Back in March 2013, I watched the original House of Cards trilogy, and reviewed the first story, promising to soon review the other two. Well, there’s no time like the present to move forward on this promise. It seems appropriate, not least because Australia is once again caught up in damaging political upheaval for the third time in 5 years. And just a bit of a disclaimer here – this post is rife with spoilers.
“To Play The King”, House of Cards‘ second instalment, sees Prime Minister of the UK Francis Urquhart seeking a new challenge, having destroyed his party room rivals and achieved his goal of becoming PM. After a new king is crowned and reveals his intentions to be more hands on, FU realises he has a new problem on his hands. Through four hour-long episodes, Urquhart and the new King match each other in a battle of wits for the heart of the country, and ultimately the government.
Urquhart, this time around, is more Machiavellian than ever. Fresh from his triumphs of manipulation in “House of Cards”, he obviously has a feeling of unlimited power, which initially leads him to seriously underestimate the new King and his aides. Throughout, it’s disturbingly pleasing when he succeeds against each little obstacle, but it’s also enjoyable seeing him cut down to size by his opponents. It’s very revealing when, confronted by the king who intends to oppose him to the bitter end, he asks, “What could possibly be in it for you?” only to be answered, “You really don’t understand, do you?”
In other ways, FU is clearly struggling to stay upright at times, weighed down by keeping all his fingers in different pies, as well as feeling immense guilt about his murder of Mattie Storin in the previous story. Admitting to his wife that there is no turning back and he must do what must be done, he borrows from Shakespeare’s ultimate tragic hero, Macbeth, uttering the phrase, “I am, in blood, stepp’d in so far.” This decision to add a dimension beyond power hungry manipulator certainly adds ‘maniac’ to Urquhart’s repertoire, but it only serves to make us root for him more. FU weaves a tangled web, and that is what keeps you watching. Not what will happen to him, because we know he’ll succeed, but how he reacts to what does happen and how he gets around it. You even realise he’s playing with his Chief Whip, the slimy Tim Stamper, in the same way that led to Urquhart’s own change of personality, and how long it’ll be before the Chief Whip reacts in the same way. Ian Richardson once again excels himself with his portrayal, and takes to the added emotional side of Francis Urquhart with gusto.
As for the King, well, he’s an extremely thinly veiled portrayal of Prince Charles, being quite clearly a vehicle for displaying what for many people are concerns about what Charles may be like when he eventually ascends to the throne. The king sets the tone early on, promising to be hands on and make a difference, which FU correctly predicts will become an overstepping of the line, out of the bounds placed on the king by the Constitution. As a constitutional monarchy, the UK’s monarch cannot be seen to take sides in politics, and has to remain at arms’ length. Despite the fact that the king is reacting to Francis Urquhart being a bit of a hard right elitist, he’s still in the wrong, and to be perfectly honest FU is well within his right to be riled.
It’s hard to know who to really root for, though, and this is because the king is played in such a compelling way by Michael Kitchen. A lesser actor would have had Richardson walking all over him, but Kitchen really takes to the role and competes for the stage. The role could quite easily have been played with the king constantly on the back foot, but instead Kitchen plays him as a man who can feel the power slipping away from him but who refuses to be shaken. He constantly mirror’s Richardson’s body language, showing the king as a confident, but big-hearted man – the opposite side of the coin to Urquhart’s cold-hearted scheming. It must be said though that there is a certain weakness (as in being weak) to the king, shown up when he is almost kidnapped and does nothing to resist, despite (I assume, as Prince Charles had one) his military background. He’s certainly a far cry from the slightly harder edged character Tom Clancy gives to another fictional Prince of Wales in Patriot Games.
From a production and writing aspect, this is as good as it gets. The BBC are experts at what I shall call “gothic noir”, with plenty of unpleasantness, moody lighting, and cinematography that intentionally conveys menace. Gloved hands do mysterious things, footsteps echo through empty corridors, meetings take place in abandoned government buildings, there’s scary theremin music…this story has the lot, and it all serves to highlight the fact that we are watching things that are playing out in the background of politics, as opposed to a well-lit foreground. The American adaptation of House of Cards, by comparison, has everything seem rather clean, and much brighter. Also, because this version is a 4-hour miniseries, it can’t afford the padding which so affects the pacing of the American House of Cards – “To Play the King” has absolutely nothing unnecessary, which is striking considering how often dramas can become consumed by their own importance. The use of editing as a narrative device, where we cut to a scene in the midst of some bridging narration by Urquhart, lends more of a feeling of omniscience to FU himself, as though he sees all – and indeed, dialogue following distant explosions which includes, “That wasn’t one of ours!” or, “Don’t worry, nobody we know,” serves to discreetly remind us of the tangled web Francis Urquhart has woven and within which he is desperately trying not to be trapped.
Ultimately, the ending is satisfying because we so want to side with the king, but we are convinced to that FU’s plan is the best for England – as he puts it, “If you weather the end, you must weather the means.” In many ways, the King’s (or Prince Charles’s) views are shown to have some merit, but only as a basis for better laissez-faire government policy. Of course, whether FU’s government policy is actually laissez-faire could be the basis of a whole other essay, but for now, let’s just say that it’s very hard to resist FU’s challenge at the end that we know he is right. And of course, we know he’s impossible to resist, not least because as we see at the end, the now former King’s son is himself crowned King. So the only question really is, who’s going to be foolish enough to challenge Francis Urquhart in “The Final Cut”?