A Contract With the Devil (and Other Monsters): Netflix's 'House of Cards'
House of Cards is less a political series and more of an invasion narrative representing some of America's worst fears.
House of CardsCast: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Lamont Easter
Netflix’s House of Cards is perhaps one of the most talked-about series on television, and it returns this week on Netflix to serve up a fourth season of politics, blood, and intrigue. Kevin Spacey won a 2015 Golden Globe for House of Cards, and it has provided a steady stream of content for websites and social media eager to comment on the show's believability, spoilers, and whether American politics is truly that corrupt.
On the surface, the show can be explained in fairly simple terms. House of Cards belongs to a world of political-turmoil-as-entertainment that's anything but new to popular culture. NBC's The West Wing and ABC’s Scandal are two successful iterations of series about presidents and politics, while films like The Ides of March and Air Force One have cast their intrigues onto the big screen. Each work makes radically different uses of melodramatic conventions like sex, murder, and the persistent threat posed by terrorism, the loss of political hegemony, or the end of the world, but they all participate in a similar genre: the political drama.
These series are "political" in the sense that they feature American politics, a president, and the complications that arise between them. They are all "dramas" and even "thrillers" in their tense, violent, and rapid accumulation of dangerous events; however, they pertain to different sub-genres. Scandal frolics in the world of espionage, while Air Force One is a thriller in the purest sense of the term: a "roller coaster" film meant to make your eyes pop and your palms sweat. House of Cards shares the energy and the conspiracy theories of both sub-genres, but its opening sequence presents a different storyline.
Each episode opens to the sound of military trumpets playing to the background of time-lapsed images that capture the shadows and silhouettes cast at dusk in the nation's capital. The darkening landscape and the foreboding music immediately suggest a dark and humorless critique of American politics, an idea that’s confirmed in the final seconds as the show presents its title alongside an American flag hung upside down.
This potential interpretation sets expectations that have driven many criticisms (some of which one may recognize): "the show is too ridiculous or unrealistic", "there’s too many things that wouldn’t really happen", "Washington isn’t that corrupt", "the characters are too unbelievable". These arguments are reasonable for anyone who understands the show as social commentary. After all, House of Cards is trying to critique the United States political system, Washington DC, and the office of the president, right?
Upon closer inspection, the opening doesn't only introduce a poignant critique of American politics, but an invasion narrative. Like the shadow of the spaceship that covers the White House in Independence Day, the growing silhouettes in House of Cards foreshadow the arrival of a dark force with the potential to annihilate the country and potentially the world. The shadow isn't the same darkness one finds at dusk, or even the one found in the sky when the aliens arrive, but a metaphorical projection, something that represents a threat that's not visible to the naked eye.
It may have the undesired effect of preparing viewers for social criticism, but it’s in fact preparing them for something more akin to "The Book of Revelation", Paradise Lost, or Dante Alighieri's Inferno. The shadow dramatizes the arrival of the devil to the world’s most influential political domain, and introduces a modern allegory for one of humankind’s oldest stories; the arrival of the devil to Earth.
Like any allegory, every name is significant, and Frank Underwood's (Kevin Spacey) no exception. His name foregrounds his relationship to the underworld, and his character is modeled upon myriad markers of social difference (with the potential for evil) within North American culture. We meet Underwood in the opening minutes of the first episode when he breaks the neck of a suffering dog without so much as flinching. The action reveals a cold, calculated demeanor, and his apathy toward his action -- albeit "humane" -- nevertheless tags him as a character with sociopathic tendencies.
Moreover, he is an incarnation of the "demonic" South one finds in HBO’s True Detective, or in a more absurd form in True Blood. He's a prominent congressman from South Carolina's fifth district, one that is presented as a small, rural, and backward region comprised of god-fearing idiots who go to church and recite scripture but are unable to recognize the devil when he speaks before their eyes. Underwood's name and southern background play into national anxieties regarding the threat of southern autonomy and religious radicals to a purportedly unified, industrialized, and secular national union.
Moreover, he achieves otherness in his ambiguous sexuality. Not only do he and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), take part in an open marriage that breaks traditional notions of matrimony, but Underwood's time at a southern military school illuminates his "second" sexual preference. His ambivalent morality and sexuality, the show constantly suggests, arose from his repressed and violent youth, both at home and at military school, which again harks back to his maniacal and murderous pathology.
His wife, Claire, embodies a variety of social, cultural, and historical anxieties held toward the female body, as well as other apprehensions about women's potential for using sexuality as a weapon and a vehicle for social gain. Her tall, sleek body is made hard by long runs, and is adorned with expensive suits and short-cut hair. Her look exudes sexuality, which leads to an affair with a renowned New York artist, but it also externalizes her ferocious mindset and demeanor.
She begins the show working as the CEO of the Clean Water Initiative in Washington, DC, an organization designed to bring potable water to impoverished countries, but she’s anything but a humanitarian. She rules the company in ruthless fashion, rejecting any notion of "sisterhood" among her coworkers. Early in the show, she heartlessly fires an aging woman who’s subsequently forced to live in squalor, and she later ruins the life of a similarly modern woman who is interested in the Clean Water Initiative in order to help people rather than just further her career.
Claire's body thus becomes both an explanation for her ruthlessness, and a weapon she can use for political gain. She was the victim of rape and had multiple abortions, which serves as an unspoken explanation for her demons, her inability to have children (in addition to her age), and her desire to destroy the career of her assailant. She’s the type of woman that laws and shaming have tried to keep in check for centuries, a "devil woman" capable of using her body and her mind to get what she wants in the most prestigious realm of American politics. Unlike her husband, however, she often invokes sympathy, and thus seems capable of transforming into a more morally righteous person in the coming series. Whether or not this happens is still one of the many questions to be answered.
The pattern of otherness and evil also punctuates the storyline, which seems to follow an unseen "plan" that’s been masterfully designed by a higher force. In the first seasons, Frank and Claire act in ways that at first seem confusing, but the eventual outcomes of their actions systematically yield satisfactory results. There’s no better example than when Frank blackmails a notable government official and gets the man to punch him in the face, thus forcing the man to bend to Frank’s will.
The scene seems absurd, because no person in his or her right mind could be manipulated in such a way, but it does make sense when one understands it in relation to all of the other moments of victory for Frank during his ascent to the presidency. He’s constructed a flawless formula for rising to power, one that’s not visible to his enemies, but nonetheless produces positive results for his career.
The same feeling is prevalent in his relationship with an ascending journalist, a House Representative, and the chef at an inner city barbecue restaurant, each of whom meet their decline or doom after making friends with Underwood. However, things change when he becomes president. One might say that Frank’s master plan no longer works once he achieves what he wants.
Consequently, he becomes caught in the invisible labyrinth of others, especially the Russian President, who has his own plan for Frank that leads him to commit acts, especially against his wife, that leave him lost, confused, and desperate for an escape. One of the most important questions for the upcoming season of House of Cards is if Frank can get out of the labyrinth, and if he and Claire will be able to reconcile their differences and construct another perfect plan.
The allegorical dimensions of the story go beyond a critique of American politics, and consequently demand a viewer willing to believe (and enjoy) a character of inhuman depravity. Nevertheless, the story’s tightly bound to a politics of monstrosity that affects human behavior and party affiliations in the United States and beyond. We’re attracted to sinister characters like Frank and Claire because we’re fascinated by their disregard for middle-class morality, their aversion to "Christian" behavior, and their sexual freedom. They provide an escape from unspoken social contracts and good behavior that guide the potential tedium of everyday life, and they allow us to live out fantasies of individualism in a safe environment.
Nevertheless, they are monsters because they scare us. They embody basic social anxieties and essential human fears like the invasion of an unseen, maniacal force, but they also invite connections to specific and timely apprehensions, like the power of evangelical voters, the threats posed by an unruly South, homosexuality, feminine power, and the lack of knowledge and control possessed by the average American in his or her "democratic" political system.
That being acknowledged, they still make us feel better when we view them. In its presentation of the South, House of Cards takes part in a tradition of pleasuring audiences by making them feel more "sivilized" than the idiots from the "American Backwoods", while also making them feel morally superior by portraying wealthy people of a higher social status (normally from the East Coast) as being morally bankrupt and overly motivated by power and money. It’s a show that makes a contract with the devil, and thus we must always be aware of where this force is present, what it represents, and whether its evil is real, an anxiety, or just entertainment.
Mark Pleiss is is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. He received a PhD in Spanish Literature from the University of Colorado-Boulder and writes about topics that include crime fiction, parody, and the politics of monsters. He wrote feature stories for several newspapers in the Midwest before joining academia, and enjoys fusing his knowledge of theory with his love of popular culture.