Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Epiphany #14

No spoilers, I promise.  If you haven't seen Season 2 of House Of Cards, you may read on without worry.

Given that my wife was one of the 2% of Netflix viewers who "binged" by watching House Of Cards, Season 2 straight through, and given that even I, who seemingly eschews all trendy behaviors, find myself having finished that second season a mere 10 days after its release (13 episodes in 10 days), I've been pondering what it all means.

The pleasures of watching House Of Cards, it seems to me, are threefold.  At least.

First, House Of Cards has those Shakespearean overtones that give a work these days instant credibility.  Frank and Claire Underwood  are, in essence, Iago married to Lady Macbeth, though which one is more truly evil and which one is more cravenly ambitious might make for an interesting discussion over multiple beers sometime.  If anything, Season 2 plays with classical Shakespearean dramatic elements even more, taunting the audience with Frank's asides, driving us to the edge with the rampant use of dramatic irony, watching all of the seeds planted in Season 1 bear fruit.  House Of Cards truly is "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing," except to remind us that we all have that ambitious part of us, at least from time to time, that can command all of our other aspects into its service.

Second, the series seems to give us that inside look at our government that we all think we want.  It is government as NASCAR, with plenty of wrecks that are hard to look away from, no matter how we might cringe.  Even from its "reductive" perspective (just as on other shows like 24 or The West Wing, top national leaders seem to have only two or three people on their staffs, seem to have only a very, very few people whom they confide in, have just a few underlings who have far more individual authority and flexibility on a whole range of issues from economic to geopolitical), the show gives us the reassurance that this is, indeed, what the corridors of power look like.  We see the backroom dealing, the quid pro quo, the strong-arming and blackmailing, the wheedling and cajoling for sure, but we also see the agendas of Frank and Claire in particular when they are at home, alone, sharing a cigarette, and plotting the fate of the free world purely for their own advancement.  We see how the private drive the public, how the sexual determines the political, how what happens off the clock and away from those very powerful corridors is where the real action is.  House of Cards is about how, why, and where the plots are hatched more than it is about the outcomes, which almost become a kind of predestination by the time they reach fruition.

And finally, the Netflix series offers a wise, if cynical, view of humanity.  However improbable the plot lines might become, however much the way things play out might push the boundaries of possibility (not too far, not too far), the writers' understanding of human nature is unwaveringly accurate.  For those of us who think ourselves decent human beings, the show confirms that we are sheep, easily led sheep.  We do not want to know, as Szymboska said, "precisely the kind of world that we live in."  We refuse to believe that evil could be that evil, that one human being would so carelessly destroy the life of another, figuratively or literally.  For those of us who are schemers in our own rights, the show lays bare our methods and ploys.  But, lest we worry that this exposure somehow undermines our future plans, we need only remind ourselves of the vast herds of sheep moving around us.  All we need worry about are those few other wolves, and how we must defeat them.

So, beware:  a bingeing on House Of Cards has its consequences.  One cannot view episodes late into the night and expect that Frank and Claire will not haunt one's dreams.  Indeed, and much scarier than waking from one of those dreams, one cannot walk through the corridors of one's own workplace, watching the small, barely political machinations of a business or an institution, without the Underwoods' manipulations coloring the lenses of every interaction.  House Of Cards will make you look behind the motive of every decision whose process never sees the light of day, and then it will make you wonder why the decision-maker allowed you to see as much as you saw.

Maybe, after this examination, "pleasure" is the wrong word to describe how you might feel about what you just watched.

1 comment:

Robert Berman said...

Sometimes cynicism is what optimists call realism. There is a certain pleasure in seeing your worst fears confirmed, even if one such fear is that the best we can hope for in government is public servants whose personal interests happen to align with the needs of their constituents.