House of Cards × 2: U.S. and U.K. (spoilers)

H of Cards title cardNow that you have spent 25 irretrievable hours of your life watching both the U.S. and the U.K. version of House of Cards let us consider who is more ruthless Francis Urquhart or Frank Underwood. Urquhart begins as Conservative Whip in the British House of Parliament and moves on to Prime Minister. Frank Underwood, Democratic Majority Whip in Congress, ends season 1 as potentially vice president of the United States.

What is not in doubt is that House of Cards has been a phenomenal streaming success. Netflix which produced the U.S. version of the political thriller, House of Cards, now has 29 million subscribers, 7 million of them international and has posted earnings of 1 billion dollars in the first quarter of 2013. Apparently the dire warnings of reviewers that releasing all 13 episodes at once was a reckless $100 million gamble were greatly exaggerated. Moreover, many viewers, like me, steamed through the U.S. series and immediately began watching the U.K. version.

If you look at reviews comparing the 2 productions, you will come across those that say, for example, that the U.K. version, although 20 years older, is “faster, leaner, tighter and a far more rewarding watching experience” ( Indeed I had read that opinion several times before I began watching either and mindlessly parroted it. But comparison is not that simple.

Francis Underwood had me at the get-go. It could have just been Kevin Spacey in high definition and close-up. He exuded vitality and sex appeal. He seemed like such a sincere fellow and the newly elected president, Garrett Walker, had done him wrong. Walker had promised Frank the position of Secretary of State, but once he no longer needed Frank’s support, he broke that promise. Underwood and his high profile wife, Claire settled in for long sleepless nights plotting their revenge. I was with them all the way in episode 1. Little did I know…

Thirteen episodes and 7 days later, I tuned in to the U.K. version with Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. Wait a minute!  This Francis is cold, bloodless and decidedly not hi-def. He speaks with a posh accent in an arch almost campy style. It took 2 or 3 episodes for me to get over that reaction, but the story itself and the assurance from others that Richardson was a great actor kept me at it. They cited Richardson’s charm. Although Spacey was called more menacing, his southern charm – Underwood is the representative from South Carolina – and old-fashioned courtesy was also noted.

Michael Dobbs, who wrote the books on which the British version is based, called the American version, written by Beau Willimon, “much darker”. He must be referring to the mood, for Urquhart has a higher body count.

The U.S. show has had one season of 13 episodes at this point, while the U.K. show had 3 seasons of 4 episodes each. A second season is planned for Spacey’s production, so conclusions now are only provisional.

Certain similarities are obvious. Both are stories of Machiavellian leaders intent on revenging a political slight and rising to the top. Both shows reference Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although Richardson’s more directly. He frequently quotes from that play, but he has none of Macbeth’s initial ambivalence. He jumps right into the bloody fray and says, “I am in blood stepped in so deep..” without apology or regret. Both have wives worthy of Lady Macbeth. Both break the fourth wall, peer into the camera and address the audience directly. We are never in doubt about their opinions and overall intention, although we may be misled about specifics.

Yet the stories are different. Well, they would have to be. The British show is about the parliamentary system, in which the prime minister is the leader of either the Conservative Party or Labour Party, chosen by party members before an election is called and elected by only one riding. The prime minister then chooses his cabinet, appointing a minister for each portfolio. The president of the United States,  having been chosen as leader of either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, is of course elected to that position by voters nation-wide, . Once elected, he is secure in his position, but the British prime minister can lose the position in a non-confidence vote over a budget or other important bill. In that case, an election has to be called even though the term is not up, unless another leader is chosen who can rally the vote in the House. On the other hand, a president can continue in office in such a case although it is a tough slog as we have seen lately. Both, however, have the position of party whip, the House leader charged with ensuring that party members vote in support of party policy. Both Francises begin as majority whips, Urquhart for the Tory or Conservative Party and Underwood for the Democrats.

The U.K. series was first broadcast in 1990 and begins with Margaret Thatcher’s  fictional successor, Henry Collingridge winning an election and then betraying his chief whip by passing him over for Foreign Secretary.  Two days after the first episode aired, Thatcher resigned. John Major took over as party leader and prime minister. Campaigning for the now necessary election -in the middle of a recession – was suspended  ( in order to watch episode 2.

The U.K. series strikes me as extremely exciting because of its topicality. It did not, of course, cause the Iron Lady to resign after 4228 days in office. That was forced upon her by her own party, which was as fed up with her increasing despotism as the working class was with her crushing reforms. In the course of 3 seasons of 4 episodes each, the despair of the disenfranchised poor becomes one of the main themes. We see the bonfires of the homeless as they huddle for warmth. We also visit the palace and meet the new king, played by Michael Kitchen, who seems to share many of Prince Charles’s preoccupations. In this alternate future, Queen Elizabeth has passed on. But some things seem familiar. There is, for example, a beautiful blonde princess who has charge of the heir to the throne and a “fat princess”, a decidedly sportive red head. Viewers in 1993 (season 2) and 1995 (season 3) would have had no doubt who these characters were modeled on.

The U.S. production is not as specifically scandalous perhaps, but it does tackle current issues in government such as the influence of lobbyists for big business. Remy Danton, who lobbys for petrochemical interests, turns out to be an unlikely comrade-in-arms for Claire Underwood and her Clean Water Initiative.

It also updates media influence. In London, Mattie Stornin is a reporter for the right leaning tabloid, the Chronicle. She does have computer access, but certainly not to the wealth of information that Zoe Barnes, in Washington in 2012, has at her command. Nor does she have a mobile phone, although another character has a wired-in car phone. Mattie cannot easily switch gears and go to work for an internet news blog called Slugline as Zoe does. News happens in an instant in 2012. Reaction via Twitter, ditto.

Claire Underwood is the more prominent of the two wives as director of the not-for-profit Clean Water Initiative. Elizabeth Urquhart is less of a figure in her own right, but gains power as time moves on. Both readily approve of their husbands embarking on affairs in pursuit of their goals and expect the same in leniency in return. Frank and Claire frequently ask each other, “How can I help?” Initially at least, the Urquharts and the Underwoods are at one with their spouses.

Both stories have a Stamper, chief adviser, confidante and co-conspirator, ready to implement even the most devious of plans. Both have trusted security men to do their bidding although the British Corda plays a more important part, particularly in the final solution to Urquhart’s problems at the end of the series.

Both have a cocaine and alcohol addicted stooge -M.P. Roger O’Neill and Rep. Peter Russo- whose weakness is exploited, who do their master’s bidding and meet their deaths and not at arm’s length either. Both Francises are willing to be hands on.

The love affairs are different in that Urquhart tells us that he really did love Mattie even though he was using her newspaper pieces to further his plans. He is haunted by her. Frank Underwood does not seem capable of love but does show us he is capable of brutality in his treatment of Zoe. Zoe is not the soft, unworldly creature that Mattie is and she has the advantage of still being alive at the end of season 1. Creepily, Mattie calls Urquhart ‘daddy’. Indeed it is the very last thing she ever says.

One advantage of 1990 London is that the IRA is still blowing things up, so an extra car bomb here and there gets blamed on them. No one even suspects they are inside jobs, inside the P.M.’s office, that is.

Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards is incredibly rich. Even the titles, time-lapse photos of Washington throughout a day, are a pleasure to watch, all 13 times. There are grace notes like Freddy’s BBQ where Frank retreats to indulge his taste for ribs, Adam Galloway’s artist’s NYC loft where Claire takes refuge; the abandoned library at Frank’s old school, the Citadel; the S.C. town of Gaffney complete with peach- (or bum) shaped water tower. There is time for meandering through the woods, however irritably, or running through graveyards.

On Thatcher Day, the 4228th day Urquhart holds the office of prime minister, Elizabeth Urquhart assures her husband that Corda knows how to preserve his legacy in spite of recent disasters. Oh, good grief, Francis, parse that sentence before you agree. Or does he know somewhere in his benighted soul exactly what is about to happen?

So what will happen next season in the U.S. series? Will Frank’s body count match Francis Urquhart’s. Will Zoe, her Chronicle boyfriend, and her pal at Slugline uncover Frank’s machinations? They are well on their way. And surely Frank doesn’t really want to be V.P. The job bored even the boring Jim Matthews out of his mind. Isn’t it likely he has a “grassy knoll” plot waiting in the wings?

It looks as if judgement as to which Francis is more ruthless will have to be postponed.

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