There are many things that Netflix’s House of Cards can do — and do well — because it is not a network television series, not the least of which is handle faith, spirituality, and religion with nuance, courage, and a certain alacrity that is virtually absent from traditional, commercial programming.
Throughout Season 3 of House of Cards, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his existential striptease unabated, revealing the depths of his moral declension and staggering spiritual torpor.
House of Cards gets away with showing and telling things about the harrowing intersection of faith and politics that it never would have had the award-winning series fallen into the hands of ABC, NBC, CBS, or even HBO. (Thanks be to God.)
Minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the episode “Chapter 30” (aka season 3, episode 4) or beyond of House of Cards.
To wit: a scene in the fourth episode of the new season that contained one of the greatest spiritual moments in “television” history followed immediately by one of the most disturbing.
In the episode, disquieted by a presidential decision he made that cost several Navy SEALs their lives, Frank seeks counsel from a military chaplain — the motorcycle-riding “Bishop Charles Eddis” played by John Doman — under cover of darkness, standing under a huge crucifix in the sanctuary of a church.
Earlier in the episode, Bishop Eddis presided over the joint funeral of the SEALs at Arlington Cemetery during which he recited some (paraphrased) lines from Hebrew Scripture about Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac and a truncated version of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son….” (Even shows that handle religion remarkably well still need more help in the consulting department. I can’t fathom any clergyperson reciting John 3:16 and leaving out the second half of the verse: “…that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”)
“Devotion. Sacrifice. Love. This is what the Lord teaches us,” Eddis continues at the graveside, “and what these young men have exemplified. We shall forever honor them. And in heaven, they will have eternal life. Amen.”
It appears Frank is unsettled by the deaths and his culpability, so he summons the bishop for — could it be?— some late-night spiritual direction. The characters have the following exchange:
Frank: I want to understand what justice is.
Bishop Eddis: There’s our justice, the kind men create. We base it on things like the Ten Commandments. But those can be read a million different ways.
Frank: Thou shalt not kill seems pretty clear.
Bishop Eddis: Who’s to say? If we didn’t kill, others would kill instead of us. There’s a lot of killing in the Bible. King David was a warrior.
Frank: How do you reconcile that with the laws God gave Moses?
Bishop Eddis: Even those laws require interpretation. There are two laws we have to remember above all else. [gesturing to the crucifix] He tells us to love God and to love each other.
Frank: You can’t love the people you kill.
Bishop Eddis: You sure as hell can. And you have to love the people who’re trying to kill you. Jesus loved the Romans. ‘Father forgive them’, he said, ‘For they know not what they do.’
Frank: Why didn’t he fight? Why did he allow himself to be sacrificed?
Bishop Eddis: I ask myself that question a lot.
Frank: I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear. But… him…
Bishop Eddis: There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end. Using fear will get you nowhere. It’s not your job to decide what’s just. It’s not your place to choose the version of God you like best. It’s not your duty to serve this country alone and it better not be your goal to simply serve yourself. You serve the Lord, and through him you serve others. Two rules: Love God, love each other. Period. … You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. [gestures to crucifix again]. Only He was.
Brilliant! What a beautiful articulation of Christian theology. The first time I watched the episode, I literally cheered. It’s so unusual for popular culture actually to get theology correct.
For a moment, there is a glimmer of what might pass as hope that Frank’s shriveled raisin heart might be reanimated. By this point in the series it’s obvious that Frank has no moral center, but perhaps he may have a twinge of phantom pain where his moral appendix used to be.
Alone on the altar, Frank approaches the crucifix suspended above him. He looks up, into the eyes of Jesus, and says,
“Love. That’s what you’re selling? Well, I don’t buy it.”
And then he spits at Jesus’ face.
The act was shocking and yes, sacrilegious. I don’t believe we ever would have seen such a display on network television where advertisers rule and protests or boycotts surely would ensue. But it was authentic to Frank’s character, an unabashed, unapologetic villain. He’s a monster, but he’s still a human, if only just.
Perhaps worried that his Secret Service guy Meechum or the bishop might see what he’s done, Frank takes out his handkerchief and reaches up to wipe away the spit from the crucifix, which suddenly detaches from the wall and crashes to the ground, barely missing the spitter.
Meechum rushes to the aid of his president, who says, “I was praying and it just fell,” before exiting the church.
On his way out of the sanctuary, Frank bends down to pick up a piece of the shattered plaster statue. It’s Jesus’ ear.
“Well, I’ve got God’s ear now,” he deadpans.
If Frank had had some momentary come-to-Jesus epiphany, it would have rung false. His lack of belief doesn’t make him a better or worse man, but his utter disdain and the sheer hatred that projected his spit bespeak the heart of the matter while harkening back to the Roman soldiers who spat at Jesus on Golgotha.
This was Frank’s’ third conversation with God in three seasons of House of Cards. While it was the shortest, it also was the most articulate. He said more in a wad of spittle than he could have in a five-minute monologue.
Frank talks to God twice in Season 1, the first time during his eulogy for a girl in his hometown Gaffney, S.C., who dies when she steers her car into a giant peach-shaped water tower while texting. He begrudgingly agrees to speak at the girl’s funeral (he feels neither remorse nor responsibility for her death) where he begins by saying,
“You know what no one wants to talk about? Hate. I know all about hate. It starts in your gut, deep down here, where it stirs and churns. And then it rises. Hate rises fast and volcanic. It erupts hot on the breath. Your eyes go wide with fire. You clench your teeth so hard you think they’ll shatter. I hate you, God. I hate you! Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t said those words before. I know you have. We all have, if you’ve ever felt so crushing a loss….My father dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 43 — and when he died, I looked up to God and I said those words, because my father was so young, so full of life, so full of dreams. Why would God take him from us?”
But before we begin to wonder whether Frank is deeper than he appears, he turns toward the camera and addresses us, the television audience:
Truth be told, I never really knew him or what his dreams were. He was quiet, timid, almost invisible. My mother didn’t think much of him. My mother’s mother hated him. The man never scratched the surface of life. Maybe it’s best he died so young. He wasn’t doing much but taking up space. But that doesn’t make for a very powerful eulogy, now, does it?
Like so many politicians, Frank uses faith as a ploy and a means to an end. Having been reared in the South, he is familiar with church culture and fluent in the language of faith, but he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying.
Instead Frank adheres to a political theology with a twisted doctrine that says there is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.
In the Season 1 finale, after Peter Russo’s murder, Frank addresses the Almighty more directly:
Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back, although given our mutual disdain, I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience. Can you hear me? Are you even capable of language, or do you only understand depravity? … There is no solace above or below. Only us — small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.
Last week I had a chance to ask James Foley — director of 12 House of Cards episodes, including the Season 3 premiere and finale, and the funeral episode from Season 1 — whether there is anything spiritual going on in the lives of Frank and Claire Underwood.
“I do not believe that religion or spirituality plays a part in their lives that I’ve seen,” Foley said. “I think they are, for better or for worse, bracingly in the secular present without regard to any kind of moral code, which doesn’t mean that, certainly in Claire’s situation, there haven’t been moments when she has faced up against.”
As Season 3 wore on, even tiny glimmers of moral misgivings in Claire’s mind appeared to be driving a wedge in the Underwood’s strange union.
“She definitely has an emotional center than can be empathic and sympathetic, moreso than Frank,” Foley continued. “Frank is just so coldly divorced from any sense of emotional equilibrium. It’s just about getting the job done, whatever it is.”
What might Season 4 hold in store — morally, spiritually, and otherwise — for President Underwood?
“I don’t think he’s going to have a really good old age,” Foley said. “He’s not going to be very happy.”
Photo: screen capture of Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in Season 3, Episode 4 of the Netflix series House of Cards.