Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Heroes and House of Cards

Do we need our anti-heroes to be winners in order to love them?

Little Cuter posited that theory as we were waiting for another episode of House of Cards to load on Netflix. I'd mentioned that Ronni Bennett, over at Time Goes By, had given up on the series midway through the second episode of Season 3.  She thought it was boring.

Because I trust her judgment on other things, I wasn't rushing to watch it.  TBG and I were happy with March Madness.  We didn't need anything else to occupy our tv watching time.  But now we're visiting FlapJilly and her parents, the tournament is into its final weekend, and there are several hours each day when the baby naps.

House of Cards filled those gaps. We put it on during her first morning nap, and suffered along with Doug Stamper.  The episode was dark, slow, and depressing.  I began to think that Ronni and those commenting on her site were right.

Kevin Spacey's presidency continues to fail as the episodes go on.  Robin Wright seems to have lost her grip on what's possible, pushing herself into situations for which she is grossly unprepared.  Doug relapses.  Did I mention that the episodes are dark and depressing?

And yet, I'm intrigued.  Frank's rise to power was built on amorality. Murder, deception, and the destruction of others by manipulation and threats sent him to the Oval Office. Now that he's there, he has no base from which to govern.  He's going it alone, with only two soldiers - his chief of staff and his press secretary.  They, too, are beginning to fail him, but, as one points out, without them, he is truly alone.

It's that loneliness which enthralls em.  He's looking backwards with a biographer as he's looking forward to another campaign. As those stories unfold, his isolation becomes clearer and clearer. He loves his wife, but theirs is a curiously asexual relationship.  He loves his job, but lets a kid swivel in the chair behind his desk with remarkable detachment. He encourages visitors to use his first name in the Oval Office, somehow separating himself from the Presidency.

It's jarring.  I have a certain set of behaviors which I expect from those portraying my president; Frank Underwood ignores them all. He's losing control in the political arena, and that is mirrored in his personal relationships.  There's no place to look for success.

And that, I think, is what Little Cuter was getting to.  Kevin Spacey's character is unanchored.  He has a grand vision, but lacks the power to bring it to fruition.  He allows his wife to bully him into an appointment that was, from the beginning, a sure recipe for disaster.  He knew better, but he gave in. Without a sure moral compass, without support from his party, he deals with the Putin doppleganger alone.

That's not a place anyone wants to be, and House of Cards makes that abundantly clear.  Francis Underwood is losing in every corner of his life, and it's hard to watch.

But, that doesn't detract from the quality of the show.  I disagree with Ronni and those who commented on her blog post.  I don't find it boring. I find it depressing and frightening and unbearably sad, but it's not boring.  It's hard to cheer for a sociopath, but I am.  I don't need him to win, and that's where Little Cuter's notion of the successful anti-hero comes in.

Breaking Bad had the nation rooting for the meth cookers.  Walter White was a high school teacher, a father, a husband, and a drug lord..... and, perhaps because he was dying, we wanted his empire to succeed.

True, he was planning to leave a nest egg for his family, rather than seeking gold to enrich himself; perhaps that makes him more heroic than Frank Underwood. I cheered as Walter became Heisinger, the king of meth cookers.  I shared the ironic joy with friends - he was creating drugs which ruined lives and I loved him.

And then came Francis Underwood, a man with a passion for the presidency that leads him to murder and mayhem and the destruction of all those who stood in his way. His competency is never in question and yet he can't seem to win.  The only person in power who admires him is the Mayor of the District of Columbia.... and I can't help feeling that only his own actual powerlessness enables him accept Frank on his own terms.

He's not looking a gift horse in the mouth, even if the horse has distemper.

I think Little Cuter is right.  When the bad guys are winning, when they show that they are in control of their situation, we cheer for them.  Boyd Crowder's empire in Justified's holler may be falling apart at the seams, but he always finds a way to turn lemons into lemonade.  Francis Underwood appears to be at the mercy of those around him, with no way out.  His best laid plans go awry, through suicide and deception and the power of friendships which don't include him.

Right now, with three episodes left to view in Season 3, there seems to be no way out.  Perhaps that's what's bothering those who find this season lacking.  It's hard to cheer for someone whose life is turning to mush, especially when the character hasn't given us much to love on the way downhill.


  1. Having a five year-old, I don't get to watch much anything outside of his interest. All of my friends at the office love House of Cards and Game of Thrones. They talk about them at lunch and I sit and daydream 'cause I don't have a clue what they are talking about. LOL.

    I do get what you are saying, though. Somehow even if someone is rotten to the core, in order to like them, we try to find redeeming qualities. I hope, as a society, we never lose that. Otherwise, no one would get a second chance. They would be written off as bad and everyone has good in them. Maybe I'm being too idealistic, but that's what I believe (most of the time).

    Hope you are having a lovely Thursday.

    Megan xxx

    1. I agree with you, Megan, about second chances. But, if you ever get the chance to binge watch House of Cards (something I highly recommend) you might change your mind. Francis Underwood is evil........


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