The first time I met Frank, he was strangling a dog to death. “They are two kinds of pain,” he drawled, “The sort of pain that makes you strong. Or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering.” In his grip, the dog died. And this is why I love Frank; he will stare in your face while killing and say something smart.
My 14th episode of House of Cards was loading on Netflix and by now Frank Underwood and I were intimate friends. It’s an awkward relationship. He’s a fictional Machiavellian Democratic congressman (played by Kevin Spacey) using people’s weaknesses as stepping stones in his rise to power. His wife Claire (played by a statuesque Robin Wright) heads a non-profit and gives orders with a voice as icy as Antarctic wind. Together, this Nietzschean power couple moves through the halls of Washington D.C. like a pair of sharks. But once in a while, Underwood looks at me, breaks the fourth wall, that imaginary divide between performer and audience, to guide me deeper into his maze.
Most narratives have a cathartic pleasure, an emotion purged through a conflict the protagonist is engaged in, a fear exorcised by his or her triumph. So what is the pleasure of House of Cards, now in second season, drawing nearly 5 million viewers with a cult following in the nation’s capital? Real life politicians act out scenes from the series in on-line homage, imitating his menacing Southern drawl. Conservative and progressive groups both reference it with glee. The reason is simple. Underwood taps into our inner authoritarian desires; he lets us experience, briefly, the joy of being cruel.
The show is a modern version of the palace intrigue, a genre of tragedy as old as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Set in somber D.C. lit with blue and grays, House of Cards begins with Underwood as the House Majority Whip who helps President Walker get elected in exchange for the post of Secretary of State. When Walker denies him the position, Underwood begins his drive for power. Cringing, we watch in sick fascination as he crosses every moral rule in the pursuit of vengeance. The closer Underwood gets, the longer the trail of ruined lives behind him.
After binge-watching the series, my eyes were dry marbles but I saw Underwood looming larger and larger as he lied, cheated and killed his way to the vice-presidency. Set against a neo-noir backdrop of dark rooms, dark rainy nights and the beige halls of the West Wing, the actors strike iconic poses of power and addiction, cruelty and submission. The camera frames each scene like a classical painting. We see Underwood shaking hands with a man he just betrayed or doling out addictive doses of prestige or blinding someone with their own dreams until they fall into a trap or handing a man a razor to kill himself or cutting people off by hanging up the phone or walking off and leaving his words echoing in the air.
Again and again, he leverages himself back on top even as the political terrain shifts beneath him like sand. And that’s the joy of it, in him, we champion competent evil. Usually the villain embodies illicit desire; they kill, steal, rape, plunder and manipulate others with a sparkle in their eyes. Yet however fascinating they are, they cross a line that disturbs us and we want them to die at the hero’s hands. But in House of Cards, the villain is the hero. Crossing ethical lines drives the plot forward and drives the tension higher. The question churning the series is – will evil be rewarded?
At this point the question can’t be answered. The suspension of disbelief snapped. Since the logic of the show demanded the tension intensify as the increasing violence of Underwood’s secret life overlapped with his public role, it may have been inevitable that he became a caricature of evil. At this point, he’s not remotely human but a stock in trade serial killer whose uniqueness comes from being the vice-president. It’s an adolescent view of evil that as Hannah Arendt showed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil misses it’s far more destructive form. In showing Underwood, essentially as a dandy psychopath whose personality is both reptilian and flamboyant, we miss the chance to see how institutional logic, social roles and self-justifications combine with a militarized bureaucracy create charred human landscapes across the world from, to use one example, our drone missile attacks.
Another reason the question of will evil be rewarded can’t be answered is because it conceals the fact that it already has. Even if Netflix renews the House of Cards for another season and at the end, Underwood is cornered and caught, we will have voyeuristically been pleasured with his crimes. We have twenty-six episodes from two seasons to watch over and over, savoring his deadly charm, how he throws reporters into oncoming trains or leaves a man to die from carbon asphyxiation as lays knocked out drunk in a car as the engine runs.
His evil is rewarding to us because it purges us of a fear rising in America; the fear of our own powerlessness. As economy crashed and now stumbles from quarter to quarter, as a great divide splits the nation into the many poor and the wealthy few, as Russia claims the Ukraine and China claims whole swaths of sea, as Washington D.C. stands paralyzed and Wall Street surges; a great pessimism has swept us. It has been reflected in the apocalyptic movies, the dark grim shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones which throw its characters, our stand-ins, into a frenzied state of survival and helplessness.
And onto the scene comes Francis Underwood, our hero, our gangsta’, a man empty of ideological content; who has no agenda, no goal except his own glory. He transforms the anxious desire for power into a fascinating spectacle of its fulfillment. And that’s why House of Cards is a sign of a renewed American optimism. In its fictional universe, unlike our real lives, we finally win even if the victory leaves blood on our hands.
Nicholas Powers is the author of Ground Below Zero.