The public has come to assume the worst in politicians. We assume that there are back room deals, plays for power and bargaining within the various administrations. But the Netflix series House of Cards not only confirms our suspicions, assuring us that it isn’t as bad as we thought – it shows us that it’s even worse.
The series, released onto Netflix in its entirety to allow for “binge watching,” is certainly “binge worthy.” The show follows the devious Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, as he weaves a meticulous web of manipulation in order to rise to power and gain revenge. The first season was met with such enthusiasm that Netflix is set to release the entire second season on February 14 while it begins filming the third season.
The first episode opens to Underwood quietly killing a dog that has been hit by the car. He looks directly at the camera and speaks to the viewers:
“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act. Who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”
Thus, Underwood is established as a man of brutal pragmatism who the audience is inclined to trust as the sole narrator, but also someone who the viewer is to fear. The opening continues at a party celebrating the election of Democratic elect, Garret Walker, and Underwood commands the room and the audience’s attention, as they are unwittingly pulled deeper into the plot. Even a simple aside glance to the audience is a serious and fearful thing. Underwood clues the audience in on the background, flaws and motivations of the people and situations around him. One is both amazed and cautious of his vast knowledge.
In a lecture sponsored by The Guardian, Kevin Spacey comments about the appeal of his character:
“He has no allegiances to party, to titles, to forms, to labels: He doesn’t care whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, ideology or conviction. What he sees is opportunity and the chance to move forward. OK, he’s a bit diabolical but he’s also very effective.”
Underwood may be effective, but at very morally questionable costs and consequences. He devours anyone who gets in his way, and simply uses and discards other people. It appears that all people are simply pawns in the game of his revenge, moving the pieces like a skilled chess player. Frank’s calculated power grabs outweigh any sort of moral calculus: He doesn’t bat an eye while paying prostitutes thousands of dollars to keep quiet and forcing others to make political suicide.
Many have compared Frank Underwood to Richard III, a Shakespearean villain at his finest. In Richard III, a power hungry and deformed prince aspires to the throne and decides to kill anyone who gets in the way. Underwood doesn’t necessarily kill those in his way, but he does squash political careers and disgrace those who defy him.
Kevin Spacey was starring as the villainous king before he took the role of Frank Underwood, which allowed him to practice his menacing asides. Spacey told NPR that he “was able to actually look into people’s eyes all over the world and see how much they relished it, and how dangerous it was, and how sporting and naughty they felt in being sort of brought in and made Richard’s — and now Francis’ — co-conspirators.”
Both Frank Underwood’s and Richard III’s asides to the audience make one complicit in their actions. They are not heroes, but they are the characters that the audience must follow, perhaps to their own demise. Underwood knows that he’s bad and revels in it, as a fully aware agent, having his own form of twisted integrity.
Comparisons have also termed Underwood as a modern “Machiavellian” agent. The idea is confirmed by David Fincher, producer of the show:
“The idea of Machiavelli taking you under his wing and walking you through the corridors of power, explaining the totally mundane and crass on a mechanical level to the most grotesque manipulations of a system that is set up to have all these checks and balances was just too delicious.”
The common quotation by Machiavelli asserts that it is better to be feared than loved, but it is best to have both. Underwood employs both fear and love. He strikes fear in those whom he manipulates but, with his Southern charm, he can quickly turn to assure the other characters that he has their best interest in mind. Underwood makes his enemies and allies believe that he is only doing what’s best.
We’ve seen the power obsessed politics movies before, but House of Cards’ calculated, ruthless “butchery” takes them a step further, showing the gory human condition on display. In other movies, one expects the villains to have a stroke of conscience, but viewers of House of Cards have long since given up the idea that Frank Underwood will atone for his sins. And in some strange turn of events, we feel as if we are rooting for him. What, but divine retribution, could stop a man like that?
One of the most interesting and telling scenes with Frank Underwood is toward the end of the season when he enters into the sanctuary of the church he attends. Viewers are given a glimmer of hope that Underwood might repent, or show some form of conscience but instead he presents us with a monologue:
“Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back, although given our mutual disdain; I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience. Can you hear me? Are you even capable of language, or do you only understand depravity? … There is no solace above or below. Only us — small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”
Underwood’s conversation with God provides a complex, and deeply orthodox, understanding the human condition and its lust for power. Those who are surprised by this cold-hearted quest for power are not well acquainted with Augustine or the capabilities of the human condition. It is not money that Underwood is after. For him, money is a trivial choice over success. Money is a mansion that will fall apart in ten years while “power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” It is the age-old Christian narrative: humans seeking to be God and seeking to rule.
St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the late 300s A.D., wrote his colossal life work The City of God amidst the crumbling of the Roman Empire, political corruption and confusion within the early church.
Augustine comes to describe the human condition as a “twisted knottiness” that only God can straighten out. He calls mankind’s basic human problem the passion and drive to dominate and subjugate others: the libido dominandi. Augustine argues that people, after the Fall, are constantly trying to bring others to subjection to his or her will. As R.A. Markus writes in Saeculum: History & Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Augustine’s work does not consider fully “political thought” but there are certain political implications that Augustine ascertains from the condition of man. Mankind wishes to be its own ruler, apart from any allegiance to God, and makes others follow accordingly.
This certainly seems to describe the aspirations of Frank Underwood as he weaves a web of lies and political deals that bring all those around him into submission to his will. Underwood’s motivating factor is to dominate others, to assert his power over them. Underwood has defied any sense of divine retribution, acknowledging a mutual disdain, and continues like a villain lusting for power rather than purity. This is, from Augustine’s and the Christian perspective, the ultimate downfall of man.
But what Underwood may soon learn from Augustine is that those who follow after these passions of domination are never at peace and never satisfied. They are always striving for a false power that can be instantly snatched from the grip: they do not rest. Frank Underwood does not rest, for his house of cards can come tumbling down around him at any time. Several times during the season, it appears that all of his ends are unraveling and he must frantically squelch the rebellion.
In Augustine’s mind, those who enact the libido dominandi have no possibility of rest. Men make horrible gods, and their kingdoms usually end disordered and tattered with tension, much like the Roman Empire.
Augustine wrote that society must become about minimizing disorder and keeping men from “devouring each other like fish.” All is subject to the distortion of domination, every ruler and leader – there is no one above it. Frank Underwood chooses to revel in it, but he may soon come to find that he is not the masterful orchestrator he imagined.
The question is how accurately this “immorality play” has to do with the real condition in D.C. Should the public fear that the politicians in power have only the goal of more power in mind? Alyssa Rosenberg points out that Underwood has no concern for the consequences of his actions, whether it’s a strike that puts thousands of teachers out of work or closing 12,000 jobs at a shipyard simply for political power. The emphasis isn’t the substance of the matter but the game-like manipulation of it. Rosenberg argues that the show buys into the worldview of manipulation while being enamored with the ugliest parts of Washington.
But the “morality” of House of Cards and its exposé of the human condition is worth noting, whether the show identifies it as a problem or not. The manipulation and games may prove for good, thrilling television, but it also serves to squelch our naiveté about those in power.
If one subscribes to Augustine’s assessment of the human condition, we should not be surprised by the immorality that is hidden behind doors and political deals. That is not to say that we adopt cynicism and distrust any good willed attempt by politicians to help people. There are genuine people within the political process. But, we must not let our inclination to assume the best in people cloud our judgment of the capabilities of evil that power can bring. These things are just beyond the tips of our fingers, so easy to access at the cause of “pragmatism.”
While Frank Underwood is a complex and compelling villain, we must soberly understand that this is not an abnormality. Given the circumstances and the power, any one might be inclined to do the same. Perhaps many already do. There is still a need for checks and balances, for accountability within the processes of power, because it is so easy to slip into the twisted human condition of Augustine’s libido dominandi. The lust for human power is strong but the kingdom it builds is merely a house of cards; it can just as easily and quickly crumble around us.