Or how to compare the two different House of Cards trilogies
So on Friday night we got right into it and knocked off the first two episodes of House of Cards, Season 2. A good start with a driven and scheming Frank Underwood, but as was the case with season one, thoughts inevitably wander back to the original FU, British prime minister Francis Urquhart. And begging the question, who is the better one and if there isn’t one that is better, how do they differ and why?
Having just started the second season it is of course not possible to render a fully baked verdict, but there are some notable differences between the American and British Francis. The latter, a living monument to the phenomenal acting talents of the late Ian Richardson, was in political terms a staunch Thatcherite. In fact, the series creator Michael Dobbs has been rumoured to have coined the name ‘FU’ after meeting the late iron lady in person. Underwood, the Democrat is devoid of any deep ideological urges and is more of a Clintonesque power broker willing to cut any kind of political deal in order to advance his career. A battle with the teacher’s unions in the first season ends with a bill that ultimately satisfies most parties with Underwood taking credit, Urquhart in all likelihood would not have rested until he had personally reduced the union to a pile of human rubble. From that perspective both series reflect the political era in which they were created, Urquhart coming out of the polarized eighties, whereas Underwood stands atop the centrist model that has framed the Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton era.
One of the other key differences between the two political maestros is related to that. Urquhart’s is indeed not a nice guy by any means, in particular when he addresses the viewer directly to elaborate on his dire views of humanity and his political friends and foes. He in fact is a very lonely and bitter warrior whose disdain for the world around him makes him seriously unlikeable. Underwood however comes across as a kinder and gentler soul, precisely when he talks to the audience and you find yourself thinking, yes, that somehow makes total sense. A drinking spree with former college buddies in season one and trying to neutralize Raymond Tusk’s influence on the oval office give Underwood a human and sometimes almost admirable foundation, something utterly lacking in Urquhart’s cold world. The notion of a nicer Underwood is also supported by the sort of victims he makes. The ambitious Zoe Barnes will get on your nerves as a not particularly likeable journalist, and it is quite hard to warm up to late congressman Peter Russo. Yet to this day I have warm feelings for Zoe’s British equivalent, Mattie Storin and recall the brutal way Urquhart dispatches her when he throws her off a Westminster roof. The viewer is upset and misses her, but it is hard to feel the same about Barnes and Russo. Simply put, Urquhart is the crueler politician and Underwood’s creators must somehow have positioned it that way in the script.
Yet it does not make Urquhart unlikeable. Far from it. The acceptance of evil as a viable tool to heal the nation and further one’s career is given wings by the classic parody of Westminster politics that the British version of the show is. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in the second season entitled ‘To Play the King’ where Urquhart takes on the constitutional monarch, a thinly veiled caricature of Prince Charles who has just ascended the throne and wastes no time to implement a more social and caring agenda, putting him on a direct collision course with our hardcore capitalist Urquhart. The battle of inherited privilege versus the fearless commoner, a role Urquhart masterfully assumes, somehow gives the prime minister the upper hand in the demise and forced abdication of the new king, resulting in this classic scene:
To Urquhart in the end it all is a game, playfully moving from target to target with a wink and a nod only to accumulate more power. Inflicting deep loss and ridicule on his victims is an integral part of this mission and he accomplishes it with verve and style. To the audience it is a hilarious way of commenting on the realities of political life as we understand them and therein probably lies some of the respect we ultimately extend to Urquhart. Despite all his brutal tactics he has a point. With Underwood that is far more difficult to establish, it is almost as if there are no deeper truths or wry commentary that the viewer can take a way from the southern politician. Underwood at times is bland and reluctant to mock and criticize the foundations on which present day Washington power broking is built. He is a willful part of it all and Americans take it the way it is. Carried by Kevin Spacey it makes for great drama, but it lacks the punch of the British House of Cards.
Above all it is the ability of the Brits to distance themselves from the subject to assess its inherent weaknesses and shortcomings while talking real political issues. “To temper economic rigor with a little more respect for human values” as the embattled monarch in the second season states – against Urquhart’s explicit wishes - is as real an issue today as it was in the eighties and nineties. It elevated the original House of Cards to a benchmark in political drama that will stand the test of time. The American version is as dark but in its delivery a lighter version of the original. That said, you have to work hard to keep the urge to binge watch under control, because House of Cards Season 2 is a riveting experience.