‘House of Cards’ Creator Beau Willimon Dishes on Season 3’s Scandals and Surprises
For those of us in the Northeast braving this dark, treacherous winter, the return of Netflix’s deliciously over-the-top political drama House of Cards couldn’t have come at a better time.
In the entertainment realm, February in particular has seen a seemingly endless series of disappointments. The cheating Patriots won the Super Bowl. The Grammys sucked. Brian Williams lied. Jon Stewart’s retiring. The Oscars chose Birdman over Boyhood. People lost their marbles over a stupid dress. Spock is off to the great beyond. The world needed a respite, and who better than the saucy, seductive, extravagantly-accented Frank Underwood?
When we last left Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his perfectly-coiffed Lady Macbeth, Claire (Robin Wright), they’d successfully orchestrated a coup within their Democratic Party and ousted President Walker from the Oval Office, sending Team Underwood into the White House.
Season 3 opens with President Underwood besieged on all sides. He’s just six months into his presidency and unemployment has skyrocketed, while his approval ratings have bottomed out. In order to save his butt, he’s pushing “America Works”—a $500 billion jobs bill whose aim is to reach full employment. But a coalition of Democrats—along with Underwood's partner-in-blackmail, Jackie—is trying to pressure Frank into not running for re-election in 2016. Meanwhile, Claire has, in a Hillary Clinton-esque storyline, become bored with the first lady gig, and wants to be named UN ambassador, much to Frank’s chagrin.
Oh, and Frank’s trusty Boy Friday, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who we all presumed was dead after he had his head bashed in by a rock at the end of Season 2, is alive, rehabilitating, and still obsessed with the ex-prostitute Rachel, while Frank has a new nemesis in Russian President Victor Petrov, who is basically Vladimir Putin.
The Daily Beast spoke to House of Cards creator Beau Willimon about Season 3.
I imagine it’s gotten increasing difficult as a showrunner now that Frank’s ascended to the highest office in the land, and the cards don’t fall as easily as they did in the past.
Or they’re more precarious. That was a difficult challenge, in a good way. For two seasons, we’ve seen a guy and his wife fight to get to the top of the mountain and the only direction is down, and you have to fight to stay on top of it. That’s the story we’re tackling in Season 3.
Some will be surprised in the premiere to see Doug Stamper back, who was left for dead in the woods after he was viciously beaten with a rock. Why did you decide to bring him back?
Our intention was for him to never leave the fold. We wanted it to be a question at the end of Season 2 of whether he was alive or not, but we always knew he would be alive. One of the things that we tried in the first episode, which was new to us, was exploring the story through another character’s point of view other than Francis’s or Claire’s. And we spend almost 30 minutes with Doug before we go back to Francis Underwood—aside from seeing him on TV. What that allowed us to do was to really dig deep into what Stamper’s recovery actually entailed and what a difficult road he had ahead of him, and at the same time, run through six months of Francis’s presidency in under 30 minutes. We thought it was a lot more interesting to get a sense of how much he was on the ropes, and come back into his story at a moment when he was desperate to get himself off the ropes and back into the center of the ring.
Do you sense an element of homoeroticism to Frank and Doug’s relationship? It reminds me a bit of a darker version of Mr. Burns and Smithers, in a way, in that Doug seems to have tunnel vision when it comes to Frank.
You’re the first person to ever ask that question to me. That’s an interesting interpretation of it. His relationship with Rachel is complex and he finds himself confronting feelings for her that are different than how he interacts with others, and that was a source of conflict internally for him since it challenged his loyalty to his boss. Any interpretation that one has is a valid one, but I’d say that the lens that we tend to look through for Stamper is one of loyalty, and just because one is intensely loyal to someone doesn’t mean they’re attracted to them.
How did you swing The Colbert Report appearance in the premiere?
We simply asked! I’d had the pleasure of being on The Colbert Report and I think that Stephen is among the most talented people on the planet. We wanted to have an interesting way to get a sense of where the Underwood presidency was that wasn’t as obvious as simply a news anchor telling us, and we thought that would be more engaging, dramatic, and entertaining. I asked Stephen and thanked my lucky stars when he said yes. One of the things that we delighted in when we talked about it was that our fictional Colbert Report would exist beyond the real-life one. The Colbert Report never fully dies.
In the second episode, there’s a really powerful—and disturbing—sex scene between Frank and Claire on the floor where Frank is a wreck after not getting a single financial backer for his re-election campaign, and Claire comes in and sees him on the floor crying. Then, she gets on top of him and literally brings him back to life. It’s the first time we actually see them have sex, too.
She brought the hope back into him. It was something we were deeply curious about in the writers’ room. We had asked ourselves for a couple of seasons what their sex life with each other looked like, and did they have one. We always presumed that they did, but we really wanted to tackle the question of, “If they do, what does it look like?” They played that scene beautifully. There’s a transactional nature to their relationship—as there is a transactional nature to all relationships—and often in a good way, if you marry someone, you are giving them your love for their love in return; you’re giving them your vulnerability, and in return you’re hoping to get strength. Sex is a part of that. Sometimes, sex is a form of expressing affection and love—it’s a way of communicating—but it can also be a way of empowering. In that scene, what we see is someone at his lowest point who is vulnerable, and another person who walks in that door with a great deal of strength and resolve, and during the actual physical union, she takes some of her strength and gives it to him. It’s a strange scene because we’re not portraying sex as lust or affection—we’re portraying it as her feeding him.
“Feeding him.” That’s how I saw it, too.
Our show does not nearly have as much sex in it as a lot of other shows out there. Generally, when we portray sex it’s because we want to push the story forward in a surprising way, or reveal something about our characters that we haven’t seen before. And in that moment, it reveals something about Francis and Claire that we haven’t seen before.
We also get to see Claire Underwood play beer pong this season. How’s Robin Wright’s beer pong game?
They were really playing! From what I could gather from behind the camera, they were both more talented than you would expect. Jane Atkinson is a real pro. You also try to push the envelope in the opposite direction. Sometimes, you say to yourself, “Is this the most fucking silliest thing on the planet? We’ve got beer pong with presidential seal ping pong balls going on in the White House? What are we doing?” But when we ask ourselves those questions we realize, “Well, we have to put it in now.” Both Robin and Jane loved reading that scene and loved doing it even more.
Who would win in a real-life beer pong match?
Look, I would love to see that but you’ll have to ask them. We should put some competition up. We can get other shows in there and do it like March Madness. But I leave that to The Daily Beast to organize. See what you can make happen and I’ll be sitting there front and center. And you know who I’ll be cheering for.
Stay tuned for more from House of Cards creator Beau Willimon here at The Daily Beast.