There are going to be some spoilers below, so if you are planning on watching the Netflix series House of Cards anytime soon and don’t care to have any of the plot ruined for you, stop reading now.
House of Cards is a fantastic show. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of the conniving and Machiavellian character Frank Underwood is brilliant. The plotlines are compelling, the characters are well-developed and three-dimensional, and the acting is spot-on. If you’re a fan of dramas about republican politics, as I am, you’ll love this show.
I held off watching the program for a while, and did not commit to a binge until after the second season had been out for some time. Working in and around the business of politics and media, I felt saturated in references to this program for years. It seemed like I already knew the characters and knew the storyline just from following politicians and reporters on Twitter. They loved and celebrated their portrayals in that program, and I did not feel the pressing need to get the inside references.
When I finally did watch the program, I found it thoroughly entertaining. I was, however, struck by a nagging thought which I continue to wrestle with: Why on Earth, I wondered, would anyone in Washington D.C. think it prudent to celebrate their portrayal here?
Spacey’s character is a perfect antihero, in the same manner as is Bryan Cranston’s portrayed Walter White in the AMC drama Breaking Bad. You did not love Walter White; if anything, he was a monster to be feared. He was compelling, but by no means a character worthy of emulation, much less celebration. In the same way, Spacey’s character is a scheming, murdering, adulterous sociopath who surrounds himself with the like. He is ambitious, and not in a good way. His fellows are manipulative, egocentric, and vulgar. The well-intentioned and earnest are portrayed as dim-witted prey, unsuited to the unforgiving world of Beltway politics.
House of Cards portrays the District quite perfectly, in fact. It is a place Americans have come to fear and mistrust, and for the very reasons acknowledged in this program.
And yet, House of Cards references are and have been everywhere. Half the press corps and a variety of political figures participated in a spoof video featuring Spacey which debuted at the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett reportedly quizzed Spacey on his character, joking that it might be useful to apply Underwood’s methods for dealing with an unruly Congress to the real thing. “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” President Barack Obama said of Spacey’s character in 2013. The president added that the merciless Underwood “is getting a lot of stuff done.”
Now, Spacey was merely an immoral conspirator when Obama professed his admiration, and not a murder. But, as of season 2, he crossed even that line. Would the president say the same of Frank Underwood today? No one has asked him.
This is the backdrop for the latest clash of worldviews set to take place around this Netflix drama. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has probably set himself up to be lampooned in the press as a stick in the mud when he recently denounced the immorality of Spacey’s character. In an interview with Parade Magazine, Ryan said that he did not much care for Frank Underwood’s depravity.
“I watched the first couple of episodes until he cheated on his wife with that reporter,” Ryan told Parade. “It turned my stomach so much that I couldn’t watch it anymore. His behavior was so reprehensible, and it hit too close to home because he was a House member, that it just bothered me too much. And What I thought is, it makes us all look like we’re like that.”
I am shocked that Ryan is among the first prominent politicians to suggest that their portrayal in House of Cards is scandalous. For some, particularly in the District it seems, a cultural narcissism is so entrenched that even one’s reflection in a funhouse mirror is a welcome sight.
Within hours of this statement, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the precise opposite approach when she starred in a parody video with Spacey who reprised his role as Underwood. To add to the totality of the vanity on display here, it is a video centered on wishing former President Bill Clinton a happy 68th birthday.
Worlds – universes – apart. This is not a culture war in which Hillary is hip while Ryan is a stodgy old man married to his dated notions of morality. This is a stunning display of myopia on Clinton’s part. It is a narrow mindset shared by nearly every player in the nation’s capital.
Spacey’s character is written with the intention of communicating to the viewer everything that is wrong with Washington. In that effort, the writers and the actor succeed spectacularly. How in God’s name Hillary Clinton, or the rest of the D.C. media/political complex for that matter, thinks it is appropriate to associate with such a figure amid a veritable crisis of confidence in Washington, I have no idea.