Netflix's 'House of Cards' Is the Anti-'West Wing' at the Strangest Possible Moment
Imagine someone willing to do anything for power. To cheat. To lie. To kill. Imagine someone willing to sell out his country to become the leader of it.
For the past four seasons of House of Cards, Frank Underwood has looked us in the eye while screwing us, proving to be the nation’s greedy id come to life with a three-piece suit and a super PAC. The fifth season of Netflix’s lovably despicable show proves that he and First Lady/Vice Presidential Candidate Claire Underwood are also fantastically comfortable broadening the scope of their shadiness to maintain a grip on the Oval Office.
The new season goes to some dark, angry places to display the last gasps of a presidential race between the Underwoods and a younger model of hollow ambition named Will Conway (The Killing's Joel Kinnaman). Just what we need now: another election to wallow in!
Thankfully House of Cards avoids the campaign trail almost entirely, choosing instead to focus (as usual) on the greasy, intimate inner-workings of fundamentally broken people. Voters simply don’t factor into it, and that’s as it should be in the United States of the anti-West Wing.
The differences between the two shows are as obvious as a subway train to the face: Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed drama depicted a feel-good version of government where a staff of intelligent, hard-working, musical-theater-quoting idealists orbited a president of great integrity as he made hard choices and worked tirelessly to make life better for his fellow citizens. House of Cards is the nightmare version of government, built from our worst assumptions of it, and anchored by an amoral schemer who does nothing with the authority he steals from more promising leaders.
The West Wing elucidated the responsibility behind power. House of Cards has always been about power for power’s sake. President Bartlet was a scripture-quoting progressive with lofty goals and a thousand pet projects. President Underwood has no grand governing principle or plan. He wants the largest cramped office in the world, and wants to hold onto it, because there is an emptiness inside of him too big to be filled.
The West Wing explored the labyrinthine reasons a human might stay unsatisfied with the highest achievement in the world, but House of Cards invites us to just ride the crazy train to see what horrifying places it might take us. It’s the rare DC-set series that has really nothing to do with politics. The government is a flimsy backdrop, the elected offices only costumes for the cynical and craven to strut the stage while hunting in ego-frying desperation for a spotlight. The presidency -- the very leadership of the free world -- is the show’s MacGuffin.
Governance was the whole point of The West Wing. We learned to love Leo, Josh, Toby, CJ, Sam, and President Bartlet while they were in the weeds of running the country. An FBI standoff in Idaho, a FEMA response to a hurricane bearing down on the East Coast, a nationwide strike by truck drivers, and a state dinner for the President of Indonesia are all plots in a singleepisode in its first season. Jed Bartlet is, without doubt, the most accomplished fictional president of all time.
Meanwhile, House of Cards spends the 13 hours of its now-streaming Season 5 on one plot engine. Each bloody chess move the Underwoods make, from challenging Conway's questionable military heroism, leveraging photo ops with the widow of a terrorist-killed American, making their own citizens scared to go to the polls, letting hackers into the NSA to cover their tracks, and an absolutely bonkers Hail Mary move on the day of the election itself, is an effort to maintain power.
If The West Wing was both a weekly civics lesson and fictional safe haven for liberals during the Bush presidency, where does that leave its evil twin now that Donald Trump is in charge? House of Cards can’t be called escapism anymore. The cold breeze welcomed on a warm day loses its appeal during a blizzard, after all. But the Netflix series is also not the trauma-pinging cinema non grata that it could be in a political reality where the 5pm New York Times/Washington Post info dump does the show’s jaw-dropping, fist-clenching job for it.
House of Cards isn't cathartic either. The Underwoods are still psychopathic bullies, and their colleagues are all still vicious enablers, but the show avoids being a mere reflection of your #covfefe-fueled Twitter feed by getting even more absurd than it has before, as if shouting a continual reminder at us that it’s fictional. No need to be scared. The Underwoods can’t really get you.
At the same time, the most important thing House of Cards does this season -- a move consistent with its anti-West Wing status -- is to break the fourth wall to challenge us as viewers and voters. "You made this bed, America," Frank Underwood sneers directly at us. "Are you confused? Are you afraid? Because what you thought you wanted is now here, and there you are, staring back, slack-jawed, bewildered, wondering if this is what you actually asked for."
It’s one of the rare times the real world seems to peek out from behind the curtain. It is the ultimate slap of too-soon pessimism. The Underwoods are evil, but we keep going back for more.
West Wing was a warm embrace of hope, but we’re in an love-hate relationship with House of Cards.