Throughout its four seasons, the Netflix political thriller has slowly, lurchingly abandoned the British series that inspired it. And as it has done so, it has come to embrace almost every overheated conspiracy theory that was spread about the Clintons in the fetid swamp of 1990s email forwards.
But Willimon's interest doesn't end with House of Cards. In his 2008 play Farragut North — as well as The Ides of March, the George Clooney–directed 2011 film based on it — the main character is a young campaign manager who discovers a terrible sexual scandal involving the charismatic Democratic governor whose presidential campaign he's joined.
Ostensibly, Willimon wrote that play based on his experiences working for Howard Dean's 2004 campaign, but c'mon. We know who he was inspired by.
House of Cards all but suggests that all the worst rumors ever spread about the Clintons — in both their personal and professional lives — are true. But it also gains a certain poignancy from pondering a question that many have thought about but few have fictionalized quite like the show has: Just how are these two still married to each other?
House of Cards and the Clinton disappointment narrative
Broadly speaking, House of Cards exists within a subgenre of storytelling that encompasses everything from Independence Day to Definitely, Maybe — works that operate as if it's a given that the Clinton presidency was at least somewhat disappointing.
That disappointment exists on both the right and the left. But no matter where it originates, it hinges on the idea that Bill Clinton could have been one of the greats but settled, instead, for being average.
Generally, the "Clinton disappointment" story attempts to suggest how Clinton might have become one of said greats. In Independence Day, for instance, it's by leading Earth's resistance against an invading alien force. (I didn't say the scenario had to be realistic.)
These stories are often filtered through the sensibilities of Generation X — the folks sandwiched between the baby boomers and the millennials, forever doomed to live in one of the two groups' shadows — and usually feature some element of this generational anxiety as well.
What's unique about House of Cards is that its solution for Clinton-related disappointment doesn't involve any policymaking, either domestic or foreign. Instead, it hints that the Clintons should have just started killing people and sowing chaos.
There are differences, of course. Most notably, while Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has the white trash roots and genial folksiness of Bill Clinton, his deeply repressed bisexuality presents the opposite set of problems as those encountered by his real-life forebear. Claire (Robin Wright), with her cool, classy vibe and regal air, is closer to the real-life Hillary Clinton — but in her embrace of destruction and chaos, she simultaneously feels sort of like one of those "Texts From Hillary" memes come to life.
As such, House of Cards attempts to analyze the Clinton marriage in search of answers, then arrives at the most boring conclusion for what draws the two together you could ever think of: They covet power.
How Frank and Claire Underwood chart their own course
Frank and Claire share no particular sexual attraction for each other. They don't seem to have much fun when they're together. They don't even seem like very good friends. By most standards of solid fictional marriages, they're a bust.
What they do have is a shared goal, one that drives them through every single episode: They want to smite their enemies and grind them beneath their boot heels. And they will do anything, use anyone, and commit any acts of violence necessary to achieve that goal. The ends always justify the means, to an almost comical degree.
House of Cards' first season hinted at this idea, as when Claire approved of Frank's affair with a young reporter, meant to provide a way to plant stories in the press that he could use to his advantage.
And subsequent seasons have only made this idea more and more intriguing and explicit, to the degree that by the end of season four (the most recent), Claire has essentially usurped Frank as the most compelling character on his own show. She really believes she's the one who made him what he is, who gave him the presidency when he was but a mere representative. Increasingly, House of Cards appears to believe she's right.
Season four teases the idea of Frank and Claire being at odds — which is surely what will happen as the series approaches its finale, whenever that may be — but it's ultimately just so Claire can finagle her way onto Frank's presidential ticket as his running mate, the sort of political marriage the two have always aspired to anyway. (My dream is for House of Cards' series finale to feature her orchestrating his assassination, so that she might ascend the throne.)
Their temporary disagreement is but one example of the tenet at the center of the series: the idea that all marriages — romantic or otherwise — are mutually assured destruction pacts, where the whole enterprise stays alive as much because neither participant wants to be bombed into oblivion as anything else.
Wed this idea to the Clinton disappointment plot, and you arrive at a cynical notion of politics that would be bitterly amusing if House of Cards gave any indication it knew just how bizarre it sounds. The series argues that the Clintons weren't failures because they were the dark, loveless, murderous boogeymen who lurked in conservative email forwards from 1997 — but because they weren't those people. Maybe if they had been, they would have gotten something done.
House of Cards' Clinton fascination plays out in even weirder ways
All of this brings us back to the man who developed House of Cards for American television, Beau Willimon. As my former colleague and current Salon TV critic Sonia Saraiya points out, Willimon has actually written himself into the show — in a completely bonkers way:
The House of Cards universe, of course, displays the Underwoods in all kinds of polyamorous, incestuous and destructive sexual relations, including one at the end of [the most recent] season where Claire brings the speechwriter she’s sleeping with straight from the bedroom to the kitchen table, for breakfast with Frank. Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) is younger than the Underwoods, so the effect is less of a sexy threesome and more of the Underwoods at breakfast with their grown-up son. (It’s a lot. Given that Tom is the character who is most like showrunner Willimon—in that he fictionalizes a version of this powerful political couple, both because he is repulsed by them and obsessed with them—it’s even more of a lot.)
I don't think Willimon (who even looks a little like Sparks) has secret fantasies of somehow inserting himself into the Clinton marriage as a son/husband. But in Tom, he's invented a character who can, essentially, muse at length, usually in voiceover, on what it is that makes this marriage tick.
Many shows have audience proxies, there to voice the obvious questions the audience is asking; House of Cards has a showrunner proxy, meant to guide the audience toward what it should be thinking about.
The series' biggest problem has always been that it never presents any credible opposition to the Underwoods. Every scheme they undertake succeeds. Everything they touch turns to blood-streaked gold. But viewed in the context of House of Cards' take on the Clinton disappointment narrative, that's the whole damn point. America has long ascribed powers to the presidency that it doesn't have. In House of Cards' view, Clinton was a failure because he couldn't somehow elevate himself to omnipotent godhood.
Yet House of Cards also insists that it's worth all this fascination with the Clintons, and by extension the Underwoods, because they are by far the most interesting political characters in American public life in ages. Who could compete? The Reagans, the Obamas, even the Bushes — they're all comparatively bland. Could you buy a Jimmy Carter analogue embroiled in skullduggery? Probably not.
House of Cards isn't interested in politics as work, as something meant to better the lives of others. It's interested in politics as theater, as something meant to entertain us while the country bursts into flame. Perhaps that's why season four can't possibly compete with a real-world election cycle that has made the show's dark deeds seem relatively tame. Frank's father's connections to the Ku Klux Klan hurt his campaign; Donald Trump says he's never even met a KKK.
But if television has long been paving the way for a Hillary Clinton presidency with high-striving women characters who are superficially similar to her, House of Cards is the one show to posit that all the things people don't like about her — the switching to politically advantageous positions, the assumption of cool ruthlessness, the willingness to stick by a husband who cheated — are actually strengths. And as Claire rises in importance, the series embraces that idea, almost to a fault.
It's a dark, bloody world out there, the show argues. You need the support of someone like Claire, someone with blood on her hands, if you're going to survive it.