Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Knight Takes King Prod.
Earlier this week, Vulture asked readers to come up with questions for House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon. And you did! Willimon couldn’t answer every single one, but he did respond to frank inquiries from twenty readers. Read on to hear him explain the creepy details of Francis and Zoe’s “love” life, what he thinks of comparisons between Francis and Walter White, and his response to critical viewers who don’t approve of some of the changes he made from the original U.K. miniseries. And if you don’t see your question answered here, try Willimon on Twitter. He’s a chatty fellow! (Needless to say, spoilers aplenty: This was a meeting of the minds for people who have completed the series.)
It’s generally assumed in the TV world that audiences can’t relate to an evil hero. Even Walter White started out as a sympathetic chemistry teacher and Tony Soprano suffered from anxiety and depression. Frank Underwood doesn’t even try for the audience’s sympathy. He assumes the audience is on his side from the get-go. This being the case, how did you approach writing a main character as evil as Frank Underwood and making viewers care about him? They definitely do, but he’s practically Othello’s Iago cast as the hero of the story. —AREN.BERGSTROM
It’s not our goal for viewers to like Francis, or even care about him in the traditional sense. We want viewers to be attracted to him, which is fundamentally different than “likability.” We want you to root for him despite yourself, to be complicit in his schemes even though his behavior might be outside the limits of your own ethical boundaries. The direct address helps with this. It gives you access. It makes you an accomplice. It begs the question of whether there is a little bit of Francis Underwood in you, in all of us. I think the reason viewers are drawn to amoral characters is because it gives them the chance to explore more amoral aspects of themselves; it liberates them from the rules we all must live by in our everyday lives; we can dance with the dark side without suffering the consequences ourselves.
One of the big turning points for the show was when Claire derailed Russo’s water bill, something that Frank never intended. This led to Frank being forced to de-rail Russo’s bid for governorship and his final gambit of the season — to become the VP. We are led to believe that this was always his plan, to force a last minute implosion by Russo so that VP Matthews could be the only possible candidate in his home state and would step down from the VP role. But this plan doesn’t match up at all with Frank’s initial (seemingly genuine) efforts to win Russo the governorship, which was only derailed because of Claire’s backstabbing. After all, if the water bill had been successful, it would have made it much more difficult for Frank to force Russo to withdraw his candidacy later in the campaign. So, what I want to know is, what was Frank’s original plan with Russo before the Water Bill was lost? —KCHA237
Francis approaches politics like a jazz artist, not like a mathematician. He doesn’t always have every part of the equation mapped out. He seeks potential opportunities, not always sure where they’re headed. And he responds to the unexpected, transforming chaos into order. That said, he always had the intention of derailing Peter’s campaign. By doing that he could convince Matthews to run for governor, thereby opening the VP slot. But he hoped to derail it at the last minute — to give Walker the least amount of time to find a replacement. Matthews would have to step in. That’s why he wanted the Watershed Bill to pass — in order to keep Russo viable until it was time to pull the rug out from under him. What Claire did was accelerate the process, endangering Russo’s campaign earlier than Francis would have liked, and potentially leaving Walker too much time to replace Matthews once he got into the race. Francis had to adapt, to stall Walker. And he never planned on killing Russo. He hoped Russo would quietly go away. But Russo became unmanageable — a legitimate threat — so he seized an opportunity in the garage.
Why are all the intimate scenes so nauseating? —RITIKATRIKHA
I think people have very different reactions to them. I can only speculate, but I assume you’re talking about Francis and Zoe. Maybe you find them nauseating because their intimate moments are not really about intimacy, they’re about power. Romance is the dissolution of ego — two become one. Sex between Francis and Zoe is a battle of egos. It’s about dominance. It’s warfare. As Francis says in episode nine when he quotes Oscar Wilde: “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”
Who was Frank’s character modeled after? Also, which character do you most relate with? —ALETHEA808
We drew from many sources, many of them political, many not. Some from history, some from fiction. In real life, LBJ is one of the most useful. In fiction we always have Richard III, Iago, and MacBeth in mind. And of course we stole elements of Francis Urquhart in the BBC original and Dobbs novels. Ultimately our Francis is his own being, not based on any one model — an amalgamation of many people I have run across, read about, and studied, as well as the layers Spacey himself added in breathing life into the role. As for which character I relate with the most? That’s hard to answer. I relate to them each for different reasons — Francis’s ruthlessness, Claire’s mystery, Stamper’s loyalty, Zoe’s ambition, Russo’s despair, Rachel’s isolation, Freddy’s matter-of-factness, and so on. I hope there’s something in every character that makes them universal to our viewers. It’s those same universalities I tap into when I’m writing them.
How do some of the cast feel personally about the watch-whenever-you-want format? —BILOH
In general the cast has been extremely enthusiastic about it. They like that their performances can be watched in a condensed way. It’s much easier to follow their individual threads and to appreciate the subtle shifts in their characters from one chapter to the next.
How long can House of Cards go? Is it possible we’ll be seeing Francis in the White House in a season or two? —ROB.ERICKSON
Right now we’re just focusing on one season at a time. The goal of season two is to exhaust all of our good ideas, not to pull any punches, to feel as though our story is complete but still has the potential expand. That will challenge us to think outside the box when and if we have more seasons ahead.
Although it is left to the audience to depict the meaning of Claire’s strange encounters, what do you make of them? Her ordering at the coffee shop, and the older woman having difficulty understanding the computer after Claire had just fired most of her staff that were older. Claire running through the graveyard and being yelled at by the older woman that thought of it as disrespectful? Claire eventually seeing two teenagers rolling on top of the graves making out, without any respect for the dead? The man on the corner that flicks the $20 origami at Claire as she gets into the car? These scenes give me chills for some reason. —HUNTER.AIKINS
Joel Schumacher once said to me: “There are two kinds of people — metallic people and porous people.” By metallic he means those who have a hard shell, who reflect and deflect, who do not allow anyone or anything within. They are outward thinking. By porous he means people who absorb, who observe and contemplate, who receive people and experience, who are inward thinking. Francis is mostly metallic. So is Claire, but she has a porous side too. The coffee shop, the graveyard, the homeless man — these are attempts to dramatize her porous side. To reveal a side of Claire that is not logical or easily explained. That is open to empathy, randomness, and sensuality. What makes her so intriguing is the tension between this porous side and her more unforgiving, metallic side.
For lack of better wording, Frank Underwood has turned into a Walter White-esque character in which he’s gotten in a little too deep, with killing off Peter Russo and having the affair with Zoe Barnes. In the next season of House of Cards, which will presumably begin with Underwood taking the oath of office as Vice President, will the skeletons in his closet begin to show, or will we have to wait a little longer for that? —JAKESALINAS
That’s a very good question, but I’m afraid I can’t answer it! If I did, I’d ruin season two for you and everyone else. But I will take the Walter White comparison as a compliment, because Breaking Bad is one of my favorite shows. Vince Gilligan is brilliant, and Bryan Cranston’s performance will go down in TV history as one of the finest ever.
Four questions: Which episode was your favorite episode to write? Considering you researched congressmen and the government’s social intricacies, how close do you believe House of Cards hits home to what really goes on in Washington? TV shows are always slightly embellished (compared to reality) due to various understandable reasons, but are the politics this sinister and dramatic? Or are they even worse? Finally, can you give us an idea as to how crazy or surprising the second season will get? —PIRATEDAMBITION
Four for the price of one! Greedy you. Okay, as for my favorite episode, the correct response is that I love them all equally. But if I had to choose I’d pick episode eight, when Francis goes to the Sentinel. I thought Spacey’s performance was so exquisite, honest, and sublime. Tied with that is episode eleven, because Corey Stoll fearlessly attacked that episode with brutal rawness that was both heart-breaking and beautiful. Question two: We sometimes exaggerate, simplify, or fudge the rules for the sake of drama, but authenticity is very important to us. We do tons of research and solicit experts on a wide range of subjects. Things that happen in our show sometimes push the envelope in terms of probability, but everything that happens is possible. Question three: We take an extreme view, but these sorts of people do exist in government. Question four: Nope.
House of Cards was beautifully paced, believable and with a constant menacing/disturbing tone as it built towards the finale. It makes series like Boss appear more fanciful and far-fetched to try to keep our attention. However, the wheels were already falling off Frank’s schemes, so how can you keep that going for a second series without it becoming too far-fetched? —CRAIGIE.B1974
I’ll let you be the judge when we release season two!
You made the president a secondary character which is brilliant and totally different from what’s usually shown in political dramas. Do you think that a real-life Francis Underwood could be as powerful as he is on the show? —LISAFREMONT
Um, Dick Cheney … hello.
Is the relationship between Claire and Frank romantic and/or sexual, or are they together more as a mutually beneficial partnership? —CHEESYBLASTERS
I hesitate to publicly analyze their relationship too much because its mystery is one of its strengths. I think it’s a mixture of all those things, including trust, mutual admiration, loyalty, respect, a deep understanding of each other, and shared desire to succeed at all costs.
One of the recurring criticisms of House of Cards has been that the show was not as narratively groundbreaking as both its pedigree (you, David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, etc.) and its novel delivery model suggested it may be. Could you speak to that criticism? —MARYNMAX
I’m not sure what you mean by “ground-breaking” or where such criticism has recurred. But I’ll take a stab at answering. Our goal was to tell a great story — pure and simple. In so doing we aimed to challenge ourselves and each other as artists — by bringing a filmic sensibility to television through the writing, cinematography, and performances. In fact, we didn’t really endeavor to make a TV show at all, since none of us had made one before. So we were not bound by any conventional TV rules. Fincher’s film-making was breathtaking in my (biased) opinion. Our actors brought complexity and subtlety to their performances. As for the writing, by trying things like the killing of a dog as a cold-opener, the seven-minute spider scene with Francis and Zoe, the hospital scene with Claire, the screaming homeless man in episode two — just to name a few examples — I wanted to experiment with scenes that would not have survived the most corporate network censoring. But at the end of the day, breaking new ground cannot be an end in and of itself. The story must come first, and if you break any ground in the process, that is icing on the cake, and only the audience and history can be the judge of whether you’ve done so.
More and more of my friends (college students) are ditching cable to solely binge on Netflix shows. They’re watching Archer season 3 in a weekend, then waiting another year for season 4 rather than catch up week-to-week. House of Cards is the next iteration of this TV evolution, as Netflix almost recommends you marathon the show. My point is: the seasonal model of TV arriving at a glacial-pace is dying. In your opinion, is this a good thing for TV or a bad thing? New shows need an audience before they can make it to full seasons capable of binging, yet by waiting around for Netflix to package anthologies together keeps many shows — especially those on networks, as cable orders usually go full-season — from finding audiences. So is network TV the problem, or is Netflix the problem, as apparently the two can’t co-habitate? —CHOPPERSICBALLS
We might have been the first original series to deliver our entire season at once, but people have been binge-watching for years. Netflix helped expand this phenomenon, but viewers were also doing it through DVD box sets, DVR, on-demand, and other streaming services. We simply responded to a trend that was well under way and which is sure to continue. Our show simply gave people the experience they had already grown accustomed to on Netflix — viewer empowerment. People like being able to decide for themselves when, where, and in what quantities they will watch their content. That power is increasing, and all content-providers must either adapt or fall by the wayside.
HoC has been cited in many recent discussions about binge TV watching, which has been both lauded and criticized. What drew you to the anytime, anywhere format of Netflix’s original programming, and what sort of impact does that unconventional structure have on viewers? —SMLOT
We did not decide to release all thirteen episodes at once until halfway through production of season one. We knew it might be a possibility, but so was a more traditional week-to-week approach. From the writing perspective, I figured it had to work both ways. Even with the all-at-once delivery model, binge-watching is not required. Viewers can choose to space the series out over time if they want. So I’m not writing with the intention of one type of viewing behavior over another. I think giving viewers that choice is good thing, though. It allows them to mold their ideal viewing experience, which means they’re more likely to enjoy the show, however they choose to watch it.
The wife has to be the dullest character on the show. She is nothing like the one in the British series. My question is: what made you change her? Network executives who said women wouldn’t watch the show? Who did this to Michael Dobbs’ brilliant work? —SIRALANHASELHURST
I’m sorry you find her dull. Personally, I find Robin Wright’s portrayal of Claire to be one of the most thrilling aspects of the show. Robin constantly amazes me in her ability to access the depth of her character and bring so much more to the role than is written on the page. As for the comparison to Dobbs’s novels, we certainly took a different tack. Our show is not simply American translation of Dobbss’ books, it is a reinvention. We wanted Claire to be contemporary, to be Francis’s equal, more than a support system. We wanted her to be enigmatic — both metallic and porous as I mentioned above. For the record, if you asked Lord Michael Dobbs, he’d tell you he adores Robin Wright’s Claire. I know this because he’s told me himself!
Will the show run three seasons like the original miniseries did? —LITTLEFINGER
We’re not following the same narrative structure as the BBC version. Ours is a TV show, not a miniseries per se. The grand total number of episodes in the BBC series was twelve. We’ve already released thirteen with another thirteen on the way. So in our first two seasons we’ve more than doubled the number of hours that the BBC House of Cards broadcast. As to how many more seasons beyond the second? Well, let’s see how season two goes first!
Spoiler: The Kate Mara character is killed in the original British series in what I thought was a great twist that shed light on the main character. Why did you decide to keep her alive and how do you think she will continue to influence the story? —MURTADA824
From the first episode onward, Zoe was a very different woman than Mattie. And our story was much different from the BBC version. So we didn’t feel compelled to follow the same track they did. As to how she will continue to influence the story — questions like that are precisely the sort we hope you keep asking yourself as you wait for season two to arrive onto a laptop near you!
Will David Fincher be back to direct any episodes of season two? —VCORNET1
The most I can say is that we have some extraordinarily talented directors lined up for season two.
When’s Season 2?! —JOHNNY5555
Sometime between the moment you read this and the first manned mission to Mars.