'House of Cards' Keeps Scraping the Bottom of Evil's Barrel

After five seasons, it's high time the Underwoods' crimes come home to roost.
'House of Cards' Keeps Scraping the Bottom of Evil's Barrel
Image: Courtesy Netflix

This article contains potential spoilers for House of Cards, Seasons 1–5.

Netflix’s House of Cards is now in danger of overstaying its welcome. At five seasons, the story feels bloated, its characters stretched thin. Despite its largely depleted resources, however, there remain a few slender elements that could salvage the show. Though I rolled my eyes at the final episode’s open-ended conclusion, I’ll reluctantly concede that another season of House of Cards might restore some of the show’s bite.

With its muted color palette, finely crafted dialogue, and expert performances, House of Cards wears its prestige drama getup well, but that’s not enough. As the promising but lackluster Ozarkhas recently demonstrated, high production values don’t guarantee a story’s success, and House of Cards season 5 doesn’t quite convince us that what’s happening on its elaborate sets really matters.

The series has always struggled with one major challenge: How do you make a static character interesting? Francis (Frank) Underwood arrives onscreen as a fully-formed monster. From his callous killing of a wounded dog in the show’s opening scenes to his gleefully blasphemous antics in an empty sanctuary, we know immediately that Frank’s insatiable appetite for power is matched only by his ruthless ambition—that he’ll do anything to get what he wants. We may be horrified at the lengths to which he’ll go to secure his wishes, but we’re certainly not surprised.

Compare this to a show like Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, where we witness a moral transformation that’s as plausible as it is horrifying. (Gilligan pursues a similar trajectory in the stunning Better Call Saulprequel.) Hovering over all these current Jekyll-and-Hyde variations is the character of Tony Soprano—one of the most gloriously complex criminals to haunt television screens in recent years. What makes these characters so compelling is their volcanic dynamism. Like all of us, they’re inconsistent and riddled with contradictions. Moreover, they learn; they grow; they change. Frank Underwood, on the other hand, remains irremediably consistent.

While this dramatic predicament doesn’t necessarily preclude a compelling character study, it does tend to cater to a baser species of curiosity in the viewer. We often tune in to see just how far the character will go. In this sense, our interest in characters like Hannibal Lecter and Frank Underwood is more pathological than sympathetic. We want to see how inhuman a human can be.

Many of the show’s fans will no doubt counter that Claire Underwood more than compensates for her husband’s lack of dynamism. Though her character arc is a bit subtler (and greatly enhanced by Robin Wright’s impeccable performance), Claire ultimately brings us to the same dramatic impasse as her spouse; her malevolence is complete from the start of the show. When a former lover poses a threat to the couple’s hold on the Oval Office, she calmly arranges a tryst in a secluded location and poisons him to death. Once again, the act is both vile and utterly predictable. In crude terms, it was only a question of where and when.

This sense of predictability casts a shadow over the entire season, which begins with Frank’s campaign race against Republican newcomer, Will Conway. But any dramatic possibilities this competition might hold quickly evaporate as Frank and Claire settle into their familiar roles. In short, we already know how the race will end. We know that the couple will stop at nothing to consolidate their power, that they view the entire justice system as nothing more than an elaborate obstacle course, that votes will be rigged, and innocent blood will be shed. It’s not just that Frank’s ill-gotten victory over Conway is a foregone conclusion; it’s that we no longer care. Invulnerable characters are boring characters.

Of course, this conundrum isn’t lost on the show’s creators, and they try to rise to the challenge by playing up the vulnerability of Frank’s presidency once he’s defeated Conway. They succeed for one episode. In “Chapter 11,” plausible consequences begin to mount, mutual suspicions infect the White House, and Frank begins to show signs of real weakness. There are faint echoes of Walter White’s fatal lapse of reason when he falls into the trap of an enterprising gang of White Supremacists, and leads them right to the treasure. The myth of the super villain is smashed, and we see that evil wears a face that is “human, all too human,” to borrow Nietzsche’s damning phrase.

For one episode, it looks like Frank and Claire’s perfect track record of wickedness will collide with reality, and we’ll see them crumble like the fallible creatures they are. We watch in lurid fascination as the two erect a kind of digital panopticon in their festering fortress that, far from promoting greater loyalty, only inspires deeper suspicion and paranoia.

Sadly, all of these developments are swiftly undermined by a shallow twist that surprises us for all the wrong reasons: Frank has been the sole architect of his downfall all along, which comprises a series of calculated maneuvers designed to ensure that he meets his fate on his own terms. Frank’s wickedness remains invulnerable after all. We had hoped the show was growing up; what we get is more adolescence. Handing the presidency to Claire and solidifying the war between the couple only compounds the problem. Once again, we’re asking, “How far will they go?” when we should be asking, “How will they self-destruct?” If House of Cards is going to succeed, the Underwoods have to fail.

In this sense, one character can save the show—and by that, I mean restore a measure of realism and maturity to its increasingly sensationalistic tone. Crass, stubborn, and uncompromising, Tom Hammerschmidt (played with steely conviction by Boris McGiver) is a seasoned editor and a thorough investigative journalist with zero interest in idle speculation, empty fanfare, or vapid sensationalism. He only wants the truth, and he is calmly building a devastating case against the Underwoods. The show’s writers were wise to give his character more screen time, and they’ll be wiser still if they allow him to take more of a lead in the next (and let’s hope final) season. If there’s one man who can knock Frank and Claire off their pedestal of mythic evil, it’s Tom Hammerschmidt.

With the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt coined the infamous phrase “the banality of evil” to describe, among other things, the complex ways in which grave evil is depersonalized and diluted as it’s filtered through the multiple levels of the modern bureaucratic apparatus. In this context, atrocities are often overshadowed by policy and procedure and the actual culprits look more like middle managers than maniacs. Arendt reports that the team of psychiatrists that examined Adolf Eichmann at his trial found him to be both “normal” and “a man with very positive ideas.” Given the scale of Eichmann’s crimes, this pronouncement sounds like a sick joke. Here is a picture of evil that is decidedly more mundane than what we encounter in House of Cards, but it’s all the more chilling for that. Arendt’s phrase captures the central menace of the modern abuse of power—namely, the systematic evasion of moral responsibility coupled with lethal efficiency.

Frank’s exotic crimes might keep us returning to a show that should have ended three seasons ago, but they also impair its moral force. If House of Cards wants to move beyond titillation and offer a substantive critique of the dangers of unchecked power, it needs to make Frank and Claire look less outlandish and more “normal,” more like you and me.

At the moment, the main thing that distinguishes the couple from a Michael Myers or a Leatherface is their wardrobe. The Underwoods are reassuringly monstrous. In stark contrast, Eichmann is terrifyingly familiar. House of Cards might justify another season if it can convince us that its two paragons of evil are more like Eichmann than horror villains.

In the unflattering words of Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Though House of Cards may make the mistake of presenting evil in an exaggerated light, Christians will be the first to recognize the sobering fact that the wickedness of the human heart is actually a lot more down-to-earth.

Cameron McAllister is a speaker and writer with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). He lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, Heather. You can find him online @cammcallister7 on Twitter, and listen to him talk about signs of life in today's culture on the Vital Signs podcast.

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'House of Cards' Keeps Scraping the Bottom of Evil's Barrel