Empathy for the devil: The appeal of 'House of Cards'

by Erik Lenhart

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Many TV shows feature a conversion as their central plot arc, where a character becomes heroic and virtuous by overcoming episodic trials and obstacles through moxie and daring. For example, in "Jane the Virgin," plucky Jane Villanueva navigates a tricky love-triangle and the challenges of unexpected motherhood while solving murders and developing a promising writing career. Other shows depict "anti-conversions." In "Breaking Bad," a mild-mannered chemistry teacher named Walter White slowly descends episode by episode into corruption. Through small acts of greed and selfishness, he disfigures himself into a violent drug kingpin called Heisenberg.

Netflix's "House of Cards" is a different genre altogether. Francis J. Underwood has no self-deception. He charms and ensnares everyone around him, while being totally truthful with himself and the viewer. Both Frank and his wife, Claire, are remarkably consistent and unchanging in their principles or lack thereof. Through all four seasons of the show thus far, they seldom alter their patterns of behavior. Rather, the plot of "House of Cards" centers on their cunning exercise of deceit in increasingly risky political theaters.

When watching this show, I ask myself, "Can anyone be this evil?" Benedict XVI's Spe Salvi presented the possibility of "people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves." From the opening episodes, Frank and Claire Underwood demonstrate that they are indeed such people. Frank's whispered asides offer a glimpse inside the mind of a person totally devoted to Machiavellian principles and furthering his own power. In Frank's own words, "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties." While other political shows like "West Wing," "Madam Secretary" and "Veep" present a balanced (and in the case of "Veep," hilarious) view of politics in the United States, "House of Cards" is a much grimmer portrayal with little comic relief.

Each season, the Underwoods' actions escalate only because they enter larger arenas. Unlike Walter White, whose actions become incrementally more grievous, Frank and Claire have a solid baseline of treacherous scheming. I was surprised in the early episodes, but by the third and fourth season-finales, I have learned what to expect from this diabolic duo. The only real question that remains is how long they can stave off exposure, because the Underwoods' past is always on the verge of catching up with them.

Frank is among the small number of villain protagonists on TV. Watching Frank ascend the political ladder is like watching "Star Wars" movies from Palpatine's point of view. Having villains as the lead characters leaves me feeling ambivalence towards the Underwoods. On one hand, I want justice for those wronged by them. On the other hand, I am curious how far down this nefarious rabbit hole Frank and Claire will go.

Still, there is something personal between Frank and the viewer that makes it easy to empathize with him. I reluctantly admit that I get Frank, and I find myself rooting for him against his rivals. This may be because the Underwoods' political rivals are probably just as evil. Frank and Claire are the devils we know. This could be a factor in the show's success (alongside superb writing, acting and production). House of Cards represents a reflection of our growing distaste and distrust of political leadership. In a political climate where we expect deceit, Frank Underwood's honesty to the viewer is strangely refreshing. I have done some informal polling, and I would love to know how other people feel about Frank and Claire. If you have seen the show, leave a note in the comments section to expand my polling data. I suspect there may be others that find themselves with an uneasy connection to the Underwoods.

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