I am a fan of Netflix’s political melodrama House of Cards. The original pull of the show was that it had cast Kevin Spacey as the lead and Spacey has a reputation for playing extremely compelling magnificent bastards (cf. The Usual Suspects). When I watched the first episode and realized that he was playing not only a magnificent bastard, but one that speaks directly to the audience in charmingly glib asides with a lovely Southern accent (yes, it’s put on, and anyone with an authentic Carolina accent probably rolls their eyes at the affectation, but I still love listening to it), I was hooked. I couldn’t really explain what I found so compelling about these characters, especially since my initial read on Francis and Claire Underwood was that they’re just evil people (there’s more nuance in their characters now than what I first saw, though I’d still call them antiheroes). I mean, Francis commits murder more than once in order to protect his career (and we’re not talking the distant, have-someone-on-your-staff-take-care-of-it, kind of murder here), and Claire condones it as a necessity for achieving their goals. These are not the kind of people you typically find yourself cheering for in stories, but I couldn’t help wanting to see more of how the Underwoods would get by.
I suppose the closest comparison in terms of contemporary stories would probably be Breaking Bad; in that show’s early seasons, you witness Walter White do some awful things as he embeds himself in the illegal drug trade, but there’s always some kind of compelling excuse, like the fact that he’s ostensibly doing it to make sure his family will be financially secure after his lung cancer kills him (anyone who’s seen the entire series recognizes that that’s all just a facade for Walter’s more selfish motivations, but by the time it becomes apparent there are other characters involved with whom the audience can still sympathize). Francis and Claire are very clear from the beginning that they behave in the manner they do because they’re ambitious, and they want to amass power (power is such a signature motivation for Francis that I’ve heard people parody his obsession with it), so there’s no real mitigating circumstance to explain why the audience should want them to succeed.
I suppose the only thing that is even remotely redeeming about the characters is their commitment to one another. It’s expressed in an unusual way, but for the first couple seasons, it’s apparent that the only people Claire and Francis trust completely are Claire and Francis. Moving into the third season we get to see that relationship strained in ways that it hasn’t before, and I admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the way it turned out (a relationship crisis between the Underwoods has been a recurring arc in every season, so it was nice to see things changed up in Season 3).
Anyway, I’ve been pondering what it is about this show that I find so compelling, and as I was wrapping up my viewing of the third season the other day, I realized that it was because the basic arc of the series is similar to Macbeth. You have the ambitious power couple who do lots of underhanded things in order to secure power and then the fallout of trying to maintain the status quo once they’ve reached the top of the wheel of fortune. There are definitely some important differences (I think Claire is a far more complex and well drawn character than Lady Macbeth, and Francis has none of the misgivings of Macbeth; if anything the roles of the leads are somewhat reversed, as Claire frequently struggles with moral convictions about things she’s had to do for Francis, and Francis just steams ahead without ever truly acknowledging his own guilt), though I think the comparison generally holds. Given that comparison, I suspect that Season 3 marks the midpoint of the series, and from here we’re going to see the gradual disintegration of what Francis and Claire have built (the show is called House of Cards after all). It’d be nice if, at some point while they’re still on top, we get to see what they actually want to accomplish on a larger scale (perhaps the show’s one great weakness is that it’s really hard to tell if Francis actually wants to do anything with the power he’s gathering).
Nonetheless, it’s a fun show, and I’m looking forward to watching more of it in the future.