Darkness eclipsing light: The visual language of 'House of Cards'


Darkness and light are major visual symbols in House of Cards season 3. Just as shadows slowly swallow sunlit buildings in the opening credits — as darkness eclipses the light of day — the characters in the show are often thrown into literal darkness on set, or find that their lighting is weak, eclipsed.

(Pseudo-spoilers ahead!)

Our first scenes with Frank Underwood in season 3 take place outside, yet he is backlit, his form and features dark.

Some scenes that take place in broad daylight have the characters shrouded in their own personal shadows — there is darkness upon them although it’s bright out.

Even in the brightness of the desert, the crucial exchange between Frank and the Russian President happens away from the light. In the dark.

Some characters try to bask in the light. It doesn’t seem to help them much.

The White House itself is often depicted in the dark.

Many of the show’s most important conversations are held in the dark, with the characters silhouetted. Powerful words spoken by faceless people. We’re forced to imagine what their expressions might be — we listen more closely, analyzing their voices, relying on body language. There’s tension in not knowing — not seeing.

When a character is seen brightly lit, thrown against brightness, lightness — does it mean that he’s trying to come clean?

Sometimes the halo of light is positioned just far enough away that a character is just out of reach. The light doesn’t touch them. It’s close, yet they’re still in the shadows. Even while sitting underneath a lamp, light can’t seem to touch Doug Stamper — yet it falls upon his family members. Jackie Sharp comes to Remy Danton and finds herself close to, but never inside, a warm nimbus of light.

What is the darkness? Is it a symbol for secrecy, for evil, for ambiguity? For the murkiness of motive? Most of the characters are ruthless, restless, hungry; they are impeccably dressed in clean, sharp suits that belie dirty deeds, transgressive techniques and filthy deals. Because the battle between darkness and light doesn’t just involve lamps and shadows — it’s about clothing and hair, as well.

No one vacillates between light and dark more than Claire Underwood, She sleeps in spotless white pajamas until things start going downhill — then changes to black. Claire runs in the dark, cloaking herself in jet black gear. For a public appearance in a room full of women, she dons a pure white blouse. Almost like waving a white flag — not in surrender but as a message to say that she is unarmed. A friend, not a foe. Stainless and true, unsullied.

For a while, Claire’s hair is dark. Dark Claire. If darkness is power, could it be a sign of power corrupting — going straight to her head? The darkness has seeped in, the darkness is devouring her. Things don’t go so well for Dark Claire.

Claire is alarmed by — and rejects — the black egg — yet Frank keeps it. Black as in bad? Egg as in potential life? He’s holding on to the polluted, sour, foulness, to a new life of darkness. She finds it distasteful. She will only embrace the darkness on her own terms.

We see her quite literally try to choose between darkness and light.

Call it selfishness, arrogance, egoism, megalomania or hubris — whatever the blackness is supposed to symbolize creeps into every scene. The dark visual cues on the show seem to reflect the characters’ venality, clandestine dealings and shady agendas. Obscuring the characters through dim lighting and dark clothing actually sheds light on how immoral and devious they are; shadows inform, obfuscation brings clarity. It’s ironic, but genius: On House of Cards, the darker it gets, the more we see.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin