As the executive branch of the U.S. government spirals into chaos, Netflix’s House of Cards is more relevant than ever—for what it says about the real seats of American power and for the challenges it poses to viewers (mostly “liberal elites” like me).
The popular political drama launches its fifth season today, and the talking points have already crystalized. How will the series respond to Trump-era nationalism, and the phenomena of “post-truth” and “fake news?” And how might fictional president Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, mirror America’s real (or reality TV) president?
Surely there is nothing that Underwood could do on screen that would shock or surprise audiences, given the current political climate. This is an America where morality is deeply subjective; where a celebrity billionaire made reprehensible, sexually aggressive comments about women and then became President of the United States.
The major characters in House of Cards are amoral. They seek only to advance their individual agendas, and, like Trump, they feel that they “can do anything” without consequence.
So what is the show’s appeal, then? Who are we rooting for or identifying with?
There’s the argument that audiences are susceptible to televisual Stockholm syndrome and root for the Underwoods within the show’s bankrupt moral economy. Other viewers might just enjoy the outstanding performances and clever, suspenseful writing. Nevertheless, I think viewers recognize some home truths, which are particularly acute in the new world order.
Perhaps a more interesting question is: Do we feel that the program’s unrelenting malaise is located solely in the corrupted sites of American power that it dramatizes, and that morality is alive and well elsewhere in the nation? Or, is it inviting audiences to reflect on their own complicity in this malaise as we/they sit on the sofa while “alternative facts” propel the White House?
I would argue that the power and appeal of House of Cards is down to the latter. Two of the program’s defining features support this claim: its ongoing discussion of the ways the American public is manipulated by the powerful, and its use of “breaking the fourth wall” to directly address viewers. These features carry a certain urgency in the age of Trump, and it even feels like his administration is actually drawing from House of Cards.
Chaos and fear
For example, one of Trump’s recent actions came straight from the Underwood playbook. During the last season’s finale, Underwood diverted attention from a series of scandals that were devouring his campaign by turning the public’s attention to the War on Terror (the main enemy was referred to as the ISIS-esque ICO—Islamic Caliphate Organization). Just as the house of cards seems poised to collapse, Frank and his wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright, decide to “create chaos” and “fear.” “We can work with fear,” Claire concludes.
Creating chaos and fear were at the heart of Trump’s presidential campaign, which was characterized by unexpected twists and turns that kept the news cycles moving. In April, after months of ignoring the genocide in Aleppo, the president decided to fire 59 missiles at Bashar al-Assad-controlled targets in Syria (he was allegedly moved by photos of child victims). Trump’s strike dominated the news and diverted attention from the investigation into his administration’s potential collusion with Russia during the campaign—an investigation that was putting unprecedented pressure on the credibility of the White House.
Diversion is hardly a new tactic, but Trump has taken it to a new level in a way that House of Cards has astutely picked up. Underwood and Trump have both repeatedly buried bad press and corrosive scandals by creating chaos or controversy elsewhere and manufacturing fear in the public imagination. In House of Cards, the ever-increasing extents to which citizens are manipulated about the most urgent, real-world political issues urges audience reflection.
Breaking the fourth wall
But House of Cards goes beyond the suggestive. The program’s hallmark stylistic conceit of President Underwood “breaking the fourth wall” gives it a device to deliver Underwood’s manipulation tactics even more directly to viewers. This device has been interpreted in many ways. Some critics have noted that it evokes early, modern-stage traditions. In particular, Frank Underwood is seen to evoke Shakespearian figures like Iago, Macbeth, or Richard the III who soliloquize about power, obsession, and greed.
House of Cards doesn’t really work as a contemporary tragedy, though. There are elements, but it is not as though Underwood begins a noble warrior like Macbeth and is corrupted by his pursuit of power—he is obsessed from the start.
The real power of these moments comes in the way they break the dramatic realism. Immersion in the story is halted and viewers are invited to reflect on the lines between fiction and reality.
The final lines of season four, when Frank and Claire both break the fourth wall, combine the two features of the show I am talking about: the dramatization of mass manipulation and the direct address to the audience. Frank and Claire tell us together: “We don’t submit to terror. We make the terror.”
House of Cards was launched in 2013, so it would, of course, be disingenuous of me to suggest that the series is a direct response to Trump. Underwood is a Democrat, after all, and many of the program’s characters mirror other real-world politicians in compelling ways. There is no doubt that it has evolved, though, and I would argue that it resonates much more strongly with real-world politics than it did in 2013. Season one’s murders and melodramatic moments were unrealistic, and though some residual implausibility remains, House of Cards seems to have locked into a firm engagement with the current political climate, sometimes in accidental ways.
Consider Trump’s posturing, as he explained the missile strikes at Syria. He described giving the order while eating the “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen” with Chinese President Xi Jinping—a very House of Cards moment. It evoked Underwood’s particular brand of hubris and his conspicuous relish of food: Underwood is always eating, whether it’s his favorite barbecued ribs or his habitual morning apple slices.
I hope that as the series develops, it will inspire more and more viewers to reflect on Trump’s project of disinformation and manipulation. Personally, I think there are better political dramas out there, but not many as popular and trenchant as House of Cards.
Arin Keeble is a lecturer in contemporary literature and culture at Edinburgh Napier University.