WHISNANT: Looking underneath Underwood
House of Cards is entertaining but lacks substantive value
Like the best tubs of ice cream, “House of Cards” is compulsively consumable. Once you make the decision to give in to its temptations, you find yourself indulging in progressively higher doses until you’re left wondering after whether the empty calories were worth it. As he does with so many characters in the show, Frank Underwood strings you along for a ride, but once it reaches its shambolic conclusion, you realize it meant nothing at all. “House of Cards” may be fine television in terms of sheer entertainment value, but when it comes to substance, it is as morally and politically bankrupt as its protagonist.
If the show’s message can be boiled down to a single pithy excerpt from one of Frank’s many monologues, it is this: “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” Despite this trope’s exploration dating as far back as the Greeks with the legend of Artemis and Actaeon or being more creatively explored in Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” “House of Cards’” analysis of politics begins and ends with this theme. In Frank Underwood’s Washington, the nature of power is never really dissected beyond the hardly controversial suggestion that people want power because it makes them feel powerful to exercise it. When commenting on former staffer Remy Danton’s decision to join a lobbying firm, Frank comments, “Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” According to Frank Underwood, power is great because you get to have it for a long time.
Beyond a few hints at Frank’s humble beginnings, the show refrains from explaining why Frank or any of the other characters make the decisions they do. The District’s social climbers do not seek influence because of the corrupting influence of big government run amok, the saturation of politics with money, the capture of the government by plutocracy, the need for a prominent position before cashing in with a cushy lobbying gig or the rise of corrosive political polarization. “House of Cards” could consider the merits of any of these theories, but it settles on, “power can be pretty fun.” The great irony of the show is that it is supposedly intensely focused on politics, and yet the political machinations we watch are devoid of any context which would give them meaning.
It’s hard to heap too much blame on the writers of “House of Cards,” because if nothing else, the show is a reflection of its time. Faced with the failure of the Tea Party critique of Obama-era corporatist liberalism and the left’s inability to mobilize a coalition to deal with the aftermath of the Great Recession, we are left with the soulless neoliberal logic of Frank Underwood and company. President Garrett Walker and Frank Underwood’s Democratic Party happily goes from slashing collective bargaining rights in Season 1 to slashing Social Security in Season 2. The show’s one bleeding heart liberal, Congressman Donald Blythe, is portrayed as a politically impotent idealist, and its major Tea Party character who emphasizes his need to adhere to his campaign promises is depicted as a wild-eyed radical who needs to be trampled over by parliamentary procedure. These events are mirror images of a Congress in which the leadership of both parties is so captive to the financial sector that it quashes attempts at reform from populists of all stripes.
In marginalizing the only presented alternatives to Frank’s ideology of self-serving power, the show all but ratifies Margaret Thatcher’s notorious claim that “there is no alternative” to the dominant paradigm of our times. In “House of Cards,” the cynicism about the idea that politics can be a vehicle for positive change finally reaches beyond the voting public and toward the politicians themselves. In the absence of a positive governing philosophy or any hope of fostering a more decent society, only the pursuit of power remains. It’s no coincidence a series about politics is perhaps the most nihilistic show on television.
When Season 3 materializes on Netflix next year, I’ll be ready to binge watch my way into a happy oblivion. That said, we’d all benefit from recognizing “House of Cards” for what it is: a fleeting distraction from just how empty our real politics have become.
Gray Whisnant is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.