality Tradition”, James R Keller draws attention to the stand-off between Frank and Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney), a wealthy businessman and friend of President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill). Keller notes how it is not a stand-off between the embodiments of good and evil but rather the superiority over the current president. Both wealth and power play a major role in determining the leader of the free world by the season’s end. Despite Frank’s powerful manipulation of the president, and not his wallet, ultimately placing him in the Oval Office, his brisk rise to the summit of the political landscape is evidently aided by his financial status and grasp of power.
TRUMP IS THE REAL-LIFE EMBODIMENT OF FRANK UNDERWOOD.
Contextualising this concept in the real world of wealth and power, the 2016 presidential race was a prime example. After his controversial views on Muslim and Mexican communities, Donald Trump was the name on everyone’s lips. In an interview on THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT (CBS 2015-), when Kevin Spacey was asked who exactly his HOUSE OF CARDS character was speaking to when he addressed the audience directly to the camera, Spacey replied that it was Trump.
It was an answer given for comedic effect, no doubt, but it was telling nonetheless. Trump, a man of tremendous wealth and a businessman who was just as successful in his business ventures offscreen as he was on with his long-running reality US television series THE APPRENTICE (NBC 2004-), is the real-life embodiment of the Frank Underwood that speaks to the camera on a regular basis throughout HOUSE OF CARDS. He is a man who apparently speaks his mind and rarely shies away from promoting his wealth or igniting controversy in a bid to gain extensive media attention, which in turn leads to power. It is something Frank desperately seeks.
His lust for power across the series, exemplified in the power he exerts over journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) in the first two seasons, bares a striking parallel to the real-life revelations surrounding Spacey in 2017 during the #MeToo movement. The actor's misguided attempts via social media to both apologise for his actions and reveal that he was living "as a gay man" incited immediate backlash, with many accusing him of using his stature to circumvent the serious accusations brought against him.
HOUSE OF CARDS does not primarily deal with wealth, but power. While it makes light of Claire’s privileged background, which potentially acted as a springboard for her husband’s various campaigns throughout his 20-year political career, it rarely makes the connection of wealth and power acting in unison. Money, more often than not, enables a particular lifestyle that accommodates power; establishing and maintaining an authoritative status often means using money to that end.
Frank’s intentions towards his advisors often seem earnest when he speaks to them in person, but when he turns to the camera to address the audience, his true intentions often come to light. Like a classic movie villain revealing their plan for mass destruction, Frank is at his most dangerous when he is speaking to the camera. This is not just a clever narrative device to differentiate the show from other dramas but a reflection of the personality of the man speaking to us. He intends to get what he wants by any means necessary and establishes himself as someone who is in a position to do so.
FRANK IS AT HIS MOST DANGEROUS WHEN HE IS SPEAKING TO THE CAMERA.
When Frank is sworn in as President of the United States at the end of Season Two, his reliance on wealth and power prevails. His “America Works” initiative is an example of the American working class being unfairly represented and Frank’s long-time friend and BBQ restaurant owner Freddy Hayes (Reg E Cathey) is a clear example. Caught up in Frank’s scheming to become president, Hayes turns to his friend for help, who gives him a job on the grounds of the White House. The series reinforces wealth and power working cohesively to defeat realistic representations of class on screen.
Deconstructing class division in HOUSE OF CARDS only strengthens the notion that wealth and power are inseparable. Frank’s ascension to the presidency would not have been possible without the financial stability he accumulated throughout his years in Congress. Hollywood’s representation of wealth, power and politics has spanned across film and television for years, from MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Frank Capra 1939) to THE WEST WING (NBC 1999-2006), but what is often not represented is the means by which the protagonists of these films and television shows accumulated their wealth.
The hypocrisy of Frank’s words about his former colleague Danton can be found in his failure to address his own financial situation, one which does not require money since he already possesses a more-than-satisfactory bank account. He can, therefore, chase his lust for power without the worrisome tendencies of financial instability. Political dramas on screen rarely present wealth and power as a coalition, instead opting to present wealth as a device that is already there, already accessible.