TV shows are not real life. Everybody knows this but that doesn’t stop us from being affected by them. From our sense of what is “cool” or “normal” to our beliefs about the way things work, or the way things ought to work. As I highlight in my film, Conspiracy Theorists Lie (2015), we are bombarded with images of people being shot and their bodies being violently thrown from the impact. In real life, however, the impact of a small bullet ripping through a human body does not push that body significantly or noticeably, as we have been conditioned to believe. The same is true for so many things. For example, have you ever heard of a breech birth? Where the baby is trying to come out feet first. If you watch any television you certainly have. You might even think it’s a common occurrence, because it is so common on screen. Or, a more serious example, despite the fact that crime has been mostly on the decline since the late 1990s, the inundation of criminal acts on fictional shows and news programs leads people to believe that there is no regard for law and order anymore, and they vote accordingly.
Which brings me to the latest (the fifth) season of Netflix’s political thriller, House of Cards (2013-). A couple years ago I heard the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, say that it isn’t really a program about contemporary America, or The Clintons, or anything people tend to apply to it. It’s more of a Shakespearian drama; think of the recklessly ambitious couple from Macbeth or the bitter and self-destructive Iago in Othello. I can see that but the show certainly touches on truths and perpetuates falsehoods about American politics that feel very contemporary. So much so that longtime Congressman Barney Frank specifically called out the show in his biography, Frank, for gravely distorting the general public’s understanding of Washington.
I’ve had the same assessment of House of Cards since the first season; really well done, with compelling actors but over the top in pushing the boundaries of my disbelief. With the latest season it has only gotten worse. As if every ambitious politician has at least one horrendous skeleton in their closet (like participating in a gang rape in college) and every Washington power player has former Special Forces soldiers on the payroll who can be called at a moment’s notice to dispose of a murder victim; no questions asked. If we lived in such a corrupt state of affairs it would not be endlessly hiding in the shadows; it would have long since disintegrated into open warfare or dictatorship, akin to Ancient Rome of Weimar Germany.
Consider the most infamous instance of political corruption in American History, Watergate. There are several candid and inappropriate comments made by President Nixon and his staff (they were clearly speaking freely on those tapes) but none of them ever considered killing anyone, committing bodily harm to anyone, or even threatening such a thing. At their worst, the President was told that it might take a million dollars to pay off the people arrested in the botched break in, and stop them from talking publicly. Nixon’s answer, “I know where we can get a million dollars,” was inexcusable and beneath the dignity of his office but it is also extremely mild compared to the routine machinations in every season of House of Cards.
Unfortunately, most people seem to be far more familiar with the characters and storylines in House of Cards, Scandal (2012-), 24 (2001-2010), etc. than they are acquainted with actual history. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that everyone needs to be a history buff, or that it’s wrong to enjoy such fictional tales as these, but there is a problem when people think they know history because they know fiction. When they take for granted the “fact” that a cabal of, “deep state,” “MSM” [mainstream media], international bankers, scientists, and/or historians are all colluding to hide reality from us and protect the puppet masters who secretly run everything.
Having said all this, allow me to take the other side of the argument, to a limited degree. All art is an artificial representation of the world but it usually gets something right, particularly on an emotional level (e.g. a love story makes you long for the couple to get together, a revenge story makes you feel like the protagonist deserves revenge). If it wasn’t believable in some way it wouldn’t be worth experiencing. Besides the emotions that House of Cards stirs up (Will he get caught? I hope he gets what he has coming to him. What will they do next? etc.) there was a rather profound and relevant underlying truth to this season. *Spoiler* When the Underwoods decide to mess with the electoral process, hiding behind an inflated and misrepresented threat of terrorism, and go so far as to stop people from voting altogether, it is clear that a line has been crossed and it is democracy itself, not just a particular political opponent, that they are trying to destroy. For me, it felt much like what the Russians are trying to do to us in real life, and it was sickening. I guess that’s why I couldn’t buy into President Underwood’s (Spacey’s) “Everybody does it” speach to the Congressional Committee. Politics is ugly and few politicians live up to the Mr. Smith ideal, but that doesn’t mean that they are all equally bad or that it’s all worthless and meaningless.
And that brings me to Donald Trump (don’t tell me you’re surprised). The fact that we have a President Trump is not as bad as a President Underwood but it’s reasonably reminiscent of the Underwood mindset. Trump many not have engaged in any criminal conspiracies (time will tell) but he has denigrated the electoral system and professional journalism for his own, destructive gain. From his public calls encouraging the Russians to hack Secretary Clinton’s emails to his refusal to admit that the national security experts know what they are talking about to his labeling of all negative press as, “fake news,” while praising actual fake news outlets, like InfoWars, there is nothing admirable or advantageous to the republic in his behavior. Like the fictional Frank Underwood, Trump is all about Trump, and the nation be damned if it gets in his way.
Final note on the internal logic of House of Cards, separate from any connections to the real world. *Spoiler* I didn’t buy Frank Underwood giving up the Presidency for some vague plan to control things on the outside, “Where the real power is,” or whatever nonsensical justification he gave. It was totally out of character and not emotionally satisfying. Frank wanted to be President more than anything I wanted to see his house of cards fall. That’s the story I signed up for. He needed to crash and burn, not flippantly turn on a dime and step aside for a Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) Presidency and another season.