“What does she offer us?” asks the steely Claire Underwood, wearing a powerful bathrobe, upon discovering her House Majority Whip husband’s affair with a reporter half his age.
It is this cool and heartless amorality that characterises Netflix’s new series House of Cards, a slick, latte-fuelled American update of the ‘90s Parliament-based UK series, which morphs Chief Whip Francis Urquhart into Democrat Representative Frank Underwood (they can’t say the former surname in the US without sounding like Microsoft Sam).
Beau Willimon, the man who conjured up these ethically-barren characters, even meaner when updated for a 21st-century audience hardened to scandal, corruption and the now quotidian ‘Twitch-hunt’, admits that he possesses some of each of their characteristics.
And such deliciously evil characteristics.
Claire Underwood’s (played by Robin Wright) unruffled, and unnecessary, mass-cull of her staff – via redundancy, not annihilation, but that’s not how her poor, becardiganed assistant Evelyn took it – is nothing on her husband (Kevin Spacey with a deceptively homely southern drawl) and his malevolent games of naked revenge.
In one episode, he effects evangelical zeal and profound grief to a church full of mourning Christians in his home district to score some political points. Before telling us he didn’t care a jot when his own father died.
Then there’s budding young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) who won’t do much to restore her audience’s faith in the journalism trade; when it comes to landing a scoop, she’s more Machiavellian than her philandering, cocaine-caning, dog-strangling, child-neglecting Washington subjects.
She pushes her sweet and well-meaning editor, who’s clinging on to print media with shorthand-crippled fists of determination, into calling her a c***, and then tweets it to the world. Before resigning and jumping into bed with the nearest senior inside source.
“To a certain degree the characters all kind of came out of my head, so they must [have something of me in them], right? Which is a terrifying thought…" muses Willimon, "I think the profession of writing is really about finding your inner chameleon, being able to split into a lot different skins and find a way to connect to each of your characters and draw from your own experience to lend them honesty.
“A lot of the things Francis Underwood does I would never do, but I doubt Shakespeare massacred as many people as are massacred in his plays. How does one write about murder if one has never murdered? You just try to find the thing in yourself – we’ve all felt rage – and amplify that and take it fictionally in your mind to a place where you might be able spill it into a murderer’s shoes.”
Although only over the phone to him in New York, I still think Willimon sounds a bit too agreeable to identify with this clutch of megalomaniac lunatics. Is there one of his creations he can relate to more than the others?
“That’s a very hard question because I identify with all the characters deeply,” he says diplomatically, as if he doesn’t want to offend any of them. I don’t blame him. If they existed, they’d probably turn up at his door in bespoke suits, dump an antelope carcass in his living room and then sue him, or something equally as demented and somehow symbolic.
He continues: “With Zoe Barnes, the young intrepid reporter who makes her bargain with the devil when she knocks on Francis Underwood’s door, I do remember starting out and having that unbridled ambition and feeling like I was out in the wilderness, and I just wanted to knock on every door until someone let me in. I can really connect with that.
“But I can also connect with Francis putting a lot of years into a profession and running up against obstacles and feeling tired and frustrated that, after this long in the game, one must still deal with some of the nonsense you feel you’re beyond. I identify with Claire, who deeply loves her husband and wants to support him and participate in his ascendency; we all at least try to support our loved ones and participate in their success.”
Perhaps Willimon has come across such personalities, having been part of the DC bubble when he worked on various election campaigns; politics was something he “accidentally became involved in, and then I became addicted.” He worked on Democrat campaigns such as Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate race, Bill Bradley’s presidential bid of the same year, and then Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential race.
Although he says “politics was never a career for me, I was always a writer,” he does suggest that his extensive inside experience of this world oddly helped in making House of Cards accessible to all, politicos or not.
“You always try to find a nice balance between making the world seem real and complex but not mind-numbingly filled with jargon and minutiae that would turn some viewers off.
"I actually think the more you know about the world, the easier it is to let things go, because it’s actually when you don’t know much that you feel more insecure, like you have to pack it full of these minute, obscure and arcane things in order to justify its authenticity to yourself.
“One of the things that I thought was so fantastic about the English original is it didn’t require that you be a political expert in order to enjoy it. We wanted to take that same approach. Certainly I drew from my political experience working on campaigns, and all the people that I know in Washington... But at the same time it doesn’t leave you by the side of the road as the political freight train rolls on past.”
Yet Willimon isn’t as ideologically-sterile as his rabidly realpolitiking creations, having been an avid Democrat campaigner and a continuing Hillary Clinton enthusiast, who he calls “a pragmatist. She might not be as inspiring in the way Obama is, but you have the sense that she acts to gets things done.
“Right now I believe there is a deep thirst for people who will actually accomplish things – not inspiration, we have plenty – let’s just make some real progress.” But he is also quick to praise the president, who he believes “has accomplished a great deal,” although feels he needs to put “dirty business” over idealism in his second term.
This hands-on approach Willimon lauds is taken to extreme levels by Underwood, who the writer has made more apolitical than his British counterpart.
“A distinction between ours and the original is that I think Francis Urquhart did deep down somewhere share at least some of his party’s beliefs. He was quite a conservative Tory. Francis Underwood is even more amoral than him. He knows how to give the appearance of ideology but he doesn’t actually adhere to it, and I think that’s a big difference.”
So don’t Willimon’s Democrat leanings, stronger even than those of his fictional Whip, colour the drama? He is insistent the show “has no political views or agenda” and describes his calculating protagonist as “completely amoral. He’s a Democrat in terms of his party affiliation, but that doesn’t mean he shares his party’s ideological platform. Deep in his soul he could just as easily be a Republican.”
The show’s apparently sizeable audience – although the elusive Netflix is refusing to release viewing figures – must therefore be a public disillusioned with politics, convinced it is simply a raw hunger for power that motivates their flawed and distant representatives. But Willimon is no cynic.
“It’s a spectrum. I don’t believe all politicians are bad, just like I think it would be madness to assume they’re all good. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle.
“The roads in the land of government are paved with grey, not black and white,” he adds, rather poetically. But House of Cards is red. Red with rage, lust, warring, and Francis Underwood’s favourite dish – a glistening rack of ribs. Symbolism, y'all.