“House of Cards” Implodes

I watched the Netflix version of House of Cards for four seasons. I gave up on it early in the fifth season because the plot twists had become too bizarre — even more bizarre than having vice-president presumptive Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) push Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) under a D.C. Metrorail train early in the second season.

Evidently, a lot of viewers didn’t share my disenchantment with the series. The ratings assigned by Internet Movie Database (IMDb) users held up through the end of the fifth season. And the average ratings for that season are only a touch below the ratings for earlier seasons.

But when Spacey got the axe, the House of Cards fell apart — ratings-wise, that is. Here’s the story in a graph, where the black line traces the ratings for individual episodes and the horizontal bars measure season averages:

Frank/Kevin has the last laugh. Actually, it would be the first laugh for House of Cards, a somber though often gripping fantasy.

Whither Francis Underwood?

If you’re addicted to the Netflix version of the House of Cards, you’re probably wondering whether and how President Francis Underwood will get his comeuppance. I have long guessed that he will meet a fate similar to that of his British counterpart, Prime Minister Francis Urquhart (pronounced urk-ert), of the BBC’s House of Cards trilogy. (SPOILER WARNING: Don’t follow the links in the preceding sentence if you haven’t seen the BBC series and don’t want to know how it ended.)

I base my guess on the many parallels between the main characters of the BBC and Netflix series; for example, their initials are FU, both have a right-hand man named Stamper, both are murderers, both have Lady Macbeth-like wives, and both rose to power by arranging the disgrace and resignation of their predecessors.

There’s another crucial similarity: Francis Urquhart is staunchly conservative in his rhetoric, and his evil ways are obviously meant to discredit conservatism and the British Conservative Party. Francis Underwood is a Democrat, but a nowadays rare Southern Democrat who sometimes deploys conservative rhetoric. Many viewers and most Democrats will be happy if FU II shares the fate of FU I.

By the way, I’m not binge-watching HOC IV. It may be a few weeks before I finish the series. So if HOC IV turns out to be the final series and you already know the fate of FU II, please don’t reveal it in a comment.

The Death of Francis Urquhart

I have just finished watching the original House of Cards trilogy, a BBC production that originally aired in three four-episode series (1990, 1993, 1995). The protagonist is Francis Urquhart (pronounced urk-ert, and played by the late Ian Richardson). Urquhart is meant to be a caricature of a callous, mendacious conservative. Thus he is portrayed as having murdered and ordered the murders of several persons who posed threats to his advancement and possession of power.

Despite that portrayal — or, rather, because of its implausibility — I sympathized with Urquhart because he served as a stand-in for Margaret Thatcher. His supposed loathing for Thatcher did not conceal the purpose of the producers of House of Cards, which  was to discredit Thatcher’s espousal of personal responsibility and the rule of law.

In the end, Urquhart’s wife — a Lady Macbeth in modern guise — has him killed. She does this ostensibly in order to save him from political disgrace. But her real purpose is to hold onto power by elevating a new surrogate. She is the very model of a modern, amoral politican.

House of Cards, is a good example of an old liberal device: Erect a strawman; label it conservative; and then attack it with inflammatory rhetoric. Truth be told, the real Francis Urquharts of the world — the non-murderous defenders of personal responsibility and the rule of law — are to be commended, not caricatured and castigated.

So, three cheers for Francis Urquhart, whose moral certainty is sadly lacking in politics — American as well as British.