Russia (and Hawai’i) in House of Cards

I haven’t binge-watched season three of House of Cards so while there are some episode spoilers here there are no season spoilers. I’m on episode 3, which is about where any reasonable person would be…

Brian Schatz and Maizie Hirono must have been thrilled to be featured in the Netflix hit show House of Cards’ third season. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia is probably less so. A character based on Schatz offers President Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) a job at an “above the cap” salary. Stamper refuses though the new right hand says “Freshman Senator from Hawai’i?  he’s a nice guy.” “Who is the senior Senator from Hawai’i?” Stamper interrogates. He says he can’t remember, to which Stamper replies “It’s [a Japanese woman meant to be Hirono], so how would you know [Schatz] is a nice guy? The President is behind this.” Underwood may indeed be trying to keep Stamper at arm’s length because of a brewing scandal involving a prostitute paid to distract an errant Congressman who ends up dead.

Reviews of the new season have been luke warm – the thrill of chasing the Presidency has been replaced by the banality of the daily task of governing. But the depiction of Putin, by Lars Mikkelsen, is spot on: charming, deadly, and a “thug,” as First Lady (and now UN Ambassdor) Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) describes him. A pure political animal. His attitude is best summed up by a story he tells Underwood at the end of episode 3, which is his way of refusing a Middle East deal: “You what the best part of the fall of the Soviet Union was? The cars. Have you ever ridden in a Lada?” Underwood, taken in, says he hasn’t. “Putin” – the names have been changed to protect the guilty – describes the “worst car in the world.” “After the fall, we got the Lexus. Lots of room, AC… the first time I [expletive]d my ex-wife, it was in a Lexus – you could never do that in a Lada.” Underwood is now really taken in. “I want the Lexus. You’re offering me a Lada.”

The really chilling part for me was that I had just watched a Frontline episode on “Putin’s Way” – the “Russian way” – depicting the unprecedented corruption and illegality which had helped secure Putin’s power as the successor to Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s. The most enigmatic of countries, Russia under Putin has gone from the symbol of Communist [forced] equality to the most unequal country in the world. The average Russian now earns only $871 per year and 110 Russian “oligarchs” control 35% of the countries wealth. Putin, for his trouble, is estimated to be worth $40 billion, making him about the fourth or fifth richest men in the world (these are CIA estimates).

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/putins-way/

 My unrequested political analysis: Underwood’s “America Works” program is ludicrous – full employment? Even Obamacare recognizes that a few will always choose not to have healthcare at any price. Likewise, a few (probably very many) will always be unmatched for jobs no matter how unskilled. The star of episode one? Steven Colbert: “AmWorks? Is that what you’re calling this? Is it like Amway, some kind of pyramid scheme?”

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