Just can’t get enough of cutthroat politics? Find yourself on YouTube, replaying the meaner jabs from the Republican primary debates? You might want to add the 1990s BBC miniseries House of Cards to your Netflix queue. Based on a novel by a onetime Chief of Staff to Britain’s Conservative Party, House of Cardstracks the legal and illegal intrigues of Francis Urquhart, a Machiavellian party operative who wrangles his way up the rungs of power in post-Thatcher Great Britain. Urquhart (Ian Richardson) uses the press and the ambitions and paranoia of statesmen to his own advantage, but he hides his ruthlessness beneath a polite and even grandfatherly exterior. “You might very well think that: I couldn’t possibly comment,” he primly responds, whenever he has cunningly planted an idea in the mind of a reporter or colleague.
Manipulating journalists, tangling with the monarchy, destroying lives and careers with relish, Urquhart is a charming and seductive antihero, and his schemes and deceptions make for an engrossing soap opera. But it’s the theatrical trappings that really distinguish House of Cards and its sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut. The scheming Urquhart is a Shakespearean figure—part Richard III, part Iago and a very large part Macbeth, and the scriptwriters highlight these resonances with Shakespearean quotes and allusions. The spirit of Macbeth, in particular, haunts the story: Egged on by his equally ambitious and amoral wife (Diane Fletcher), Urquhart eventually racks up so many misdeeds that he might easily say, with Shakespeare’s thane-turned-king, “I am in blood/Stepped in so far that should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
Even more striking are the impishly self-satisfied remarks that Urquhart periodically delivers straight to us, the audience: In the middle of a scene, he will turn his head, look straight into the camera and share an unnervingly honest confession or observation, while the folks around him carry on, oblivious. These break-the-fourth-wall moments are like miniature Shakespearean monologues, and they underscore an all-too-familiar truth: that politics is, to a large extent, theatrics.
It will be interesting to see whether a forthcoming remake of House of Cardsmanages to be as interesting and sly: Director David Fincher (Fight Club, the Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) is an executive producer of the forthcoming remake, which will be a Netflix original series and will star Kevin Spacey.