by Francis Adams
As the newest season of Netflix’s hit show House of Cards has come and almost surely gone now for most—those of us, that is, who have become accustomed to letting this mysterious force come and conquer two days of our lives each year—I deem it important to pause and reflect upon what has just happened to us.
In my case, this kind of reflection was prompted by a fortuitous occurrence. While interning last year at a literary agency in Union Square, Manhattan, I popped into St. Francis Xavier Church on West 16th Street on a random Thursday and met one of the writers of the show, a Jesuit priest by the name of Bill Cain. He is an amazingly friendly person who came up to me and introduced himself as I sat alone in a pew. We got to talking; he told me he was a writer; I asked him what he’d written; he responded by listing off several Broadway plays, network TV shows, and then—the jaw-dropper—House of Cards. I was a bit star-struck, and blurted out something to the effect of, “Woah, cool! I love that show!” He shrugged it off, though, and appeared reluctant to talk about it. I asked him later about this and he said that he had actually quit writing for Netflix because they were cutting out much of his material, and that, “Nobody is doing any real seeking on that show.” Now, at this point I had gotten to know him pretty well, and it surprised me that a man of such impish wit and penchant for provocation (his controversial ABC show, Nothing Sacred, pails in comparison to some of his homilies); a Jesuit, in other words, who pushes the “God in all things” maxim to a point beyond which many of us are comfortable, would say something so univocal and absolute.
“Surely there is something of God, something of spiritual worth, in House of Cards, right? Why else do people watch it?” I thought, perhaps naively.
This was back in Season 2; now I see his point.
For me, the biggest change that occurred in the series over the last two seasons has been that Frank and Claire Underwood have gone from partners aspiring for absolute power to those who have acquired it. The problem this poses for the writers is this: what do you do with two characters once they’ve acquired their object of desire—once they’ve risen to the top, in the Underwoods’ case? I get the sense that the writers did not fully anticipate this problem because it remains very much unclear, in the fourth season especially, why they want to be elected President and Vice President. They’re certainly not in it for serving the common good, or even because they think it will make them happy. They are addicted to power, plain and simple. Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing a story about people like that—they do exist, after all, and they have a way of succeeding in politics scarily enough. But if “desire for power for its own sake” is going to be the protagonists’ object of desire, the forces of antagonism that work to complicate their pursuit of it need to aspire toward more noble ideals, in my opinion, for the show to be at all worth watching. The characters that fit this role are few (Heather Dunbar and Tom Hammerschmidt are the only ones that come to mind) and they are given scant, surface-level treatment in relation to the show’s many fascinatingly complex, yet nefarious characters that vie for power with the Underwoods. The result is a show that remains spiritually hollow, one in which the reckless pursuit of power dominates the narrative and any aspirations toward virtue are crushed in its wake. This is not to say that there are not redeeming qualities to the show; this season is as shrewdly and thrillingly written and as aesthetically flawless as ever. It contains some truly fantastic acting: Ellen Burstwyn’s performance as Claire’s mother, Joel Kinnaman as Will Conway, and Paul Sparks as Tom Yates were especially compelling. In the end, though, based on what my friend said about the decision to cut his material, it seems that the producers of the show do not intend to satisfy our deeper philosophical and spiritual yearnings. So, if you are not a follower of the show, don’t worry—you’re not missing all that much.