I finished viewing the entire first season of the Netflix original series House of Cards about a week ago. Normally it would take a day or so to go through all my notes containing talking points, references, character profiles and connections to life to make sense of it all, however, House of Cards was put on the back burning due to the overwhelming social commentary that it provides. With that said, I did finally manage to fuel myself with some thinking juice (Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale) and make some sense out of one of the best shows that’s not on television.
The below picture is that of the character Zoe Barns (Kate Mara) who is an ambitious journalist trying to put together a possible conspiracy a foot in Washington. This is basically what my workstation looks like after going to the cinema or watching a Netflix original (just take away the girly candles, Zoe, and replace the coffee with some delectable Ale and you get my work ethic; an ethic none the less).
To begin, House of Cards is stylish in terms of its script writing and production value. It has a fairly aggressive message that is a realistic sort of fiction. Throughout the show, Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) narrates his thoughts on life, power, sex, and politics to the audience as if you were one of his underpaid interns. This alone presents the show beautifully as a sort of meditation on amorality that tells the audience what we already know to be true by now in our history. What we already know is that politicians are corrupt, and that power-brokering and negotiation is an extremely dirty business that comes with the territory.
Kevin Spacey’s Congressman, Frank Underwood, spends much of his time reminding all the naïve people in his orbit of that. Not that there’s much purity to go around in this crew: his wife (Robin Wright) is prepared to screw him over, the young reporter (Kate Mara) tells him pretty overtly that she’s prepared to play his “news prostitute” and mistress. The closest thing this show has to an idealist is the girlfriend (Kristen Connolly) of a drug-addicted senator (Corey Stoll) who helps him cover it up, which in the rosiest view she does because she believes he’s one of the good ones. But even there, she barely speaks up when he sits silent at a committee meeting leading to a shipyard’s closing that costs his district thousands of jobs.
This über-cynicism turns up in pop-culture a lot. The trope of the shady political process is the plot engine of other shows like Veep and even Scandal. (Homeland and 24 can squeeze in here, too.) It’s not necessary to be unsuspecting here to perceive this all, even accepting the obvious distance between fiction and reality, that this global view matches up pretty closely to public opinion about the powers and pitfalls of government.
For all the spectacle and condition in America about the greatness of the Capitol, the high-flown rhetoric of State of the Union speeches, few people believe any more in government as a setting where political principles and ideals are properly debated. Even back in 2008, the biggest dreamers in the Obama campaign positioned him as someone who would break up the bonds of corruption and dysfunction in politics; some sort of superhero or deity. Well, like most perceived Gods and saviors, they are built up only to be torn down when the powers that be so choose to do so. Just like today, we see the current administration in America once praised for its promise to be transparent, to stop wars, to stop spying on American citizens, and to protect the borders has done the exact opposite in the most extreme fashion. Yet are we surprised?
A wise man once said:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”– John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton
Francis Underwood epitomizes exactly what the great Baron John Acton was trying to convey in that timeless quote. Underwood has been passed over for Secretary of State, and he goes around destroying everyone who was involved in that decision, particularly those within his own party. Questions of policy and ethics barely even occur to him. His relationship to the reporter Zoe Barns is nothing but a contract. Sex is a power tool used for the exchange of information to enhance his position on the ultra political chess board. To Francis, Zoe Barns is like a Kleenex tissue, to be blown into and then discarded until the next runny nose. Barns seems to be ok with this for the time being, since she is an ambitious reporter yearning for a life that is not pedestrian, and Francis seems to be the best way to get her out of her shitty apartment and to become someone exceptional.
Francis is a man who believes in two kinds of pain. I for one believe in two kinds of people. Those who, every now and again, take a piss in the water during a lovely day at the beach, and those who are F*ing liars who say they don’t or have ever. Both beliefs are God given right’s. We were born onto this earth without debate or a say in the decision. Human’s have freewill, however, freedom is messy and comes with a cost: a willingness to be accountable for you’re beliefs, actions, and potential consequences that both may hold depending on the social climate of the time.
House of Cards is a show built to gorge on and then to re-watch. And yet despite all this brilliance, there’s something actually fairly hollow and void about it, and I think it’s basically down to the fact that people already hate Congress so much that they can’t despise it anymore. House of Cards is a game played in a high-roller room, but the stakes are, ultimately, low. Congress is, at this point, un-satirizable. The problem with the character of Underwood in House of Cards is that he can actually get things done. That’s not a Congress that I, or anybody else, can recognize. Which actually thus solidifies the show as more of a fantasy than an actual take on reality.
With that said, I am looking forward to when the second season airs in the spring of 2014 to see where Francis and his Congressional carnival take us next.