House of Cards Showrunner Beau Willimon on Frank Underwood’s Worldview, the Nature of Power, and the Singularity

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Beau Willimon agreed to speak with Vulture about the third season of House of Cards with just one tiny catch: He was not going to disclose anything about the third season of House of Cards. Willimon artfully avoided giving a direct answer to almost every question he was asked as he spoke by phone while driving through Kentucky, apparently home to our nation’s spottiest cell service. (An accident, or a convenient ploy to drop the call whenever a question forced a too-revealing answer? We may never know.) Frank Underwood would be proud. Still, Willimon had plenty to say about everything but the plot of the new season. Topics discussed include: the nature of power, the Netflix leak, the singularity, what conversations Willimon has with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright during rehearsal, and whether or not there is such a thing as objective morality.

It feels like the best place to start is: What now? Frank got what he wanted. He’s the president of the United States. So … now what does he do?
Great question! Once you climb to the top of the summit, is there anywhere higher to climb? Is the only direction down? Do you have to fight to stay on top? Those are the questions I want people to have going into season three.

I know you are very secretive about this stuff and will reveal almost nothing about the upcoming season, but is there anything you can tell me at all about what to expect?
Not even almost nothing. Absolutely nothing! I don’t talk about anything specifically with the upcoming season. Definitely, for all the reasons I just talked about, there’s a lot of questions to be answered. I can promise that all that will be answered.

Do you think Frank will even like being president? Because what he really wants is power, and he might find out that he has less power as POTUS than he had before. He was able to be this rogue murderer guy, but when you’re the president, you have no privacy. You can’t really just do whatever you want.
That’s pretty insightful. The presidency does come with a certain spotlight. And we’ve seen a guy who, for the most part, has operated in the shadows. Now the spotlight is even brighter. And what does that mean for someone like Frank Underwood?

Do you think Frank is the kind of person who actually knows what he wants, or is he just chasing after things?
We’ve always known what Frank has wanted: He’s wanted power. And now he, arguably, has more power than anyone in the free world. In terms of where he goes from here, it now becomes a question of, What does he do with this power, how comfortable does he feel with it, what pressures and responsibilities does that power bring? And added to that is Claire’s relationship with power. It hasn’t just been Frank’s. We know that when they work together, they’re stronger as a couple than either of them could be on their own.

Based on the teasers for season three, Claire does not seem to be particularly happy with her new status. She doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would enjoy being the First Lady at all.
Whatever conclusions you might draw from the teasers or what was leaked is really up to you. It is insightful to notice that she tends to be someone who is more interested in real power as opposed to symbolic power, and is that going to be an issue in season three? Only one way to find out.

Which characters have surprised you the most, when you think about who they were when you started writing season one and who they’ve become?
I continue to be surprised, time and time again, by Frank and Claire. Mostly in terms of how their humanity bubbles forth. Some people have wondered whether they’re sociopathic, and that’s not how we, in the writers' room, or how Kevin or Robin approach them at all. If they were sociopaths, they would be completely devoid of feeling or empathy. And we know they love each other deeply, and they’re capable of connection. We’ve seen that in the Sentinel episode. And in the final moments of Peter Russo’s life, you saw things on Kevin’s face that couldn’t be pure, sociopathic lack of empathy. And Claire, too, has shown glimmers of humanity that are difficult to reconcile with the choices these two have made. That contradiction leads us to new things about them all the time. I think Doug Stamper is also a great example. In season one, we knew very little about him; he seemed almost machine-like in his loyalty to the Underwoods. And in season two, he found himself confronted with conflicted feelings for Rachel, which he couldn’t reconcile, and we saw where that led to. So with these characters, there are things that surprise us and surprise the audience, the contradictions. And to me, characters are most interesting in their contradictions. None of us adds up into a pretty, rounded-up sum. All of us contradict ourselves all the time.

Claire is really the only person who seems to be able to keep up with Frank. She’s the one who can outthink him, outsmart him, outplay him. Do you have a hard time coming up with formidable enemies for Frank? Like President Walker — he was sort of a wimpy guy. It wasn’t that surprising that Frank could destroy him.
The main antagonist for Francis, in season two, was not President Walker; it was Raymond Tusk. So in terms of the obstacles he faces, the antagonists that he squares up against, those aren’t necessarily always the obvious ones. And in season three, not to give anything away, but we’ll see him face more than his fair share of obstacles and antagonists.

Is there justice in the House of Cards universe? Do people get held accountable for their actions, or is there just no accountability in this world?
That’s a sneaky way to find out what is going to happen, I’m not going to answer that. It’s not an either/or. We approach stories through character, and all of them have different worldviews. The world itself is neither moral or amoral. The world is the world. In the show, while we follow two people who tend to have very little patience or respect for ideology, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people in the world who take those things seriously.

But all the people who behave as though they have a moral compass wind up getting professionally wrecked or killed, and the people who just do whatever with no regard for ethics are the ones who end up succeeding.
You’re bringing your worldview, your Jessica Goldstein worldview, to that. Frank Underwood would disagree with you about what justice is. He would say ideology or morality is a form of cowardice, that it’s a false view of the world. He doesn’t see himself as evil. He sees people who try to reduce things to the black and white of good versus evil as foolish. You can look at it through that lens and see objective good and evil, but it is subjective. I think when people talk about morality tales, they’re assuming that there’s an objective morality. Frank Underwood, being quite honest in the way that he approaches the world, doesn’t view things that way. There are people in the show who do. But it’s left to you, as an audience member, to decide what ideology you bring to the table and how that influences your perception of these characters.

Do you think Claire is more affected by the cost of what she and Frank have gained than Frank is?
It’s not important what I think. What do you think?

What you think is important, though. It’s your show.
It’s important what the audience thinks. With both Frank and Claire, we have characters who, there is a cost to what they do. But the nature of that cost, the toll it takes on the people around them, it’s really left for the audience to experience and to draw whatever conclusions they like. But when you start getting into conversations of comparison — who feels what more — then you’re starting to reduce your characters and say definitive things about them, and that might not always be the case. Like us, they evolve and change and devolve. They’re in a state of flux. When you say they are A or are not B, you’re saying that they’re incapable of change, and that’s not the human experience.

Do you do this to Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright? If they ask you a question about Frank or Claire’s motivation or headspace or whatever, do you just say, “I don’t know, Kevin, what do you think?”
No! We talk at length about the characters, where they’re going, how they’re feeling, what a particular scene or story arc means to them. That’s a very fruitful dialogue, and we get quite detailed about it. That’s the work we do on the stages during rehearsal, and [the] conversation we have before a script is finalized and as we edit the episodes. But that’s the work we do, creatively, in order to present characters to you that we hope will be engaging and complex. But if I were to pull back the veil on those conversations, it would rob the characters of their mystery. That’s for us.

Do you miss any of the characters that you’ve killed off the show?
The only two characters that we’ve seen meet their end are Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo, and I miss them. It’s a very difficult thing to do, to stick to your guns narratively, and an arc of a character you love writing for, and who created those roles. So, yeah, sure, you miss it at times, but we’re all here to serve the story. And if the story requires that a character no longer be part of it, then everyone gets that and we plow on ahead. There are characters that, while they have not perished, it would appear that they are not part of the story anymore, but you can never know with House of Cards. If someone isn’t dead, there’s always the possibility that they can come back in some fashion. We don’t say when or if that will happen.

Given your strong aversion to spoilers, I’m curious how you handled the leak. [Netflix accidentally posted the first ten episodes of season three online two weeks before the scheduled release date; they stayed up for almost an hour before vanishing from the site.]
I was amused by the whole thing. Obviously, you can tell from our conversation that I take great pains to not reveal anything, and here we had the first ten episodes available for a period of time. There’s no point in freaking out about that kind of thing because you can’t take it back. If anything, I was encouraged by how excited people were about it. There was a lot of speculation about what the season would be about, so I found that encouraging and exciting. I think that, when it really boils down to it, however many minutes were made available, whatever people saw, there’s still the vast majority of the content of season three, it’s still unknown. And there are plenty of surprises for people, even for those who scrubbed ahead to get as much information as they could. So I take it in stride and think that, ultimately, for something completely unintended and unplanned, it went quite well.

You could have pretended that you did it on purpose.
Even if we did it on purpose, I couldn’t take credit for it.

Are you this anti-spoilers when it comes to shows that you watch, or is this more about protecting your own creative work, not so much about what bothers you as a viewer?
Sure! I don’t want anything ruined for me in advance. If there’s a show I haven’t seen, or a show I love that I’m not caught up on, I do everything in my power to avoid spoilers. I think one of the really incredible things we’ve witnessed over the past few years is how good the audience is at self-regulating. People who don’t want to brush up against spoilers are good at avoiding them. People, for the most part, are respectful of other people’s experiences … There’s someone sitting down right now in front of their laptop to watch season one of The Wire for the first time, and if they’ve managed to avoid spoilers, that will be a surprising and revelatory experience for them.

I read in Vanity Fair that Frank was originally going to have a treadmill, but you changed it to be a rowing machine because you were a rower in college. Are there any other Easter eggs from your life in the show?
The Civil War reenactment in season is a direct result of me being a Civil War buff. Not to sound too cavalier about it, but what’s the point of running a show if you can’t play around in the sandbox that you feel like you’ll have the most fun in? We make a big list of things at the beginning of each year: stuff we want to see that you might never expect to see in House of Cards. And one of the things was a Civil War reenactment. I just thought it would be cool. And it wound up working beautifully, but it started out with me just being a Civil War buff.

Also, the fact that a little bit of the story takes place in St. Louis, that’s my hometown, that’s where I grew up. So to spend a few minutes there, at least fictionally, was a fun thing for me. The fact that Frank is from South Carolina goes directly to the fact that my dad grew up in South Carolina, so I know it really well. And Gaffney was a town that my dad suggested. I asked, what’s a small town in the Piedmont District that you think Frank would be from? And he said Gaffney, and as soon as I researched it and found the Peachoid, there was no turning back. The show is a product of all of our personal experiences, not just mine. Okay, I only have time for one more question.

Well, you’ve been doing the press rounds for this for a while. What do you wish someone would ask you but no one’s asked you yet?
In what year are we going to achieve the singularity?

And …?
I think the average age of death of an American male is 77 years old. So let’s assume I’m average, and I was born in ’77, I think that means 2054. So in anticipation that the singularity will allow for all of us scanning our brains and being able to live immortally in the super-consciousness, I hope it will be before 2064.

So you have hope, but not a prediction.
I can only hope. Maybe if I were Ray Kurzweil, I could guess. But I’m not Ray Kurzweil, so I can only look at the law of averages, do some basic math, and hope for the best.

Well, thank you for providing this very weird but great end to the interview.
Hey, no one has asked me that yet! And now anyone who does will be second or third.