At 3 a.m. ET on Friday morning, House of Cards, the dark drama about power and politics, returned to Netflix—and the nation’s business ground to a halt.
We’re kidding, of course. But all across the country, and especially in Washington, D.C., political junkies awoke in the wee small hours of the morning, clicked on Season 2, and began to binge. The story picks up right where it left off, with wily House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) about to ascend to the vice-presidency and a pack of reporters on his trail. But from there the series takes some surprising—and brutal—turns.
To help us get our bearings, we gave House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon a call. He was gracious enough to walk us through the most shocking twist so far; to discuss the biggest risks his team took in Season 2; and to explain why his series isn’t as cynical as some people might think.
(WARNING: If you haven’t watched the Season 2 premiere yet, GO NO FURTHER. And if you’re particularly spoiler-averse—that is, if you can’t deal with stories that allude to future events, even if they don’t give anything away—it’s probably best to digest the first four episodes before proceeding.)
Excerpts from our conversation with Willimon:
Everyone who watches the first episode is going to have the same question, so I figured I’d start by putting it directly to you. Why did you kill Zoe Barnes?
I knew what Zoe’s arc would be for the show before we even sat down to write Season 1. I knew what her trajectory in Season 2 would be as well. In fact, when we brought Kate on board she was fully aware. What you’re looking at there is a storyline that began in many ways fully formed.
So you knew she was going to be offed?
Was it always slotted for Episode 14?
Yes. The very beginning of Season 2.
Can you talk about why?
There is a right place and time for things to happen dramatically and that was the right place and time.
I’m curious about why you thought Zoe’s story had expired at that point, and also the dramatic possibilities that her death unleashed.
There has to be a progression in what Francis is willing to do in order to move forward, and that was the natural progression. The important thing to know is that this was the plan from the very beginning. Each season has to be an evolution. You have to push the characters farther and farther, expand and deepen who they are and what they do. I always saw starting off the season this way as a declaration of sorts that Francis is willing to do anything.
Do you think there’s a risk of making Frank Underwood too villain-ish? At this point he’s killed a reporter, a politician, and a dog.
I’ll leave that to the audience to decide. When we dramatize something, I try not to be too over-analytical about it. I’m much more interested in letting the audience experience it for themselves and draw their own conclusions. I’m very protective of the story, and how we approach it is irrelevant. How it’s received is of prime importance.
House of Cards was initially picked up as a two-season block, which is pretty uncommon. That gave you the freedom to play the long game and plot the story out over 26 episodes as opposed to only 13. Did you have everything planned in advance, Season 1 and Season 2?
No. I knew some big choices that we wanted to make in Season 2, and I knew where I wanted Season 2 to end. But I did not fully plot out Season 2 before we started writing it. We made changes along the way. Anytime you’re watching actors in front of the camera, you’re absorbing what they’re doing and learning from that, and you will make changes to subsequent scripts based on the new and surprising things you see them doing.
Peter Russo was never intended to run for governor of Pennsylvania. That was another character altogether. But Corey Stoll was so fantastic, I moved that storyline to his character, and that required a great deal of rewriting. We made choices toward the end of Season 1 that meant thinking about Season 2 in ways I never could have predicted when we first began.
What do you mean by that?
For instance, the character of Rachel, who became a very important character toward the end of Season 1: she was never intended to go beyond the second episode. She was a call girl without a name. When I made the change in Peter Russo’s story, I thought of people who we had seen interact with him—who were interesting and might elevate that story. And Rachel was one of them, so we brought her back in Episode 7. We saw a relationship of sorts form between her and Doug Stamper. And that led to all sorts of interesting new territory that we couldn’t have possibly predicted eight months prior. She is a force to be contended with by the end of Season 1—and of course that affects Season 2.
Sometimes individual seasons of a show have themes; a showrunner will say, “Season 2 is about X.” Do you think of Season 2 that way—as having a different thematic focus than Season 1?
I don’t like to use adjectives. I find that limiting. It frames people’s thinking about a season before they’ve even had a chance to watch it. I will say that in many ways, because we had a two-season order, I thought of Seasons 1 and 2 as a combined entity—a 26-hour movie. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences. In terms of tone. In terms of the way we approached story. In terms of how we expanded and deepened our exploration of the characters. You always want to push yourself to take risks—to stick to the core of the show and also venture beyond it. That’s what we endeavored to do with Season 2.
What’s an example of a risk that you took in writing Season 2?
Anytime you introduce a new major character, that’s a risk of sorts. And anytime you dig deeper into a character, the choices you make are a risk. For instance, Claire’s interview in Episode 4 of Season 2—that’s a risk. You’re taking very contentious issues that people feel very strongly about and you’re infusing them into this story that is, at its heart, non-ideological. When you do something like that, you expect that there might be strong reactions. You hope that those strong reactions are good—that they make the drama richer. But they can have the opposite effect. That’s a risk. But it’s a risk we’re willing to take.
You feel nervous. You ask yourself if this scene is actually something that belongs in House of Cards. If the direction we’re going with the story is commensurate with the story we’ve told so far. I ask myself this stuff all the time. But if you’re not asking yourself those questions, you’re not challenging yourself—or the audience. Better at times to be nervous than to feel comfortable.
In Season 1, Frank basically outmaneuvered and outsmarted everyone. His master plan worked; he ascended to the vice-presidency. Will he be as successful in Season 2?
You shouldn’t think about Francis’s journey as a master plan. In Season 1, you don’t see a guy who lays out the 15 steps he wants to accomplish and then knocks them away. The whole way we approach House of Cards is looking at politics as an act of jazz. You are always reacting to and responding to the unexpected, and Francis knows he wants to keep climbing the mountain. He knows he wants to keep going up and up. He doesn’t always know how he’s going to get there. Sometimes he might have a plan for the short term, and it’s derailed, and he immediately has to respond. He has to formulate a new plan very quickly. Or he has to act on instinct without a plan.
That’s much more akin to what politics really is. An example in Season 1 is that he expects to go to a debate with Marty Spinella on CNN and presumes that he is going to knock it out of the park, and that will be the final nail in the coffin of the teachers’ strike. But he misses. Claire says, “I don’t mind that you improvised. I just wish that you had done it better.” So he has to recalibrate. He has to find a new way to achieve the same goal.
So yes, we do see that in Season 2. There are lots of obstacles. There are major antagonists. He has to navigate all of those in order to continue on his ascension, whether successfully or not.
Tell us about the character of Jackie Sharp. Why add her to the mix in Season 2?
It’s natural that Francis, as he climbs the ladder, will want to control who occupies the rungs beneath him. The position of House Majority Whip is one that he ruled with an iron fist for over a decade. He certainly would want to play a part in determining who occupied it when he vacates that seat. What was really fascinating to us about the character of Jackie is that she is someone who is cut from the same cloth as Francis and yet her ambition and her desire for power is expressed completely differently. She shares the same thirst and hunger he does. But we’re encountering someone who’s at a much earlier stage in her career, who has a different sensibility, and who has a different ethos. So not only is a character like that interesting in her own right, but she helps you expand your understanding of Francis by comparison.
In Episode 4, Jackie is urged to hand out favors and earmarks to reluctant politicians in return for votes. But she walks over and basically tells them, “That’s not how my caucus is going to operate.” Francis would have given them what they wanted. Is that what you mean by a different ethos?
Right. It’s also there in how she handles her mentor, Havermeyer, who wants nothing but to help her, and she has to make a choice about what she wants more. Does she want this power, or does she want to protect her close friends? In that choice, we see someone much earlier in her career who is faced with the same choices Francis might have had. Francis might not have batted an eyelash. But Jackie does. We see her having to make that choice, at that level, for the first time. The prick of conscience she has alerts us to the fact that she is different from Francis—or just at a different stage of her life.
And yet she ends up making the same decision Francis would have made—power over loyalty. Does politics inevitably transform people into Francis Underwood?
Well, we don’t know if Jackie will end up in the same place Francis is. It’s a possibility. It’s an interesting question as far as the character is concerned.
Earlier you mentioned Claire’s interview in Episode 4. It’s my favorite moment of the series so far because it seems emblematic of her struggle to serve as Frank’s political wife while also living her own life as a woman.
It’s always got to stay true to the character, and what Claire does is tell a lie with the truth. And that sort of maneuvering is emblematic of what the show is all about. It is political jazz. She finds herself needing to deal with this predicament that she’s in, and she does so in a way that some people might condemn and other people might admire. But at the end of the day, she does what’s right for her.
Is that the ultimate message of House of Cards—that politics is all about self-interest?
House of Cards is about power, plain and simple. A lot of people think it’s about politics, but politics is just a subset of power. We experience power every day, in a million different ways, in our own lives, from the micro to the macro. You are either exercising power or someone is exercising it on you. That can be as big as what your elected officials are doing to influence your life or it can be as small as someone butting in front of you in line. We explore power not just in politics but in personal relationships: between spouses and lovers, in the workplace, in the media. We see it from its most nuanced to its most brutal.
When you think about Francis’s capacity for violence, you have to think about this: power, at its core, when it’s fully boiled down to its essence, is about violence.
How do you respond to people who say that worldview is too cynical—that the show is too cynical for their tastes?
I don’t think that’s cynical. I think that’s realistic. There’s a reason why the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower, and it’s largely because we have the world’s largest military. When you’re a little kid on the playground and you’re playing King of the Hill, you’re either on top of the hill or you’re trying to get up there, and the way one kid stays on top of the hill is by pushing other kids down.
The word cynical pops up all the time. But I am an optimist. I think that power when used appropriately is capable of great things. Not just in politics but in our personal lives. When you make the choices that you make in life, it goes back to power. Sometimes power is as simple as how you choose to spend your day. You have the power to not harm. You have the power to love. You have the power to be kind. I said that power ultimately reduces to violence, and it does. But the converse is also true. You have the power to not be violent.
What you see in Frank Underwood is a guy who is a consummate optimist. All he wants to do is keep moving forward. That’s an optimist approach to life. When you confuse it with ethics or idealism, then you get into murky territory. Idealism is not optimism. There are plenty of pessimistic idealists out there. And there are plenty of optimistic non-ideologues, like Francis. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle.
What does Frank Underwood want power for?
Its own sake. Because what is power, ultimately? It’s possibility. It’s being the master of your own fate. It’s not allowing anyone else to dictate what your life will be. We can’t cheat death, but we can try to exert control over life.