"House of Cards" protagonist Frank Underwood takes a murderous and conniving path to political power, but the Netflix series' creator takes umbrage at the notion the show, though undeniably dark, has no God.
"It's interesting — and wrong," Beau Willimon said. "When your protagonist is so dark and non-ideological, it's easy to reduce the show" to a Sodom and Gomorrah set in Washington. He argued its characters are complex and exist all along the ethical spectrum.
Willimon, the show-runner of the widely acclaimed, online-streaming drama, came back on his birthday Sunday for a wide-ranging conversation about the themes of faith and power in the series at one of the show's many Baltimore filming locations, the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church.
The pastor, the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors, interviewed Willimon, and some of the roughly 100 church members, "House of Cards" enthusiasts, and aspiring filmmakers and writers in attendance asked questions of their own.
Willimon said he sees characters like Underwood as "amplifications" of traits and ideas many people share, such as the ruthless, means-to-an-end rationale that makes Underwood a terrifyingly effective politician.
Other characters' actions and responses similarly reflect feelings and reactions most people have had, Willimon said. He brought up Frank's wife, Claire Underwood, being chastised by a stranger about the impropriety of jogging through a cemetery, something he said she clearly hadn't even considered. The clear feelings of guilt and anger she displays make her a relatable character, Willimon said.
After playing a first-season scene filmed in the Bolton Hill church, in which the fictional congressman prays "to myself, for myself," Willimon and Foster Connors discussed the way it allowed the audience a peek into his psyche. Willimon pointed out Underwood's statement that he's tried praying to God before but isn't surprised he hasn't heard back, "given our mutual disdain." During the scene, Underwood angrily calls out to a murdered character, demanding that he, in Willimon's words, " 'make me feel guilty' — but he doesn't."
Even in its name, "House of Cards" focuses on the fickle power struggle intrinsic to politics, one its creator thinks of as an attempt to cheat death.
"What is it about power that's so seductive to Frank?" Willimon said. "I think it's that there is only one certainty in life, and that's that you're going to die."
So, on a deep level, Underwood and other politicians in the series are flirting with playing God in the short time they're alive, he said.
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During the Q&A, the discussion also touched on technical aspects of filmmaking and the producers' decision to shoot it in Maryland. Willimon championed the controversial $26 million in state tax incentives the series received from the state General Assembly, touting the millions of dollars and thousands of jobs the production has brought to the state. He said he spent 202 nights this year in the Baltimore Marriott and spends more time in Maryland than home in New York.
Amy Munds, a church member who lives in Belvedere Square, enjoyed the conversation as a chance to "think from the characters' perspective."
More than one attendee said they liked Willimon's "honesty," and the relaxed atmosphere didn't hurt either.
"It felt like a conversation in my living room with a friend," Munds said. "There was no pretense."