Say what you will about Netflix’s new model for serving up an entire season in one fell swoop, it works for me. I watched the series over the weekend and sticking with it for the duration helped me discover its Shakespearian side. The only question is: which Shakespeare?
At first it’s Macbeth with Frank “Thane of Cawdor” Underwood conducting nefarious acts of treason. In this version, there are no ugly sisters bearing the news of the thane’s forthcoming triumph. In fact his hopes are dashed in the very first scene. Nevertheless the shadow operation starts up immediately. Somethings’s afoot and once Lady Macbeth enters stage right, the die is cast. The two of them make a chilling Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.
Robin Wright fills the screen with her statuesque beauty, square shoulders, and severe haircut. She’s no Beltway shrinking violet. While the thane is maneuvering Congress, Lady is hatcheting half her staff and making no apologies.
The early episodes center on the relationship of this power couple. Like in the original, Lady is ambitious and loyal to a fault. When Frank declares he’s just spent the night with Zoe, the reporter for the big DC newspaper, Claire bats not an eye, skips not a beat in her reply. “What can we get out of her?” she asks. It’s all we need to know.
One difference between the first Macbeth and this one: Lady Macbeth does not experience a downward spiral to insanity. Instead she gets soft around the middle. She starts feeling compassionate towards the poor and the sick. She scratches around for dollars that will get back the half of her staff she previously canned. She may not have been hurt when Frank had an affair, but when he betrays her prized non-profit, she shows her weakness. She finally consummates the affair with the suave artist that’s been brewing since about scene three.
By now the show is starting to look less like Macbeth and more like Richard III without the limp. In the former, the ambitious soldier organizes a coup d’état early. He’s the king right off the bat. The fun is in watching the slow decline to the eventual downfall in the fifth act. In Richard III the rise to ultimate power takes up most of the play. There the enjoyment comes from watching the machinations, maneuverings, and murders that lead up to the coronation, finally. The downfall happens quickly after that.
In House of Cards, the maneuvering takes twelve episodes before we even get to the second in command. I assume season two will bring us closer to full presidency before the eventual downfall. The seeds of this downfall were planted towards the end of the final act. They come in the guise of three reporters following up on Frank’s various misdeeds during the previous twelve stories. Could these be the three weird sisters? Or have we left Macbeth completely at this point?
There’s a lot in this series besides a scavenger hunt for literary precedents, but that’s a good place to start. My advice? Take it all in one dose. Like with Shakespeare, there’s intrigue here and it’s best to watch it quickly lest you forget by the fifth act what the thane did back in the first.
Good luck with the hunt.