The most remarkable thing about House of Cards, at this point, is that it hasn’t ended yet.
The first season was great – the story of an ambitious, scheming, and profoundly immoral political couple, which afforded the audience an inside view of the workings of American politics. By the end of Season 2, it became apparent that we were dealing with a classic rise-and-fall tale, which I initially assumed would end in Season 3. Just as The Godfather trilogy is the story of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, and the George Lucas Star Wars hexology is the rise and fall and last-minute redemption of Anakin Skywalker, so did House of Cards set out to show the arc of Frank and Claire Underwood, whose Machiavellian misdeeds cry out for justice in almost every episode, like those of any other Hollywood villain we’ve ever seen on the screen.
Except that, as of the end of Season 5, they still haven’t gotten their comeuppance. We’re still waiting for the good guys to win – hell, we’re waiting for the good guys to show up. Why? Are the producers just stretching out a successful show because there’s more money to be made? Probably. But perhaps there is also a larger analogy to real life, and realpolitik, to be understood by this lack of resolution.
From the beginning, it was obvious that the Underwoods were modeled on the Clintons – a southern Democratic couple with a very unconventional marriage that seems cemented more by mutual lust for power than by love for each other, at least as most people understand love. Claire even looks like a more attractive version of Hillary, complete with a more attractive Huma Abedin played by Neve Campbell.
The kinds of scandals that House of Cards dramatizes are not terribly different from those that have surrounded the Clintons for decades, since Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. Aside from endless stories of rampant infidelity by both parties, there are the more serious allegations of murders and cover-ups. During the Clinton presidency, it was Vince Foster. Much more recently, it is Seth Rich, the Democratic staffer who is believed by some to be the source of the leaked Podesta emails, who was murdered in July of last year. The murder remains unsolved.
House of Cards first aired during Barack Obama’s second term, and it was easy to simply imagine it as an alternate reality in which the Clintons, or people like them, had merely been born twenty years later. But Season 5 marks the first time that House of Cards has aired during the Trump presidency, and the media has a very different attitude to the current Commander-in-Chief.
The mainstream media, and therefore most of the public, thought that Obama was more or less a decent guy, if not an outright saint. Everyone in left-leaning Hollywood just loved him and treated him as one of their own, and as for Republicans, even his opponent John McCain defended him as “a decent family man” to a woman who said that Obama was not to be trusted because “he’s an Arab.”
Can anyone imagine the media, or Democratic politicians, being even half as gracious to President Trump? Whereas “birtherism” and accusations of Obama being a closet Muslim were confined to the fringes of the right (which included, at the time, Donald Trump) and were never taken seriously by the media, the accusations that Trump is an evil nazi puppet of Vladimir Putin have been front-page headlines ever since the election. And whereas John McCain rushed to the defense of his establishment-favored opponent in 2008, he has repeatedly lashed out at Putin as “a murderer and a thug.” Ah, American diplomacy.
The Trump era has so far distinguished itself as the time when conspiracy theories went full mainstream. When Oliver Stone made JFK in the early 90s, he faced a YUGE media backlash for suggesting that the assassination had been the result of a conspiracy (even though that was exactly the conclusion of the last and most comprehensive government investigation of the crime). Now, the media still hates Stone, but it’s because he’s chummy with Putin, and dares to question the media’s conspiracy theory that Putin “hacked the election” and is in cahoots with Trump. (Bringing up the influence of the Israel lobby while being interviewed by Stephen Colbert probably didn’t help him much either.)
Season 5 of House of Cards is likewise the most conspiratorial yet. We see the Underwoods sinking to new lows, which I won’t recap here, except to say that it brings to mind James Gandolfini’s monologue about killing in True Romance: “The first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. But now? Now I do it just to watch their expression change.” The Chief Executive as mafia kingpin. President Underworld.
But it isn’t just the Underwoods who become more sinister in Season 5. The view of politics itself changes. One episode has Frank attending a secret conclave of wealthy movers and shakers, which is obviously based on the infamous Bohemian Grove. (I wonder, did they use Alex Jones’ clandestine footage to recreate the scene?) The “Deep State” also makes an entrance into the storyline, in the characters of Mark Usher and Jane Davis. Usher is the campaign manager for Frank’s opponent Will Conway, but it later becomes apparent that his true allegiance is to the unelected power structure, which is why he can seamlessly transition from Conway’s team to the Underwood administration. Davis is an even more interesting character, a kind of female James Bond, but with neither country nor morals. She seemingly allies herself with Claire Underwood, but we’re not really sure why, or for how long.
(Off topic, but whoever wrote the Jane Davis character is spot on with her statement that southeast Asia has the best instant coffee. Old Town White Coffee out of Malaysia is amazingly good.)
On the one hand, the increased conspiracy and intrigue on House of Cards makes perfect sense, as it merely reflects the new reality (or, at least, the new media reality) of the times. Art and life imitating each other again. But what are truly interesting are not the show’s similarities to real life, but the differences.
The mainstream media loves House of Cards, because it’s a great show, with great actors, directors, and writers. The mainstream media hates Donald Trump, and threw the entirety of its weight behind Hillary Clinton in 2016, a loss from which they still have not recovered. So why do they love a show that skewers the Clintons far worse than anything Mike Cernovich has ever said about them? The media establishment, which consolidates its power through the major networks and publications, which wars against any outside perspectives by labeling them as “fake news” or “conspiracy theories” or worse, simultaneously praises House of Cards, which portrays a world in which conspiracy theories are usually true, though that truth is always suppressed. The same media which dismisses, without any investigation whatsoever, any claims of government or corporate malfeasance that fall outside of its preexisting narrative, will praise a show that portrays the halls of power as being just as corrupt and evil as Alex Jones claims they are. Why?
The answer that will immediately come back is: “Because it’s only fiction.” And indeed, conspiracy theories have always made for good stories, as both Oliver Stone and Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, can attest. But whereas The X-Files always occupied a kind of media safe space (a safe outer space, the realm of the paranormal and supernatural) that made it largely immune from any charge that it was trying to make a statement about the way things really are, House of Cards is fictional only in name. It’s not portraying real people and events the way JFK was, but it’s based on a real place – Washington D.C. – and its real socio-political culture and ethos.
House of Cards is not acknowledged and praised because it’s good fiction – it’s praised because it’s true.
I don’t mean that it’s literally true, that it’s an accurate though fictionalized account of real events, as was claimed of the anonymous book about the Clintons, Primary Colors. Rather, House of Cards conveys deep truths about the nature of American and world politics which are off-limits in conventional discourse, and which are therefore relegated to the world of fiction. House of Cards is what Oliver Stone said about JFK: a counter-myth, counter to the reigning myth of the American political system. And it strikes a chord with audiences for the same reason JFK did: because, at some level, people know that the reigning myth is a lie.
The film critic Nicole Brenez, in her book about director Abel Ferrara, wrote:
“The treatment of historic evil requires the invention of filmic forms that express what is inadmissible in terms of behavior, morality, narrative, image, sound …. Provocative storylines (concerning murder, injury, apparent amorality, rape, and violence of every kind) are merely the currency of a structure of inadmissibility, the reign of injustice.”
This is what is happening in House of Cards. In a world in which truth is utterly subsumed by an endless barrage of fake news and simulacra, we are faced with what seems to be a paradox: fiction becomes a way of telling the truth.
This is actually nothing new. Stories, whether in new media like film and television, or older ones like books and songs, have always been a way for human beings to express things that somehow resist being expressed another way. This is especially true in Western civilization, in which our Holiest Book is literally a story, “the greatest story ever told.”
Of course, to the contemporary secular and cynical mind, a story by definition cannot be true, and so to refer back to our religious tradition is to merely peddle a different kind of fake news. The biblical story has been evaluated as history and found wanting. But the Christian tradition has long taught that there are layers of meaning and truth in a text, in a story, and the literal interpretation is the least important of these.
Christian tradition also provides us with another explanation for the existence of House of Cards: the need for confession, the heavy weight of sin on the soul, which in this case is our national soul, or even our global soul. Why does the Hollywood-Washington axis make a show that so obviously shows it for what it is in its essence, even if the details are fictionalized? For the same reason that Claire Underwood confesses her crimes to her lover Tom Yates. Because human beings are, at the end of the day, moral creatures, and cannot escape the cries of conscience, no matter how muted or mutilated they have become.
Underwood as Trump?
But there is another reason why it’s safe for the media to like House of Cards, besides the plausible deniability of “it’s only make believe.” Although the Underwoods began as Clintonesque, President Underwood has now become, for all intents and purposes, President Trump. In Season 5, Underwood implements a travel and immigration ban very similar to what Trump promised to do. Underwood steals the election – hacks it, actually – though without any help from Putin stand-in Viktor Petrov. Then there is President Underwood’s increasingly bombastic public speaking style, evident from the first episode of the season onward, which he explains to the camera (us) as pandering to the public’s desire for “action and slogans.”
Vanity Fair picked up on these Trump references and compiled their own handy list. I’m sure other publications have run with the Underwood-as-Trump meme as well. And who can deny that at least some of the comparisons are valid? Trump is outlandish. He grabs headlines, and makes his own. He swaggers and boasts and portrays himself as, in President Underwood’s words, “the strong man, the man of action.” But in doing all of this, can Trump not say, like Underwood in his resignation speech, that he is merely playing by the rules that already existed in politics and media, which everyone, including himself, helped to create?
What might happen is that House of Cards will end around the same time as the Trump presidency. If his opponents have their way, that will be through impeachment, or worse. At the same time, viewers will see President Underwood finally get his due for all the terrible things we’ve watched him do for the last five years. (And let’s concede Underwood’s point when he says to us: “Oh don’t deny it, you’ve loved it.”) Trump and Underwood will be largely equated in the public mind, and that public mind will quiet once again because, in both the real world and the reel world, the bad guy has been punished, and once again, all is well.
Who will remember that the Underwoods were not Donald Trump, but Bill and Hillary Clinton? Who will care that what will have taken place was in no way a rectification of the system, but merely another scapegoating, a political sleight of hand as old as human civilization itself?
Only an inconsequential few. And Washington will go on being, in the words of President Underwood, “a bunch of self-serving, money-hungry, boot-licking, power-seeking politicians who can be seduced, or sucker-punched, or blackmailed into submission.”