(This post contains spoilers. STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW AND YOU WANT TO! You have been warned haha)
Originally, I never intended to watch Netflix’s original series House of Cards, regardless of how popular it had become; in fact, I was simply browsing the popular online entertainment venue when I stumbled across the first season. It looked interesting enough since, as anyone who even remotely associates with me knows, politics is a favorite topic of analysis and study of mine. But what is it that drew me in? What made me so obsessed with the dark and corrupt view of Washington that the series so vividly portrays? I would argue that what attracted me to this brilliant television show is the same reasoning with which others might agree.
The crafty, Machiavellian and ruthless character of the protagonist, Majority Whip Frank Underwood (later Vice President Underwood) marvelously played by actor Kevin Spacey, captured my intention almost immediately. After only one episode, I was sucked in like a beam of light unable to escape the gravitational pull of a black hole (there’s my one and only physics metaphor for this post. You’re welcome).
Although the series is intriguing and certainly thought-provoking, House of Cards requires something from the on-looker, prior to being viewed, in order to be fully appreciated; and that is [at least] a rudimentary understanding of or familiarity with American politics and the inner-workings of government. The common themes of congressional lobbying, legislative negotiations and the complex intertwining of the personal lives of the characters combine to form a breath-taking and powerful series for even the most politically-savvy among us. But without understanding these themes, the viewer may find it hard to follow the main plot.
House of Cards is unlike any other political drama in that it reveals what happens every day behind the scenes of the White House, the Capitol and other high-profile government bodies; things that many of us are not aware of or privileged to see firsthand - back-room negotiations, under-the-table deals, corruption in the form of bribery and lobbying for votes on pieces of legislation, the smoke-and-mirrors purposely employed in order to keep the public in a dazed, confused and misinformed state etc. It’s not how our Founding Fathers envisioned our particular system of government properly functioning, but alas, that is what many fear it has devolved into. And according to some, that is why House of Cards may indeed be the most Tea Party political drama ever created, whether or not that was Willimon’s intention (doubtful). How you ask? Well, it highlights and puts on full display the corruption, misconduct and questionable morality of Washington politicians - something that the majority of Americans despise and hate with a passion. House of Cards fosters a particular pessimistic attitude towards government and the overall goings-on of the political elites in Washington, D.C. far-removed from the life of the average American citizen. And in that sense, I would have to agree with the conclusion that Tea Party loyalists would find the series perfectly aligning with and accurately expressing everything that is wrong with our country. Perhaps this is a good thing for the upcoming midterm elections in November. Perhaps the American people have awoken, due to this eye-opening television series, from their stupor of the promise of “hope and change” which has failed to deliver. A guy can only hope, right? Whether this is true or not remains to be seen.
Aside from the captivating drama present throughout each and every episode, I also credit House of Cards with opening my eyes to how Washington really works. Of course, House of Cards is a fictional work, and I recognize it as such. However, according to recent interviews by Robin Wright, who plays Claire Underwood, the equally cunning and ruthless wife of Frank Underwood, certain details that the series captures on film are actual realities and not entirely fictional. For example, the practice of journalists and reporters providing sexual favors for members of congress or other sources, in exchange for breaking stories that land them and their articles on the front page of major publications is no farce. According to a top official in the Obama White House with whom Ms. Wright apparently has close connections, it really does happen. It isn’t unique to Zoe Barnes (played by Kate Mara) and Frank Underwood.
In addition to reporters going to bed with their sources, and the supposed legitimacy of that little detail, House of Cards has ignited a fire in my imagination and produced questions for which there may or may not be answers. What about other parts of the show? Do those things really happen? Are murders that are made to look like accidents and the destruction of political careers for personal and private gain common practice in our country these days? What about buying the votes of certain congressman for personal favors? Well… YES. It’s the definition of lobbying. House of Cards shines a very bright light on these not-so-uncommon practices that are hardly ever reported on by the mainstream media; sometimes reporting these stories is avoided on purpose and intentionally buried to protect a politician, favor an agenda or see to it that the interests of a particular party are not harmed. This series has opened my mind to the idea that perhaps not everything that one sees on the news is actually the truth, no matter how “informed” we would like to feel by staying up-to-date on the latest happenings (I include myself in this). It may simply be that what all of us see on the nightly news is what has been intentionally and deceptively fed to news agencies by top officials in powerful positions, many times for various political or personal reasons. This concept reminds of me of a quote by Mark Twain that I find noteworthy:
"If you don’t read the news, you’re uninformed; if you read the news, you’re misinformed."
I think Mark Twain nicely sums up one of the many overarching themes of the mind-bending series that is House of Cards - that the truth is not necessarily what you think it is. And that’s what I love about House of Cards. It’s not some television series that I use to fry my brain after a long, hard day at work (such as The Office or Scrubs which require little thought or analysis). It’s engaging and captivating. It brings me into the oval office and allows me to be a part of the drama. With season two already available for streaming on Netflix and the production of a season three and even four already in progress, House of Cards isn’t leaving the spotlight anytime soon. And for many of us, that is a very good thing. Thank you Beau Willimon for enriching our lives and enlightening our minds more than you’ll ever know.