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The Two-Color Conspiracy in ‘House of Cards’

The Two-Color Conspiracy in 'House of Cards'

You may think that “House of Cards” is Peak Quality TV or pseudo-sophisticated soap opera, but it’s hard to deny that the show at least looks great. Although it’s employed four different cinematographers over its three-season run — Martin Ahlgren shot all but two of the most recent 13-episode batch — the show has successfully stuck to the moody, not-quite-neo-noir look of David FIncher’s pilot. So successfully, in fact, that Slate’s Chris Wade was able to boil “House of Cards'” visual style down to a simple two-tone trick. In “Every Shot on ‘House of Cards’ Looks the Same,” he scrolls through the first two seasons, pinpointing dozens of shots using the same basic trick: blue accent in the foreground, acid yellow in the back. Be forewarned: Once you’ve seen it, especially in the accompanying video, you can’t unsee it.

This being “House of Cards,” the conspiracy doesn’t stop there. How deep does this thing go? Jumping all the way to “Chapter 39,” I found the pattern holds true. Here are just a few examples, carefully selected to avoid plot spoilers. 

So why yellow and blue? It could just be that they contrast nicely, the political drama equivalent of the orange and teal palette so monotonously favored by contemporary action-movie directors and poster designers. In moral terms, the world of “House of Cards” isn’t black-and-white so much as black-and-everything-else: There’s no such thing as good, only corrupt and less so, with the former invariably preying upon the latter. No one’s fighting to do the right thing, only to do fewer wrong things. As Goethe wrote, “Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; blue is a darkness weakened by light.”

In a sequence near the beginning of “Chapter 39,” shot by Ahlgren and directed by James Foley, that contrast is made clearer by the use of opposing angles, with political speeches taking place in two different locations edited so that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) are locked in a literal face-off. 

So what does it all mean? I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

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Marc Milker

Having seen all three seasons I agree with Larry Logan. Season 3 is over the top in darkness. No eyes or faces. A real shame to so obscure such terrific actors. It’s a disturbing trend in all of film and television cinematography where nothing can be dark enough. No location, nothing in real life happens in this faux world Hollywood has creates for us. If the trend continues what we will have is radio. No need for visuals anymore because pitch blackness cannot be photographed.

Larry Logan

The moodiness of the previous seasons was perfect. Almost total black, natural at selected times. But the new season is a nightmare and over with low lighting. No longer stylistic, just silhouettes all the time, no facial expressions, no catch lights — all gets in the way of the show.

Dan B

I think that this is fairly conventional across the board in Hollywood movies in recent years. Fincher may well have one of those to set the trend though.


Genius— remarkably concealed. And, perhaps, more telling than the willingly blind drones of the House of Cards’ despoilers are willing to reveal.


Bullshit. People who are fanatic about this show soon will start to think that the way how Frank holds the cigarette has some meaning.

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