House of Cards Hurts So Good

Nicholas Powers Apr 4, 2014

The first time I met Frank, he was strangling a dog to death. “There 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 you in the 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, who uses people’s weaknesses as stepping stones in his rise to power. His wife Claire, played by a statuesque Robin Wright, heads a nonprofit and gives orders with a voice as icy as Antarctic wind. Together, this power couple moves through the halls of Washington, D.C., like a pair of sharks. But once in a while, Underwood looks at me and breaks the fourth wall, that imaginary divide between performer and audience, to explain his actions and 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 its second season, drawing nearly 5 million viewers and a cult following in the nation’s capital? Real-life politicians act out scenes from the series in online homage, imitating Spacey’s 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.

Palace Intrigue

The show is a modern version of the palace intrigue, a genre of tragedy older than Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Set in a somber D.C. lit with blues and grays, House of Cards begins with Underwood as the House majority whip who helps presidential candidate Garrett Walker get elected in exchange for the post of secretary of state. When Walker takes office and denies him the position, Underwood begins his drive for power. Cringing, we watch in sick fascination as he breaks every rule of morality in the pursuit of vengeance. The closer Underwood gets, the longer the trail of ruined lives behind him.

Binge-watching the series, my eyes dry as marbles, 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 those he just betrayed, doling out addictive doses of prestige and handing a man a razor to kill himself.

Again and again, he maneuvers himself back to the top as the political terrain shifts beneath him. And that’s the joy of it: in him, we champion competent evil. Usually villains embody 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 the tension higher. The question at the core 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. He’s not remotely human, but rather 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 its far more destructive form. In watching Underwood, essentially a dandy psychopath whose personality is both reptilian and flamboyant, we focus on a character instead of a system. And we miss the bigger picture of how institutional logic, social roles and self-justification create state-sponsored terror. We maintain our blindness to how normal people lead institutions like our military into war, or worse. 

Deadly Charm

Another reason the question of whether evil will be rewarded is irrelevant is that it already has. Even if Netflix renews 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 26 episodes from two seasons to watch over and over, savoring his deadly charm, how he throws a reporter under an oncoming train or leaves a man to die from carbon monoxide poisoning as he lies drunk and unconscious in a car with the engine running.

His evil is rewarding to us because it purges us of a fear rising in America, the fear of our own powerlessness. As the economy stumbles from quarter to quarter, as a great divide splits the nation into the many poor and the wealthy few, as Russia claims Crimea and China claims whole swaths of sea, as Washington stands paralyzed and Wall Street surges, a great pessimism has swept over us. It has been reflected in the apocalyptic movies and dark, grim shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, which throw their characters, our stand-ins, into a frenzied state of helplessness.

And onto the scene comes Francis Underwood, our hero, our gangsta, a man empty of ideological content who has no agenda and 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 in our real lives, we finally win — even though the victory leaves blood on our hands.

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