“House of Cards” Season 3 has only been available in full for a week now, but many have already gulped down the latest adventures of duplicitous politician Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and wife Claire (Robin Wright) via Netflix. But Beau Willimon doesn’t mind if you don’t binge… At least, that’s what the very savvy showrunner told Indiewire.
While Willimon might have dodged questions about whether or not Netflix will greenlight another season of its award-winning political drama, he was straight with us about why the show veered away from its more scandalous past, what it is about the show that has Washington D.C. obsessed with it and what from this last season he’s most proud of achieving.
So, of the journalists you’ve talked to today, how many have seen the whole thing?
Every single one that I’ve spoken to today.
Nice. I’m not breaking the pattern, I’ve seen it all as well.
Oh cool, great you’re one of the binge freaks. I love it.
I’m curious — for you, what do you think the experience of binge watching brings to the show? Because it really is a pioneering show in terms of that experience.
It is of no concern to me whether someone binges or not. I am just as thrilled if someone watches it one episode at a time over weeks and months. It’s not written to be binged. All we’re doing, releasing the entire season in one day, is giving people the opportunity to watch it the way they want to watch it. A good number of folks choose to binge, and I think it’s great. It’s a wonderful, new way to experience a television show.
Not brand new. People have been binge watching television shows for at least a decade now on box-sets, and DVR, and on demand. There just wasn’t a phrase for it. I binge watched shows before I knew what binge watching was. [laughs]
I kind of want to get into the nitty gritty of that though. When you talk to people about the show, or they talk to you about the show, how do you hear them talk about it in terms of their progress within the series?
If I’m doing a speaking event and talking with students, they’ll come up afterwards and chat with me about sometimes a specific scene or episode and someone next to them will go “Oh, I’m not there yet! Don’t say anything!” And I’ll say “Earmuffs!” and we’ll have a laugh and find a way to talk about it.
People reach out to me: “I’ve watched the entire thing,” or “I’m trying to savor it. I’m only two episodes in, but I’m loving what I’m seeing.” The conversations I have about the show are really contingent upon whatever experience the person had that I’m talking to. And remarkably, something we’ve found out four years into this is that viewers tend to be really respectful of each other’s experiences. The press is really good about putting spoiler alerts and 14 point flashing bold-faced italicized letters when they’re writing about something people may not have seen yet. In a lot of social media environments, whether it’s Twitter or Reddit or what have you, people will say spoiler alert if they’re going to get specific. And people who avoid spoilers are pretty good at it, too. You actually can avoid things, even in the 21st century Internet age, if you really want to. So people have managed make this work for themselves and for each other.
And it’s not all that different [from before]: 20 years ago, if I had seen a movie and you hadn’t seen it yet, and I was talking to our mutual friend about the movie you might say “Hold on, hold on. Don’t ruin it for me. I haven’t seen it yet.” It’s not much different from that.
At the same time, though, do you think we’ve become more sophisticated at having that discussion? Especially in the last few years.
I don’t think people are any smarter than they’ve always been, people have always been smart. I don’t know if it’s more sophisticated, I think it’s just more adapting to the reality of the way we consume content these days. You adapt to the times.
Sorry, I meant that the methodology that we use is more sophisticated.
Sure, but I think, in that respect, you could say we’re more sophisticated in talking about TV and movies in general, regardless of how they’re released because social media has changed the game. There’s now a direct dialogue, if the creative team chooses to engage in it, between the creative team and their audience in a way that never existed before.
Also that extends to the audience members being able to talk amongst themselves. A lot of people lamented the death of the water cooler moment, which I think died long before “House Of Cards” anyway, but now we have something that’s much cooler than the water cooler. We have the Internet. So you can have conversations, not just with your coworkers or your family, but with people around the globe about an episode or a series or a season.
Yea. So I want to get a little bit into talking about Season 3, which I found interesting in that there were some definite shifts from Season 2. What was your approach to switching things up?
For us, the core of the story has always been the Underwood marriage. Period. And we wanted the focus in Season 3 to clearly delve into that marriage in ways that we never have before.
While it has been at the core of Seasons 1 and 2, by virtue of the fact of that those two seasons are a story of events, of climbing up the mountain, it mean a lot more political intrigue and machinations in order for them to get there. But now they’re at the top of the mountain, in a way. There’s a great Bob Dylan line from “It’s Alright, Ma,” I guess I’m paraphrasing now: “Even the President of the United States must stand naked.” And there they are, on the top of this mountain, and all they have is each other. What are the stresses that this presidency puts on their marriage, on them individually? How do their individual ambitions align or clash with their mutual ambitions?
First and foremost, we wanted to explore their emotional journey more than anything else. So, that meant there was going to be less political intrigue and machinations, and more delving into the emotional side of these characters, and that was going to necessitate a stylistic and tonal shift. Now I think that could be polarizing for some audience members. There is probably a big chunk of the audience who misses the invincible dynamic duo that they’ve grown to enjoy, and wanted to see more chess moves and less emotional drama. And that’s valid.
But if we simply did that, yet again, then we would have been repeating ourselves and I think we owe it to ourselves, on the creative team and to our audience, to challenge ourselves and our story, rather than just get in a comfortable groove and just provide more of the same. So like I said before, we wanted to really focus on this marriage more than we ever have before, and push the limits of what this show could be, to broaden its horizons to try new things and to never get comfortable.
Yeah, the Season 3 premiere, in comparison to the Season 2 premiere, is so much quieter.
We needed to move away from some of the spectacle and move deeper into the heart. And that’s always a risk. There are going to be people who have no interest in that, but the people who do are going to find it so much more rewarding than if we just gave them more spectacle. I’d rather take that risk than play it safe and ultimately end up losing our story.
My dad said to me when I was a kid that any job you know how to do is not a job worth doing. So if we didn’t take the risk of trying things we didn’t know how to do or haven’t done before, then what’s the point?
That’s a great attitude. And by the way, I don’t think that quiet is a bad thing.
I mean, quiet can be, and often is, more powerful than noise. Jeff Beal, who writes music for the show — extraordinarily talented guy. I don’t think “House Of Cards” would be what it is if it wasn’t for his score. One of the things that people ask about Jeff Beal’s music is how does he use music to make a scene what it is, and so on and so forth. But what’s interesting about his music is not just where he puts it, but also where he chooses not to put it. It’s the restraint. It’s realizing some scenes are better off and more powerful without a score, letting the quiet do the work.
And I think we’ve paid a lot more attention to that restraint narratively, and tried to delve into those more enigmatic and layered moments more this season than in seasons past. Ultimately, I can say that’s our intention, but ultimately the judge is the audience, you know? [laughs] And they either feel that or they don’t. But I hope one thing that is clear is that we’re not going to sit on our laurels and just do the same thing over and over again.
I’m sure you’re monitoring the reaction so far, to some extent. What’s been your takeaway?
I sort of skim it, what the fans have to say. You’re only brushing up a certain demographic of people that are active on social media or have already watched it and a lot of people haven’t gotten to it yet. But I’d say the reactions in my limited experience are similar to what I described to you. You know there are a lot of people that seem really appreciative and deprived with the new direction we took in Season 3 and there are also people who wish it was more of “House Of Cards” of Seasons 1 and 2. I think both of those reactions, both ends of the spectrum are completely valid. And I’m frankly interested in there being multiple, different perspectives on a season. If everyone was unanimous in their feelings on something I always question that.
When you finished writing Season 2 of “House Of Cards,” did you know you had a season three?
I can’t remember the exact dates, the exact chronology, but as we were nearing the end of Season 2, it was pretty clear we were likely to have a Season 2. But we didn’t know about Season 3 way early on.
Let me try to be clearer, I’m sorry. [laughs] We knew we had two seasons [at the beginning of the series], right? So I knew that, if we only ever got two seasons, that the end of Season 2 would be a somewhat satisfying resolution to the story. This guy achieves the presidency, we watch him go into the Oval Office, he knocks his ring. Boom. We’re out. There you go. That’s “House Of Cards,” if that’s as far as we ever got. My hope, of course, was that we’d have the opportunity to continue the story and to delve into some of the things I’ve talked about it in a different way. And luckily for us, we did get that opportunity.
So I now have to ask you the obvious question: I don’t think there’s been an official announcement yet, but did you write Season 3 with the assumption there’d be a Season 4?
You’re absolutely right. There has not been a Season 4 announcement yet.
That’s a really good answer to that question.
I think, though, anyone that’s come to the end of Season 3 looks at that ending, especially that last scene, and sees another season’s worth of drama right away.
Well, by the time you come to the end of Season 3, if we’ve done our job, you have some questions and probably want them answered. But the world does not know yet if those questions will be answered or not.
Very well done. Very well done.
I write a show that takes place in Washington, for God’s sake. I have to know how to deflect a question with some degree of skill.
Along those lines, I’ve been struck by how many people in the D.C. area are just so glued into it. I was hearing conversations about how there are like cosplay parties for viewing.
[Laughs] We’ve gotten a great response from folks in D.C. I think that a lot of people that work in politics appreciate the show for a few reasons. One, they realize we go to great pains to make the mechanics of politics as authentic as we can. Of course, we have to condense and exaggerate and fuck the rules sometimes, for the sake of dramatic expediency but whenever we’re doing that we know the rules that we’re breaking. And I think they get that. In fact, they’re not nearly as hard on us with that sort of stuff as the general public because they realize that in some cases, if we did it exactly according to the ways it happens, then you’d be watching C-SPAN. While I love C-SPAN, that’s not really why people tune into “House Of Cards.”
But also I think they realize we’re not trying to reflect all of D.C. or all of politicians. Frank Underwood is definitely the exception to the rule. Not just because he is a murderer, but because he is an extreme version of the power-hungry, self-serving individual who cares for no one but himself and his own advancement.
And most politicians are not like that. Most politicians, I think, go into politics wanting to serve the public. Now they find themselves often at crossroads, where they must weigh ethics versus power, or they must weigh what’s right and wrong versus what will actually result in progress. And power can be seductive and it can corrupt. So I think that [on the show], they see an extreme version of the sort of things they actually have to contend with.
Plus, it’s just delicious for them to see someone who’s actually able to break through a gridlock from time to time. Though in Season 3, more often than not, Frank actually fails to do so, like everyone else.
Which is another interesting point: We see Frank fail a lot in Season 3. I think that if we didn’t see him do so, and we portrayed a presidency that was easy, that’d be false. That’d be false to reality, it’d be false to the fictional world we’ve created, where a guy came into the White House without a single vote having been cast for him, tarnished by a scandal from the administration previous. How could he possibly walk in, facing all of that and a Republican controlled congress and have an easy go of it?
I just realized how closely that parallels Gerald Ford.
Sure! There are a lot of parallels, in fact. Gerald Ford’s a great one. Lyndon Johnson, as well. Here’s a guy who came into office with less than a year before the election, had to make a mark if he wanted to have any hopes of getting elected in his own right as President.
The analogies aren’t perfectly analogous. Of course, there he had some political capital from the sympathy to the Kennedy administration as a result of the assassination. But he was not a particularly well-liked man, at least inside the Beltway, and had to deal with a lot of difficulties.
Andrew Johnson, too. You could even look at Teddy Roosevelt after McKinley’s death. McKinley was revered and Teddy Roosevelt was an iconoclast that didn’t have a lot of friends on either side of the aisle. Even after Garfield’s death you had a very different dynamic once his successor came to office.
So there are actually a lot of examples in American politics, presidential politics, of presidents being put in similar situations… You’re like, am I actually going to write about President Garfield in this Indiewire article? Maybe I am!
Well, people have got to learn. So my last question for you is: what is your proudest moment from this season? What is the thing you are most excited about having accomplished?
It’s so difficult to answer that question because undertaking a season of television is just a titanic thing, and on one level you’re just proud of having finished it at all. If I had to pick one, there’s a scene in the final episode, two scenes in fact, between Frank and Claire.
[Spoilers for the Season 3 finale follow.]
One is in a hotel, where she comes out of the bathroom and she asks him to fuck her and to be rough. And there’s subsequently a scene in the Oval Office, where they have a big blow up fight and it actually gets physical. He grabs her chin.
Those are very dangerous moments for actors because when you’re writing a script, you’re asking them to access parts of themselves and expose parts of themselves that are incredibly vulnerable. It’s one thing to write it on paper but it’s another thing to do it time and time again in front of a crew of people, and put yourself out there like that. So before I even wrote either of those two scenes, I spoke to Kevin and Robin about them and I told them what I intended to do and said if you had any issues with this, if you want to talk about other ways we can accomplish the same thing I am 100 percent open. I don’t want to put you in a position where you feel obligated to something that makes you feel uncomfortable or not right for your characters.
And both of them instantly said this sounds great, we’re 100 percent game, let’s do it, let’s try it. And their fearlessness led to, in my humble opinion or not so humble, extraordinary scenes that only great actors can pull off. The text means nothing in those scenes, if you don’t have actors who are willing to go there. And they didn’t hesitate for a second.
We experimented. We tried different things, I changed lines on the day, we did all sorts of things to access that truth. But none of that would have been possible if they hadn’t exhibited that fearlessness. So my proudest moment is how proud I am of them, for giving us that magical thing that only great actors can. And making my job a joyous one, in which I get to sit back and watch two thoroughbreds run a race, and revel in that as much as everyone else in the grandstands.