I first encountered House of Cards in an illness-fuelled delirium. I am unsure why I thought an intense drama that demands a reasonable level of political awareness would be ideal viewing, but like any series, I’d heard it was amazing, and I have a deep and profound love for television. Thus, armed with hours to kill, I plunged into the world of Frank and Claire Underwood, unaware of the behavioural mind-fuck I was about to embark on.
Everyone is horrible in House of Cards. I don’t mean a kind of “the Mayor of London is backing Brexit and undermining your political prowess” kind of horrible, more like “I might have to publically humiliate, shame and maybe murder you if you interrupt my rise to power” kind of horrible. People are perpetually manipulating. No one can be trusted, not even the people you think might actually be okay. Lying is a given and killing people becomes as normalised as a press conference. To any rational human being, the behaviours the show exhibits are borderline sociopathic.
Except, somehow, I found something wildly alluring in the attitudes of those characters. Their no-bullshit approach. Their unwavering ambition. Their cold-hearted rationale. Forced marriage? Just got to be done! Murder? A measured political decision! Inter-marital affair? Makes sense! The high-budget drama engulfed me within its flexible system of morality, and I found myself adopting the various character traits. I recall approaching vicious judgements as statements of my own truth. I was less forgiving. I considered stepping on people to get ahead. I had prying journalists put in prison for cyber crimes. Okay, that last one didn’t happen but I did get quite mean.
Ignoring my slightly noxious personality, I think part of this allure came down to an internalised misogyny. Much of the behaviour in House of Cards demonises emotions, trumpeting that that fallacious claim made by old men who had their emotions drilled out of them at a posh boarding schools: that emotions threaten good decision making. A neo-liberal, implicitly misogynist mantra runs through the show that states: feel emotions, support other people, and you’ll fail.
House of Cards does a good job of both depicting these behaviours and critiquing them, but the critique is subtle at times. Sure, the Underwoods fail at times. But often this makes way for an even scheme-ier scheme and an unusual sex scene, and in the end they remain in control. The critique lies in a larger ethical debate, as, in reality, the behaviours are exploitative, malicious, illegal, and also just crap politics (not to mention questionable journalism). However, characters who challenge the malice suffer defeat (in various forms) as a result – see the characters of Helen Dunbar, the (female) secretary of health, the (female) attorney general and Lucas Goodwin.
Of course, it’s no fun watching polite and considerate political interaction (not to mention, it would be quite inaccurate) and the appeal of House of Cards lies in how successfully the show steers away from absurd plotlines by maintaining naturalism to the chaos. When the form of the show is so skilfully constructed, the content becomes palatable, if not alluring.
House of Cards is intellectually demanding and well-paced: a combination of impressive character-focused set-pieces mixed with larger engulfing plot points that somehow manage to make the minutiae of political strategy seem like a life-and-death situation.
Oh, and also sometimes major characters get pushed in front of trains. It’s a real emotional rollercoaster. As I sink into the most recent series, I can feel the increasing pressure to manipulate/ scheme/ rise to my natural place in the White House again. But, with statistics that show bingeing TV shows can correlate with poor mental and physical wellbeing, I’ve come to see that manipulation and murder are not the most tactical way to function in society. Unless, after a tumultuous yet entertaining rise to power, I become president of the United States. In which case, best not to cross me.