SPOILER ALERT: Do NOT read unless you’ve watched season three of “House of Cards.”
Netflix released season three of “House of Cards” Friday morning, and executive producer Beau Willimon talked to Variety about keeping secrets — as well as the rocky course of the Underwood presidency and marriage.
With the release came the big reveal that Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who had been left for dead at the end of last season, was in fact alive.
So, Doug Stamper is alive. Was that always your intention?
We always knew we were going to keep Stamper in the fold. We did want it to be a question at the end of season two whether or not he was going to come back, but we didn’t know exactly how. One of the things that we tried which we’d never done on “House of Cards” was entering the story through someone else’s point of view besides Francis’ (Kevin Spacey) or Claire’s (Robin Wright). This is a more subjective exploration of Stamper’s experience where we get into the nitty-gritty of his recovery, how hard of a road he has ahead for him, and to be able to move through six months in 30 minutes, to be able to get a sense of what the first six months of the Underwood presidency is like — but through someone else’s eyes.
How did you manage to keep it secret? You were filming in and around Baltimore.
Miraculously, like Zoe’s death, we kept it under wraps. Michael Kelly did not just hole himself up in his apartment and never go out. He would go and get food and go outside and people would recognize him. And they would say, “Does that mean you’re alive?” “Can I take a picture?” And Michael would say, “Yes, you can take a picture, just don’t put it on social media.” And collectively, the city of Baltimore decided to be in on the secret with us — an entire city of people. We were afraid a passerby would see his name on the trailer. So his name on the call sheet was “Freedom.” That’s what was taped to his door. We were making fun of “Freedom fries” — when they had to change the name of French fries in the capitol commissary because a lot of people were upset at France.
What’s the theme of the season? Be careful what you wish for?
They’re your words, not mine, but I think that’s fair. I don’t like to boil a season down to one theme. Always central to our story has been the marriage and the mystery of it. The ways in which it operates differently than other marriages. The ways in which these two people make each other stronger by their union and are able to accomplish things together that they could never accomplish on their own. And so at the heart of season three, as has been at the heart of every other season, is the marriage, and yet the dynamics are completely different because they’ve been working together toward the same goal but now that they’re both in the White House, the question became how does that affect the marriage, and their individual ambition colliding with the immense pressure of the highest office in the land proving to be too much for the marriage. It scared the s–t out of us to contemplate what “House of Cards” is when these two people are split, but by virtue of the fact that it scared us, we knew we had to explore it.
Do you see this as a show about marriage more than a show about politics?
We’re not trying to portray all of Washington. That’s an impossible task. All we’re trying to do is tell the story of Frank and Claire Underwood. They happen to be politicians. Their story of ambition and power hungriness is a story you could have told on Wall Street or in a law firm or in a lot of different worlds. I don’t think “House of Cards” is about politics at all. It’s about power. Here you have two people who are thinking constantly about power. Power infuses itself into our lives in all sorts of ways, particularly in a marriage.
Why does Frank give in to Claire at his own expense?
He does so at times voluntarily, and at times involuntarily. It seems to be going well until it backfires. He’s not voluntarily giving up political capital. He’s very upset about it. That tug of war, that tension — it’s new to the show. We’ve seen them in conflict before. We’ve seen her subvert her ambition for his at times. We’ve seen her subvert it too much because Frank took her for granted. Here she’s not willing to subvert her ambition anymore. There’s only one chair in the Oval Office, not two. You can imagine that’s going to lead to increased conflict.
She’s not being entirely honest with him.
We all put on our masks. We make choices about what we reveal to one another. Sometimes it’s better not to reveal everything you’re thinking. Marriages can suffer from revealing too much. It can open wounds and can cause conflict that isn’t necessary. It doesn’t mean you’re being dishonest. It’s simply choosing what’s necessary to share in order for your marriage to function. If she shows too much vulnerability and weakness, it’s counter-productive to the goal that she’s trying to achieve.
But they’re not sleeping together because she “has a cold.”
You mean sleeping in the same bedroom. We do for the first time in “House of Cards” see them have sex together in episode two. They are sleeping in separate bedrooms. And how you interpret that is up to you. There’s a lot of different things that may be going into that. Or nothing at all. That’s a definite choice we made.
Who can Frank trust now? Can he trust anyone?
The one person we know he’s already trusted is his wife. But what happens when trust becomes a potential liability? That’s a problem. Aside from Claire, at various times, he’s had a great level of trust with Edward Meechum and Doug Stamper. But Stamper’s out of the mix for the moment. So what you’re seeing is a guy in a very isolated place. If you’re going to talk about a theme for the season, I would equate it with the death zone on Everest. You get up beyond a certain altitude and there’s not enough oxygen in the air, and the elements are all pitted against you.
How hard is it for Frank to govern without Stamper?
It’s a great question. Stamper’s absence does affect his effectiveness. The way Stamper gets himself back into the fold or doesn’t as a potential antagonist or as an ally — these are all questions the audience should be asking and they will get answers to. One of the things we see a lot more this season than in seasons past is a lot more antagonists — and antagonists who match Francis on his own level of political savvy. It’s not just external antagonists — it’s potential antagonists in his own camp, and then his own internal strife. When you’re standing on top of the mountain, it seems as though most everything is out to get you and forcing you to tumble on down. And that’s what he’s contending with this season.
He destroyed a lot of lives last season. Does he regret any of it?
Conscience, regret, guilt — these are not Underwoodian traits. It’s not because he’s a sociopath. None of us think of him on that way on set or in the writers’ room. He is capable of empathy. We do see glimmers of his humanity. He does hurt, like we all hurt. But he sees the world as a brutal place. The way he describes it is like the savannah — hunt or be hunted. When he has done some of things he has done, like literally killing people, he saw it as necessary. It was either him or them. When that’s the math equation, he’s always going to make sure he wins. If he allowed guilt or conscience or regret too much into his life, it would cripple him. He doesn’t operate on a moral or ethical spectrum; he operates in a pragmatic one. Evil and good are not words that are useful to him; necessary and unnecessary are words that are more useful to him.
Several reviews have drawn comparisons between the Underwoods and the Clintons. Is that your intention?
I don’t read reviews so I’ll take your word for it. I do think it’s fair to draw parallels with anyone you want. One of the exciting things for me is how many different types of parallels people draw. We don’t model any of the characters after anyone in real life. There are elements of Frank and Claire that I can see around me in my own personal life and shamelessly steal little bits here and there and then make them our own in order to create a fictional character in a fictional marriage.
What did you think of the Sesame Street parody?
I thought it was brilliant! In fact, when we were first figuring out what Frank Underwood’s name would be, I went through a whole bunch of different options for the last name and one of them was Wolf. It seemed a little on the nose. But Frank Underwolf is so perfect for “Sesame Street.” We’re so flattered that they made such a cool parody. That puppet gets an A+ for a spot-on Frank Underwood.
How did you get Stephen Colbert to agree to do a cameo?
We asked — and I expected a no. But he said, “Wow, I’m really intrigued.” He was very excited about it. We talked about what we needed to accomplish in the scene — and then said, carte blanche, anything you want to do. The most fun part was going into the studio and doing it in front of a live audience. All of those people kept it secret because Stephen asked them to. Some of it was scripted but the vast majority was improvised. Stephen’s timing and comic genius in conjunction with Kevin’s great improvisational skills led to so much fantastic footage. I wish we could have used it all. It was so cool to be a part of his final year. He was delighting in the fact that the “Colbert Report” would live on in season three of “House of Cards.” He kept joking, “Even when I’m gone, I’m not really gone.”
Will we ever get to see outtakes?
I think it’s kind of perfect the way it is. Maybe if enough fans demand it. If Stephen wants it out there, we might be able to arrange it.