When House of Cards Went Off the Rails

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So, as I was saying, House of Cards was—prior to Kevin Spacey’s deletion—about a Machiavellian politician and his perhaps even more cynical wife, Claire, and their naked pursuit of power. The Underwoods murdered people. They blackmailed and slandered people not with reckless abandon, but with cold, methodical premeditation and preparation. 

And then, in the 32nd episode of the series, the writers threw it all the way so Claire could take a moral stand on behalf of gay rights—in Russia.  The details don’t matter much (I had to look them up because I forgot many of them). In short, the Underwoods had a secret deal with the Putin-style Russian president, but Claire blew it up by publicly honoring the dignity of gay activist who hanged himself in a Russian prison. As a result, Claire cost her husband the presidency and maybe a Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace feal. 

Now, I have no problem with the producers of House of Cards wanting to highlight Russia’s anti-gay laws. It’s their show, and Russia’s anti-gay laws are, in fact, bad. But this was just horrible writing in the service of ideological corruption. 

It was reminiscent of how knee-jerk anti-Bush sentiment poisoned a lot of popular culture a decade earlier. In Revenge of the Sith, to cite just one example, Anakin Skywalker, fast on his way to becoming Darth Vader, yells at a young Obi Wan Kenobi, “Either you are with me or you are my enemy!” 

Kenobi responds: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!”

For the sci-fi uninitiated, a Sith is a bad guy, a villain, an acolyte of the Dark Side of the Force. For the politically uninitiated, this was an explicit reference to George W. Bush’s post-9/11 address to the nation, in which he said, “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” 

This statement caused a lot of people to lose operational control of their sphincteres ani interni. Claims that this was some kind of McCarthyite incitement against domestic critics proliferated. 

But here’s the thing. In this one exchange George Lucas and Co. overturned the entire cosmology and theology of the Star Wars universe. The whole point was the absolutes. A whole generation of nerds had been raised on the dualistic, Manichean, conflict of the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force. But, the makers of Revenge of the Sith just couldn’t help themselves.

Which brings me back to House of Cards. It simply made no sense for Claire Underwood to throw away her well-established hunger for power just to virtue signal about this cause. Again, I’m not criticizing support for gay rights, I just think it’s implausible that a woman perfectly comfortable with murdering people in her way would suddenly go all Thomas More on gay rights in Russia, at the expense of everything she and her husband literally killed for. It made as much sense as making Hannibal Lecter a vegan. 

I have no problem with “political” art or entertainment. Veep is great. West Wing was annoyingly compelling. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was awesome. But what I cannot stand is when writers or producers think that the worlds and characters they create are subordinate to their political vanity. At some point the audience has ownership, too.