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.