Some Thoughts on the Second Season of House of Cards

February 17, 2014 § 2 Comments

One of the things I like most about the human experience is how complicated everything is. There are a few issues, behaviors, and attitudes that are clearly this or that [insert your favorite binary here], but the vast majority of our time on earth is spent hovering between the this and the that. Our relationships, even the solid ones, are often complicated and strange; we are rarely presented with completely obvious, clear-cut choices; and everything we do is covered in layer upon layer of emotions that half the time we can’t identify, even when they’re our own, and which further muddle the above two points. It is just a shitshow, and I say that in the best possible sense.

But as comfortable as I am with grey areas IRL, I do appreciate the occasional black and white binary on TV — which is why I’ve so enjoyed watching the first two seasons of House of Cards (Chris and I finished streaming Season 2 last night). Unlike other shows featuring complicated lead (usually male) characters (that’s bullshit by the way, the world needs more representations of complicated female villains — and being a shitty mother or husband-stealing sex monster doesn’t count, those are just one-dimensional caricatures), House of Cards doesn’t soften the edges of their otherwise unlikable characters by inserting an ultimately human, if tragically wounded, center. The people on this show are terrible to their core, and those few who aren’t terrible to their core suffer terrible consequences.

There is something so refreshingly straightforward about this arrangement. Everyone is bad; everyone is selfish. Everyone –at least, everyone who emerges victorious– is ruthlessly pragmatic, and capable of committing moral atrocity after moral atrocity without breaking a sweat. Yes there are people like this in real life, but it’s a rare human who doesn’t have something you could empathize with, even if ultimately you want nothing to do with them interpersonally, and/or would feel more comfortable if they were in prison. And I suppose there are brief moments in House of Cards where these cracks do show for a half second or so, just long enough to confirm that the main characters do indeed understand the difference between right and wrong, and may even care, at least to the extent that they don’t want to be caught in a tangle of lies (how inconvenient, first of all) — but ultimately they reject these better angels. What they want is, at least from their perspective, more important than what anyone else might want, so…deal with it, bigger fish to fry, eye on the prize, and so on.

In this way, House of Cards is almost the perfect inversion of Ricky Gervais’ Derek, which is every bit as honest and straightforward and simple, just on the opposite end of the ethical spectrum. In the universe of Derek, people always say exactly what they mean, harbor nary an ulterior motive, and are fundamentally good — perhaps just as rare a combination of traits as the purely “bad” characters on House of Cards. In reality, very few people are EITHER saints OR devils, but that’s how the world works in these two shows. And it’s fun to watch, because neither thing is true.


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