“History will not remember those who had nothing to offer but stagnation,” “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Willimon said as he set the tone for last night’s live streamed New York Times panel discussion about the Netflix series, one that stretched from binge viewing to the congressional inefficiencies of today. Shot right in the D.C.-stylized set in Baltimore, the panel also featured stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who play the show’s political power couple, talked about their characters and the dynamics of the Underwood marriage while joining Willimon in interpreting the show’s success and significance. The series is currently in production on its second season, and is up for multiple Emmy awards. Here are seven highlights from the discussion — you can watch the full panel online here.
The addictive qualities of binge viewing: Spacey, who recently addressed the future of TV in a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival, admitted that he “had a lot of people stop me on the street and say ‘Thanks, you sucked three days out of my life.’ But I think it’s quite interesting and exciting for an audience to be able to be in a position where they can decide how they want something to evolve for them.” “I had someone come up to me and say, ‘It’s like a drug, but I get to control it, it doesn’t control me and I don’t have to call my dealer,'” added Wright.
Frank Underwood in relation to Lyndon Johnson: Addressing his character, the House Majority Whip, and comparisons to real-life politicians, Spacey said, “It seems to me that as history goes on and we look back at some of the more outrageous politicians, there’s a re-examination happening. In fact, on the wall here there’s a number of photographs of the politician that Frank Underwood admired probably more than any — Lyndon Johnson.
“You could go back through history and say, well, a lot of people thought he was ruthless and terrifying and intimidating, but what I would say about him is he was incredibly effective. When he set out to do what he did in his short presidency, he passed three civil rights bills. I think there is something to be said even though yes, Frank Underwood is diabolical and certainly crosses the line morally, it must be interesting for a modern audience. At the moment we have the most unproductive congress in the history of the United States, that is the congressional record. It must be interesting to watch a fictional congress that gets stuff done.”
The Underwoods versus the Clintons: “While Bill and Hillary might be the most well-known, I think there are probably a lot of Washington couples that you could look at and say that is a marriage that works, that’s a marriage about what they’re doing and about what they care about,” mused Spacey with regard to another possible real-life parallel. “It’s extraordinary, I think, to see two people who are able to survive as long as they survive, particularly Bill and Hillary. And both are, I think, better people today than they were when they started. They’re doing incredibly effective work, and you know we may yet see whether she decides to run for that funny little office.”
Claire Underwood’s sculptural influences: When playing Frank Underwood’s icy, intelligent wife and partner in crime, Wright shared, “David Fincher said ‘I think your research subject should be a bust, a woman. I want her to be very still and calculated and thoughtful, and under the bust — under this piece of marble — is a human that will emerge.’ I didn’t really want to acquire attributes other than a grace and a poise.”
On the Underwood open marriage: “The notion that a wife would just turn a blind eye to the dalliances that her husband has because it’s for the betterment of us… all I’ve ever heard is that this is so apropos of what goes on, on a daily basis,” Wright said of the characters’ startlingly frank approach to infidelity. “We don’t know what goes on behind closed doors between a politician’s wife and her husband, but the way the system is run, it’s a business. And this is the way Washington is run, it’s a business.” “it is very effective,” she continued, “not bound by the ideology of marriage or convention, so it is about the empire Underwood — whatever it takes to achieve, for them to move forward, is progress and in that progress you have to have conviction and will.”
Why creative freedom is good for TV: “All you have to do is look at 17 shows and say ‘It’s the creatives,'” Spacey said of the current golden age of the medium. “These people were given an opportunity to create very flawed characters in many of these series that were successful right from ‘The Sopranos’ on, giving complicated storylines to audiences that were demanding them and wanting them and the ability to be able to stay with them in this kind of storytelling. I hope that the success of the show creatively will encourage more executives to say ‘Let the talent do what the talent does.'”
On having chapters instead of episodes: “We don’t have episode titles, we just call them chapters,” explained Willimon, “because like a great book, you can decide to read five chapters at once or just one and space it out. When we set out to make this we weren’t necessarily trying to make a TV show at all, or a novel, or a film. We just want to tell a great story, and it’s exciting that technology has allowed us to create something that people can choose their own adventure in terms of how they experience it.”