House of Cards: A Tragedy for Our Moment

Opining about House of Cards is a cottage industry of sorts these days, so I must endeavor here to say something you good folks couldn’t read elsewhere.  So I advance this hunch: like any good tragedy, House of Cards is the sort of entertainment that rewards learning without requiring it and lets those inclined to repent of sins do so without necessarily alienating those who think they have none to confess.  The show’s genius, therefore is its attention to precisely what might (but not necessarily) inspire fear and pity.

Whether folks (like Plato’s Socrates) become uneasy about a tragedy’s unhealthy sway over the soul or (like Aristotle) celebrate its power to shape souls for the better, the tragic, whether the sorts that one watched at the City Dionysia in Athens or the sorts that folks in Shakespeare’s Globe would have heard or the sorts that Arthur Miller put on stage in New York City, is the sort of narrative that, traditionally, puts on the spectacle of a good person’s downfall for the entertainment of the crowds, to be sure, but also to subvert the sense of calm and confidence that many of us experience as the day-to-day routine sets and and leaves us numb to the death that always lies around the next corner.  (For this reason, I have a hunch that Martin Heidegger likely might approve of the tragic, though I’ve not read his opinions either way.)

But the twenty first century is inhospitable soil for the tragic: because so much of our popular culture is governed by attitudes of jaded detachment and of boredom as a default, a tragic story in the old mold always runs the risk of becoming a punchline, not always because of faults in the storyline itself but because, as readers and viewers, many of us still mistrust what folks in days gone by might have called “sincerity” in our main characters.  (Theorists of the Metamodern hypothesize that “quirky” stories might be a departure of a sort from the boredom of the postmodern, but even they acknowledge that folks in 2014 have a rough time maintaining sincerity for very long before lapsing back into what they call “irony.”)  Again, my hunch, as someone who has enjoyed the show, is that precisely by deferring the audience’s ability to identify with the main characters as friends, House of Cards crafts a tragedy for the twenty-first century viewer.

The Tamburlaine that We Deserve

When I watched the first few episodes of season one (there are some small spoilers through here, but I’m going to try to avoid huge plot turns that will ruin one’s viewing experience), the most obvious tragic echo there was with Othello‘s Iago.  Frank Underwood was going to be the ensign wronged, passed over for promotion for reasons sensible enough to the one promoting but unacceptable to him.  What’s more, Underwood has the habit, like Iago, of breaking away from the characters on screen with him, sometimes for one line but sometimes for relatively long speeches, to tell the audience exactly how he’s about to lure his fellow Washington politicians into precisely the spot where he needs them to stand so that he can step on them and climb a bit higher.  A reasonable viewer could speculate that other characters, be they Congresswomen or reporters or public-relations agents or the President of the United States, could be giving analogous speeches, but Underwood’s unique prerogative to address the audience directly keeps the show focused and provides some of the dramatic tension as events, some unknown to Underwood himself, either play into or threaten to torpedo the plots that he lays down.

As episodes go by, however, the tragic echoes multiply.  Sometimes Underwood brings himself into sexual proximity to dangerous characters for the sake of his own pleasure but also to increase his leverage, not unlike Aaron from Titus Andronicus or Edmund from King Lear or, for that matter, like Richard III.  In other moments, Hamlet-like, he takes on the role of the idiot so that rivals and other menaces slip up and lend him advantage.  He’s as willing to plot against those close to him as the Cardinal from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and as ready to turn the public against his personal enemies as Antony in Julius Caesar.  And like Marlowe’s Barabbas, the Jew of Malta, he operates in a world filled with corruption and power-grabs, and he’s always only one step away from being trapped in the same web that he’s been weaving.

But the tragic echoes that strike me most, now that I’m several episodes into the second season (I promise again, no spoilers) are Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost.  Both of those characters are, among their peers, unstoppable.  Both seem able, in any moment governed by the rules of the games they play so well, to turn events, even those which would destroy a lesser man (or angel), into personal advantages.  And neither one, as far as I can tell, has any sort of ultimate good after which he strives.  Tamburlaine and Satan are the sorts of characters that take Machiavelli’s notion of the duplicitous prince and put legs on it, that make necessary, centuries later, the theories of the will-to-power that will feature so prominently in Nietzsche’s theories of moral history.  And importantly (no spoilers, I promise), both characters ultimately run up against divine opponents that even the cleverest created being cannot surmount.

Tamburlaine rises from regional warlord to unstoppable military force, defeating Muslim armies and Christian alike, putting one opponent after another under his boot until, finally, a wasting disease does him in.  What horses and spears could not do, divine intervention does.  Milton’s Satan, of course, overcomes his fellow-demons, fools the guards at Eden’s border, wins over the loyalty of Eve with his slick rhetoric, and destroys the very image of God in Adam through his own powers of hypocrisy, but ultimately he lacks the power even to forestall the divine fiat that transforms him and the rest of the devils into dust-eating serpents.  Like his Marlovian counterpart, Satan finds out in the end that being the most powerful among creatures ultimately cannot satisfy the truly ambitious, and that overreach is what dooms each.

I note the ends of those two tragic characters (and yes, you who are about to comment that Paradise Lost has a narrator and thus is not tragic but epic, I recognize the generic quibble) because, for the House of Cards viewer with some learning, the expectation arises early and lingers that Frank Underwood will find ways to neutralize, intimidate, and otherwise defeat any enemy foolish enough to confront him, whether elected officials or lobbyists or reporters.  But on the edges of the House of Cards world, whether in the soundtrack or whether in some other intangible but undeniable place, I get the sense as I watch that Frank and Claire Underwood are still doomed, whether they acknowledge it or not, and part of the appeal of the show is guessing which moments will begin the slide into destruction and which will merely be the next obstacle overcome.

Thus one of my initial ideas: even if one watches House of Cards without any background in Renaissance tragedy, Nietzsche’s philosophy, or Milton’s poetry, the tension is still there, and one can enjoy the characters and the fast-paced plot without them.  But with that learning, even without positing a similar body of learning among the show’s writers and producers (though it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some English and philosophy majors in that writing room), the show takes on a richness beyond the realities explicitly named on-screen, and what’s more, a learned viewer can see a bit more clearly the subtle departure from Renaissance tragedy, dramatic and narrative, that makes the show a specifically postmodern tragedy.

The Guilty Thrill, or Fear and Pity for the Jaded and Numb

If you think that Aristotle is mainly concerned with catharsis in his discussion of the tragic, you’ve been reading too much Freud.  What Aristotle’s text returns to, over and over again, is not whether or not the audience at a Euripides tragedy gets cleaned but whether or not they experience fear and pity.

Such a concern makes sense in a cultural and religious context that does not allow any strong separation between the civic and the spiritual.  When an Athenian audience, according to Aristotle, sees Antigone choose familial piety over deference to the gods-approved ruler of the city, what they see is not the genuine goods of family contending with the genuine goods of local community; on the contrary, since for Aristotle there can be only one genuine good, what happens in a tragedy is the audience’s identification with the characters’ hamartiaor missing the mark.  Whatever is going on within the drama, someone has overemphasized one sort of loyalty over another or failed to pay proper respect to what is really good, and thus the characters face their doom.  In the audience, the proper emotional responses to such mark-missing destruction are the fear that one could likewise become deluded and pursue one’s own deadly fate; and pity for the character that allows one to live in solidarity with one’s fellow-citizens even when they need the help of the city to re-order their own sense of what’s ultimately good.  So against Plato, for whom tragedy stirs the most unruly emotions and thus threatens the order of a city, for Aristotle tragedy stands to be an ordering force, a public event that reminds everyone present of the difficulty of living together and prepares us to face the next day of life-in-the-polis as the complex challenge that it is.

Frank Underwood will allow none of that.

I’m going to do some literary criticism here in the mode of confessing my sins, so if you’re inclined to think of literary reading as detached from experience, I do apologize.  But when I watch the Underwoods’ adventures, whether they’re one-episode plots or whether they’re stories that take up half the season or more, I experience on-screen events differently in the moment from how I do when I stop to reflect later.  Early in the morning, when I wake up to prepare to go to work, I can hold the previous night’s episode (we watch one a night; no binging for us!) at arm’s length and analyze the power-dynamics and plot moves that made the previous night’s episode interesting.

But that’s not all I’m aware of.  I also know that, in the process of watching the episode, I was rooting for Claire Underwood to crush her enemies.  I was holding my breath to see if Frank would escape the latest chess move that his most recent opponent had attempted.  In other words, I know, when I wake up, that I spent the previous evening in those characters’ heads, and I loved it.  I don’t think that such identification is a function of “realism” in any naive sense: after all, even Aristotle knew that poetic mimesis was not simply identical with the world to which the mirror points.  Instead, a one-hour episode of House of Cards takes the desires that I keep under wraps, with greater or lesser degrees of success, during my working day and plays them out at high speed, letting me enjoy living inside the heads of characters for whom the cold and willful and sometimes murderous pursuit of advantage has no moral baggage.  I get to be Machiavelli’s Prince, or at least ride along and watch what it’s like to be such a figure, and then turn off the computer and go to sleep.

So that’s my hunch regarding House of Cards.  In a twenty-first century moment, in which the spiritual and public are as intertwined as they ever have been, and in which we all hold the suspicion that the elected officials that pretend to be serving for the sake of the public are only playing with people’s lives out of a wretched sense of superiority, and in which we condemn such folks at the same time that we wish we could be there, Frank and Claire Underwood are our tragic protagonists, not for the sake of fear and pity but for the sake of the guilty thrill.  We can taste but not inhale, watch the dramas of power-grabbing and revenge-seeking unfold, and although I can pretend to stand in judgment the next morning, in the moment I’m enjoying it immensely.  And that’s the point: watching a character fall because of excess doesn’t do nearly the work for me that it might have done for my fifth-century-BC counterpart.  After all, our very political system rests on throwing other human beings under the bus, be they elected officials or CEO’s or school teachers or anyone else who’s a convenient target.  For a tragedy to do any work on me, in 2014, I’ve got to enjoy riding along, to identify so thoroughly with the characters that I know I’d do the same, and only then spring the trap.

It was early in the second season that I realized the nature of the trap.  After an episode dedicated to an especially brutal act of self-preservation, during which Frank Underwood never once speaks to the camera, the final shot of the episode has him looking into a mirror and, from the mirror, once again addressing the viewer: “Did you think I’d forgotten about you?”  That was when I realized that I had been Frank Underwood that whole time, when he destroyed lives and when he lied about doing so.  And it’s when I realized that the tag line on the Netflix home page, “He’s Bad for the Greater Good,” is itself a cruel joke.  Frank Underwood has nothing good at the end of the tunnel because the tunnel does not end.  Unlike an Aristotelian tragic protagonist, who overreaches while striving for some higher good, Frank and Claire seem to be in the game simply for the game; they never say and they never seem to order their lives towards anything like a vision of a future America, a notion of human community, or certainly any confession of God.

So there’s where House of Cards is acting like a tragedy: after all of my resistance to fear and pity in the old Athenian sense, I must eventually realize not that I might one day overreach going after goodness, like the poor sap on stage.  No, I must realize that, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t pursue goodness at all, that as an unrestrained agent, a figure so powerful that nothing in this world could ever oppose me, I would likely become a Tamburlaine or a Satan or even a Frank Underwood.  The closing scene of that episode, as the closing credits roll over cuff-links fashioned in the form of Frank Underwood’s initials, is the show’s great tragic reveal: you only think you’re not part of this.  But even up to the moment when the superhuman forces that do Frank Underwood in finally throw him down, although you’ll be cheering on his fall, you’ll know, somewhere that your jaded facade can’t hide from yourself, that you fell with him.

Frank Underwood indeed.

Now does all this thinking about tragedy and philosophy and even what’s implied here about a Calvinist notion of total depravity have to be in place in order for the show to be fun?  Not at all.  Does such a body of learning make the show fun in ways that it wouldn’t be if the learning weren’t there?  My hunch is yes.  Thus, for the tragedy-reading, philosophy-attempting, liberal-learned viewer like myself (and like our readers, I have a hunch), House of Cards turns out to lend a sort of pleasure that’s at the same time a function of the show and a function of our own learning.  And that, for what my word is worth, makes it a worthwhile word for all that.

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