Why do you watch House of Cards?
Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
“If you don't hunt it down and kill it, it will hunt you down and kill you.” —Flannery O'Connor
“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.” —Albert Einstein
Why has House of Cards riveted the American imagination? Even President Obama called for spoiler alerts after the second season was released lest he find out plot twists before he got to them. Kevin Spacey may seduce us with his lush Southern drawl but that is just a device not an explanation. Has wickedness become the cultural conundrum we want to unravel and thus the road to mass media success?
If, indeed, as Solzhenitsyn claimed, “The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man” then we all not only have some evil in our hearts but we also might be trying to find out where evil starts and stops, and the power it has to take us to the dark side.
Evil has a perverse beauty to it. It always has. Satan was an angel before his fall. Whether you see evil in a religious context, demonic in nature, or in a secular manner, as wrongful behavior driven by wanton self-absorption, it requires its opposite, namely good, to give it shape and meaning. What’s more, the greater the tension between good and evil the more we can appreciate its presence and its force. The beauty of evil may not be in its images but in the virtuosity of how it goes about claiming our lives and souls.
Enter the Honorable Francis Underwood, Congressman become Vice President of the United States (a heartbeat away from the top), and his divinely luscious wife, Claire (mirror, who is the loveliest of them all?). They are each wickedly beautiful artists in their undaunted quest for power and fame. They have each polished their evil swords so they gleam in the night. They menace, gain ground, and titillate with their capacity to triumph and in the danger they stand to wreak. They are the master class in evil: all the more so since they are cloaked with social privilege and stature—and conduct themselves under the flag of virtue and the United States of America.
Underwood offers us this gem: "For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted." At another moment he educates that "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties”. The implicit premise in his words is that life is about climbing; the moral, so to speak, of his admonition and assertion is that mercy is for fools.
So, why do we watch? Why are the ratings so high that Season 3 has already been contracted by Netflix?
The deft enactment of orchestrated power is a sight to behold, on the gridiron or the halls of Congress and The White House, I offered in my earlier review of House of Cards. Evil is certainly not virtuous but it can, and is here, delivered with virtuosity. While virtue may evoke admiration, evil excites. The Underwoods are like power porn. They flesh out our fantasies. They are a trip into the forbidden in us all.
There is no escaping evil, as Einstein instructs. There is only our capacity to see it in all its malevolent forms and to find the resolve and community to contain it. House of Cards is a marvelously prepared and delivered primer on evil. Maybe, on a good day, we can use it to remind us of how difficult a life of virtue can be to achieve.
Dr. Sederer’s new book for families who have a member with a mental illness is The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (foreword by Glenn Close).
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
Copyright Dr. Lloyd Sederer