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postmortem

House of Cards Boss Beau Willimon Answers Vulture Readers’ Questions

Nathan Darrow in season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo credit: Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.

Last week, Vulture asked readers to come up with questions for House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon. And you did! He couldn't answer every single one, but he did respond to 13 frank inquiries (pun intended). We tried for more, but Willimon is as adamant as Matthew Weiner when it comes to keeping a lid on story lines for future seasons. Needless to say, spoilers aplenty if you have not watched all of season two, but read on to find out about why Clare's backstory included a rape, the origins of the threesome, and whether or not Frank Underwood will ever lose. 

Given the lines Frank has crossed in order to finally become the president (murder, etc.), is there any chance he can be redeemed? —kevin.klawitter
Hmm. We don’t really think about Frank’s story in terms of redemption, because that presumes he operates on the same moral compass as most people do. Frank has his own code. And in his code, power is the most important thing, so you either have power or you don’t. In his worldview, it’s not a question of doing right or wrong, it’s a question of, do you wield power or don’t you? So, redemption in the conventional sense … it’s debatable whether he’s capable of that or not, but it’s the lens through which he sees the universe. 

If Frank actually is president for enough time to effect some change, what policies will he try to enact? Does he have any interest in positive change, or is everything connected to power/Claire/revenge? —christina.sweeneybaird
I think I answered that one in the first question. 

Was it always your intention to go darker and more serious than the original BBC series? —Bridget646
The short answer is yes. The BBC version is fantastic. You’ll find no bigger fan of it than me. I think Andrew Davies did an extraordinary job adapting Michael Dobbs’s novels, but the tone of it is much more tongue-in-cheek and satirical, and we wanted ours to be squarely in the drama category. Also we knew that in our first season alone, we would have more hours of content than all three seasons of the BBC version combined. And into our second season, over double that. So it meant that we were going to have to dig much deeper into our characters, include a lot of new characters, and expand the stories. I think that the world of television has become much more sophisticated in the past 25 years. Audiences have come to expect that. So we knew that, from the get-go, we would have a show that was very different than the BBC version. In terms of it being darker, that’s debateable. The BBC version is deliciously dark, but we want our darkness to come at a cost, the way it does in life, and you see that from time to time in our show. I think you can’t have darkness without putting it in relief. Otherwise it is just pure satire. So we try to do that whenever we can. 

Will Cashew be a regular next season? —daytimedrama
[Laughs] I guess that depends on whether SAG is willing to include other species in its membership.

The moment when Rachel bashes Doug Stamper's head in was the most surprising moment. Did you want to make more room for Rachel to play in season three? Is she an uncaged bird now? —Lillian4444
I don’t discuss anything about stories for upcoming seasons. I will say though that it was a choice to make Rachel a much more important character in season two. Originally, Rachel’s character was simply listed as "Call Girl" in the first two episodes, and she was never intended to go beyond that. But when I decided to expand Peter Russo’s story and have him run for governor, which was not a originally part of this story, the gubernatorial race was meant for another character altogether whom we hadn’t cast. I needed to make big changes to the story in order to accomplish that. The reason why I wanted to shift that story to Corey Stoll’s character was because Corey was doing such a marvelous job, really dazzling us in every scene, so I wanted to give him more. And when I made that choice, I looked at all the other characters we had available to us and thought about who would be most interesting to dramatize his downfall, and that was the call girl, so she got a name. What we discovered along the way was this really complex, intriguing relationship between her and Doug. Once you make a discovery like that, you want to dig in and make the most of it.

Did you have any hesitancy about writing the rape subplot for Claire? It seems so often now that on TV dramas a rape backstory is used as a plot device to make ruthless or powerful women more sympathetic. See: Mellie on Scandal, Victoria on Revenge, Elizabeth on The Americans. Just wondering if you were aware of this pattern and considered any other options before settling on this one. —cyberrr96
We weren’t really thinking about other shows when we came up with that backstory for Claire. What really inspired it was seeing an early screening of a documentary called The Invisible War. That’s a documentary that focuses on the problem of sexual assault in the military. I was really moved by that documentary. At the time, when I saw the screening, neither the show nor the issue was nearly as visible as it has become. But I was already thinking of the character of Jackie Sharp, a woman who has served in the military. I was thinking about sexual assault as the most brutal expression of power. And I thought that for Claire, to have experienced that and to have found her own way to take the power back, was right in line with our show. Because our show’s subject is power, and it can express itself in a lot of different ways. There’s the brutishness of sexual assault, but there’s also the power of the survivor to overcome it, and in Claire’s case, to name names and to push legislation to curb it. That all seems right in line with our show and with Claire. It wasn’t a choice to try to make Claire more sympathetic. I have zero interest in strategizing the sympathy factor for characters. A lot of our characters are quote-unquote unsympathetic, but you can’t take your eyes off of them, you’re engaged in their stories, you want to see what they do next, and Claire’s a great example of that. Really, I was interested in the theme of power, and placing one of our stars at the center of it. And she also ends up compromising her own bill in order to achieve other political ends. That’s also right in line with our show. You see something that Claire truly and deeply cares about, and yet she has to make a choice as to whether she was going to be uncompromising in her pursuit of reform, or whether she was going to do her part to help Team Underwood achieve the presidency. Those sorts of choices that people make in Washington all the time are the center of our show.

Do Claire and Frank have a sexual relationship? —maddieolariviere
That’s a great question. 

Why Meechum? Obviously the Underwoods have complete control over him already, he does nothing to advance their global domination or to advance the plot, other than to establish Frank's bisexuality. Wouldn't it have been more Underwood-esque to debauch, say, Jackie? —vmcartor
We don’t take a schematic approach to our storytelling. There are a lot of stories in our show that are causal: A leads to B leads to C. A lot of that has to do with political maneuvering. But there are also moments in our show and story lines that aren’t meant to add up in any rational way. I think that the Threechum scene is an example of that. If we didn’t access the irrational parts of Francis and Claire, all they would amount to is political calculation and sociopathy. But they have their human moments. They get drunk. They have desires. They have needs and whims like anyone else. In that scene, you see three people in a particular moment under particular circumstances, where something totally unexpected happens and yet happens organically. As it can in life. What I’m most proud of in that little story line was that the next day when Francis goes out to the car, Meechum says, “Beautiful day, sir.” Francis says, “Yes, it is,” and he gets in the car and back to business as usual as though it never happened. I think that’s a lot truer to life. Something happens, it happens unexpectedly, and we’re not going to make a big deal of it. There we see something that isn’t typically Underwoodian. It’s interesting that the person who asked the question used the adjective Underwood-esque. But if Francis and Claire only did things that were Underwood-esque, they would never surprise us and never surprise themselves. And as a threesome or any other encounter like that were mere calculation, it would have no mystery, and I think, in that particular case if it were Jackie, be quite sloppy on their part. With Meechum, they have someone that they fully trust. They have someone with whom this is possible, that they don’t have to worry about. Those are really the only circumstances under which something like that could happen. Otherwise, we’d really question their intelligence. 

Will anyone eventually realize that with regard to Peter Russo, it would have been impossible for him to turn on the car in the passenger's seat since keyless ignitions require you to step on the brake to start the car? Or has this been put completely to rest with the silence of Janine and Lucas? —eastcoastsnob
You should be hired on CSI immediately. 

It seems like he's won pretty much every battle and defeated (or murdered) pretty much every foe, so will you ever explore Frank actually losing? —sharipep
Another great question. I will say though that I think we have seen Frank experience loss. A great example of that is the sentinel episode, where we see what sacrifices he’s had to make in order to be where he is. There was a time in life where he could make a pure connection, where he could feel for someone completely outside of the realm of politics, and without consequence in a pure sense and it’s something that he can remember and be fond of, but he’s had to turn his back on that side of himself, with the exception of Claire, in order to live the public life that he lives. So there are lots of different forms of loss. In terms of political loss, I would say, in order to get Jackie Sharp on his side at the end of season two, he has to give up a certain degree of power, and so does Claire. So there are prices and costs for the choices they make. In terms of utter defeat, only time will tell. 

There's been talk about how the show's attitudes reflects the current political mood, or at least the prevailing attitude of American people toward government (contrast this with The West Wing, 1999 through early 2000s). How much do you think that's true, when it comes to the show's popularity, and specifically the popularity of the more detestable characters? —shansquared
I think the American public’s relationship with Washington is a complex one. In our show, we portray an extreme. at times exaggerated, dark version of Washington. Of course not all of Washington is like that. In fact, most people, I believe, go to work in government with all the best intentions: They want to serve their country, they want to serve their fellow citizens. And there are a lot of politicians and staff who maintain that part of themselves throughout their entire career. Those people just don’t happen to be the ones that we focus on in our show. There are a lot of shows about Washington right now. I think Veep can reflect a certain comical and absurd view that we have of Washington. Alpha House takes the same approach. Our show takes a darker look. And The West Wing is still as popular as ever. Lots of people watch The West Wing on Netflix. So I don’t think that any one show can encapsulate either what D.C. is or how America feels about it. It’s such a vast and complicated place. I think that all these shows combined might begin to scratch the surface. But it’s reductive, I think, to assume that any one show can. 

What I imagine the greatest perk of running a show like this would be is that people in DC would approach you all the time and be like, "YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW CLOSE YOU REALLY ARE TO THE TRUTH." Please tell me if this has happened to you, and please, if possible, provide as many salacious, vague details as you can without getting into trouble. —ironypants
Kevin Spacey tells a great story, and you have to imagine him doing this in Bill Clinton’s accent, which he mimics perfectly. He was talking to President Clinton about the show, and President Clinton professed to be a fan, and he said, [in a Bill Clinton impersonation] “You know, Kevin, 99 percent of House of Cards is accurate. The one percent that’s not accurate is that you can never pass an education bill that fast.”

House of Cards BBC was a three-season story arc. Is there a possibility of House of Cards USA going beyond the three seasons? —cartmom1
I couldn’t possibly comment. 

Photo: Netflix