The second season of House of Cards debuts on Netflix on Friday, February 14. As part of the run-up to the big day, the New York Times Magazine did an extensive profile of showrunner Beau Willimon that dug deep into how his background in both politics and theater influence the show’s philosophy, specifically its cynicism about Washington and its obsession with power. Fans of the show should definitely read the whole thing, if only to make me feel better about blockquoting a sizable chunk of it, which I am about to do, because anytime I find out a critically-acclaimed drama is influenced by a hilarious political gaffe involving a very excitable man screaming “YEAH,” I am bringing it to your attention.
From the magazine:
Back in 2003, Carson was working on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, and he recruited Willimon to join him. When you think about that campaign, you most likely remember one thing: The Dean Scream, which effectively ended Dean’s presidential aspirations. Talking about it now, Willimon says that the Scream — that momentary outburst of stump-speech enthusiasm that was played on a loop for weeks, recasting Dean as possibly unhinged and, even worse, unpresidential — is not what did the candidate in. It was the fateful days afterward, when the campaign failed to respond in an effectively aggressive way. “The thought in the campaign was, Let’s take the high road,” Willimon said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘My detractors have no power, because they have no ability to affect me.’ In reality, though, it ended up being about forfeiting power by not responding quickly enough.”
Describing it now, he uses this analogy: “I’m standing on a corner, and I’ve been waiting there for 15 minutes, and I’m trying to hail a cab. And just as I’m about to get in, someone rushes up and gets in. I have a lot of choices in that moment: I could open that door and yank that person out. I could bang on the window and flip them the bird but let them have the cab. I could say nothing and stew in my own anger. Or I could be super-Zen about it and let them go and figure, another cab will come.” Transactions of that nature fascinate Willimon — they are the heart of all great drama, he says. Continuing with his cab analogy: “Who has the power there? Do I have the power because I didn’t let this ruffle my feathers? Or does that person have the power because I let them walk all over me? When you put that on the political stage, there are real stakes to it. And there are people who make a living thinking about these sorts of transactions.”
The Dean Scream, then, functioned as a kind of protean moment that forever shaped Willimon’s political, and dramatic, outlook: What is the nature of political power? What is the nature of personal power? How do the two intersect? On that stage in Iowa, where Howard Dean’s presidential dream died, the philosophy of “House of Cards” was born.
Willimon paused in the retelling, intrigued all over again by the complexity of the situation. “That decision” — how to respond to a moment of public embarrassment and media distortion, how to counter, and outflank, the people who are trying to define, and defeat, you — “is the sort of thing Francis Underwood is thinking about all the time.”
And now I desperately want to see Kevin Spacey either (a) re-enact the scream, or (b) watch someone else re-enact the scream, then turn to the camera and deliver a 3-4 minute monologue about it. Give me this, Willimon.