How the absence of light is used as a symbol to show the loss of humanity in House of Cards, Season 2.
I recently came across an article on how every shot in House of Cards is the same. The article focused on how scenes were lit and shot, specifically the blue and orange light that has become very popular in recent years. But this also got me thinking. When many of us focus on lighting, we tend to focus on the type of light, it’s colour, it’s intensity, and how it lights a particular subject or object. But rarely do we focus on one of the most important aspects on lighting – When there is no light. And sometimes the absence of light on a subject can give us just as much information as how a subject is lit.
“But rarely do we focus on one of the most important aspects on lighting – When there is no light.”
The two most important pages of any book are it’s first and last pages. How a story begins can give us a very valuable insight into how it will end. Let’s start with the first shot in Season 2.
Frank and Claire are literally running away from the light. Season 2 is a darker series than the first, and not just in terms of it’s narrative, but in it’s lighting. You’re going to find that the shots in this season are going to be darker in terms of it’s lighting. But not only do I want you to take note how subjects are lit, I want you to especially take note of the light sources.
So what does the light represent?
Let’s look at one of the most important, and shocking, scene in the 2nd season – The murder of Zoe Barnes. Arguably Frank loses his complete humanity in that scene. Compared to his murder of Peter Russo in the first season, where he is continually reminded of the murder, when Frank murders Zoe Barnes he is neither remorseful or fearful of repercussions. Even going as far as telling the audience of his rationalization of her murder in the last scene of episode 1.
Straight after Frank kills Zoe he comes back home. Now make sure you watch the lighting in this scene –
The Light represents their humanity. And as the season progresses you’re going to notice the relation between a character’s humanity and the lighting within the scene. So let’s start by examining one of the main characters.
One of my favorite scenes in the second season is when Frank has to remain calm and perform his duties, even though the man he is honoring raped Claire. Let’s have a look at the scene where that is revealed.
Claire excuses herself and goes to the ladies’ room. Frank follows and finds her weeping. She tells him that the man who raped her in her freshman year at Harvard was McGinniss.
“He has to destroy his humanity in order to be ruthless and achieve his goals.”
Notice how the difference in how Frank is lit compared to how Claire is. Not only is Claire lit with a higher key, but the light source also originates from her side of the frame. And of course the most important part of the scene, the symbolic lamp that Frank destroys. The lamp represents his true nature, his humanity and his anger towards what happened towards his wife. But he has to hide that anger and carry out his duties, which happens in the very next scene. This motif of light and it’s absence plays an important role for Frank as the series continues he has to destroy his humanity in order to be ruthless and achieve his goals.
Here’s another good example of light and it’s relation to Frank and his manipulations. Each character in the frame has a light source above them. For Frank, the ceiling lamp in the room behind him is placed just above his head and remains unlit as he hides his true nature during negotiations.
Another good scene is when Frank confronts Tusk about saying things behind his back to the President.
After the first episode and the death of Zoe Barnes, we start seeing a noticeable shift in lighting within scenes with Frank. He’s lit very darkly in low key lighting, and most of the time he’s shot with the lighting source behind him. You’ll also notice that the light sources near him, like lamps, will appear smaller in the background.
In all of these shots he faces away from the light source, the windows or lamps, in the frame which creates a dark contrast between him and those sources making him appear darker within the frame. Here is another good example of this –
Frank has no more light, only darkness remains in him. He has had to discard his humanity in order to be ruthless and by the end of the season Frank can no longer be called human, only a black form.
The Character of Claire is an interesting one. In many ways she is like Frank – ambitious, powerful, and confident. But unlike Frank that part of her character is an act, a mask that she has to put on. As a politician’s wife she has a specific part she must play, not just to the media but also to those that interact with Frank. Let’s look at the scene where Claire finds out about Zoe’s death.
“She values her light and wants to keep it.”
Claire is not Frank, she may in certain times act like it, but unlike Frank she still holds on to her humanity. She values her light and wants to keep it. but she has to hide it and support Frank. This is represented in House of Cards by a lamp with black shades. A symbol of the mask that Claire puts on.
Let’s look at an important scene for Claire’s character – During an interview it is revealed that Claire was pregnant once and then had an abortion. However she has to lie about the circumstances of that abortion in order to protect Frank’s political career. Take note of the lamp directly behind Claire.
The symbolism of Claire’s mask also pops up in House of Cards through the blocking within the frame. In the scene below Claire finally confronts Adam Galloway in an effort to end the media ruckus over one of Claire’s photograph’s being leaked.
As Claire confronts Adam we see her stand and block the light, in effect becoming the black shade to the light.
Let’s take a look at another important scene for Claire.
In this scene Claire had just gotten a call that Megan Hennessey, the marine Corps whistle-blower that helped front Claire’s bill, has attempted suicide. Claire visits her at her home where Megan accuses her of turning her life upside down. Notice the lamps in the scene as well –
In the first shot we see Claire walk into Megan’s house and then blocking the light source in the frame as she talks to her mother. But when she goes into the room she drops her persona and tries to be honest with Megan, asking for her forgiveness. Behind each character we see an unlit lamp, Megan has lost her light has Claire lost hers too?
The next scene we see after this scene is when Claire arrives home.
The most important part of this scene is not that Claire breakdown but that she regains her composure. She walks upstairs away form the light and in the right side of the frame, the lamp with black shades.
Finally in the last shot we ever she of Claire in season 2, what do we see behind her on the left of the frame?
Hey guys, I was asked to write another analysis of House of Cards after my first article on it so I hope you enjoyed it. I’m still in the middle of rewatching season 3 so hopefully I’ll be able to write something about it soon.