Is House of Cards the most irresponsible show on television, or is it just really, really dumb? Can the answer be “both”?
As you start to watch the series’ fifth season, you’ll immediately know whether you like it or not. Season five is the first without series creator Beau Willimon, and his absence can be felt here and there. (The dialogue has always been inelegant and on the nose, but be warned that it’s definitely much more so in season five.) But this is still, by and large, the show you’ve come to know and feel deeply ambivalent about, at least if you’re anything like me.
Frank and Claire Underwood are still running roughshod over the American public and the Constitution, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are still playing them with high levels of ham-standing and icy class respectively, everything still plays like a funhouse mirror of the skullduggery we imagine to take place in the real Washington, and the rest of House of Cards’ characters still only matter insofar as they intersect with an Underwood (give or take a Michael Kelly as long-suffering aide Doug Stamper).
So far, so House of Cards.
But this is just the latest political drama to have last left the air in a world where surely Donald Trump could never be president and returned for a new season in a world where he is. And what’s interesting is that what hampers the show isn’t Trump, specifically, but something else, something that’s always been present on the show. After five seasons, but especially in 2017, House of Cards’ curdled cynicism feels less and less like weary wisdom and more like a high school student flipping off a civics teacher.
The progression of reality only highlights how blithely full of itself House of Cards is
Literally everybody in the House of Cards universe cares only about power, and if they fail, they fail because they don’t care as much about it as Claire and Frank Underwood. Outside of the central couple, who make reasonably compelling Bill and Hillary Clinton analogues, this applies to the show’s well-meaning Obama analogue, its firebrand-y Bernie Sanders analogue, its self-righteously upstanding Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan analogue, and everybody else.
Characters on House of Cards don’t attain power to enact policy. They attain power to get even more power. Nobody has an ethos or something they want to do — not even something as venal as, “Attain power to make myself incredibly rich.” People are addicted to the idea of control, but control they can enact through weird constitutional loopholes. It’s as if House of Cards wants to make Frank go full authoritarian dictator, but lacks the wherewithal to actually push its reality toward some sort of alternate dystopia.
Yet the show already takes place in a funhouse mirror version of our own world, which sort of feels like a place where nobody has party loyalty and everybody cares more about the theater of politics than the policy that results. It sometimes seems as if the series’ showrunner is an episode of Morning Joe that has somehow gained sentience and really likes poorly framed wide shots.
In this sense, House of Cards is a nightmare version of The West Wing in more ways than one. Both series are kind of fun to watch on the level of candy, but neither boasts impressive levels of depth. They both mistake a deep knowledge of American government and procedural loopholes for an understanding of either humans or the governments they create. (House of Cards season five opens with a scene where Frank — the president — is allowed to attend a session of the House of Representatives because he’s wearing a special pin that indicates he’s a former House member, and it all but suggests that if he holds the pin just right, he’ll be transported to Narnia.)
Yet both series congratulate the viewer endlessly for having the intelligence to watch, for engaging with the realities of American government, when neither has much interest in American government beyond the constraints of Washington.
A show like Veep can satirize this Beltway tendency, while a show like Homeland has grown more despondent over it as it’s aged (though perhaps not enough, if its most recent season is any indication). But both The West Wing and House of Cards are trapped, endlessly, by their insistence that what’s really important is the whims of politicians, not the effects of the policies they create.
I can put up with this from The West Wing — a show I mostly enjoy watching even as I realize it’s a kinda-dumb liberal power fantasy — because The West Wing is basically optimistic about the role of government and human beings, while maintaining a sense of humor about itself. That’s not the case with House of Cards, which might as well summarize its core philosophy as “lol, nothing matters.”
The show is all Gen-X posturing direct from a 1993 issue of Spin magazine and very little substance. And where that idea was already absurd during a Barack Obama administration, it feels downright ghastly at the present moment.
House of Cards wants to take on Trump — it even tries to turn Frank into an ersatz iteration of him — but it can never square that idea with the thought that none of Frank’s actions or the policy vacuum at the center of his political career ultimately has any real consequence, that everything he says and does is all hollow posturing.
“You don’t want me to stand for something,” Frank states to the viewer late in season five. ‘You just want me to stand.” But, uh, reality would beg to differ. We increasingly want politicians to push back against the bland, corporatist kind of politics Frank and Claire represent, to elevate outsiders. House of Cards is a show about the ultimate insiders, and it can’t overcome that central fact.
But, again, this has less to do with Trump than you’d think.
House of Cards is a show about how every conspiracy theory is real
I watched the fifth season of House of Cards in the midst of Fox News’s retraction of a story on the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was murdered in an apparent robbery but has become a cause célèbre among conspiracy theorists who believe he leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Those conspiracy theorists aren’t relegated to the internet, either — they also include Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Watching the series as this story was driving the news cycle proved downright surreal. At the center of the Rich “conspiracy” is the idea that the young man was just the latest person to run afoul of the Clintons and end up murdered for his troubles, an idea that has no basis in reality whatsoever. And yet House of Cards suggests, constantly, that Bill and Hillary Clinton would be more successful if they really were murdering everybody who got in their way.
In a late-season episode, Frank kills his secretary of state by pushing her down some stairs, while Claire kills her lover by first poisoning him, then having sex with him (presumably so his heart will beat faster and speed up how fast the poison spreads). Nobody questions these deaths — even the one where Frank is standing atop a set of stairs that his secretary of state is lying at the bottom of.
Stranger still, the Underwood White House remains a tight-lipped monolith, despite the fact that every White House (especially ones run by weirdo megalomaniacs) has leaks. The Underwood White House’s biggest leak is ultimately revealed to be Frank himself, who wants to manage his own downfall. Which, what?
House of Cards, then, is a show about how every conspiracy theory you’ve ever caught wind of — from the Seth Rich murder to the idea that the Russians have a “pee tape” featuring Donald Trump — is true. And, what’s more, it posits that because so many of them are true, all the politicians in Washington are locked into a kind of mutually assured destruction: You leak my secrets, I’ll leak yours, and we’ll both go down together. It is, in essence, a show where fake news isn’t so fake after all.
I hesitate to call that “irresponsible,” because exploring the logical outcomes of these conspiracy theories being true is a natural path for a story to take. The X-Files wove a rich tapestry of obviously false conspiracies that, nevertheless, stood in for an examination of the horrible things the US did in the name of winning the Cold War, at a time when the country was just starting to grapple with those ideas.
But The X-Files had a point of view on Americans’ relationship to their government. The only point of view House of Cards has is that it’s really exciting and awesome to see the Underwoods reap the spoils of their various power plays. It constructs pointlessly elaborate schemes — with which, say, Frank can steal a presidential election and reinstall himself as president — then assumes the couple’s ruthless efficiency is so all-encompassing that the results of those schemes play out offscreen between episodes.
Why I can’t quit House of Cards
And yet I suspect I’d still be watching House of Cards even if it weren’t my job — laughing and mocking it, sure, but also gulping it down in gigantic portions. Maybe that’s because it’s the first show Netflix taught us all to love bingeing. Maybe it’s that the show possesses some weird, addictive quality. Or maybe it’s just watching Robin Wright work her magic.
As season five winds toward its climax — which sees Claire installed as president, Frank ostracized and potentially in criminal danger, and Doug taking the fall for the murder of Zoe Barnes way back in season two — the show does achieve some weird, operatic power that fuels its endless ambitions. Somewhere in there is buried the idea that Claire, maybe, could do some good as president, could finally accomplish the things that Frank was too distracted by his own plotting to care about.
But I might also be reading too much into a series that forever resists being read on any level other than its most literal one. House of Cards is clearly reaching the end of its narrative, but I’ve said that at the end of every season since the second, and the Underwoods continue to skate free, largely without consequence.
At some point, presumably, a journalist will turn over the right rock, or Doug will turn on the Underwoods, or they’ll go to war with each other, and their whole power structure will crumble, but until then, the show is rise and rise and rise and rise. And without a sense of tension or, especially, humor, that gets boring quickly. Perhaps the best way to watch House of Cards is the way my wife does, which is to say that she has me describe to her the major plot points of each season after it’s done.
What I want, more than anything, is some acknowledgement from House of Cards that the shit Claire and Frank are doing matters, that people out there are living and dying lives that are going to be affected by their dumb power grabs.
Pretending that none of this has any import, that fighting about this stuff is stupid, is a mug’s game. The idea that it’s cool not to care is precisely the sort of idea put into place by those who benefit from the status quo, who really do care about keeping that status quo in place, so that they might continue to profit from it.
The biggest difference between Frank Underwood and Donald Trump isn’t that Frank is more competent — it’s that on some level, Trump seems to want to use the presidency to do stuff and help people, even if those people all have the last name “Trump.” Frank just wants to be president to be president.
Somewhere out there, there’s a version of House of Cards that maybe engages with that irony. Willimon almost found it a couple of times, especially in season four. But in season five, the show can’t seem to imagine a politics driven by anything other than crude hero worship and awed reverence for those who would callously shed blood and call it beautiful.
House of Cards is streaming on Netflix.