Note: This article contains spoliers from the second season of House of Cards.
William Shakespeare’s Richard III has sat on my bookshelf gathering dust all summer. In the spirit of those lackadaisical few months before a return to Georgetown, who needs the Bard when you have Netflix—especially when one of the site’s best original offerings, the Emmy-lauded House of Cards, not only draws inspiration from Shakespeare’s work but takes place in the very city on a hill we Hoyas call home? It’s often assumed that attending college in DC grants one a kind of insider knowledge on the various political intrigues that flare up from time to time in our nation’s capitol. Coming back is a prime opportunity to reflect on this city’s uniquely mediated image in American society—one in which both news media (be it fair and balanced or otherwise) and the fictive realm of televised entertainment hold sway in equal measure over popular imagination.
Through Kevin Spacey’s chilling performance as U.S. Congressman turned Vice President turned President Frank Underwood, House of Cards indulges the most modern of our political cynicisms. Underwood’s Southern-accented, fourth-wall-breaking audience asides emphasize just how much issues of tyranny, backdoor wheeling-and-dealing, and both metaphorical and literal backstabbing have come to define the public perception of Washington at a time when American confidence in government has hit rock bottom.
The series has also keenly interwoven contemporary issues in American politics, from education to environmentalism (Underwood’s wife, Claire, played by an icy Robin Wright, works for a clean water nonprofit), tensions with China, and even political gaffes that are increasingly familiar as media becomes ever more ubiquitous. In what could be dubbed a breaking of the fifth wall, the show and its cast have also cleverly acknowledged both the honest and satirical nature of these parallels with reality in some fairly shameless ways.
The fascination with unmasking the ugly underbelly of DC’s vaunted political rhetoric House of Cards traffics in is not new, but the method of its exploration is. The West Wing—in many ways House of Cards’ DC-based dramatic forebear—satiated jaded Democratic viewers saddled by eight years of George W. Bush with an overall message of hope and consolation. House of Cards, by contrast,has answered its audience’s mounting mistrust of Washington not with a salve but with the chilling affirmation that, at least in fictional DC, things really are as bad as we fear.
At the same time, we as an audience perversely root for Underwood even as his machinations stir objection from our more moralizing faculties. Indeed, his tactics belie an almost libertarian, Ayn Rand-esque notion of rugged egoism—notions popular both in certain political circles and in common political discourse. As a subversive force, Underwood is fundamentally about advancing his own ends by whatever up-by-the-bootstraps means necessary—whether that requires skirting the system or skirting the law.
So what does all this mean for we who count Washington as at least a temporary home? The enduring lesson of House of Cards is not that DC is a place for the lucky, the privileged, or the entitled, but rather that it is a town survivable only by those hardscrabble fighters willing to do what it takes to claw their way to the top. Underwood’s genius is not his ability to outthink his opponents but instead, through sheer dogged determination and raw ambition, to outlast them. At the end of the second season, however, the warped ethics that underlie the façade of his public face have begun to show through. Ultimately, it may be that power, even for the most powerful man in the world, is as tenuous, delicate, and fleeting as, well, a house made of cards. In that sense, it’s hard not to view the show as a cautionary tale, one whose third act of retributive Shakespearean comeuppance has yet to play out. But it’s also a warning, albeit a caricatured one, about the darker lure of ambition in this town—something many a Georgetown student would do well to take to heart.
Photo: IMDB, Nick Billingsly