In Farhad Safinia’s Boss, Kelsey Grammer plays Chicago Mayor Tom Kane. Within the first moments, we witness his diagnosis with a degenerative neurological disorder, and his artful narration of the history of his city: “Life, with all its cares and its terrors, is no such great thing after all.”
As Grammer observes in a producers’ analysis of Season One:
Most of the lead characters in the Shakespeare tragedies start out as sort of half-human beings. You could give a shit about whether they survive or not. But by the time they reach their demise, they are fully realized human beings.
That is the arc he and Safinia assert for Kane: the unraveling of the personal against the backdrop of the city, the way politics and personality intertwine. We see this imbalance in Frank Underwood, the House Majority Whip played by Kevin Spacey in the Netflix series House of Cards.
Whereas Grammer’s Kane is rigid and masterful, Spacey’s Underwood is dramatic and spiteful, both weaving the realities that surround them as far as their abilities will allow. To the contrary, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer, in the HBO series Veep, is micromanaged to the syllable. A speech she is set to deliver about Clean Jobs is, in her words, pencil-fucked, leaving nothing but hello and prepositions. As Executive Producer Simon Blackwell puts it:
The V.P., it’s a funny position, I think, because you have very little power, but you are a heartbeat away from being the most powerful person in the world.
Kane and Underwood yield power. Meyer observes it. But the net effect is the same: a political structure exists, whether inhabited or observed, as an embodiment of our assumptions. The calculus and cunning required to wield power is real, even if, in Meyer’s case, she has to wait.
That assumption is safe. It provides the illusion of intelligence at work on a larger scale, whether for good or for ill, at once meticulous and thorough. There is safety in that — a hope that patterns have meaning. And stories provide the meaning for patterns, even if the narratives that surround us often lack it.
One of the realities of Boss is that the politics of Chicago trumps the politics of the state. The mayor has more influence than the Governor. We can see that dynamic in New York, but Chicago’s working class roots, and rural surroundings, make that tension more profound. Kane isn’t just the city, he’s the city-state, head of a kingdom that transcends its location. It’s a rare dynamic in a country where the hierarchy of power traditionally moves from the federal down.
Frank Underwood’s Washington, on the other hand, must be negotiated simultaneously with the rural complexities of South Carolina’s 5th congressional district. He doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the requirements of a population whose values aren’t reflected in the capital. He must negotiate those tensions constantly, without hesitation, a marker on two maps that don’t align.
Unlike Underwood or Kane, Meyer has no constituency to attend to other than her own ambition. She is an engine without a transmission, a hub without spokes. We see the shape of the system she wishes to inhabit by her orbit of it. On the other hand, her entourage, a microcosm of the larger networks of power, mirrors those that attend to both Underwood and Kane.
Regardless of how much authority is wielded, however, each of these stories relies on the notion that there is a cohesive system that can be known and manipulated. They operate on the same understanding of power that allows conspiracy theories to exist. If someone is smart enough and close enough to a system, it can be gamed. A person equal parts cunning, ambitious, and amoral can, at any moment, achieve a desired outcome.
Of course, the stage isn’t neutral. Stories mimic context. Vice President Meyer, a woman in power, is unusual in American politics, although her relative ineffectualness is, perhaps, more stinging because of it. She is the most powerful of any of the women in these shows by title, but is the least effective, reduced to a habit-trail, of sorts, in hopes that her motion will someday be harnessed.
In contrast, the first ladies of House of Cards and Boss are married to power, and leverage their authority against it. They execute — for themselves, and through their mates — effortlessly, sometimes behind the scenes, but always effectively. In a prudent world, they would be the faces of authority. In this, they both hide and amplify their will through the channels they have available to them. Which makes the power wielded by Zoe Barnes, a fledgling reporter in House of Cards, all the more tenuous.
But similarities in the struggles for power aside, Boss, House of Cards, and Veep are very different shows. What all three have in common is a reliance on an assumption of a political system grounded in tradition. One that can be navigated and understood, and by extension, gamed. The complexities of politics and culture as they exist, though, aren’t always willing to participate in that conceit, and it’s there that we are left to fend for ourselves against whims that can never be known.