Reigning Nuclear Supreme: House of Cards Offers Sobering Reflection on Nuclear Issues…when the Real DC can’t.
***Season 5 spoilers ahead***
It must be tough for House of Cards to tap into an exhausted public consciousness, already tested and strained by real U.S. politics. While the Underwoods remain vile and vicious, they seem bland compared to the tabloid-like headlines coming from the actual Washington, DC (the Underwoods don’t covfefe or take selfies with taco bowls).
But Season 5 of House of Cards gave one of the most beautiful and poignant scenes in modern day TV, a two-minute moment perfectly capturing the staggering burden of the U.S. Presidency that thread the fictitious and authentic Capitols together. Power and responsibility so heavy it cannot be described, but rather felt and seen.
It was that time when Claire Underwood met the “Nuclear Football” — a 45-pound black briefcase containing all communication components necessary for a President to command a nuclear attack.
A simple scene blooms with tension: Claire, as the new Vice President and Acting President (until the controversial Presidential election between Francis Underwood and NY Governor Will Conway is resolved — I know, weird), directs a military aide to bring the nuclear football to the Oval Office. It was her first intimate acquaintance with absolute power without her husband by her side. With a lone lamp as light, Claire carefully removes and opens the Football’s “Black Book” to read the menu of launch options for nuclear warfare. She sighs deeply, lights a cigarette with a firm hand, and allows the darkness swallow her as she plows through the pages and learn how to destroy an entire city, country, continent, world in one go.
Within the public imagination, the nuclear football, in the same vein as the red button or the 3AM phone call, is shorthand for the unique circumstances the president must navigate to achieve and maintain global peace. Unlike its counterparts, the nuclear football is a real artifact of the U.S. presidency, but so overused as a doomsday prop to the point that it has been pushed into the realm of science fiction. So it is quite special to see the nuclear football feature prominently on TV not as a static fear-mongering object, but as a thing that elicits an intimate, human interaction with one of the most powerful individuals in the world.
Knowing Claire, one can almost experience the rush of emotion as she does: the exhilarating feel of having an exclusive and lethal geopolitical chess piece at her fingertips, quickly followed by the excruciating weight of responsibility required to wield it. And as a woman almost always sidelined at the expense of Frank’s quest for power, there are other layers exposed in this scene: the taste of hard-earned victory, her “good” side balancing her corruption, her resurfacing insecurities on whether she can be as good as her husband. And through all of this, she continues to read with curiosity to see the different ways an attack could be waged, if desired (one wonders if one would do the same).
While this encounter with the Nuclear Football is dressed in Hollywoodian embellishments, it nonetheless drops a very simple yet provocative question: who is behind your nuclear weapon? Is it a power-hungry, but very capable woman (sound familiar)? Maybe someone who would lose the nuclear codes? Or…?
As North Korea propels its nuclear ambitions, the Trump administration’s reaction has meandered from passive-aggressive Twitter jabs to vague ominous threats. But it is unclear how the custodians of U.S. nuclear arsenals will actually change policy to respond to rising nuclear tensions. The first U.S. nuclear posture review under Trump is in progress deep within the halls of Pentagon and it is still too early to tell whether it will reflect an aggressive or constrained approach. Last month, a newly-formed Nuclear Crisis Group consisting of former nuclear commanders recommended that Trump pursue diplomacy and assure no-first use of nukes, so as not to worsen the (Twitter) messaging and trigger escalatory actions from both sides.
While watching Claire’s scene with the Nuclear Football, I wondered which human inclination would triumph over the real Commander In Chief — a calculated cautiousness over his possession of the Football and direction of U.S. nuclear policy? Or the complete opposite?
Our eyes are glued to our TV and computer screens to find out what comes next.