I tried the first three installments -- a netflix diskful of episodes -- of House of Cards. I plan to watch a few more, but I'm deep into negative enthusiasm, not at all sure that I'm going to continue. Cards certainly grabs you, and it's startling and theatrical, but it's also far too cynical and depraved for my rose-colored tastes. I just don't believe in it. I know that it's all the rage to assume that politicians are horrid and power-obsessed -- but every one of them, all the time, without a moment of relaxation or redemption? And so I'm skeptical of every character, every twist in the plot, every nasty turn of phrase. And because I'm skeptical, I just can't, as they say, "get into it." Or at least, not all the way in. (Full disclosure: during episode three I fell into a 'deep rest,' sometimes denominated a minor nap.)
The character who dominates House of Cards is Kevin Spacey's Frank Underbelly -- I mean Underwood -- who is fascinating but not credible. Or rather, he is not designed to be credible, because he regularly violates the fourth wall and converses intimately with viewers. Underwood is ruthless, implacable, ambitious, vengeful, depraved, vicious, malignant, and amusing. He turns his audience into his co-conspirators.
And where have we seen this curious concatenation of traits before? Think back, fit audience though few, to your college class in the History of English Drama. There you encountered the vice and his crossbred friend, the machiavel,who were ubiquitous in medieval drama. Shakespeare brought this semi-supernatural hybrid to perfection two separate times -- once in the person of Richard of Gloucester in Richard III and then again as Iago in Othello.
Richard of Gloucester winks to his audience that he "can smile, and murder whiles I smile,/And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart, /And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,/ And frame my face to all occasions." Now if that isn't Frank Underhill to a T, first spotted killing a puppy and a few scenes later baldly and straightfacedly lying to his President. Richard can "set the murderous Machiavel to school" in order to gain a crown; our unFrank friend Frank once wanted to be secretary of state, but now he just wants revenge. Richard and Iago are capable not only of falsity but even of murder to get what they want. Both of them kill their own wives. "I'll have her, but I wlll not keep her long," says Richard of Queen Anne.
And therefore If I were to offer advice to Zoe Barnes, the reckless young reporter for the Washington Herald, I would suggest that she steer mighty clear of Frank Underwood. I would tell her to read Othello post-post-haste and take careful note of what happens to Desdemona's lady-in-waiting Emilia. Hint: "Fie, your knife upon a woman."
Zoe, please, please, get out of there while the going is good!
In Shakespeare's plays, Richard and Iago both overreach and come to grief. Richard is left to die on the battlefield and Iago is subjected to the rigors of Venetian justice ("Torture will ope his lips.") And that's what is supposed to happen to machiavels.
I'm curious as to what will happen to Frank Underhill. By rights he should be publicly humiliated and die a ghastly death. But inasmuch as we live in an exceedingly cynical age, we can guess that Frank will only die when Kevin Spacey is offered better work, or when ratings plunge, or when the series jumps its inherent shark.