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'House of Cards' writer says the show isn't about politics, it's about 2 people

"House of Cards" writer/producer Beau Willimon on the set with actress Robin Wright.
David Giesbrecht
Kevin Spacey stars as Frank Underwood in the Netflix show, "House Of Cards."

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The Netflix original series, "House of Cards" tells the story of the power-hungry couple, Frank and Claire Underwood. Claire struggles regularly with her conscience, but Frank is relentless. He manipulates, lies and even murders his way up the political totem pole until he finds himself at the very top, stationed within the Oval Office. 

While "House of Cards" moves in and around the D.C. political world, show-runner and writer Beau Willimon maintains the show is not about politics. Rather, Washington, D.C. is just the stage for a story about two people and their lust for power.

Season four is set to come out in the early months of 2016, though an exact date hasn't been announced. Willimon recently spoke with The Frame's John Horn about the show and its inevitable political parallelism while on the set in Baltimore.

On knowing that President Obama and First Lady watch "House of Cards":

That’s pretty flattering. It’s also surreal, to think that someone who has the fate of the free world in their hands is spending any amount of time watching television. From all accounts, they’re television fans. They watch a lot of shows and ours happens to be one of them.

One thing we definitely don’t do is try to have a political agenda. The characters in our show, the protagonists, are completely non-ideological . . . While they may address or take on certain causes, they do it in a self-serving way — not because it’s rooted to a belief system. Their belief system is themselves. 

But you don’t think the show has the ability to take a position on important issues? 

That’s not the responsibility of the show. We don’t take political positions. We’re telling the story of Frank and Claire Underwood. And they don’t take political positions. They will take political positions on the surface in order to achieve a goal. That goal is unwavering — and that is the consolidation of their own power. 

But they have to take positions. He’s the President of the United States. He has to put forward policies and platforms and bills.

Sure. But you asked whether we’re trying to put political positions into the show in order to advocate a certain agenda. And no, we’re not. We’re never driven by trying to change the world.

Why not?

I don’t think that that’s the responsibility of art . . . I think at its heart, the making of art is a deeply selfish process.

The perspective of politics in this show is probably informed by your own experiences in politics.

[I worked with] Chuck Schumer first in 1998 and then Hillary Clinton in 2000, Bill Bradley in 2000, and [Howard] Dean in 2004.

Do those experiences shape how this show portrays government and politics? 

I guess to a degree. I can only draw from what I know, what I learned and what other people have told me. My experience of those campaigns was very low-level. I was in the trenches.

But let me be clear. I don’t think "House of Cards" is a reflection of all of D.C. We’re taking a very specific sliver and exaggerating it to tell the story of these larger-than-life characters who lust for power on an epic scale. Most politicians, in my experience, are good people — for the most part — who want to serve their country. But they sometimes — especially the more power they find themselves wielding — face all sorts of ethical forks in the road. And there’s the machinery of politics, which means horse-trading, making deals and sometimes back-room compromises. But D.C. is not the protagonist. And politics isn’t. I don’t think "House of Cards" is a show about politics.

But it has to be. It’s about the President of the United States.

No, it’s about Frank Underwood. It’s not about the President and whoever happens to fill that seat. It’s about this one man who happens to get there. For the first two seasons, he’s not there. I mean, that would be like saying “Richard III" is about the British monarchy. It’s not. It’s about Richard III.

And so, this particular man, who lusts for power in this intense way, finds himself betrayed. And that liberates him to throw all allegiances aside, to operate completely on his own. And he gets to the presidency. But the interesting thing is, how does that man deal with the responsibilities of the presidency? Not, What is the presidency? The presidency is unique to whoever inhabits the Oval Office.

Either by accident or design, your next season will premiere in the middle of the presidential primaries. Does that matter to you? Is it relevant?

Sure. It’s relevant in the sense that whenever the show comes out — we haven’t officially announced [a premiere date]— there would be a certain alignment with what’s going on in the fictional world and what’s going on in the real one.

It’s impossible to say where we in the real world will be next year. The only thing I’ve really learned about politics after this many years of being engaged with it, is it’s impossible to predict anything. Right now we have a reality show star leading the Republican pack. And we have a doctor who’s never held elected office close on his heels. I mean, who could have ever predicted that?

Consistently, truth tends to be stranger than fiction. So, who knows where we’ll be two months, six months, or twelve months from now?

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