Away from the light and into the darkness the cutthroat tragedy of House of Cards unfolds. Not since The Twilight Zone have the sinister regions of the human psyche been so caustically exposed as they are in the labyrinths of D.C. leadership infested with sly powerbrokers and slimy influence peddlers. Produced by David Fincher, Karyn McCarthy, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth Kevin Spacey and writer Beau Willimon (The Ides of March scribe) House of Cards nevertheless has Fincher’s distinctive signature all over it. The propulsive thrust to never back off, the refusal to sooth the viewer, the rejection of easy answers that make our world seem deceptively sensible and more secure — these brutal components hit us with the other half of the story we rarely get with movies or TV series that only seek to serve our need to escape. We want heroes. We need to believe people are basically good and not driven by darker motivations. Shakespeare knew otherwise. So did Edward Albee, David Mamet, and Paddy Chayefsky.
I often wonder how Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, or William Friedkin’s The French Connection could have been made today. The Godfather II ensnared us with a man who had a black spot where his heart should be. The devolution of Michael Corleone was an opportunity for us to reevaluate the American dream. We sat in quiet agony over a man whose life of crime and ascension to power swept us up in his corruption, and our sympathy made us complicit when that ruthless pursuit led him to kill his own brother.
But now, there doesn’t seem to be much tolerance for the notion of a treacherous anti-hero. We need to know that our fantasy world “in here” protects us like a snuggie from the world “out there.” We need to know our villains will be adequately punished and be reassured that they won’t rise in the ranks to rule the world. Industry voters couldn’t bring themselves to “like” the main character in the Social Network because he was too “cold.” What a sad state of affairs compared to 1972.
House of Cards never backs down from the harsh reality for one second but instead holds our heads steady on — look. Look. This is a driving force that resides inside many of us, including and especially those who play the game to win. What is a house of cards but a carefully built structure in danger of total collapse if one person pulls a card out from underneath. If we don’t like watching powerful people do terrible things to win the game, then we can love it when those people are taken down.