House of Cards is not a show that would normally fall within my wheelhouse of preferred media. It’s not really speculative (a case could be made that it’s alternate history, but then you have to contend with the implications of the United States not having a Black president and the Republicans not turning into a frothing mass of white nationalists fawning over a narcissist who doesn’t seem aware of his own lies; suffice it to say, House of Cards really did not see 2016 coming), and the protagonist is an old white guy who’s doing everything he can to amass personal power. The settings are boring backrooms with poor lighting and lots of people in suits, and all the narrative tension is driven by conversations. No one is morally upright except the journalists, and they tend not to stick around for very long.
This is a drab show set in a drab world where drab people do horrible things to one another for infinitely cynical reasons.
And yet, I confess I can’t get enough of it.
I’ve not even finished watching the fourth season (three episodes to go at this writing), and I’m not entirely sure where it’s going to end, but I’m totally invested in the story of Francis and Claire Underwood.
At this point it’s probably unnecessary to worry about spoilers for the earlier seasons, but for anyone who does care, I’ll be pretty loose with plot details about the series in this post.
Though they’re very different shows in terms of plot, setting, and general feel, the television show that I can most closely compare House of Cards to is Breaking Bad. That’s not because Francis Underwood begins in any sort of position that might make him sympathetic; he begins the show’s first episode by delivering a monologue in a tuxedo to the camera about doing what’s necessary to achieve your goals while he euthanizes an injured dog just outside the shot with his bare hands. It’s ridiculously over the top in the way it signals, “this man is the textbook definition of a magnificent bastard.” No, the thing that I see as similar is the way that Francis Underwood and Walter White both occupy as the protagonists of their respective stories, and also happen to be the villains at the same time. It takes a little longer to figure this out with Walter, but the DNA of the characters is pretty similar.
Of course, if Francis is the villain of his own story, then there has to be a hero somewhere. This role tends to fall towards whichever journalist is getting attention in a given season. Zoe Barnes starts off as the hero, even as she checks the box on every trope for intrepid female reporter (starting with sleeping with her source and then working her way down), but then in the beginning of Season 2 Francis unceremoniously murders her (this isn’t his first murder; he gets that out of the way in the first season with Peter Russo, a congressperson whom Francis uses as a pawn in his elaborate plan to get himself appointed to the Vice Presidency). The focus shifts to a colleague of Zoe’s, Lucas Goodwin, who does his best to uncover Francis’s conspiracies but ends up in prison on cyber-terrorism charges. The journalist plot gets dropped for a while, and then it comes back in the fourth season when Zoe and Lucas’s old editor Tom Hammerschmidt picks up the trail after Lucas dies in an attempt to assassinate Francis following his release from prison under witness protection (I don’t know how this plays out yet).
The journalists follow a structure that almost lines up with the traditional format of presenting one major threat to the hero each season, but the inversion where it’s Francis’s bid for more and more power that are jeopardized by people who are trying to do the right thing is a remarkably compelling one. I remember when I watched the first season a few years ago that I was struck by just how evil I thought the Underwoods were, and for all that I couldn’t help finding their relationship compelling enough to make me want to see them succeed.
Of course, they can’t succeed. Even with a show as deeply cynical as House of Cards, it’s not realistic to expect that the series will end without Francis getting his full comeuppance for all the things he’s done. The show’s title even implies that things are so precarious, and as with a real house of cards, part of the fun is waiting to see it collapse. Eventually, someone is going to figure out what Francis has done (and Claire too, though she’s made much more sympathetic in the the third and fourth seasons) and pin it to him in a way he can’t escape. The weird irony is that even knowing this is the just way to end the show, I still prefer to see more of the backstabbing and manipulation and absurd power plays that have no basis in reality before everything comes crumbling down.