There was one scene which particularly stood out for me in the latest season of House of Cards. In episode four, President Frank Underwood goes to church and admits to the priest that he doesn't understand the Christian philosophy of unconditional love. He implies that he finds that Christ is a weak figure to worship. Left alone in the church to "pray", Frank acerbically addresses a sculpture of Jesus hanging above him: "Love? That's what you're selling? Well I don't buy it". He then proceeds to spit on Christ's face, before accidentally knocking over and smashing the statue. The scene serves to emphasise the chasm between Frank's public persona, the man who says he's looking for spiritual guidance and pretends to pray, and his twisted, self-aggrandizing private mind which seeks to elevate his status even above the institutions of religion and love. It's a vintage House of Cards moment. Except it isn't.
Anyone who's familiar with The West Wing's phenomenal second season finale "Two Cathedrals" will know that this president-confronting-God-in-church scene has already been done before. Following the sudden death of his beloved secretary, President Bartlet, marches the entire length of Washington Cathedral and launches a tirade on God. It's justifiably one of the most talked about scenes in American television over the last two decades, and it's no surprise that the writers of House of Cards have seemingly chosen to pastiche it given the many fundamental comparisons often drawn between the shows. There's no doubt that it's a good scene and it allows Kevin Spacey to be at his snarly, caustic best, but having re-watched Martin Sheen's poignant and perfectly scripted rant again, it seemed odd to me that the writers of House of Cards didn't feel that creating a scene so closely aligned to the one in The West Wing would only expose the former as the weaker White House drama.
(C) 2015- Netflix
House of Cards' best asset is the soliloquising, merciless Frank Underwood. He is evil incarnate and he produces so many quotable cold-blooded aphorisms such as "democracy is so overrated", that to call him Machiavellian would almost be an understatement. Frank is so brazen in his self-awareness of his iniquity and so removed from a depiction of a real-life president (at least I hope so), that his character can be appreciated much like the Shakespearean villain, Iago. But it is this theatricality which also partially undoes the dramatic credibility of the show. Frank Underwood, and indeed the entirety of the narrative of House of Cards in itself, is so over the top, that he is a kind of caricature figure. When he spits on and smashes the statue of Christ, it's not so much a shocking display of irreverence as it is darkly farcical. Whether it's intentional or not, House of Cards' ability to compel and entertain stems from the fact that, a lot of the time, its characters and its plot are borderline absurd. No serious political series would have its main character murder two people who were no more than inconveniences. But House of Cards revels in the fun of melodrama and has spent the previous two seasons establishing Frank as an unparalleled force of malevolence and hypocrisy. Spitting on Christ is just the kind of morally bankrupt thing we've come to expect him to do, and the statue's collapse, showing the president's godlessness is a classic example of the show's occasionally heavy-handed approach to symbolism.
I probably would've enjoyed Frank's church antics much more if I hadn't already seen it done far more profoundly and dramatically in The West Wing. Many critics of Aaron Sorkin's show have attacked it for its sentimental idealisation of the Democratic Party, and whilst it's sadly unlikely that there are White House staffers as witty and competent as Sam, Josh, CJ, Toby etc. and a president as erudite as Bartlet in the real world, The West Wing's characters never seem as two-dimensional as their House of Cards counterparts. Bartlet's cathedral outburst is a scene of immense emotive power and psychological depth. This isn't just a man drunk with power defying God's influence like Underwood, but a religious man struggling with his faith and his frustration at the unjust tragedies which have befallen him and his nation. For me, to see the usually composed and mild-mannered Bartlet rebuke God as a "son of a bitch" and "feckless thug" is far more startling than anything Frank Underwood could ever do. At the end of the scene he defiantly lights a cigarette and then puts it out after one puff: he's in a conflicted, passionate state of mind and it shows. Like a real person, he acts on impulse, and it's this sense of spontaneity which frequently seems to be lacking in the very artificial-feeling and staged House of Cards. Any scenes in which Underwood is left alone with the viewer are usually just constructed to further underline his two-faced pragmatism and malice; with Bartlet, we are given an insight into the genuine inner-conflict, weariness and pain which lies behind the presidential veneer.
Television shows (and all fiction) that examine and demonstrate the complexity of human emotions, alongside an engaging narrative, are, in my opinion, always the most intriguing and enduring; Frank Underwood's theatrics and his brutal ruthlessness wears thin after a while. And although it was initially refreshing to see such a black-hearted show, there comes a point when it becomes a little difficult to invest yourself in it when you feel that almost all the characters are too ridiculously deplorable to merit any pathos. No one quite does sociopathy like Kevin Spacey, but my vote will always be with the Bartlet administration.